Panelists puzzle over restoration of the Sphinx

April 19, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

GIZA, Egypt -- Pity the poor Sphinx.

Through the ages, the Guardian of the Pyramids has suffered countless indignities. Target shooters shot off its nose during the Ottoman occupation. Explorers ripped off the half-man, half-lion's beard for the British Museum.

For years, tourist buses zoomed around its base, rattling the weary old beast's foundation. Today, it sits atop salt water and sewage, partly swaddled in scaffolding, choking in smog.

For centuries, Egyptologists frantically tried not only to stop the march of time, but also to turn the clock back to the days of the pharaohs when the noble monument was built 4,600 years ago.

Restorers plastered it over with cement and then later peeled it open. They thought about giving it a nose job. Someone suggested building a brace, a giant padded bra of sorts, into its breast.

Now, a team of consultants has offered a novel suggestion: do little, go slowly.

"The Sphinx is a ruin; it should be left a ruin," said Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities at Giza, summing up the conclusions of a recent symposium on Global Treatment of the Sphinx.

Restoration, they decided, should be "based on knowledge, not imagination," he said.

The meeting brought together 80 specialists from around the world -- archaeologists and stone masons, conservationists and wind experts, architects and chemists -- to consider what should be done with the national treasure.

"We cannot bring back the Sphinx to the first day that it was built," said Ibrahim Sadiq, an engineer by training and deputy director of the American Research Center in Cairo who was on the panel.

"The consensus was, 'Keep going on with what you are doing now. But slowly, so that research, which is now going on, can continue,' " he said.

Panelists were unsure precisely where to go. But they agreed that the Sphinx was the victim of some "misguided and misconceived" ideas, Mr. Sadiq said.

During the 1980s, for example, conservationists slapped a form of cement on the monster's paws, which caused an adverse chemical reaction with the original limestone, corroding its base.

Workers are now painstakingly stripping away past conservation efforts while conducting studies to determine the statue's makeup and eventually design a plan to try to suspend it in time -- as a ruin.

Any wrong move could be dangerous, the panelists determined.

For a time, some experts suggested covering it with a plastic bubble, encapsulating the 70-foot-tall treasure in a climate-controlled environment.

The idea of a Sphinx-in-a-box seemed sound. But, what if its generator failed? Suddenly the ancient structure would be swaddled in plastic, cooking under the desert sun.

"How can you build anything mechanical that doesn't fail?" Mr. Sadiq asked. "We've seen astronauts burn up on blastoff. You will not find a system that's backed up by as many backups as the space program. And it failed."

The Sphinx of today sits at the outskirts of greater Cairo, a dusty, congested metropolis of 14 million people and about 1 million cars and buses. The exhaust is just one more debilitating assault on the monuments, which even in the days of the pharaohs were eroding in the sands kicked up by desert winds.

Under the current strategy, in effect to leave it alone, workers are scraping away nearby asphalt roads, which marred the desert environs around the pyramids. Tour buses, even camels and donkeys, are largely banned from the site.

"The Sphinx is like a sick man, a very, very sick man," said Mr. Hawass, who believes the sickness started soon after the birth of the beast.

By 1200 B.C., Mr. Hawass said, the architects of the pharaohs realized the "mother rock" from which the Sphinx was carved was wasting away. They brought in limestone to restore it, a bad choice because it, too, erodes.

Later efforts, as recent as 1926, covered the head in cement. And between 1982 and 1987, it suffered "the worst restoration ever done to the Sphinx," Mr. Hawass said.

Tiny stones planted inside by Roman restorers were replaced with giant ones and covered with cement, which "stopped the limestone from breathing."

Mr. Hawass said the mistakes inspired last month's conference. "We need really to write the final strategy for the Sphinx," he said. "The Sphinx cannot stand another mistake."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.