The Future of the Past

Alexander Stille


The Sphinx--Virtual and Real
SITTING AT A computer terminal in Santa Monica, California, I watched the Great Sphinx of Giza take shape before my eyes as a scholar's careful measurements were transformed into an elaborate wire-frame model, then grew a "skin" that showed not the half ruined statue that now lies in the sands of Egypt but the Sphinx as it may have looked at the time of its creation forty-five hundred years ago, with its nose, royal beard, and headdress intact.
Just a few miles away at the Getty Conservation Institute in Marina Del Rey, technicians have compiled data from a fully automated, solar-powered monitoring station placed behind the Sphinx, measuring wind direction and velocity and relative humidity in order to study erosion patterns of the ancient world's greatest surviving colossal statue. In the basement of the institute, men in white lab coats were testing perfect airless environments for the preservation of the body of King Tutankhamen and his fellow mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the institute has sponsored the virtual reality reconstruction of the tomb of Queen Nefertari so that anyone with a ten-thousand-dollar Silicon Graphics computer can "walk through" her final resting place sixty-five hundred miles away in the Theban necropolis in Luxor.
Although these technological marvels are helping to transform the way we study and preserve the historical past, the reality on the ground in Egypt looks rather different. When I first saw the Great Sphinx in 1996, it was covered in scaffolding as Egyptian conservators worked to protect its lion body by encasing its bottom half in newly cut limestone blocks--the latest in a series of attempts to save the Sphinx. Several years earlier, a two-ton chunk had fallen off the chest of the Sphinx, and the soft middle portion of its body continues to flake and chip in pieces that turn to a dust as soft as talcum powder when you rub them between your fingers. Slowly and relentlessly, its body is being eaten at by wind and moisture, aided by the smog of Cairo, which now rivals Mexico City's as the worst in the world. Behind the rump of the Sphinx, the Getty's solar-powered monitoring device stood disconnected, tangled up in its own wiring, looking like a space-age music stand alone on a stage without an orchestra. The Sphinx still stares impenetrably across the millennia but instead of contemplating the mysteries of existence its gaze is now trained at the Pizza Hut and Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants that have opened just two hundred yards in front of it. The urban sprawl of Cairo--which has grown from two to seventeen million people in the last forty years--has reached the feet of the Sphinx and the Pyramids, bringing with it cars, sewage, air pollution, and fast-food culture.
"You have arrived in Cairo at a very bad time," an Egyptian voice explained to me in an ominous tone over the phone the day of my arrival at the Nile Hilton. "There has been a theft at the Egyptian Museum. They have just fired the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I'm not sure very many people will be willing to speak with you." A thief had hidden inside a sarcophagus, snuck out after closing time, stolen several gold objects from the collection of King Tutankhamen, and hidden them in the bathroom. He was arrested trying to smuggle something out the next morning. The incident was seized upon by the minister of culture as an excuse to sack the director of antiquities, who was considered an open, likable person who had worked well with foreign archeologists in Egypt. His successor asserted his power by revoking manyrecent decisions and thundering against foreigners using their work in Egypt to "give their students Ph.D.'s." But how else, the archeologists wondered, are we supposed to train a new generation of Egyptologists?
As I was to discover in the next few weeks, the deterioration and conservation of antiquities is an extremely delicate subject in Egypt, and nowhere more so than at the Sphinx--national symbol of Egypt, tourist attraction, and world icon, in which almost everyone feels they have a stake and a say.
I headed out to Giza with Mark Lehner, a scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago and who may know more about the Sphinx than anyone else alive. We started in the confusion and traffic of downtown Cairo, crossed the Nile onto its west bank, and drove about seven miles south and a couple of miles inland from the river. "This all used to be farmland when I first came here in 1972," Lehner said as we drove along the Pyramids Road. Now the road is lined with cheaply built cement high-rises that are already badly dilapidated and black with soot. Although they are less than twenty years old, they are in considerably worse shape than the Pyramids, which begin to appear, majestic as ever, over the roofs crowded by satellite dishes.
Not only has the population nearly doubled in the twenty-five years Lehner has been coming to Egypt, it has become infinitely more cosmopolitan. "When I first came, I recall people collecting outside storefront windows where you had a few imported things, silk ties maybe from Italy or a little can of Nescafé," Lehner said. "Now we have McDonald's, Pizza Hut, satellite dishes, CNN, and David Letterman." As Egyptian society has opened up on some fronts, it has turned inward on others. Just in the last several years, there has been a sudden proliferation of the chador--the veil traditionally worn by Islamic women--which had been gradually disappearing from the streets of Cairo in recent decades.
During the 1980s, Lehner was the field director of something called the Sphinx Mapping Project, the first full-scale attempt to scientifically survey and record the colossus with photogrammetric cameras that record and measure the volume of objects with mathematical precision.The data and images from the Sphinx Mapping Project became the basis for the computer reconstruction of the Sphinx that I had seen in Santa Monica.
For five full years, Lehner worked full-time studying, tracing, photographing every inch of the Sphinx. "I spent weeks on top of the back of the Sphinx just doing hand mapping of the outlines," he said. "I spent weeks on top of the paws, mapping all the stones in that area. I knew the Sphinx so well at that time I could go home at night and run all of this detail in my head like a video and think about it."
When we met, Lehner was forty-six, a relatively short, slightly built man with round, thin tortoiseshell glasses, and thinning grayish hair that gave him a scholarly air. But he moved around in his blue jeans and boots with the light and agile step of someone who has spent years working outdoors, clambering in and out of excavation ditches, climbing up and down pyramids with surveying equipment, crawling in and out of narrow passageways. He wears a somewhat rakish green felt hat with a leather band that his academic colleagues kid him about, saying he is trying to look like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite twenty-five years in Egypt and in academe, Lehner has retained his flat, plain North Dakota accent and the colloquial informality of someone who grew up in the 1960s.
During his years mapping the Sphinx, Lehner would eat a stale cheese sandwich in the shade of the south side of the monument and watch as large potato chip--sized chunks of limestone flaked off and fell to the ground. The flaking is due to salt crystallization. Dew condenses on the Sphinx in the cool of the night and early morning. Salt within the stone is drawn to the surface by the moisture and dissolves. When the dew burns off during the day the salt crystallizes again, expanding greatly in size and pushing at the surface with explosive force. Sometimes as the morning dew evaporates in the sun, you can actually hear a popping sound as the salt hardens, pushing off layers of stone that then blow off in the wind. The Sphinx as it exists today, Lehner said, is in many ways no longer the same monument as it was when he began working on it: "So many of the details have changed." The surface modeling has sufferednot only from erosion but, in large areas, from the cement, mortar, and limestone that have been added to support and protect the statue.
The Sphinx, part lion, part pharaoh, part god, stands guard over the entrance to the pyramid complex in the valley of the Giza plateau. Although gigantic for a work of sculpture--some 66 feet tall and 240 feet long--when seen from a distance it is dwarfed by the three massive pyramids that loom over it in the background, lined up in a row. Throngs of tourists thread their way along the road between the Pyramids down to the Sphinx as Egyptians in long robes follow alongside selling Coca-Cola, postcards, Egyptian papyri, T-shirts, and camel rides. Bobbing above the crowd are the brightly colored umbrellas of the tour guides trying both to ward off the desert heat and to prevent their charges from becoming separated from the group.
As you face the Sphinx, the first and largest pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid, appears over its left shoulder. Standing almost five hundred feet tall, nearly eight times as big as the Sphinx, it was built by the pharaoh Khufu in about 2600 B.C. The other two pyramids, built by his son and grandson, sit on a diagonal line in diminishing size along the ridge, creating an architectural complex that is of unprecedented scale yet surprising harmony. It is thought that these enormous mountains of stone built in the desert were meant to symbolize the ancient Egyptians' creation myth, according to which life came into being as a mound of earth rising out of the waters of chaos, like the land reappearing after the flooding of the Nile. Originally cased in hard granite--almost all of which has been stripped off and reused in recent centuries--the Pyramids were meant to glitter in the sun, evoking perhaps the association in ancient Egypt between the pharaohs and the sun god Ra. In fact, it was during the fourth dynasty, when the Pyramids were built, that the pharaoh assumed the title of Son of Ra, a god on earth.
