People often ask me, ‘well, it’s not really as exciting as Indiana Jones, now is it?’
I reply, ‘to an archaeologist, yes, it certainly is!’

— Zahi Hawass

The Story of the Sphinx

I have just finished three days of filming for a television special about the Great Sphinx. The show is expected to air before the end of 2009. My good friends and colleagues Mark Lehner and Rainer Stadelmann joined me to discuss the important research that we have done over the years on this great monument, and I was very happy to have this opportunity to tell the story of our work.

The story of the film began some time ago, when producer and director Gary Glassman of Providence Pictures contacted me about making a documentary on the Great Sphinx for the program Nova and Europe's Arte TV. Glassman first asked to interview me as part of a film involving many different people, most of whose work had nothing to do with the Sphinx at all. I told him that I did not want to be a part of such a project, because my friend Mark Lehner and I have dedicated decades of our lives to this amazing monument, and I wanted to save our story for a film that could tell it fully and accurately. Finally, Gary, along with the Nova’s Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell, agreed that it was time for the real story of the Sphinx to be told. I advised Gary to include German archaeologist Rainer Stadelmann in the film along with me and Mark, as his theory that the statue dates to the reign of Khufu is an important part of the history of scholarly debate about the Sphinx.

Over three days of filming, I introduced three important projects of which I am very proud to have been a part. The first was the conservation of the Sphinx. This story began in 1980, when I left Egypt to study for my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. I stayed there for 7 years, from 1980 to 1987. During that time, the statue was badly damaged by poor restoration. The people who carried out the work removed much of the ancient stonework and added new stones, changing the proportions of the Sphinx. These idiots also used completely unsuitable cement, which kept the stone from breathing. Mark Lehner was living in Cairo at the time, and used to send me letters telling me that this so-called “restoration” was completely destroying the statue. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do. When I returned home in 1987, however, I put a complete stop to the project. In February of 1988, a large chunk of stone fell from the Sphinx’s shoulder. This was a red flag, which told everyone that the statue was in grave danger. I will never forget the day that I left my office to see the damage. I looked at the Sphinx, and felt as though it was a living rock that was crying tears of sadness over what was happening to it.

In 1988, we began a new conservation and restoration project for the Sphinx. This work was truly beautiful. We removed the new blocks and cement that were put there by the people who did not even know how the statue was created. During the 10 years of our project, we were able to study the Sphinx as we worked, and we learned a great deal about it. We found, for instance, that it is carved through 3 different layers of the limestone of the Giza plateau, part of the Muqattam formation. The stone that makes up the statue from ground level up to its chest is known as Members I and II, and from the neck up, the Sphinx is carved from the rock of Member III. The stone of the first two layers is of poor quality. The head, however, is carved from the strong limestone of Member III. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom knew that the stone from which the lion’s body was carved was very poor. For this reason, they added large blocks of better-quality stones to the outside of the lower parts of the Sphinx, and modeled the details of the body in this better quality material. The head, with its nemes headcloth, uraeus, and false beard, was carved of strong enough stone that the features could be shaped well from the mother rock.

During the New Kingdom, around 1400 BC, a prince named Thutmose was hunting in the desert near the Sphinx. At that time, the statue was covered in sand up to its neck. According to a story that he later had inscribed on a stela (the “Dream Stela) placed between the paws of the Sphinx, Prince Thutmose fell asleep in the shadow of the statue’s head. While he slept, he dreamed that the Sphinx promised to make him king if he would clear away the sand that buried it. The prince did as the statue asked, and took the throne of Egypt as King Thutmose IV. While he was clearing away the sand, Thutmose found that many of the Old Kingdom blocks had fallen away from the body. He replaced them, and had his people add other blocks to shore up the statue. He also built a huge mud-brick wall in the shape of a large cartouche to protect the statue from the wind and stop erosion on its north side. Finally, the king removed a granite door from the funerary temple of Khafre, and had it carved into the Dream Stela to tell the story. Another ancient restoration of the Sphinx took place during the 26th Dynasty (ca. 688-525 BC). This work can be seen on the top of the Sphinx, in the middle of the south side. During the Roman Period, the front paws and the back of the statue were cased in small blocks of stone. In 1998, we finally held a celebration to mark the completion of our modern-day conservation and restoration project. It was a beautiful event, with music by a symphony orchestra. Even Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was there to mark the occasion. On that day, I looked at the Sphinx’s face, and I felt that instead of crying as it had been in 1988, it was finally smiling. Our work sent an important message - the Sphinx, like all of Egypt’s monuments, belongs not to Egypt alone, but to everyone all over the world.

The second project that we discussed for the Nova film is the effort to protect the Sphinx from rising groundwater. About a year ago, we decided to take action to prevent the rising water table, which had appeared above ground level in front of Khafre’s valley temple, from damaging the Sphinx. We drilled a small hole immediately in front of the statue, along with one along the middle of the north side and two in back. Each hole is about 20 meters deep. We learned that pure water from the water table (not sewage from the nearby village, as we had feared), reached to about 4.5 meters below the statue - not an immediate threat, but cause for concern in the long term. Cairo University’s Engineering Center for Archaeology and Environment worked with us to put a pumping system in place to lower the groundwater level, and the Sphinx is now out of danger. We are currently working with USAID to fund a major project to study the impact of groundwater throughout the area and develop strategies to combat it for the future.

