Great Spinx Coloseup

Egypt Welcomes yet
Another  Millennium

By Bob Chester
January 2000
With a stela under its chest, the Sphinx continues to survey the scene.

Celebrating the turn of a millennium is nothing new for the Egyptian civilization, for its recorded history extends back way over 5,000 years. However, to celebrate the advent of the third millennium of the Christian era, Egypt - the country of sanctuary for Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus - is preparing a whole range of special events. None will be more expressive though than the all-night opera to be performed at the pyramids of Giza.

Composed by internationally-acclaimed French musician Jean-Michel Jarre, the 12-hour event will be launched at sunset on December 31, and continue until the sun rises on January 1st. Jarre turned down several offers for the millennium in order to have the honor of presenting his ‘The 12 Dreams of the Sun’ with the perfect backdrop of the Giza Plateau, home to the last of the Seven Wonders of the World.

“The pyramids are a reflection of mankind and eternity,” he confides. “And since the pyramids are linked to the sun, I have decided to stage a modern, multi-media opera that will last 12 hours, and accompany the sun from the 2nd to the 3rd millennium, in the tradition of Ra [the Pharaonic god of the Sun].”

Announcing the event, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni also revealed that the opera will coincide with the “unveiling of a golden cap for the Great Pyramid of Khufu [Cheops], set to remain in place for a year.” He went on to say that while it was impossible to rebuild the pyramid stone by stone, this was a symbolic event to replicate the ancient Egyptian custom of so capping obelisks. Before this can be carried out however, architects, archeologists and artisans have to agree on what materials should be used in making the golden cap, how it should be built, and how it should be fitted. For as Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Gaballah Ali Gaballah stressed, “many things have to be taken into consideration to ensure that no damage is caused to the pyramid.”

The Gaza Plateau

The Gaza Plateau is part of the necropolis of ancient Memphis, standing majestically above the surrounding landscape. Here rise three principal pyramids: those of Khufu [Cheops; circa 2585-2560 BCE], Khafre [Chefren; circa 2555-2532 BCE], and Menkaure [Mycerinus; circa 2532-2510 BCE]. Although it is only a meter or so higher - 138 meters to 136.5 meters - the Pyramid of Khufu has eclipsed that of Khafre in international acclaim, becoming known as the Great Pyramid.

How grand it must have looked with its original veneer of fine Tura limestone, but this has been ‘quarried’ away over the centuries for other buildings, to leave the ‘jagged’ edges of today; the Pyramid of Khafre still retains a small cap of its original veneer. Yet for all that, one can only stand in awe of what ranked as the highest man-made structure on Earth for 43 centuries, not being surpassed in height until the 19th century of the Christian era. Labor intensive the construction was, taking over 100,000 workers some 20 years to complete the job - although in those days the vast majority received nothing more than basic food and lodging!

Mammoth in size though the construction is, this is no way suggests that it was achieved merely by sheer human brawn. A lot of brains went into the construction of this solid masonry structure that covers over 14 acres. The sides are orientated to the four cardinal points of the compass and the length of each side measures 230.4 meters at the base. They rise at an angle of 51 degrees 52 minutes to what was originally a height of 147 meters, but nowadays merely 138 meters. Around 2,300,000 blocks of dressed limestone were used, weighing an average 2.5 tons each, though some weighed in at 16 tons! Yet despite all this size, the mortar joints fit consistently to 1/50th of an inch.         

Magnificent as the Great Pyramid is though, to many who visit the Giza Plateau - this one included - an even greater attraction is the inscrutable Sphinx, that epitomizes the many mysteries of Ancient Egypt. A recumbent lion with a human face, stretching 73.5 meters in length and reaching up to 20 meters in height, the Sphinx was carved out of the natural outcropping rock of the area. The questions remain though - who accomplished this great feat? what did it represent? and when was the work originally carried out?

The conventional answer has been that the Sphinx dates from around 2500 BCE, the time of the Fourth Dynasty. Consensus has it that the statue represents Chefren, the son of Cheops, as Horus presenting offerings to the sun god Ra. That it is a representation of Ra is backed up by the fact that although Sphinx is in common usage, it is a Greek word; in the New Kingdom, around 1550 BCE., the statue was known as Hore-em-akht [Horus in the Horizon], or Bw Hol [Place of Horus]. Originally a sky-god, whose eyes were the sun and the moon, Horus was also depicted as a falcon-headed man, and had long been revered as the protector of the Pharaohs. Certainly during the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became a major symbol of kingship, and many pharaohs built temples and erected stelae in its immediate vicinity.

There can be no doubt that at one time the Sphinx had a beard - fragments of which can today be seen in the Cairo Museum - but of the uraneus (rearing cobra) that purportedly sat on the face’s forehead underneath the Nemes headdress, there is no longer any trace. Suspicions have long existed that the beard may have been added during the New Kingdom period, and this has led to other hypotheses that the original Sphinx may have in fact pre-dated even Chefren and Cheops themselves.

inside great pyramidThese doubts have come about due to the extensive restoration work that has been necessary at different times - the latest began in 1953, and had been completed in time for the new millennium, though the Frenchman Baraize had begun earlier work this century in 1926. The erosion of the head and body of the Sphinx however, comes from entirely different causes. The head is carved out of hard limestone that has largely withstood the effects of the natural elements; today’s degradation was largely due to Turkish [not French] troops using it for target practice back in the 18th century. The body though is made of alternating layers of soft and harder limestone, visible as a weathered corrugation. The base of the Sphinx, as well as the bottom of the original quarry, is made of much harder limestone that is resistant to all that the natural elements can throw at it.

As the body of the Sphinx is located in a hollow there can be little doubt that it has been covered by sand for long periods during its existence; this was how Caviglia found it in 1816, and other Egyptologists since - it takes less than 20 years to fill the hollow with sand. Thus weathering due to wind and sandstorms is unlikely to be the cause of its deterioration, especially as the corrugations are concave and not convex.

This leaves the possibility of water erosion, but this part of Egypt has not been subject to serious flooding for at least 10,000 years. Suggestions as to the rise and fall of ground water levels appear to be superfluous, as such a cataclysmic event would have had to occur over the relatively short period of 1,000 years. That such things have never been repeated since, and that the pyramids on the Giza Plateau show no such ill effects negate any possibility of such a happening since they were built.

Was the Sphinx originally carved many, many centuries before? Was this what attracted the pharaohs to construct their great pyramids at Giza? Were they after all not the originators, but the restorers and modifiers of a much earlier work? While the new millennium will be celebrated in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the inscrutable smile of the Sphinx will not let on how many millennia have passed under his watchful eye.

Published in Roving Insight Magazine


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