The Sphinx lines up in the middle of the three pyramids, leading most scholars to believe that the Sphinx was built by Khafre, the pharaoh of the "second pyramid." Khafre's Valley Temple--which served as the gateway to his pyramid--sits right next to the Sphinx's own temple, as ifin a pair. At the time of the summer equinox, the setting sun falls between the corner of Khafre's pyramid and the right shoulder of the Sphinx.
This view of the Sphinx has not changed since pharaonic times. When you face the Sphinx and look out beyond the Pyramids, the only thing you can see is the Sahara desert stretching all the way to Libya. But to your back--in an area that used to be wilderness--are the fast-food franchises on the main street of the town of Nazlet-el-Saman. The village sprouted up on the edge of the archeological site in the middle of the nineteenth century as Giza became a major tourist stop. The "village" is now a city of 300,000. Since it was an improvised, illegal community that sat on what was officially archeological land, it had no proper drainage system and its sewage seeped into the ground a few hundred yards from the Sphinx. The Egyptians (with American foreign aid money) have put a sewage system into the area, but in doing so they have tacitly acknowledged that the village is there to stay. With hundreds of thousands of people already living in shantytowns that have mushroomed within the cemeteries of Cairo, the government is unlikely to displace the people here in order to respect the original boundaries of the archeological site.
A few years ago, the Egyptian government was planning to build a ring road about two miles from the Pyramids to relieve traffic congestion in Cairo, but the road would have destroyed what is left of the desert panorama around the Sphinx. "That would have been the end," Lehner said. "It's the last refuge. If they put in the road, then there will be an exit ramp, and a gas station will follow, and stores and a city. Then the Sphinx and the Pyramids will be like the Acropolis in Athens, an island in a city." Since the Sphinx and the Pyramids are one of UNESCO's official World Heritage Sites, there was an international hue and cry about the highway and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak canceled the project, on which billions of dollars had already been spent.
While the Sphinx seems small when seen at a distance against the background of the Pyramids, it actually stood more than ten times ourheight. As we entered the site, the Egyptians working on the scaffolding of the Sphinx greeted Lehner like a long-lost friend and began animatedly discussing their work in Arabic. As we stood there talking, another handful of workmen arrived carrying a half-ton limestone block tied up with rope suspended from a long wooden plank that rested on their shoulders. Seeing them skillfully maneuver this massive piece of stone up the levels of the wooden scaffolding with the simplest possible technology, I felt briefly as if we were back in the pyramid age.
The struggle to conserve and control the Sphinx goes back thousands of years. "The Sphinx has been a political football from ancient times to the present," Lehner said. Still propped up in front of the Sphinx is a black stone slab erected in 1401 B.C. by a pharaoh of the New Kingdom, King Thutmosis IV, taking credit for the first major restoration of the Sphinx. Its hieroglyphs tell the story of how, as a young prince, Thutmosis stopped and took a nap near the Sphinx, which then spoke to him in a dream, promising that he would be king of Egypt if he would clear away the sand and restore its damaged body. Some scholars believe Thutmosis may have killed his older brother in order to ascend to the throne since he was not first in line to become king. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Thutmosis restored the Sphinx and put up his plaque in the first year of his reign to show that the Sphinx, who was considered both a god and a symbol of kingship, had given his blessing to the new pharaoh. Thutmosis clad the Sphinx in large limestone blocks to protect it from wind erosion--a strategy the Egyptian workmen we saw hoisting the huge limestone block were trying to follow thirty-four hundred years later.
The Sphinx is so old that it forces us to reconsider our notions of what is ancient and what modern, what is an original work of art and what a restoration. Even for Thutmosis, living in 1401 B.C., the Sphinx was already an extremely ancient monument: it was for him older than the cathedral at Chartres is for us today.
The Greeks and Romans visited and restored the Sphinx in the same spirit of wonder at the achievements of a vanished ancient civilization as we do now, and left graffiti on the walls of monuments like manymodern tourists. The Romans cleared the sand from the Sphinx in preparation for a visit by the emperor Nero--for whom the Sphinx was far more ancient than Nero's Rome is for us. They also dragged numerous obelisks back to Italy as symbols of their imperial power, a feat later imitated by Napoleon. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, announced at the Million Man March that Napoleon had knocked the nose off the Sphinx because he could not stand the idea that a work of such greatness was created by black people. Napoleon, while guilty of much looting and plunder, is innocent of this particular crime: eighteenth-century engravings of the Sphinx show it already missing its nose. Arabic documents from the fifteenth century recount that Egypt's Islamic leaders felt it necessary to deface the great statue because ordinary Egyptians of the period were still paying homage to it a millennium and a half after the collapse of the pharaonic dynasties. (A similar spirit may have motivated the Taliban of Afghanistan who in 2001 systematically destroyed giant stone sculptures that testified to the country's ancient Buddhist past.)
As Farrakhan's remark makes clear, the need to appropriate these iconic monuments and their history continues up to today.
While the monuments are on Egyptian soil, the vast majority of the people visiting them are Western tourists who consider them part of world cultural heritage, and Giza has become a cultural battlefield where East meets West. The modern field of Egyptology was a direct product of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the Egyptian antiquities service was directed by Frenchmen until 1952. For most of the twentieth century, Egyptians were actively discouraged from working on their own monuments. The fields of archeology and conservation are very young among Egyptians and they are acutely sensitive to anything they perceive as a slight to their national pride. On conservation projects, the Egyptians are eager to have foreign money and expertise but are understandably anxious to maintain control over their own monuments.
They were stung by international criticism and a flurry of newspaper stories when large chunks of the Sphinx fell off both in 1981 and in 1988, and each time the government responded by firing the director ofthe Egyptian antiquities service--although neither man was directly responsible for the monument's troubles. To allay public fears, the Egyptian government has undertaken major restoration work on the Sphinx, some of it doing more harm than good.
Islamic fundamentalists have also used the monuments in their war on the current government. Several years ago, fundamentalists killed several tourists visiting the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and in 1997 they struck at Hatshepsut's Temple in Luxor, slaughtering sixty-two people. The attacks appeared designed both to send Egypt's economy into a tailspin as well as to damage the prestige of the government by showing it unable to protect the symbols of national pride.
At the same time, the Egyptian government is contending with various New Age movements that believe that the Sphinx and the Pyramids are not Egyptian monuments at all but the legacy of a much older and more sophisticated civilization that left them there 12,500 years ago as a kind of coded message containing the deepest secrets of the universe. They are bombarding the Egyptian government with requests to drill and probe in hopes that the sands of Giza will soon yield the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx.
A sizable segment of modern American culture seems fixated on ancient Egypt. One of Las Vegas's big new hotels is the Luxor, built in the form of a pyramid with a copy of the Sphinx as its entrance. A pyramid is the symbol of the Internet provider America Online, illuminated by a bolt of lightning every time a customer logs on. In any New Age bookstore you can find a shelf full of books on "pyramid power" and the Sphinx. There are hundreds of Web sites on the Internet dedicated to ancient Egypt. Many of the pharaohs whose tombs have long been raided have achieved in digital form a measure of the immortality they sought. While some of these sites contain valuable information, an astonishing number are dedicated to bizarre theories about ancient Egypt, making it difficult for the uninformed browser to untangle fantasy from reality.
One Web site purports to "establish" the connection between the monuments of ancient Egypt and the planet Mars. With the help of"computer-enhanced photographs," its author perceives a lion-shaped figure on the surface of Mars that resembles the Sphinx. Another site, called "The Pyramid's Amazing Chronography," insists that the Giza complex was built by the God of the Old Testament because "the Bible makes it abundantly plain that Noah's son Ham was the father of Egypt." Hollywood takes up the theme in Stargate, which portrays the Pyramids and the hieroglyphs as the key to a hidden passageway through space and time created by powerful extraterrestrials. Many identify the true creators of ancient Egypt as the inhabitants of the island of Atlantis mentioned in Greek mythology.
