Spruced-up Sphinx can help revitalise ailing industry

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 1998, 12:00am

For 4,500 years the formidable Great Sphinx of Giza, probably the world's best known relic, has guarded the ancient pyramids.

Now the mysterious man-lion monument faces a new challenge - coming to the rescue of Egypt's beleaguered tourist industry. Economists estimate earnings from the US$3.5 billion industry may halve this year as a result of a terrorist attack at Luxor eight months ago.

So completion of a 10-year restoration programme on the Sphinx could not be better timed. Authorities are banking on the spruced-up look of this enigmatic 'Great Wonder of the World' luring tourists back.

But admirers should not expect to see a facelift, or even a replacement for the nose that Napoleon's forces shot off with a cannon.

During the laborious US$2.5 million project workers removed limestone blocks added in the 1980s that had made the Sphinx's northern flank look more like a wall than a mythical creature.

Referring to photographs dating back to 1841 and an intricate map showing each stone and curve of the former shape, workers hand-carved a limestone replacement.

They also shored-up the statue's weakened paws, legs and stomach and replaced a chunk of the shoulder that fell off in a truly monumental restoration mistake in the 1980s.

But the head of the Sphinx remains without both the famous nose and a beard, which fell off in the 14th century.

Chief government archaeologist Zahi Hawass said: 'The Sphinx is a ruin. This creates the mystery and the magic. Adding to the Sphinx would only damage the ruin and the magic.' A major overhaul of numerous other ancient sites is now underway in Egypt's campaign to kick-start tourism. Ten Pharaonic tombs, first discovered in 1924, have opened to the public for the first time. So have three smaller pyramids.

Newly re-opened after extensive repairs is the pyramid of King Menkaure, the smallest of the three great pyramids at Giza. Burial chambers have also been restored in the largest of the pyramids, built by the Pharaoh Cheops.

'It's a complete clean-up,' Gaballah Ali Gaballah, head of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, said.

In Cairo's medieval neighbourhood, contractors are renovating the revered Al-Azhar mosque while restoration is underway on Queen Hatshepsut's stately temple at Luxor.

Archaeologists are also making exciting finds a few hundred metres off the coast of Alexandria, the ancient stage for Cleopatra's ill-fated love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, the port was once the centre of the Hellenistic Empire spanning Europe and Asia, ranking second in importance only to Imperial Rome. But seven centuries of Greek and Roman occupation was buried forever in the 19th century by the Ottoman Turks.

Current underwater excavations are, however, recovering long-lost relics, the most spectacular of which is a 23-tonne statue, more than seven metres high, of the pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a Greek coloniser who ruled Egypt from 285 to 246 BC.