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Yet another effort to save the Sphinx

GIZA PLATEAU, EGYPT — GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt -- The ancient Sphinx, ailing from its creation and injured through the centuries by quack remedies, finally may be on its way back to health.

Egyptian antiquities experts say they are confident their work now will restore and protect the ancient wonder, twice as old as Christianity.

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"I think we need less than a year to say to the world, 'It's finished,' " said Abdul Halim Nureddin, secretary-general of the Supreme Council on Antiquities for Egypt. "Since 1991, the restoration is going very well."

The state of the Sphinx, a man-headed lion crouching amid the Great Pyramids of Giza, has been an occasional embarrassment to Egyptian officials.

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Repairs in the 1980s were badly done.

Scientific studies were never completed to choose the best material for patching the stone. Workmen were left unsupervised and made slap--- repairs. They used a gypsum and cement mortar that even at the time was known to be harmful for restoration work. In 1981, veneer from the left paw fell off. In 1988, a good chunk of the shoulder of the Sphinx fell off.

Egyptian authorities say they are determined to avoid past mistakes. They have set up teams of experts and specialists who are overseeing the restoration work, and will continue to monitor the condition of the Sphinx through the years.

"We do no restoration work without complete analysis and investigation," said Shawky Nakhla, Egypt's director-general of restoration and conservation of antiquities.

The ancient nemeses of the Sphinx -- wind, sand and moisture -- now have co-conspirators in its decline. Modern Cairo brings corrosive pollution in the air, crowding from housing and vibrations from vehicle traffic.

But the authorities, too, have modern inventions. With foreign technical assistance, the Sphinx has been mapped by computer, probed with ultrasound, studded with weather meters, and geologically blueprinted. The restorers are stripping off harmful cement used in previous repairs and rebricking parts of the body using limestone chemically matched to the "mother" rock.

After extensive testing, they have settled on an antique formula for a mortar using lime. When used to fill and patch the statue, the mortar chemically bonds with the original limestone, said Mustafa Abdel-Kader Eissa, a supervisor of the work.

Restorers are sealing the statue's broad back with the mortar, preventing water from seeping into the layers of stone. Following photographs taken in 1926, they are replacing bricking along the sides, tail and forelegs.

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"We are protecting the surface of the rock by erecting a sort of veneer wall, with blocks similar to the original rock, and using a natural mixture of mortar," said Abdel Moez Shaheen, a director of the project.

The enigmatic Sphinx, possibly the best-known statue in the world, is believed to have been carved about 2,500 B.C. for the Pharaoh Khafre, who built a 471-foot pyramid nearby, the mid-sized of the three large pyramids on the Giza Plateau.

The role of the Sphinx is still debated. Formed as a combination of a guardian -- the lion -- with a deity pharaoh's head, it may have been a holy guardian of Khafre's pyramid. A millennium later, Thutmosis IV said the sun god Harmachis spoke from the Sphinx in a dream, demanding to be dug from the sand, according to historian Silvio Curto. Later, Romans may have worshiped it.

The Sphinx was carved from the existing rock of the site, as material was quarried out from around it to build pyramids. At one time, the Sphinx had the narrow, braided beard of a deity. The beard broke off, and parts are at the Cairo Museum.

The nose, too, fell off at some time. Locals who guide tourists around the site for "baksheesh" tell them Napoleon's men used the Sphinx's nose for target practice. It makes a good story in the spirit of anti-colonialism, but it is untrue. Napoleon's party was the first from the modern West to catalog and praise the Egyptian antiquities.

In fact, the ailments of the Sphinx stemmed from the very rock it is made of. The limestone from which the Sphinx is carved is a relatively soft and porous material hardly fit to stand eons of wind, sand, water and time.

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"We have to admit that the stone was, from the first, sick. Even in the Old Kingdom, they had to restore it," said the antiquities council's Dr. Nureddin.

For much of its life, the Sphinx was buried to its neck in sand. Experts differ on whether the burial helped protect the statue or exerted pressures that ground at it.

It was uncovered in the time of the Pharaoh Thutmose IV, about 1,400 B.C., again by the Romans, and again in 1926 by French engineer Emil Baraize.

Each new discoverer found a shrinking Sphinx, shedding powdery flakes from its body. The middle stratum of stone through the lion's body is particularly soft.

Thutmose and each of his successors attempted repairs with a variety of mortars, stone veneers, walls and pillars. The first restoration was the most successful. Most of the rest used concrete or stones that were incompatible and did not bind with the limestone.

"There have been a lot of restorations that failed," said geologist K. Lal Gauri of the University of Louisville. "Not enough consideration was given to the stones."

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The problem is compounded because the cause of the Sphinx's flaking is imperfectly understood: Theories variously suggest it is caused by salt crystallization, by pollution in the air or by the mechanical pressures of dew or other moisture, expanding and contracting within the stone.

Dr. Eissa, who is supervising the current work, says that if the restorers can prevent moisture from reaching the rock, the limestone seems to harden itself.

"If we succeed to stop the humidity from getting inside, the rock can save itself," he said.

Not all scientists are certain.

"It may be that covering the Sphinx will protect it," said Dr. Mark Lehner of the University of Chicago, who oversaw the first detailed mapping of the Sphinx. But more study is needed, he said: "It demands careful observation and analysis, not a quick solution."

Modern dangers to the Sphinx add to its woes. Once splendidly remote on the edge of the Western Desert, the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx are becoming encircled with the haphazard growth of bulging Cairo.

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Housing projects and shanties creep ever nearer. Because of poor sewage drainage, the underground water level rose within six feet of the Sphinx in 1981, according to Egyptian authorities.

A giant sewerage project, funded partly by the United States, brought marked improvement; the water level has now dropped to more than 20 feet below ground.

But pollution from the growing number of cars, factories and homes poisons the air, corroding the Sphinx's limestone.

The government only belatedly stopped construction of an eight-lane highway two miles from the Giza Plateau, after international officials expressed outrage. It is unclear whether the antiquities are safe, however; a new route has not yet been chosen.

But the government has moved to reduce dynamiting at a distant quarry, work that might have been causing harmful vibrations. Officials plan to clear the nearest shanties, to give the Sphinx more breathing room. And they plan to ban tourist buses from coming onto the Giza Plateau.

"I see him as a grandfather -- old, enduring, but ill," said Dr. Eissa of the Sphinx. "But I think he will be healthy again."


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