These notions recently received a surprising assist from the world of science. A geologist at Boston University, Robert Schoch, announced that the Sphinx's weathering patterns led him to revise the date of its creation from 2600 to 5000 B.C. or earlier. Schoch, who had no previous experience with the geology of Egypt and who based his conclusions on a three-week visit, had been recruited by John Anthony West, one of the main proponents of the Atlantis theory and a popular mystical author who leads tours of Egypt. West has produced a film promoting this "discovery," narrated by actor Charlton Heston. Best-selling books like The Message of the Sphinx, by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, have given these ideas a mass audience, finding a ready market among gullible people inclined to believe that a lost civilization buried its secret to life under the sands of Giza.
"Is it possible that men and women of great wisdom and learning cast a 'glamour' over the Giza necropolis at some point in the distant past?" the authors ask rhetorically. "Were they the possessors of as yet unguessed-at secrets that they wished to hide here? And did they succeed in concealing those secrets almost in plain view? For thousands of years, in other words, has the ancient Egyptian cemetery at Giza veiled the presence of something else--something of vastly greater significance for the story of Mankind?" Hancock and Bauval answer with a resounding yes, arguing that the monuments of Giza are a kind of astronomical code containing the secret to "the science of immortality ... the quest for eternal life."
As the foremost American expert on the Sphinx, Lehner has found himself in the middle of this latest controversy. The Message of the Sphinx dedicates an entire chapter to attacking him. What makes Lehner a particularly able critic and a bête noire of New Agers is that he himself is a former believer: the son of a preacher from Minot, North Dakota, Lehner came of age in the late 1960s when he fell under the sway of the writings of a Christian visionary named Edgar Cayce, known to his followers as "the sleeping prophet." Cayce, who died in 1945, was considered a great healer and went into trances during which he had visions of past lives and historical eras. Although a Christian, he believed in reincarnation, and Atlantis and ancient Egypt figured heavily in his rereading of history and his prophecies. The Atlantis myth has its origins in one of Plato's dialogues that tells the story of an island that had existed beyond the Straits of Gibraltar nine thousand years earlier, inhabited by the children of the sea god Poseidon, who excelled all others in beauty, wisdom, and virtue. Atlantis was sunk beneath the ocean by Zeus when its people were gradually corrupted by repeated intermarriage with mere mortals and made the mistake of waging war on the Athenians. Cayce believed that the people of Atlantis took refuge in ancient Egypt and buried their most precious documents in a secret chamber underneath the paws of the Sphinx. Cayce claimed to have witnessed all this in his previous incarnation as the high priest Rata. The sleeping prophet predicted that the rediscovery of the Great Hall of Records would bring about the Second Coming of Christ in the year 1998.
In 1971, Lehner, a seeker of twenty-one, hitchhiked from North Dakota to Virginia Beach to reach the headquarters of the Edgar Cayce Foundation and traveled to Egypt with a group of Cayce followers several months later. He vowed on that first trip to return within a year to find the Great Hall of Records that lay buried on the Giza plateau. To aid him in his search, Lehner decided to study archeology and ancient Egyptian at the American University in Cairo. "I spent every free moment I had out at the Sphinx," he said. But Lehner could find no trace of the people of Atlantis and everywhere he looked he found the Cayce theory contradicted in the hard data written in the stones of Giza. "Theevidence of the presence of the ancient Egyptians in the construction of these monuments is so overwhelming," he explained.
The final turning point for Lehner was a project carried out in 1977 and 1978 by the Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI) to probe the ground underneath the Sphinx through a technology called electromagnetic resistivity. During the project, which was independent but partially funded by the Edgar Cayce Foundation, researchers placed electrodes in the ground that carried electric current meant to register empty spaces in the rock. They also drilled in several places where they picked up signs of cavities in the rock. "When we did the drilling, we saw nothing but anomalies in the rock--channels of groundwater and eroded rock formation that looked like Swiss cheese," Lehner said. "I started having major doubts about the idea of there being major architectural structures there."
In order to prepare the ground for the resistivity study, Lehner was in charge of some seventy men who did a thorough cleaning of the Sphinx ditch and floor as well as in the nearby temples. Lehner and his Egyptian colleague Zahi Hawass carefully examined all the debris they found. Lying flat and sticking their arms into the ground, they even picked out the debris in a fissure that runs along the floor behind the Sphinx's rump. "Zahi and I found fragments of tools, Old Kingdom pottery, hammer stones made of diorite which were used during the Old Kingdom to smooth away limestone--stuff that was obviously left by the people who had built the Sphinx," Lehner said.
Lehner got over his disappointment at not finding the Great Hall of Records and gradually forged a career as an archeologist. "The ideas I came with from Cayce didn't really stack up with bedrock reality, but bedrock reality became very exciting," he said. "It was the excitement you get from the direct rapport with the data, with the thing itself." He married an Egyptian woman and became fluent in Arabic. At the same time, he continued with ancient Egyptian and set about learning German and French in order to master the vast scholarly literature on ancient Egypt.
In 1979 he became field director of the Sphinx Mapping Project, and in 1984 he began surveying and mapping the entire Giza plateau."So much of Egyptology had grown up out of philology and art history, the study of texts and objects, which meant that a site like Giza still yielded an enormous amount of information by one's just looking at what was there without digging at all--the geology, the stratigraphy, tool marks in stone," he said. "It was very exciting for me to read the stories that the stones were telling and I found out that there were a lot of stories that hadn't been told."
The Pyramids were such a big job that people actually lived on them as they were working. They ate and drank, cooked meals, and even defecated on them. Lehner lived in similar intimacy with the monuments for several years. He has slept inside the Great Pyramid, explored its remotest air shafts. He has copied down the graffiti of its builders and studied their careful chisel marks. He has scooped out the refuse, extracting carbonized traces of food, pottery shards, and even feces lodged in the mortar between the stones. Because we are used to seeing these cultural icons in photographs, we tend to think of them as unchanging monolithic objects. There are cracks inside the Sphinx that are large enough for a man to enter and, in fact, Lehner had himself lowered down face first on a rope to explore one of these fissures, in which he found valuable archeological material. He even discovered a passageway inside the Sphinx that had been known to previous excavators but had been lost for several decades. There, he came upon a shoe belonging to a French digger who had worked at the site in 1927. This kind of intimate knowledge of monuments has given Lehner a very particular perspective. "The Sphinx is not a thing; it is a monument undergoing constant change," Lehner said. "Water moves through it, all kinds of organisms and animals live inside it. There are coyotes living on top of the Pyramids." Understanding the Egyptian monuments as "living" things may help us understand and accept that they are, in fact, dying.
Lehner's first marriage eventually broke up, and after fourteen years in Egypt he returned to the United States in 1986 to pursue a Ph.D. in Egyptology at Yale. Not surprisingly, he did his dissertation on the Sphinx. Although the focus of enormous popular interest, the monument had received relatively little scholarly and scientific attention.
In his years as a permanent fixture on the Giza plateau, Lehner watched the New Age fascination with the Sphinx and the Pyramids grow even as his own interests changed. Lehner met the actress and mystic Shirley MacLaine, who spent the night meditating inside the Great Pyramid. She said she believed that the Giza complex was built in 70,000 B.C.--never mind that Neanderthal man was just then coming into his prime--and that there was a giant crystal pyramid buried underneath the Great Pyramid. As MacLaine and Lehner stood at the base of the Pyramid, he pointed out that the ground beneath them was solid bedrock and that it was therefore impossible for there to be another pyramid underneath it. "Mark, it's all a matter of perspective," she replied. "I've been in the acting business a long time and if there's one thing I've learned it's that it's all a matter of perspective."
While the New Age controversies around the Sphinx have their comic side, they also have their disturbing elements. Making aggressive use of pseudoscience and the Internet, the New Agers are changing the way Egyptian monuments are seen by hundreds of thousands of visiting tourists. As the rich historical context and the subtle details of the archeological record fade and crumble, leaving the bare outlines of great monuments, it becomes easier to rewrite history and impose our own fantasies on them.
