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The Sphinx and the Pyramids

12 February 2010

The Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article, Uncovering secrets of the Sphinx. It obviously will not satisfy more extreme revisions of history and is open to a good deal of criticism but here is how it goes. The Sphinx was created from a block of limestone after it’s surrounding stone had been quarried away to build i) the Sphinx temple, ii) the  Pyramid of Khufre, and iii) the Valley Temple. Almost certainly they were built as one single project with a common aim – the Sphinx being an integral part of the pyramid complex. This is the position of Zahi Hawass and of Mark Lehner. Together they have gone on to unearth the accommodation blocks of the pyramid workers and a large cemetary. Recent research therefore seems to undermine some of the pyramid theories developed a couple of decades ago in popular literature. On a NOVA TV show (transcripts available from the NOVA web site, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/archive/ ) a professor of sculpture at a college of art, in trying to reproduce a replica of the missing nose of the Sphinx, found that bronze chisels (used solely for the detail) became blunt very quickly. He lad to constantly resharpen them on a makeshift forge, assuming this was what the Egyptians had done. The main masonry on the Sphinx is thought to have been made with stone hammers and as limestone is soft, made from mud, coral and marine shells, this seems fairly reasonable. However, when carving granite there is a bigger problem as bronze chisels would have been quite hopeless. Some revisionists justify downdating the Pyramid Age on the basis it required iron chisels – but I’m not sure if even they explain the Egyptian ability to work with stone, including the creation of fairly fine detail. The axis of the complex is east to west, it is claimed, or from equinox to equinox (September to March). According to Lehner, if you stand in the eastern niche during the sunset at the equinoxes, the Sun appears to to sink into the shoulders of the Sphinx, and beyond that, into the south side of the pyramid of Khafre on the horizon. At that moment, he declares, the shadow of the Sphinx and the shadow of the Pyramid, symbols of a facet of pharaoh, become merged silhouettes. Hawass thinks the Sphinx represents Khufre as Horus who is giving offerings with his two paws to his father Khufu incarnated as the Sun god Ra, who rises and sets in the Temple. Obviously, one could reinterpret this if the pyramid represented the ‘zodiacal light’ on the path of the ecliptic.

Lehner goes further and sees the complex as a cosmic driver intended to harness the Sun and the gods in order to resurrect the soul of pharaoh, a transformation providing eternal life to the deceased ruler but more importantly, a device to sustain ‘natural order’. Firstly, this indicates natural order was perhaps more fragile than they, or we, might like to think, on the basis they were obsessive enough to create such a complicated network of buildings. Lehner and Hawass also think the Sphinx was unfinished – workers abandoned it before it was completed. Lehner also claims the elements eroded the surface of the Sphinx in the first few centuries after it was cut out of the limestone – namely the second half of the third millennium BC. Limstone is notoriously prone to erosion – witness any church made of limestone blocks in the last thousand years. They usually have stones that have been replaced – usually with a harder stone such as Portland. Therefore this poses something of a mystery – what caused so much rain to fall, and so persistently, in a region defined today as desert. The Sahara climate changed after 3200BC but did not neccessarily become virtually rain free – that might have occurred more gradually. Lehner thinks, Judith Bunbury of Cambridge University, who studied sedment samples from the Nile Valley and concluded climate change in the Giza region began in the early part of the Old Kingdom but desert sands were not a problem until nearly the end of the Old Kingdom. Lehner says the site eroded very quickly and dramatically – as this had also happened at the workers village. Some structures were reduced to ankle level over a period of three or four centuries – by heavy rain. Lehner claims that the Sphinx was subject to intermittent wet periods that dissolved salt deposits in the limestone which then recrystalised (in the dry periods) on the surface, causing softer parts of the stone to crumble when the wet weather returned. The flaky surface was then blown away by hot desert winds. Hence, he is talking about a recurrence of wet periods interspersed by dry periods of climate which in a catastrophic context, and taking note of low growth tree ring dates and the possibility of earthquakes, that might fit into the period 2300-2000BC (or roughly so). There is also the phase of history separating dynasty 4 from 5 that may have involved climatic change – assuming a low growth event also happened at this time. The First Intermediate Period, after dynasty 6 (which ended roughly contemporary with Akkad in Mesopotamia) was also a long period of upheaval including some notable famine events.

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