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Is the Great Sphinx twice as old as Egyptologists and archaeologists think, based on recent geological evidence

Is the Great Sphinx twice as old as Egyptologists and archaeologists think, based on recent geological evidence?

Viewpoint: Yes, recent evidence suggests that the Great Sphinx is much older than most scientists believe.

Viewpoint: No, the Great Sphinx was built about 4,500 years ago during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre, as has long been believed by most archaeologists and Egyptologists.

Rising from the Sahara in Egypt looms one of history's most perplexing mysteries. Its stone eyes stare out of an almost human face, surveying a land of ancient tombs and endless sand. For millennia, it has weathered the ravages of time and witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations. Yet, after all these hundreds of years, the Great Sphinx of Giza remains an enigma. Just when we believe we are about to solve its eternal riddles, the Sphinx reveals another layer of secrecy.

By its very existence, the Great Sphinx can be considered a riddle. It watches over the necropolis of Giza like some silent sentinel from a forgotten age. Formed from blocks of carved limestone, it is a 240-foot-(73-m) marvel of architectural and engineering skill. Archaeologists have long debated how a civilization some 4,500 years ago could manage to transport such building materials of such weight and size from quarries so far away. Over the years, scientists and laymen alike have developed numerous theories to explain how ancient Egyptians succeeded at this seemingly impossible achievement. These explanations ranged from the completely plausible to the totally fantastic, including the intervention of aliens from outer space.

With so many farcical beliefs being presented, it is understandable that a certain level of skepticism would develop in the archaeological community. So it was not surprising that scientists scoffed when they were presented with the hypothesis that dated the Great Sphinx at almost double the age it had traditionally been believed to be. If this date were accurate, it could suggest the existence of an ancient race with the technological skill to erect such a monument. Perhaps the pharaoh Khafre was not responsible for building the Great Sphinx after all, but instead built Giza around it. However, unlike the more farfetched theories regarding the origins of the Sphinx, this claim could possibly be backed up with evidence.

One of the easiest ways to determine the age of ancient buildings comes from the effects of erosion upon their structures. Wind and water wage in an endless war on stone, slowly wearing it away with an incessant assault. The Great Sphinx was not immune to these forces and now displays wounds from its hopeless struggle against time and nature. And at one period in its existence, it spent more than 700 years beneath the surface of the desert.

Water and windblown sand leave different types of marks on surfaces they wear down. Upon closer examination of the surface of the Sphinx, scientists have begun to wonder whether the scoring is more water-based or wind-based. If the former, could the Great Sphinx come from a time where the weather patterns were significantly different than now? Also, the Sphinx was constructed from materials similar to that of the nearby pyramids and other structures. If it had been built at the same time as these other monuments, would it not share similar erosion marks? Some evidence puts this theory into question.

However strong some of the evidence of an older civilization being responsible for the Great Sphinx, it does not explain several contradictory beliefs and findings. Indeed, opponents of the older Sphinx hypothesis dismiss much of the evidence as coincidental or simply misinterpretation. As with much of science, the way scientists look at a particular finding results in the answer found.

Both sides of the Great Sphinx debate have "evidence" that "proves" their point. Does this mean only one side is correct, or could the truth lie somewhere in between? Like the shifting sands of the Giza necropolis, the "facts" can change and take new shapes. Each day science and technology continue to advance, thus allowing us to rediscover what was once held to be true and disprove conjecture once and for all.

Perhaps only one constant remains in regards to the Great Sphinx and its origins. Much like the creature of legend upon which it is based, it will continue posing humankind with riddles and hold it secrets close to its stone heart. We have been considering its mysteries for thousands of years. Perhaps we will never solve them all, but we will continue trying.

—LEE ANN PARADISE

Viewpoint: Yes, recent evidence suggests that the Great Sphinx is much older than most scientists believe.