One source of consolation may be that many of the absurd ideas about ancient Egypt are not entirely the invention of our own silly and fatuous contemporary culture. Every U.S. dollar bill carries, along with a portrait of George Washington, the image of a pyramid with an eye at the top, symbol of the Freemasons. For some two hundred years, scores of authors (known within Egyptology as "pyramidiots") have devised fanciful numerological interpretations of the Pyramids, based on inaccurate measurements of monuments whose dimensions have been significantly reduced by looting and quarrying of stone. In the nineteenth century, these interpretations generally had a Christian twist, arguing that the Jews of the Old Testament built the Great Pyramid in anticipation of the ultimate truth of the gospel of Christ.
In the early nineteenth century, Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, claimed that his Book of Abraham was a translation of anancient papyrus he found stashed inside a pair of Egyptian mummies he purchased. When scholars figured out how to decipher hieroglyphs, it turned out that Smith's "translation" bore no relation to the actual text but was purely the product of his inspired imagination.
One problem, which invites wild speculation, is that the Sphinx cannot be dated with mathematical accuracy. Only organic material--such as bones or wooden implements--can be carbon-dated, and the Sphinx is made of solid stone. When geologist Robert Schoch hypothesized a much earlier date for the Sphinx, it was based on the rounded, highly eroded weathering patterns primarily found on the right flank of the Sphinx and on the wall next to it. This, Schoch says, has the look of stone that has been eroded by water rather than by wind. And since the Sahara desert area dried up sometime between 6000 and 5000 B.C., the Sphinx, he concludes, must have been carved before that.
As Schoch himself acknowledges, dating rocks simply on the basis of weathering patterns is an extremely problematic and imperfect science. The geological literature on the dating of rock by weathering patterns is full of caveats that Schoch appears to have ignored, and dozens of other geologists who have spent much more time studying the Giza plateau disagree with Schoch, insisting that there are many processes of erosion that can account for the weathering patterns that Schoch is focusing on. But perhaps the most troubling part of Schoch's work is his inability to provide historical data to back up his hypothesis. Unlike the New Age mystics who believe in the Atlantis theory, Schoch realizes that in order to be taken seriously in the scientific community, the dating of a statue cannot be based on the "look" of its surface. There had to have been real human beings and an organized civilization in the vicinity in order to carve a 240-foot-long, 66-foot-high sculpture out of limestone. Schoch acknowledges that no evidence of any such people or civilization exists in Egypt in the period when he dates the Sphinx (the sixth to eighth millennium B.C.). In fact, there is no evidence of massive stone-carved temples or colossal statuary anywhere in the world before Egypt in the third millennium B.C.
That the total lack of historical evidence invalidates Schoch's date was obvious even to John Anthony West. But, ironically, West has usedthe lack of evidence to push his own, even more improbable Atlantis theory. "If the Sphinx was as recent as 7000 to 5000 B.C.," he writes, "I think that we probably would have other Egyptian evidence of the civilization that carved it." Since there is no such evidence for Schoch's date, West reasons that the Sphinx must be several thousand years older still. "The missing other evidence is, perhaps, buried deeper than anyone has looked and/or in places no one has yet explored," he writes. The logic of this is truly breathtaking: the date of 7000-5000 B.C. cannot be accepted, because there is no evidence of high culture in Egypt, so West proposes a date for which there is even less evidence, at least 10,500 B.C. or earlier--an era in which there is no sign of large-scale organized societies anywhere on the planet. Yet West was able to produce his film, which NBC aired without providing a forum for rebuttal. Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of Atlantis.
When I phoned Schoch in his office in Boston, he tried to disassociate himself as much as possible from West and the Atlanteans. He admitted that his dating had been "hijacked" by West and the writers Hancock and Bauval, who arbitrarily pushed it back by several thousand years. "I don't see any geological basis for their claims. The interpretations that have been made have not been to my taste." If the Sphinx had been carved several thousand years earlier and exposed to torrential rains, he said, "there would be virtually nothing left of it." Despite these feelings, Schoch has traveled to Egypt with West, appeared in his film, and coauthored an article with him, eroding his own credibility more severely than time has eroded the surface of the Sphinx. While privately disowning the Atlantis theory, he has sat back and allowed his work to provide a thin veneer of scientific plausibility to crackpot ideas that totally distort history.
By portraying Egyptian civilization as a "legacy" from a previous, superior culture transmitting a secret code, the New Agers have reduced the ancient Egyptians to the role of caretakers and dupes, blindly copying the symbols of these great monuments generation after generation without understanding their true significance. "We would be surprised if the owners of many of the coffins and tomb walls onto which they werecopied had even the faintest inkling that specific astronomical observations and directions were being duplicated at their expense," Hancock and Bauval write. Thus most of Egyptian civilization as the Egyptians themselves understood it is reduced to meaningless mumbo-jumbo filler in which to hide the secret message.
As Lehner and I looked closely at the surface of the Sphinx, it suddenly became obvious what it originally was: a massive wall of limestone rock. Its enormous bulk was carved directly out of the side of the vast limestone quarry that served to build the Pyramids. Because the Sphinx is so large, you can see clearly that it is composed of three highly distinct geological layers. Its head, carved into the likeness of a pharaoh, is made of the highest-quality and hardest stone, which is why it is the best-preserved part of the statue. The lower portions of the Sphinx's lion body are made of much softer stone, some of which is so fragile you can scrape it right off, which Lehner pointed out by taking his fingernails to the enclosure wall just opposite the Sphinx. Embedded in the Sphinx and the quarry wall you can still see fossils of spiral-shaped shellfish and oysters, as well as patches of pocked and spongy-looking rock that are impressions left by sea coral, memories in stone from the time the entire area was underwater. "All this was a coral reef at the bottom of the sea," Lehner said, plucking fossils out of the soft yellow limestone. During the Eocene age, the waters receded, revealing the Giza plateau as we see it now. The stone of the Sphinx is about fifty million years old--a date that makes ancient Egypt seem like an extremely recent event and the fierce debates over the Sphinx's age a matter of only relative importance.
The fossils embedded in the rock provide, however, important evidence placing the Sphinx in the time of the pharaoh Khafre, builder of the second pyramid. The Sphinx is located next to two temples, the Sphinx's Temple and Khafre's Valley Temple. By matching the fossils embedded in the stones, which act almost like fingerprints, Lehner and the German geologist Thomas Aigner were able to determine that the people who carved the Sphinx out of its shelf of limestone ingeniously used the surrounding stone to build the temples. In fact, the stonestaken from the top of the quarry, around the Sphinx's head and chest, were used to build Khafre's Valley Temple--suggesting it was probably built first--while the stones taken from lower down in the ditch were used for the Sphinx's Temple. This would indicate strongly that Khafre's Valley Temple was built before the Sphinx was completed and that the two temples and the colossus were part of the same architectural program at Giza during Khafte's reign.
Lehner's partner in much of his work at Giza has been the Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass, who is in charge of the site at Giza as well as of the nearby sites of Saqqara and Dashour, which contain many pyramids and tombs immediately preceding and succeeding the Giza complex. In the cautious world of the antiquities bureaucracy, Hawass stands out as an outspoken, charismatic, and highly energetic figure.
When Lehner mentioned Hawass's name to the guards at the gates of Giza, they seemed to snap to attention and there was a flurry of activity, with several repeating the words "Dr. Zahi, Dr. Zahi" in tones of great respect. They greeted Lehner enthusiastically as "Mr. Mark," but Hawass was always referred to as "Dr. Zahi." They directed us to his office in a low-lying sand-colored bunker tucked behind a sand dune near the Great Pyramid.
A burly, powerfully built man of forty-nine with close-cropped hair and a supremely confident, commanding manner, Hawass looked more like an army general than an academic. With a handsome, broad, copper-colored face, severe black eyebrows, dark eyes, and a strong, hawklike nose, he bore a strong resemblance to Egyptian president Mubarak (himself a former air force general), whose photograph hung on the wall directly behind him. On the side walls, there were photographs of Hawass with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton on a visit to the Pyramids. Agraduate of Cairo University, with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Hawass has navigated successfully both in the turbid waters of Egyptian cultural politics and in American academic circles. He has friends in high places and coauthored a book on ancient Egyptian women with President Mubarak's wife. At times when Egypt has needed to promote its tourist trade, it has sent Hawass to head a delegationthat barnstormed the United States speaking to audiences about ancient Egypt. One lecture I heard him give in New York alternated information about important new discoveries with crowd-pleasing humorous asides. At one point, he showed a slide of himself and Princess Diana and suggested wryly that the photograph might explain the failure of Britain's royal marriage. In recent years, Hawass has been invited to lecture each summer for a month at UCLA, and he enjoys hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities.
