Originally created 03/13/98

Egypt restores the Sphinx, pharaonic style



CAIRO, Egypt -- In the time of the pharaohs, a weary prince fell asleep in the sands by the Sphinx's head and dreamed that the beast offered him the crown of Egypt if he would restore the monument to its former splendor.

The prince cleared sand that had reached to the animal's neck and used limestone blocks to repair its body. He was later crowned Pharoah Tutmosis IV.

Almost 3,400 years after Tutmosis' restoration and $2.5 million later, Egypt has again repaired the Sphinx, using the same type of limestone and mortar employed in those times.

Egypt plans to formally unveil the pharaoh with a lion's body later this month, though no date has been set.

"The Sphinx is a symbol of the whole nation," said Zahi Hawass, the chief government archaeologist for the Sphinx and the pyramids. But he said the Sphinx had suffered much damage.

Flakes had been falling from the chest, which is badly worn and pitted. Blocks weighing hundreds of pounds had tumbled from the body. The face, which was carved from the hardest part of the rock, is worn, although not as badly as the neck.

The restoration was on a pharaonic scale. Workmen, sculptors and architects spent nearly 10 years placing 12,244 white limestone blocks, each a little shorter than a person's arm, along the animal's paws, legs and stomach to restore and shore up the crumbling national icon.

The Sphinx, which measures 242 feet long and 66 feet high, has long been an object of mystery and awe.

No one is sure why some 4,500 years ago the ancient Egyptians carved the Sphinx from a solid block of limestone.

Hawass says it was carved by King Chephren and was part of a temple complex that stood in front of the pharaoh's imposing pyramid. He says the face of the Sphinx matches that of statues of Chephren.

By the time of Tutmosis IV, who ruled in about 1400 B.C., the temple complex had fallen into ruin.

Tutmosis IV restored the Sphinx and recorded the story of his dream on a 15-ton granite stela that still stands between the Sphinx's paws.

Hawass said the dream stela was an early use of political propaganda -- Tutmosis killed his brother to take the crown and the dream was used to legitimize the murder.

"The Egyptians couldn't forgive him" for the slaying, Hawass said. "But they could if it was the will of the gods."

The rose granite dream stela shows the pharaoh, wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt, offering incense and oil to a muscular sphinx.

Flakes of paint from ancient times show that the face and body of the Sphinx were painted red while its headdress was yellow with blue stripes.

The Sphinx in late pharaonic times was worshiped as an image of the sun god, said archaeologist Mark Lehner of the University of Chicago.

The Sphinx was restored again in Roman times, only to fall into disrepair hundreds of years later.

The Sphinx was a "craggy ruin" when Napoleon arrived in Egypt in the late 18th century, Lehner said.

The French cleared away some of the sand burying the animal. The Sphinx was again restored in the 1920s.

White limestone blocks now line parts of the sphinx's paws and belly, contrasting sharply with the worn blocks of previous restorations. The head is a yellowish brown, evidence of millennia of wear.

Antiquities officials in Egypt plan to monitor the monument and replace any blocks that show serious wear.

"It's a sick man," said Hawass. "You have to have intensive care for the Sphinx all the time."

On the walkway in front of the Sphinx's paws, Peter Longfield, a tourist from Fort Mill, S.C., stared at the reclining lion.

"Awesome," he muttered.

But he was less impressed with the restoration, saying the new limestone blocks look a bit out of place near the worn body and blocks from earlier restorations.

"I guess in 15 to 20 years when it weathers it will look right," he said.