According to tradition, the Great Sphinx of Giza was built around 2500 b.c. by the pharaoh Khafre, during the period known as the Old Kingdom. To state that the Sphinx is older than the Old Kingdom implies that some sort of organized civilization existed in this area long before the third millennium b.c. If this is so, much of what archeologists and historians think they know about the rise of civilization must be revised. That idea is as threatening to many scientists today as Galileo's idea that the Sun revolves around the Earth was to the church hundreds of years ago. However, the idea that the Sphinx is older than commonly assumed is not new, it was an accepted truth among Egyptologists in the nineteenth century. The British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, one of the founding fathers of Egyptology, considered the Sphinx older than the Old Kingdom. In 1900, the director of the Department of Antiquities in the Cairo Museum, Sir Gaston Maspero, raised the possibility that Khafre did not build the Sphinx, but simply unearthed it. If that is the case, the monument is obviously older than the Old Kingdom, the time of Khafre's reign.

The Question of Erosion

At the heart of the controversy seems to be the question of erosion. Was the erosion on the surface of the Great Sphinx caused by rainfall or wind? If the erosion were caused by rainfall, the Sphinx would indeed be thousands of years older than 2500 b.c. By the time of Khafre, rainfall in Egypt was very similar to its current level, and could not possibly account for the deep erosion on the surface of the Sphinx.

In the early 1990s, the American writer and independent Egyptologist John Anthony West posed the question of erosion that launched the Sphinx controversy. While reading the works of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887-1962), an earlier Egyptologist and mathematician, West found de Lubicz's references to water erosion on the Sphinx and was intrigued. As West relates in his 1993 television program, Mystery of the Sphinx, he went to see an Oxford geologist and asked the geologist if he might play a trick on him. West showed the man a photograph that was partly covered, making the area look like any common, eroded cliff. Is this sand or water erosion, he asked the geologist? Water, definitely, answered the scholar, backtracking only when shown the complete photograph and realizing its subject was the Great Sphinx.

There are obvious differences between the effects of water erosion and sand erosion. Rocks eroded by wind-blown sand have a ragged, sharp appearance. Rocks eroded by water have smoother, undulating erosion patterns, resulting in wide fissures. According to geologist Robert Schoch, who has been researching the age of the Sphinx with West since 1990, the erosion on the Sphinx fits the latter pattern. Egyptologists argue that the water erosion on the Sphinx could have been caused from the Nile floods that occur in the area, but Schoch contends that if that were the case, the floods would have undercut the monument from its base. Instead, the heaviest erosion appears at the top of both the Sphinx and the walls enclosing it. This pattern is more consistent with rainfall from above, rather than flood water from below.

Schoch also noted refacing work which had been formfitted to the eroded blocks behind it. It is thought that the blocks used for this refacing are from the Old Kingdom, but why would so much work be necessary in less than 500 years? Some scholars have suggested that the original limestone used to build the Sphinx deteriorated quite rapidly. But if that was the case, and assuming an even rate of deterioration throughout the ages, the Sphinx should have disappeared approximately 500 years ago. Other scholars believe that New Kingdom workers used blocks from the causeway to Khafre's pyramid, which would be Old Kingdom blocks, to reface the Sphinx. However, there is no way to verify this belief.

It is generally accepted that the Sphinx was buried in sand from approximately 2150 to 1400 b.c. It was then uncovered and repaired. From the various repairs done at different periods of history, it appears that weathering caused little erosion between 1400 b.c. and the present, but the restoration work dating from 1400 b.c. is quite substantial. If the Sphinx was built in 2500 b.c., and spent most of the following millennium under sand, how did it erode so much? Furthermore, if the Sphinx and the tombs around it in the valley are made of the same rock (this was verified by an independent expert), and all date to the same period, shouldn't the erosion on the tombs be similar to the erosion on the Sphinx? Yet the tombs around the Sphinx show only the mild wind-blown sand weathering one would expect in Old Kingdom monuments.

Seismic measurements done on the grounds of the Sphinx enclosure point to a difference in the weathering of the rock under the Sphinx. The west side of the enclosure (the rump) shows less weathering than the other three sides. The north, east, and south sides show 50 to 100% more weathering. If we assume that the west side dates to Khafre's time, and the weathering rate of the rock is linear, then the Sphinx would date to 5000 b.c. at the earliest. If the weathering pattern is nonlinear, the Sphinx could be much older.