But his jet-setting has not prevented him from conducting serious archeological work. When I first met Hawass in 1996, his assistants recently had found a small pyramid near the Great Pyramid that had been buried under rubble, and their discovery of a major workmen's settlement and cemetery at Giza has contributed enormously to our understanding of the lives of the men who built the Pyramids. Hawass insisted that he is the first in Egypt to adopt the principle of "site management" at Giza, restoring a measure of control at a site that had been overrun by tourists. A few years ago, he removed a road that threaded between the two biggest pyramids and past the Sphinx and that was heavily traveled by huge tourist buses belching exhaust and shaking the ground underneath the Sphinx. In doing so, he uncovered the mortuary temple next to Khufu's pyramid. He demolished a stage erected fifty yards in front of the Sphinx that had served for performances of Swan Lake and concerts by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Grateful Dead. He erected a gate and began charging tickets for admission to the Giza site not only to raise revenue but to keep numbers manageable.
Despite its providing him the opportunity for high-profile friendships, Hawass has an extremely difficult job. He oversees monuments that receive too much attention from tourists and treasure seekers and many that are severely neglected. He is in charge of the controversial restoration of the Sphinx--which has already cost the job of two directors of antiquities--and must try to protect hundreds of other, less famous and equally vulnerable monuments. He must reconcile the often conflicting interests of tourists, local residents, foreign archeologists, and conservators while maintaining support from the government and theantiquities organization. He must oversee and approve the work of numerous foreign excavations, conduct his own archeological digs, try to make money for his monuments from tourism and protect them at the same time. He has a regular pitched battle with the camel drivers at Giza. They want to have free run of the site to be able to offer rides to tourists visiting the Pyramids; Hawass wants them to operate out of a nearby stable so that the animals do not leave their dung all over the site and add to the general wear and tear on the monuments. So far the camel drivers seem to have prevailed since they and their animals were everywhere when I visited Giza. "They are always writing against me to the government," Hawass said of the camel drivers.
The forces that Hawass is fighting against are considerable. "People think that the Pyramids and the Giza plateau are in the desert, but they are not anymore. They are practically in downtown Cairo," he said. Not only does he have to worry about the continued encroachment of the nearby "villages," but there are also rock quarries operating near Giza whose dynamite blasts can be felt at the Sphinx. During the Nasser regime, the government concentrated most of Egyptian heavy industry around Cairo as a showcase of modernization. Many factories were placed to the north of Cairo, perfectly positioned to catch the strong breezes coming down from the Mediterranean, carrying industrial pollution to the city and on to the Pyramid area. This shortsighted policy also drew people from the countryside to the capital, leading to massive overcrowding and traffic and more pollution. Limestone is particularly vulnerable to corrosive gases such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
At Saqqara, the Step Pyramid of King Dzoser, the grandfather of the Great Pyramid, is developing cracks that neither Hawass nor anyone he has consulted can explain. There are still no Plexiglas barriers keeping the public away from the tombs and you can see in many of them that the inscriptions and wall paintings that are within human touch are infinitely more faded than the areas that are beyond reach.
Although Hawass oversees what may be the world's most durable monuments, even they present serious conservation problems. "We havean Arab expression that says, 'Man fears time, but time fears pyramids,'" Hawass explained. "We found out that wasn't true. Even the Pyramids need to be protected."
He shut the Great Pyramid for a year because of the deteriorating condition of the inner chambers, where the breath and sweat of tourists were aggravating the problem of salt crystallization. "The Pyramids began to be killed. I use the word killed because this is really true," he said. "Anyone who enters gives about twenty grams of water to the monument and that water becomes salt on the interior of the tomb or pyramid. The thickness of salt [in the Great Pyramid] became five centimeters and the humidity became 95 percent. I had to make a decision, with the permission of the antiquities service, to close down the Pyramid for one year."
Hawass enlisted the German Archeological Institute in Cairo to help with the conservation work, making use of highly innovative new technology. The Germans hired an engineer to build a robot that could move up the narrow corridors, some of which are only about ten inches wide. On the one hand, the technology was a success: it has allowed Hawass to install a ventilation system in the pyramid and reopen it to visitors. But the German technician with the robot, Rudolph Gantenbrink, got it into his head to play amateur archeologist and joined forces with the New Agers. At the end of a long stone shaft, he discovered a copper handle. Because it was impossible to see down the shaft, his robot had been working with a video camera that allowed Gantenbrink to see what he was doing during the cleaning and ventilation work. But unbeknownst to the German Archeological Institute, Gantenbrink released his video to the press and announced the discovery of a secret door that might hold the answer to the mysteries of ancient Egypt or, perhaps, Atlantean civilization. The institute and the Egyptians were irritated by Gantenbrink's publicity seeking as well as by his speculation about a discovery that had not been adequately studied. His requests to conduct further explorations of the Pyramids have been rejected.
"We cannot permit expeditions by private individuals or amateurs," Hawass said. "Our law permits only scholars and institutions. WhenGantenbrink came here he was a member of an expedition. Then he went everywhere in the world, announcing this discovery without telling anyone in the German Institute. And he sold a film he made of his work, all over the world, without taking our permission. We are supporting science that is useful to archeology. These people use science for their own benefit, to make publicity and make money. People come to the Pyramids and they get crazy."
Egyptian pyramids and tombs are full of false doors and hidden chambers since they were designed to confuse intruders, so there is no reason to expect that this copper handle--whether or not it opens a door--will lead us to anything otherworldly. But the fact that the Egyptians would not let Gantenbrink continue with his work has led New Agers to suspect that there is a cover-up and that the copper handle may be the Stargate they have been looking for.
When I visited in 1996, the New Agers were in a state of fibrillation, bombarding Hawass with requests to drill and probe underneath and around the Sphinx, believing that the final revelation, predicted by Edgar Cayce for 1998, was close at hand. And the authors of The Message of the Sphinx have excited these messianic hopes. "If we read the message ... right," they conclude, "then there is something of momentous importance there, waiting to be found--by seismic surveys, by drilling and excavation ... . [I]t could be the ultimate prize." The year 1998 came and went, without the recovery of Atlantis's Great Hall of Records or the Second Coming.
"What do you think the reaction of the American government would be if we put in a request to excavate underneath the Statue of Liberty on the theory that the ancient Egyptians discovered America?" Hawass said with exasperation. "I have wasted an enormous amount of time in the last six months listening to these people's hallucinations. We are here to protect the Sphinx from hallucinations. The world will judge me if I let those hallucinators do that."
On his desk, Hawass had a thick stack of printouts from the Internet attacking him. John Anthony West, in his latest book, compared Hawass and the traditional Egyptologists to the makers of Agent Orange, who have denied that the poison gas they produced may have affected thehealth of soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The New Agers even started a letter-writing campaign to get him fired. How any of this will intersect with the power politics in Cairo is anyone's guess. He showed me a fax of a letter that West evidently sent out to his supporters addressed "Dear Investors." "These people are trying to make money from the Sphinx," Hawass said heatedly. "The Sphinx is not for sale!"
Hawass was already removed from his job for a year when he opposed work by a Japanese expedition that he considered unnecessary and potentially damaging to the site. "I don't care if I lose my job, I have to speak the truth," he said. "My job is to protect the monuments." Hawass said he suffered a heart attack four years earlier because of the stress of the endless wrangling.
The mischief created by all this became evident in the days I spent out at Giza with Lehner. "They've found a piece of metal that is unlike any metal known on earth," I overheard a British tourist explaining to her companion as we were all standing in front of the Sphinx. "And there are secret chambers buried underneath, but they are keeping them hidden."