Perhaps the most important result of the groundwater project was that it enabled us to put to rest speculation about mysterious underground tunnels and chambers carved below the Sphinx by “ancient civilizations.” For years, I have debated people like John Anthony West, Robert Bauval, and Graham Hancock, who say that survivors of a lost civilization 10,000 years ago left secrets buried beneath the Sphinx. These people also claim that the erosion of the Sphinx was caused by water, and that this necessarily means that it dates back to long before the Old Kingdom. None of their theories has any basis in fact, but their supporters have insisted that we should drill holes to try and find these hidden chambers. I have always refused to permit such a project in the past, because there was no scientific basis for it. Because such drilling was a necessary part of our work to protect the Sphinx from groundwater, however, we did finally drill in the vicinity of the statue, and we found that there were no hidden passages or chambers there. The Sphinx is indeed a guardian of civilization and the record of the past, but it is the civilization of Egypt’s Old Kingdom that created it. 

The third important project that we discussed for the Nova film is the laser scanning of the Sphinx carried out by the Mubarak Institute for Science and Technology under Dr. Walae Shita. This effort resulted in a beautifully accurate rendering of the Sphinx, showing every piece of stone and recording the statue in three dimensions for the first time. The laser scanning results will serve as an important guide for anyone who wants to do further conservation and restoration work on the Sphinx in the future. 

The second day of shooting for the film was very interesting. We talked about the debate over whether the Sphinx dates to the reign of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid, or to that of Khafre, for whom the second pyramid of Giza was built. Rainer Stadelmann is the leading proponent of the theory that the Sphinx was built during the reign of Khufu, while Mark Lehner and I believe that it was carved for Khafre. In support of his idea, Stadelmann notes that although it is often noted that the name of Khafre appears on the Dream Stela, this is only a reconstruction of partially preserved text and can now, in fact, no longer be read. He notes that the Giza stela of Amenhotep II, found in the temple of that king just north of the Sphinx ditch, clearly mentions the sanctuary of Khufu and Khafre. He also points to the name of the Sphinx in the New Kingdom, Horemakhet (“Horus in the Horizon”), and suggests a link with the name of Khufu’s pyramid, Akhet Khufu (“The Horizon of Khufu”). In addition, he notes that Khafre’s causeway and valley temple are positioned to the south, as if to avoid the Sphinx itself, which would make sense if the statue already stood during the reign of Khufu. Stadelmann also says that the face of the Sphinx looks more like Khufu than Khafre. However, the only known, inscribed three-dimensional representation of Khufu is a small ivory statuette. It is very difficult to compare the small face of the statue to the colossal face of the Sphinx, and in any case, many scholars say that the face looks more like Khafre than Khufu. Stadelmann also believes that the Sphinx’s beard, which fell from the statue in antiquity, was added in the New Kingdom, and that the original statue was beardless, like the ivory statuette of Khufu and the Munich and Brooklyn heads that are thought to represent this king. He says that the Sphinx cannot be Khafre, who is always shown with a royal false beard. Mark Lehner, however, has shown that the Sphinx had a false beard in its original form. It is impossible to date the Sphinx, perhaps the largest statue ever carved in Egypt from a single piece of stone, based on the features of a tiny ivory statuette. In order to know which king commissioned the statue, we have to look at its overall archaeological setting, including its architectural surroundings. The best evidence that the Sphinx dates to the reign of Khafre is based on archaeology and architecture. The location of the Sphinx and the architectural similarity of its temple to Khafre’s valley temple make it most likely that the statue dates to Khafre’s reign. In addition, the temples are both built on the same terrace, and some of their walls are aligned. A drafinage trench running along the northern side of Khafre’s causeway and opening into the Sphinx ditch proves that the Sphinx was carved after the causeway was built, since the ancient engineers would not have designed the trench to drain into the ditch. All of these things point to the Sphinx having been created during the reign of Khafre.

On the day that we discussed the dating of the Sphinx, I also climbed on top of the statue to point out many of its features. I went behind its head to view the part of the nemes that lies in situ there. I also pointed out that although there are no mysterious tunnels and chambers left by 10,000 year-old civilizations under the Sphinx, there are in fact some passages below the statue that may have been carved by treasure hunters long after the Sphinx was created, and later used for burials. Our work with the Sphinx confirmed the existence of four openings inside or under the statue. The first begins on the top of the Sphinx’s back behind the head, and descends for 8.10 m. It was made by Howard Vyse during his work at Giza in 1837. The second passage, which no longer exists, is known from archival photographs in which it appears as a grotto or cavity. This cavity was in the northern side of the body of the Sphinx at ground level, and was sealed off by Emile Baraize in the early 20th century. We discovered the third passage and shaft on the northern side of the Sphinx’s rump, just at the base of its tail. This feature descends about 4 m below ground level, with another section cut underneath the earliest restoration masonry into the hard Member I bedrock in the upper curve of the rump. I entered this passage while we were filming for Nova. Its date and function remain uncertain, although it could be an unfinished shaft tomb cut in the Late or Graeco-Roman Period, or even the result of much earlier work. The last passage is under the chest of the Sphinx behind the Dream Stela, and was found by Caviglia in the course of his work in the vicinity of the Sphinx in the early 19th century.   

On the third day of filming, Mark Lehner and I talked about how we met over thirty years ago, and how our friendship grew as we worked together, starting our first excavation to the northeast of the Sphinx. We found evidence from the different ages that the Sphinx has witnessed, including the Old Kingdom, the New Kingdom, and the Roman Period. We have been working together for decades to understand this amazing monument, and I am so happy that the two of us could tell our story together - as two boys who met in front of the Sphinx, became friends, and grew up to reveal its secrets.


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