How would rainfall explain the fact that the head of the Sphinx, which undoubtedly should be effected by rainfall, shows less weathering than other parts? Precise measurements taken of the head and the body reveal that the head is not proportional to the body; it is much too small. The tool marks on the head are "relatively recent," according to Schoch, and he believes that the head was recarved from the original, which had been heavily damaged.

The Lost Civilization

Many researchers wonder, if the Sphinx predates the Old Kingdom, who built it? There are two possible and contradictory answers to this question. The first is that a primitive society predated the Old Kingdom, and its members built the Sphinx. Would it take a technologically advanced culture to erect the Sphinx? Not necessarily, but it would require technical skills and supreme organization. After all, a relatively primitive culture built Stonehenge in Britain. In 1998, in another area of the Sahara called Nabata, a Neolithic settlement was discovered with astronomical structures built with huge stones, like the Sphinx. The Nabata structures are fascinating in their astronomic accuracy, and date to approximately 4500 b.c. If Neolithic cultures can build structures such as these, why not a Sphinx?

On the other hand, the enclosure surrounding the Sphinx is made of huge blocks, and the builders had to move these blocks quite a distance to build the enclosure. Could a primitive culture complete such a task? In Mystery of the Sphinx, West challenged construction engineers to achieve the task. Even using a crane with one of the largest booms in the world, the task still could not be accomplished. Many supporters of the hypothesis that the Great Sphinx was built before the reign of Khafre concur that the builders were probably advanced, and possibly used acoustic technology to move the stones. Current technology can "levitate" small objects using sound, and it is not impossible that the lost civilization that built the Sphinx could move much bigger objects in the same way. In the biblical story of the destruction of Jericho, sound destroyed walls 6.5 ft (2 m) thick and some 20 ft (6 m) tall. Those that believe an ancient civilization constructed the Sphinx suggest that sound could also be used to put structures up.

If there was a "lost civilization," challenge some opponents of the older Sphinx theory, where are their artifacts? Where is the proof of their existence? Schoch and West maintain that archeologists are looking in the wrong place. There is more than a fair chance that these artifacts are buried under silt in the Nile River, or under parts of the Mediterranean. In 1999, archeologists uncovered what they consider to be the remnants of Cleopatra's palace underwater in the silt of the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt. Cleopatra reigned from 69 to 30 b.c.

Khafre

Why was the Great Sphinx attributed to Khafre in the first place? In front of the Sphinx stands a stela, or vertical stone slab, with an inscription containing Khafre's name, but the text around it has eroded and flaked off. The inscription is known to be from the reign of Thutmose IV (1425-1417 b.c.), and the part that is legible tells of the repairs made to the Sphinx in Thutmose's time. The Giza plateau, where the Sphinx is located, also contains the Khafre pyramid and the Khafre Temple, and a causeway connecting the Pyramid and the valley runs along the outer wall of the Sphinx. Several statues of Khafre were found buried in temple in front of the Sphinx. This evidence is circumstantial at best. No one knows what the stela actually said regarding Khafre's involvement with the Sphinx. The inscription could have simply described repairs made by Khafre and Thutmose.

Some other Egyptologists believe that the face of the Sphinx is that of Khafre. To examine this possibility, West enlisted the help of Frank Domingo, a specialist in facial analysis for the New York City police. Using computer technology, Domingo compared the face of the Sphinx to a face on a statue of Khafre in a Cairo museum. The results strongly suggested that the face on the Sphinx was not Khafre's, and Domingo went on to comment that the facial features on the Sphinx are very consistent with those of the people of Africa. Interestingly enough, the Zulu tradition holds that their people once inhibited the Sahara "when it was green."