As we walked around the site, Lehner's New Age past kept sticking to him like a piece of stale gum to the bottom of his shoe. As we walked down the causeway of Khafre's pyramid toward the Sphinx, we were stopped by two Italian tourists, father and son, who were under the sway of The Message of the Sphinx. "You are Graham Hancock," the father said. "We saw the video." Evidently, the man had seen Lehner rebutting Hancock's theory and confused the two.
"One of his critics," Lehner replied.
A long debate ensued, in which Lehner patiently refuted Hancock and Bauval point by point. Eventually, the father gave up trying to argue, and simply said, "But you know, there is something mysterious. When I first came here two years ago, I didn't know anything. I am a salesman, but I said, 'There is something mysterious here when you go in the gallery of the Grand Pyramid.'"
"That's exactly what the pharaoh wanted people to think," Lehner responded. "They didn't want people to think it was a human monument. But if you look at anything closely you see there is a human handbehind it. Let me ask you: Why is it so important for people like you to believe that it was not these human beings here in Egypt who made them but people who were lost? Why is that idea so attractive? Do you know the movie The Wizard of Oz? Do you remember the end, when they want the answers from the big and powerful wizard, but then the dog takes the curtain and it's just a little man? People want mystery."
We had a similar experience when we went into the Tree of Life Bazaar in the village square just opposite the Sphinx. The shop, which sells exotic Egyptian perfumes, is filled with photographs and cards from American New Agers, including Shirley MacLaine herself. Lehner is an old friend of the family that runs the shop. The father, Mohammed Fayed, an old man with a flowing white beard and an Egyptian galabiya, worked at the Sphinx as a teenager during the 1920s when the French were excavating. It was he who had told Lehner which stone to move in order to find the secret passage in the rump of the Sphinx. As we were talking, Mohammed's son, Ahmed, walked in. Ahmed has found a second career leading "metaphysical tours" of Egypt. Indeed, he was working as the Egyptian representative of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, the group that first brought Lehner to Egypt--so that now, ironically, the Egyptian and the American stand on opposite sides of the great Sphinx debate.
Ahmed seemed eager to make peace between Lehner and the Atlanteans. "People ask me, 'Why is Mark Lehner against us?' I say, 'Because he has to be.'"
"Why?" Lehner asked.
"Because he can't be part of the scientific community and support the Atlantis theory," Ahmed replied.
"That's the wrong answer," said Lehner, getting a little heated up. "If the evidence indicated that there was a Hall of Records underneath the Sphinx I would still be looking for it. Let me ask you a question. If there was Atlantis and all these people in 10,000 B.C., where are their books? Where is their pottery? Where are their bodies? Where are their tombs? Where are their boats? Where are their hieroglyphs? Show me just one thing. One thing. Why is that not a big problem for people who believe in Atlantis? Why does this not bother them?"
"I know, it's good to argue, to have a scientific argument," Ahmed said, trying to smooth Lehner's ruffled feathers.
"No, but Ahmed, we can't move away from it," Lehner said. "We have thousands of tombs, thousands of hieroglyphs. If I climb the Pyramid with you, I can show you pottery in the mortar between the stones. We have carbon-dated it. What more do we need? You work with these people. You lecture to them. Why do people need to believe in myths? Why can't they believe in Khufu and Khafre? It's a great civilization. The boat of Khufu is as beautiful and sophisticated as anything produced by ancient civilizations. The statues of Menkaure [builder of the Third Pyramid] and Khafre are as beautiful as anything produced by any civilization of any age. Why are they not good enough? Why do people need them to be by somebody else?"
"People like change, they like to believe in fantasy," Ahmed, the metaphysical guide, said.
"So you don't believe in the Atlantis myth?" Lehner asked.
"I need evidence and there is no evidence," he replied. "So what can I say? But these people, that's what they want to hear. I really do not believe in Atlantis, I just want you to know that. To be honest with you, this is part of my job. If I don't say these things, they will go away. They say the city of Enoch is underneath the Sphinx. It's dangerous, because it's not based on any facts. Their object is to get Zahi fired. With all this trashy stuff on the market--The Message of the Sphinx--it is your duty to defend something you love. It makes a lot of people who are naive turn against you."
"So?" Lehner said. "I bet the people who read Hancock and Bauval won't read an opposing point of view. The thing that worries me about them is that with the Internet and all the cable channels there's now a chance of this point of view reproducing itself more rapidly than the truth and critical thinking. If we don't have a proper understanding of our past and we go careening into the future, I think it's important to understand what contribution the people of Khufu and Khafre made to the history of the world."
We ran into Ahmed the next day over in the parking lot of a nearbyhotel, standing next to the enormous air-conditioned red bus he uses for his metaphysical tours. He was wearing a beaded necklace with a round, pitted silver object at the end of it that looked like something you would use to steep tea leaves in. "It's an amulet this group I am taking around wears," Ahmed explained. "Everyone in the group has to wear it for protection before they can enter the Great Pyramid. We are about to go in and do three hours meditating and chanting in the King's Chamber." New Age groups pay extra money to be alone in the Pyramids off-hours when they are normally closed.
As we stood there talking, one of Ahmed's group came up to the entrance of the bus. She was a heavyset young woman from North Carolina wearing slacks, jogging shoes, and teased hair. Except for the amulet, she would have blended into the crowd at any American shopping mall. She appeared to be in her midtwenties and had a round, pleasant, doughy face that seemed unformed by either age or experience.
"Where did you get your amulet?" Lehner asked.
"Judy made them herself and consecrated them in temple," she said, as if everyone on every continent knew Judy.
"What does your tour of Egypt consist of?" I asked.
"Well, our group, we're working on the body," she said. "So it starts with the feet in Abu Simbel [one of the southernmost points in Egypt] and then we go up the body in Luxor--you know, all the shockers."
"What are shockers?" I asked.
"It's chakras, a Hindu word," Lehner, the veteran New Ager explained. "They are the vital organs of the body. The feet, the groin, the heart ..."
"Now we're at the top of Egypt, the Great Pyramid, working on the head," the woman from North Carolina explained. "It's all about awakening cellular memory in the different parts of your body. Like there's this other group that takes people into the King's Chamber of the Pyramid and they lay each person in the sarcophagus and tell them their 'real name,' and it awakens their cellular memory."
"What is cellular memory?" I asked.
"Well, I'm not too good on all that scientific stuff," she said. "You should talk to Pamela, she's the one who can explain all of that in real scientific terms, what it triggers scientifically as far as chemically affecting the body."
After the woman got on the bus, Lehner asked Ahmed how much the group was paying to use the Pyramid after hours. "Two thousand Egyptian pounds [about seven hundred dollars] for the first twenty people," Ahmed said. Although Zahi Hawass does not agree in principle with people visiting tombs, it is impossible to pass up that kind of money. Every person entering the Pyramid that evening will be paying one hundred Egyptian pounds, thirty-three dollars--the same as the monthly salary of a young archeologist working for the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass uses the extra money to increase the salaries of his employees, tripling and quadrupling the pay of his senior aides.
As we left, Ahmed told us about a member of one of his latest tours who wanted to contribute $100,000 to excavations toward the search for Atlantis. "This man has $50 million," Ahmed said. "He paid the way for eighteen people."
After years of battling with the New Agers, Hawass appears to have decided that if you can't beat them, you might as well join them. Although he has not abandoned his earlier views, Hawass and the proponents of Atlantis appear together at public debates. For better or worse, the mystical theories about ancient Egypt draw crowds and prosperous foreign tourists.
In fact, most of the advanced technology brought to Giza during the last thirty years has been used either for high-profile treasure hunting or the New Age search for lost civilizations. In the 1960s, the Nobel Prize winner Louis Alvarez from the University of California at Berkeley measured cosmic rays to look for hidden chambers in the Great Pyramid--and found nothing. The French conducted a similar search with radar with the same result. In 1987, National Geographic financed a project to poke a camera into an ancient boat pit next to the Great Pyramid, producing a splashy TV video but little of real scientific value. Last year,a Frenchman was allowed to work inside the Great Pyramid to do a pollution study, but Hawass found out he was drilling into the pyramid walls looking for the mummy of Khufu.
