The Great Sphinx in Giza is a powerful symbol of ancient kingship and the iconic symbol of modern Egypt. Carved from limestone, it is one of the oldest and largest monolithic statues in the world. About two months ago a deep crack appeared on the north side of this great monument. Archaeologists and conservators moved quickly to restore it.
The overseer of the workmen, Saeed, an excellent stonemason, was called in by the sculptor Mahmoud Mabroud and undertook “surgery” on the monument with the result that the Sphinx is now safe. What happened to the Sphinx also reminds us that its condition has often been used in politics and propaganda.
The ancient Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV was the first to do this in about 1400 BC. He recorded a story on the “dream stela” located between the two front paws of the Sphinx. According to the story, he went out hunting wild animals in the Valley of the Gazelles and came to rest in the shadow of the Sphinx. While he was sleeping, the Sphinx came to him in a dream and said that the sand around his body and neck was hurting him, saying to Thutmose, “If you remove the sand, I will make you king of Egypt.”
Thutmose did as he was bidden, removed the sand and restored the fallen blocks of the Sphinx, later indeed becoming pharaoh of Egypt. However, it has been theorised that he actually killed his elder brother who was supposed to become the king of Egypt and that Thutmose concocted the story of the Sphinx in order to convince people that he had been chosen by the god Horemakhet, in the guise of the Sphinx, to become the king instead of his brother.
A second instance of the Sphinx’s use for political purposes was when Fouad Al-Orabi was in charge of antiquities in Egypt in the early 1980s and had a disagreement with Ahmed Kadry and Kamal Al-Mallakh, who wrote a column at the time that ran on the back page of the Al-Ahram newspaper.
A few stones fell from the north side of the Sphinx, and Kadry and Al-Mallakh began to attack Al-Orabi, arguing that because he was not an archaeologist he should not be in charge of the country’s antiquities. Al-Mallakh wrote that the fallen stones of the Sphinx had “raised a red flag” and that Al-Orabi should be fired.
Ahmed Kadry took over Al-Orabi’s former job, but the right shoulder of the Sphinx lost a block during Kadry’s term as head of antiquities, when Farouk Hosni was minister of culture. Kadry thought the position of minister was rightfully his, and the two men quarreled about this new loss from the Sphinx.
Hosni then decided to visit the monument, arriving with hundreds of members of the Egyptian and foreign press and declaring to the world: “the Sphinx is sick.” I myself told the press at the time that the stone had fallen off in broad daylight and had in any case been a piece that had been restored in the past.
Because of the quarrel, Kadry refused to visit the minister and there was bad blood between the two men. The government was put in the position of having to decide whether to keep the minister or the head of antiquities. It decided to move Kadry, and the Sphinx’s curse began, with some people even claiming that the stone had been moved by friends of Hosni in order to get rid of Kadry, even though this was quite untrue.
I am glad that the Sphinx’s curse has been silent this time round, when the Sphinx developed its deep crack. I believe that this damage is due to previous restoration work undertaken with cement in 1980, this having been followed by better conservation work that lasted ten years.
The Sphinx is an amazing statue that has long captured the hearts of the public. It is for this reason that some people believe that evidence of the existence of the mythical land of Atlantis is hidden underneath it, and it has been their dream to drill beneath the Sphinx in order to find this supposed evidence.
However, engineers have in fact drilled under the Sphinx in order to record the water table and nothing regarding Atlantis was found.
Happily, today the Great Sphinx continues to be safe.