Far more damaging to the case for Khafre as the builder of the Sphinx is the Inventory Stela, found near the Great Pyramid in the nineteenth century. This stela describes repairs to the temple of Isis made by the pharaoh Khufu, who erected the Great Pyramid at Giza. Khufu predates Khafre, and the Inventory Stela states that he found the temple of Isis, "mistress of the pyramid, beside the house of the Sphinx." This seems to indicate the Great Sphinx was there before Khafre's time, assuming the stela does not refer to the house of another sphinx.

The hieroglyphics on the Inventory Stela are not from the time of Khufu, but date to around 1000 b.c. Egyptologists use this fact to dismiss the Inventory Stela as "fiction," even though old records were commonly copied at a later date. The authenticity of these copies is not usually challenged, except, of course, when they conflict with the conventional wisdom of Egyptology. There is no hard evidence that the Inventory Stela is inaccurate or fictional.

Robert Schoch notes that for centuries, starting in the period of the New Kingdom and throughout Roman times, the Great Sphinx of Giza was considered to have been built before the Pyramids. Oral traditions of villagers who live in the Giza area date the Sphinx to 5000 b.c., before Khafre's time. So much of our knowledge of the ancient world is based on oral traditions and ancient texts. When this evidence is supported by physical proof—such as the geological weathering pattern on the Sphinx—can we afford to ignore the facts simply because they contradict current beliefs? After all, Galileo was right, Earth does revolve around the Sun.

—ADIR. FERRARA

Viewpoint: No, the Great Sphinx was built about 4,500 years ago during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre, as has long been believed by most archaeologists and Egyptologists.

The Great Sphinx of Egypt is a monument consisting of a pharoah's head on the recumbent body of a lion. There were many other sphinxes, in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and elsewhere. The Great Sphinx, with its human head, is termed an androsphinx. Other types of sphinx include the crisosphinx, with a ram's head on the lion's body, and the hierocosphinx, with a hawk's head. The Great Sphinx, which was carved in soft limestone, is 240 ft (73 m) long. It shares the Giza necropolis site 6 mi (10 km) west of Cairo with the three Great Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. A number of smaller tombs, pyramids, and temples also remain at Giza.

Most archaeologists believe that the Sphinx was constructed at the behest of Khafre, a pharaoh of the Old Kingdom's Fourth Dynasty, who reigned from 2520 to 2494 b.c. However, in the early 1990s, the American geologist Robert Schoch, along with American writer and ancient Egypt enthusiast John Anthony West, claimed that the Sphinx was built at a time before the rise of Egyptian civilization, perhaps between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. Others hypothesize even earlier dates. These ideas are regarded with disbelief and derision by most mainstream scholars.

Links to Khafre

Several pieces of evidence support dating the Sphinx to Khafre's time. In front of the Sphinx there is a stela, or vertical stone slab, dating from the reign of New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmose IV (1425-1417 b.c.). The inscription was in the process of flaking off when it was recorded, but did include at least the first syllable of Khafre's name. A temple adjacent to the Sphinx, the Valley Temple, is associated with Khafre, and statues of the pharaoh were found there. In his time, two sphinxes 26 ft (8 m) long were constructed at each of the two entrances to the temple. In addition, Khafre's mortuary temple, which lies adjacent to his pyramid, includes a center court that is identical to the one in the Sphinx Temple.

A causeway runs between the Valley Temple and Khafre's pyramid. The drainage channel from this causeway empties into the enclosure where the Sphinx now stands. It is unlikely that the channel would have been thus positioned if the enclosure had already been excavated, since this would be regarded as a desecration, so the implication is that the Sphinx was built after the causeway.

Weathering Patterns

Much of Schoch's case for a prehistoric Sphinx is based on the quantity and patterns of erosion seen on the structure. The Sphinx was carved of soft limestone, a material vulnerable to water damage. Schoch contends that the amount of weathering on the surface of the Sphinx indicates that it withstood a prolonged period of moist, rainy weather; specifically, that which resulted from the glacial melts at the end of the last ice age. This transitional period lasted from about 10000 to 5000 b.c.