"All these people, they are working for their glory only, glory by advertising their discoveries, and they are not involved in the conservation," Hawass said. "Tell me one individual foreigner or an individual Egyptian with a proposal [to conserve] a whole site. We do not even have an archeological map of Egypt. We do not need more excavations; we need to preserve what we have. I took a photograph of the scene in the Temple of Edfu five years ago, and I took the same scene a year ago. This scene has lost 30 percent in four years. Every day and every week we are losing information. We have only one hundred years and these monuments will be gone if nothing is done. We should cover all the monuments of Egypt again with sand and leave it to another generation that is smarter and sincere and not hungry for fame."
Many of the Sphinx's problems, like those of most other ancient Egyptian monuments, stem from the renewed attention it has received in the past two hundred years. The Sphinx was buried up to its neck in sand when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 and Europe "rediscovered" ancient Egypt. Although the Sphinx and the Pyramids were already well known at the time, virtually all other major Egyptian monuments had been lost for about two thousand years. European knowledge of ancient Egypt had remained frozen at the time of the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C. and whose book was still the standard travel guide into the nineteenth century, when a new wave of visitors began producing a series of their own books.
Foreign explorers and adventurers competed in a mad scramble to dig up ancient treasures and drag them home, filling the museums and collections of England, France, Italy, Germany, and the United States. But the rape of the Nile, as it has been called, also revolutionized our understanding of ancient Egypt. Knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language had been lost for at least fifteen hundred years. Along with hauling away obelisks, Napoleon's troops dug up the Rosetta Stone,which allowed Jean-François Champollion eventually to decipher the structure of the hieroglyphs, unlocking three thousand years of Egyptian texts and inscriptions.
In the 1840s, French explorers finally freed the Sphinx from the sand. For two thousand years, its condition had been effectively frozen in the desert and with its uncovering, it was as if time began to tick again. The process of deterioration that had evidently plagued the monument in ancient times resumed.
"In Physics, we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says that we change what we observe," Lehner said. "Something similar happens in archeology: 'You study it, you kill it.'" There is a poignant moment in Federico Fellini's film Roma in which workmen uncover brilliantly colored ancient Roman wall paintings while building the city subway, but as they stand there admiring them, the paintings fade and vanish before their eyes from the sudden exposure to the air and light. Something similar, albeit at a much slower rate, is happening to the monuments of Egypt, especially in the delicate painted tombs of the Valleys of the Kings and Queens in Luxor.
Although the Egyptian pharaohs built their pyramids and tombs with the idea that no one should penetrate them, the focus of both modern Western scholarship and mass tourism is on precisely these closed, private spaces. "The absurdity of this struck me one day here at Giza when it was particularly crowded," Lehner said. "It seemed so strange that all of these hot and sweaty people were forcing themselves to crawl up the steep and narrow three-foot-high corridor leading up to the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid--a place that was built never to be entered again."
The Egyptians constructed the Pyramids to last forever, relying on hard stone, a simple, rugged design, and incredibly massive size. "A geologist in the 1950s did a study that indicated that, at its current rate of deterioration, the Great Pyramid would last another hundred thousand years, by which time it would have crumbled into sand," said Lehner. "I was once flying over Manhattan with my architect friend John Jerde and I asked him how long the skyscrapers would last and hesaid he had no idea. The pharaohs came about as close to achieving immortality in stone as anyone is likely to."
The Sphinx's life expectancy is much less than that of the Pyramids, mainly because of its smaller size and the nature of its stone. According to Frank Preusser, a conservator who studied the Sphinx for the Getty, the soft middle portion of the Sphinx's body is losing about ten to fifteen inches per century. Eventually, the deterioration will begin to undermine the stability of the Sphinx's head. Although the process may be accelerated by modern developments such as smog and water spillage from the nearby village, the Getty's research concluded that the Sphinx's main enemy is simple dew condensation: each morning, dew collects on the surface and brings out the salt left in the limestone from its millions of years at the bottom of the sea.
As Thutmosis's restoration of the Sphinx in 1401 B.C. makes clear, this problem goes back to antiquity. To protect the Sphinx from the wind, Thutmosis built an enclosure wall around the Sphinx quarry and encased the paws and the bottom third of the monument in blocks of hard, high-quality limestone. These large, elegantly cut blocks are still visible in many places along much of the lower portion of the statue, although they have been supplemented by repairs from the Greco-Roman period, a major French restoration of 1926, and more work done during the 1980s. A large portion of what we have known as the Sphinx is actually a patchwork of restorations at different points in history. The various phases of reconstruction pose an interesting question: What is the Sphinx? Is it only the original statue carved out of its mother rock in the Old Kingdom? Which of the additions made between 1401 B.C. and the twentieth century should be considered part of the original monument? Contrary to our sense of technological progress, the better restorations are the older ones. The stones from thirty-four hundred years ago are still in excellent shape, so well cut that they lie atop one another without needing any mortar between them. The Greco-Roman stones are smaller and a little darker but generally in good condition. The French engineers who worked on the Sphinx in the 1920s filled cracks and holes with liberal amounts of cement, the salt from which hasbegun to corrode the monument. But the absolute worst work is the restoration work done between 1981 and 1987. Eager to show that they were addressing the problems of the Sphinx, the Egyptians rapidly began building a coat of stone armor around its body without having tested the effect of what they were doing. This restoration made the back left flank and back paws of the Sphinx look like the cinder block façade of a Cairo apartment building. Since cement has a high salt content, the restoration accelerated the process of crystallization. The Sphinx body continued flaking and the new stone armor began to crack, crumble, and fall off. "It's as if the Sphinx were shedding a layer of unwanted skin," Lehner said as we walked around the left flank of the Sphinx, where the clunky wall of 1980s restoration work was collapsing in on itself.
When a huge chunk of the Sphinx's left shoulder fell off in 1988, the Egyptians definitively abandoned the old restoration work and began a new campaign, directed largely by Zahi Hawass. In 1996, Hawass's workmen were busy removing the last parts of the disastrous modern restoration and embarking on a new one. The Egyptians have elected to pursue a conservation strategy that is very much like that of King Thutmosis IV--"but with science!" Hawass hastens to add. Like the New Kingdom pharaoh, Hawass has constructed a sheath of limestone casing around the front and back paws and the soft lower portions of the lion body. The strategy is not unlike the reconstruction that took place between 1979 and 1987, but done with much greater care. Limestone has been chosen to match that of the ancient stones on the Sphinx. Hawass has scrupulously avoided the use of cement. The stones are cut so that they can be laid in place without mortar, although some mortar is plastered on the Sphinx's body to keep the stones secure. The limestone casing has been based precisely on the photogrammetric measurements that Lehner made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so that the new layer looks as much like the older ones as possible. All ancient stones that are in good condition are being left, with new stones only replacing the shoddy modern restorations and some vulnerable open spaces on the Sphinx. "What we are doing will make the Sphinx live for a thousand years!" Hawass told me with pharaonic rhetorical sweep.
The preservation work has met with qualified praise among foreign archeologists and conservators. "The work is being done carefully, and, above all, it is reversible," said Rainer Stadelmann, director of the German Archeological Institute and a leading expert on the Giza complex. There is no way around the fact that, with the restoration complete, the bottom third of the Sphinx is covered in a casement of brand-new limestone and much of the monument is out of view--perhaps forever. "Problems arise when archeologists endeavor to reconstruct based on their notions of what the monument looked like, and that is often based on misinterpretation," said Neville Agnew of the Getty Conservation Institute. "You really are creating a fake and not an original object. You are looking at an object that has been restored and not conserved."
"Well, I console myself with the notion that Zahi is following in the tradition of the ancient Egyptians and Thutmosis IV," Lehner said diplomatically.
The conservation of the past is also a peculiarly modern preoccupation, born out of a vain hope that we can freeze time and the vain notion that what we are trying to freeze is the past. "In antiquity the Sphinx was painted in bright, comic-book colors," said Lehner. "It was not the solemn, beige ruin we have today." What we are trying to freeze is actually the present, which offers a highly distorted, fragmentary version of the past.