However, one need not go back to the last Ice Age to account for water damage at Giza. Several instances of violent rains and severe flooding have been recorded in the Nile region in historical times. Damage and erosion caused by these storms were described in 1925 by W. F. Hume, then director of the Geological Survey of Egypt, in his book Geology of Egypt. "It must not be forgotten that the rains in the desert produce … sheet floods," Hume wrote. "The vast amount of water falling cannot be dealt with in many cases by the channels already existing, and as a result it makes new passages for itself along lines of least resistance. The deep grooves are cut through the more friable strata…." In addition, Zahi Hawass, the director of antiquities at Giza, notes that the same erosion patterns cited by Schoch still continue on a daily basis. On some parts of the Sphinx's surface, large flakes are shed constantly, to the dismay of archaeologists and conservators who have yet to agree on the cause or the cure.

One thing they do agree on, however, is that the erosion is obviously not dependent on rain induced by the melting of ice age glaciers. Other than more recent rains, possible mechanisms include wind, weathering by water-saturated sand, and the crystallization of salts naturally present in the limestone after they are dissolved by morning dew.

Credibility Problems for Proponents of an Older Sphinx

The major problem with the hypothesis that the Sphinx was built during prehistoric times is the lack of a credible candidate for builder. Many advocates of the older-Sphinx hypothesis solve this problem in ways that immediately eliminate the possibility of their being taken seriously in the scientific world, speculating that the Sphinx was constructed by aliens from outer space, or by ancient giants from Arabia.

Scientists are also unmoved by the Sphinx-related prophesies of the self-proclaimed psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), which have influenced many Sphinx enthusiasts, including John Anthony West. Cayce claimed that he learned during a 1935 trance that people from the lost civilization of Atlantis were responsible for building the Sphinx. Furthermore, he said that the Atlanteans hid documents explaining the meaning of life in a chamber between the Sphinx's paws. Cayce prophesied that the documents would be discovered in 1998. When the chamber in which they were hidden was opened, he went on, it would trigger a geological catastrophe on a global scale. Fortunately this prediction failed to materialize.

The ancient and mysterious monuments at Giza, including the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, have always interested mystics and eccentrics, as well as scientists. Fed up with New Age tour groups trampling his site looking for secret chambers, and maverick theorists advancing wild claims that divert attention from scholarly research, Hawass has dismissed the prehistoric Sphinx advocates as "pyramidiots." American archaeologist Mark Lehner, who first came to Egypt at the behest of the Cayce organization, became convinced of the Fourth Dynasty provenance of the Sphinx during his work at the Giza complex, and now collaborates with Hawass on excavations in the Pyramids area.

However, not all advocates of an older-Sphinx hypothesis can be dismissed as believers in psychic prophesies and unsupportable theories. Geologist Schoch, despite defending the existence of mysterious lost civilizations in works such as his book Voices of the Rocks (1999), has argued that a prehistoric Sphinx could have been built by indigenous people. Schoch cites examples such as Jericho, which has a well-built stone tower and walls dating from around 8000 b.c., as demonstrating that Neolithic societies in the Near East were capable of significant construction projects. No archaeological evidence of such antiquity has been found in Giza, but scholars of the ancient world must often acknowledge that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Still, in this case, the newer date for the Sphinx is supported by the fact that while prehistoric context is missing from the site, Fourth Dynasty artifacts abound.

—CHERYL PELLERIN

Further Reading

Hawass, Zahi A. The Secrets of the Sphinx: Restoration Past and Present. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

Schoch, Robert M. "Redating the Great Sphinx of Giza." KMT 3, no. 2 (1992): 53-9, 66-70.

——. "A Modern Riddle of the Sphinx." Omni 14, no. 11 (1992): 46-8, 68-9.

——. Voices of the Rocks. New York: Harmony Books, 1999.

West, John A. The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Wilford, John N. "With Fresh Discoveries, Egyptology Flowers." New York Times (December 28, 1999).

Wilson, Colin. From Atlantis to the Sphinx. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1996.

KEY TERMS

OLD KINGDOM:

Period in Egypt's history from roughly2575 to 2130 b.c.

NEW KINGDOM:

Period in Egypt's history from roughly1550 to 1070 b.c.

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