But the fact that our view of the past has been severely altered by what happens to survive does not, in Lehner's view, mean that conservation is a futile or useless business. "There will never be more of the original monument than there is today," he said. Along with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the history of the Sphinx restoration would seem to illustrate another important principle of modern physics: the second law of thermodynamics, which establishes that some energy is inevitably lost whenever it is consumed, no matter how efficient the engine. Entropy and decay are fundamental laws and nothing can be kept exactly as it is or returned to its former state. And yet our vision of the "past" is heavily conditioned and distorted by what monuments happen to have survived the ravages of time. The Great Pyramid is the last of the SevenWonders of the Ancient World still standing. No doubt the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria would exert similar fascination and perhaps even their own New Age cults if they were still around. So many great monuments of ancient Egypt survive in part because of historical accidents: the dry climate of the desert and the Egyptians' use of hard stone. As the Egyptian archeologist Faiza Haykal told me, "We have so much less of the other great civilizations of the ancient Near East because they built a great deal in mud-brick as they had much less available stone." The Egyptians had huge quarries of stone in almost every direction but almost no wood. They had to import cedarwood all the way from Lebanon. The Phoenicians used the abundant wood of Lebanon to become great sailors who explored and colonized much of the Mediterranean, but next to nothing remains of their boats or their monuments.
Similarly, the soft human tissue of ancient Egyptian society has fallen away and crumbled, leaving only its most massive structures. Trying to recover this lost social context--the world of the Pyramid and Sphinx builders--has become the focus of Lehner's work in recent years. It has taken Lehner full circle back to the big questions that brought him to Egypt in the first place. "I came here on a quest and in many ways I am still on it, namely: Why are we here? What is it all about? How do these great monuments fit into the three-thousand-year trajectory of Egyptian civilization? How do they fit into the whole human career?" he said.
Herodotus wrote that it took some hundred thousand souls to build the Great Pyramid; his account conjures up images of an army of slaves laboring under the lash of the pharaoh. But from Lehner's work and other recent excavations, a very different image of life at Giza in the Old Kingdom is emerging. For several years, Lehner has been excavating an ancient bakery he discovered about two hundred yards southeast, in front of and to the right of the Sphinx. The bakery is next to a brewery and a fish-processing plant. Zahi Hawass, in turn, is excavating the workmen's settlement and graveyard. In its first generations, archeology was mainly concerned with finding statues and treasures, uncovering the tombs of princes and pharaohs; the latest generation of archeologistspays much more attention to context and to the structures of everyday life, and the recent work at Giza is beginning to tell us more about the ordinary people who built the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
"My interest has gone beyond the site itself, to the dynamics of the society that produced the pyramids," Lehner said as we walked over the land where his bakery is buried, now covered with protective sand and decorated with camel dung. "I am becoming more and more convinced that ancient Egyptian society was a series of households within households, in an embedded pattern. Rather than having a large Wonder Bread factory, they did things with a kind of single-loaf method, replicating it many, many times." He went on, "Complexity theory in physics tells us how you can create global orders out of local rules, that you can create the complexity of the human body out of DNA or the computer out of simple on-and-off electrical signals. And something similar may have happened in ancient Egypt in which a complex, large-scale society evolved out of the simple household structure. The word pharaoh in ancient Egyptian means 'the greatest household.' It seems counterintuitive at first, but in many ways it is more logical that the modern state did not just spring full-blown from the head of Zeus but evolved gradually from the kind of patriarchal society that you find throughout the ancient Near East."
Scholars now believe that the bulk of the work on the Pyramids was done by a group of six to seven thousand highly trained craftsmen who received both payment and prestige for their efforts and that the heavy lifting was done by a group of twenty to thirty thousand laborers who were not slaves but farmers who worked during the summer months when the fields were flooded and could not be cultivated. When an American engineering company was putting in the sewer system for the village near the Sphinx, archeologists working alongside them found what looked like a city that may have covered an area of about nine hundred acres. Rather than living in a large, military-style barracks, the workmen of Giza appear to have lived in small, ordinary mud-brick houses. And these individuals appear to have enjoyed the same rights of individual burial as the priests and members of the royal householdburied around the Pyramids. One of the tombs that Hawass found is dedicated to "the overseer of the side of the pyramid." The Egyptians appear to have worked in small, discrete units, each with responsibility for a small part of the whole.
Many of the workmen's tombs that Hawass's men have uncovered resemble the much grander burial places of the nobles but in miniature. "There are little beehivelike domes that look like pyramids, little rectangular tombs, little mastabas, and little false doors as in a doll's house," Lehner explained. "They're a lot like the things you find in the tombs at Giza but they are on a small scale and they are made in mud-brick rather than stone. A lot of Egyptologists use the word state, as if the pharaoh and his administration were on one side and the people on the other. We always thought that all we had was 'royal court culture' and that this was different from the popular culture of ancient Egypt. But what we are finding increasingly is that they are all part of the same culture."
Traditional Egyptology, and not just New Age cultists, has suffered, according to Lehner, from seeing Egyptian monuments in isolation, as merely the products of an all-powerful pharaoh. "The great Wizard of Oz is not only all the wacko ideas about a lost civilization and outer-space people, even for many Egyptologists and scholars; it's the notion of the barracks, a huge conscripted workforce, slaves," he told me. Lehner has begun to see the monuments less as the whim of an absolute ruler than as manifestations of the collective will of a new urban society. "The 'little man behind the curtain,'" he said, extending his Wizard of Oz metaphor to explain the reality behind the fantasy, "is the idea that these sublime structures were raised with a household mode of production."
What is gradually emerging is that Giza was not just a religious center but a city of large proportions. "If there were twenty thousand or thirty thousand people working there, it would have been a supercity for the third millennium B.C.," Lehner explained. As he uncovers new things, he is plugging information into a large computer database, which he and his colleagues at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute are using to create a digitized map not just of the Sphinx but ofthe entire Giza plateau. Eventually, they hope to produce a computer reconstruction like the one Lehner did with the architect Tom Jaggers, showing the whole of ancient Giza as it may have looked forty-five hundred years ago.
But much of the ancient city Lehner described is no longer visible to the eye. Since the sewer at Nazlet-el-Saman was finished, the workmen's settlement has been asphalted over. The Valley Temple of Khufu, also found during the sewer project, is now covered by the road divider of the main street. "See, right in front of where that fat man is walking was a row of houses," Lehner pointed out. "Underneath that carriage is a house, and where that road is there was a causeway." A Muslim cemetery, which has grown as rapidly as the town itself, covers most of the area where archeological digs conducted at the beginning of the century had revealed a series of streets and houses where the priests who tended the cult of the Pyramids lived. "It is kind of a strange irony that an ancient city of the living is now totally covered by the modern city of the dead," he said.
Other sites that were excavated but left unprotected have deteriorated beyond recognition. The Valley Temple of the Third Pyramid, which was built hastily after the pharaoh's death in mud-brick has eroded, as have dozens of houses of the pyramid city that were not eaten up by the Muslim graveyard. "We have photographs from the 1930s that show walls as high as two meters," Lehner said as we stood on what looks like barren ground. "Now all that is left of them are mud-brick stains on the desert sand." It was simply not the practice of archeologists to rebury and conserve a site after they had extracted what they were looking for. "The excavation of these sites began when my grandfather was a young man and a lot of them are already gone," Lehner said. "Without these petrified remains of the soft tissue of society, these monuments look mysterious. If you don't see the mud-brick houses and tombs, any great monument like the Great Pyramid looks like it was built by space people or a vast military organization. If you don't see the context, you don't see it as a human monument. That's the importance of finding bakeries and houses." Ironically, the pharaohs may have actually achieved what theyhoped for. "The ancient Egyptians didn't want them to be human monuments," Lehner said. "They covered them with casements, stones that were smoothed. They wanted to create something ethereal and cosmic. But behind the casement their work was much sloppier, and you can see the living hand."
THE FUTURE OF THE PAST. Copyright © 2002 by Alexander Stille. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.