Keeping Up the Ruins

Restored Sphinx unveiled May 25. But elsewhere, ancient Egypt is still crumbling fast.

Egypt's enigmatic Sphinx may look formidable as it guards the pyramids at Giza, but restorers have been trying to save the man-lion from collapse for almost 3,400 years.

The latest work on the 4,500-year-old Sphinx was unveiled May 25.

After some monumental restoration mistakes in the 1980s caused a 300-pound chunk of the Sphinx's shoulder to fall off, the team that stepped in to correct the errors says its members did as little work as possible on the monument - only enough to preserve it.

"The Sphinx is a ruin and this creates the mystery and the magic of the Sphinx," says Zahi Hawass, the chief government archaeologist for the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids.

"If we add to the Sphinx, this will only damage the ruin and the magic of the Sphinx," says Mr. Hawass, who headed the restoration project.

So the head of the Sphinx remains without a beard and a nose, which fell off in the 14th century. During the laborious 10-year, $2.3 million restoration project, workers removed limestone blocks added in the 1980s that had made the Sphinx's northern flank look more like a wall than an animal. Scientists searched for limestone rock and mortar that would better suit the man-lion's fragile limestone body.

Referring to photographs of the Sphinx dating to 1841, and an intricate map showing each stone and curve of the animal's former shape, workers hand-cut limestone bricks in the exact size of the original ones and adhered them with a natural mortar of lime and sand.

But few of Egypt's other decaying monuments receive the loving care and lavish budget that were spent on the Sphinx, conservation experts say.

They charge that ancient temples are being rebuilt from ruins, irreplaceable materials and designs are discarded for new ones, and, more tragically, priceless testaments to the world's history are collapsing.

Egypt has perhaps a third of the world's ancient ruins, including innumerable Pharaonic treasures, some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture, and the oldest Coptic Christian buildings. Added to the natural process of erosion are Egypt's exploding population, noxious air pollution, and rising rivers of sewage. "Deterioration [of monuments] is not just getting worse," says Kent Weeks, a well-known American Egyptologist. "It's doubling, tripling, and quadrupling."

Conservation work is never easy. A relatively new field, conservation techniques are often experiments tested on the subject itself. Today, most experts believe the less interference, the better. But the rule often is not practiced by Egypt's restorers, who sometimes create irreversible damage, experts say. Government engineering firms often do the work that only skilled conservationists should attempt.

Blatantly ignoring the United Nations conservation charter that prohibits changing a monument's structure, workmanship, materials, or design, The Arab Contractors, a state company, is renovating the revered Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo's medieval neighborhood. Workers have ripped up the building's entire foundation to plunge cement-filled steel pipes 50 feet into the ground to make a concrete foundation that conservationists worry could cause the more fragile superstructure to crack and even collapse.

Workers have sand-blasted the exterior, removing a protective layer of patina and exposing the yellow and white limestone to pollution and grime, torn up the mosque's historic limestone floors to lay new marble, and replaced the old wood ceiling with brand new wood. "Everything is new. Everything is shiny," says one disgusted Egyptian conservationist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals. "And they think this is the proper way."

Hani Abdel Khalek, spokesman for the company, responds, "I'm quite sure our people can efficiently and sufficiently do this job in the best way. If people think they can do better, then let them come and show us how."

The restoration debate has intensified over Queen Hatshepsut's temple. The stately, many-columned structure stands on Luxor's West Bank, 400 miles south of Cairo, and was the site of last November's massacre of 58 tourists by Muslim militants. Experts claim that the Polish-led archaeological team working at the temple relied more on imagination than reality to restore it, thus destroying its original spirit.

"I go there and feel like I'm entering [the Egyptian department store] Omar Effendi," Mr. Hawass says. But Tomasz Herbich, secretary general of the Cairo-based Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, says the restoration team wanted to show visitors how the temple looked 3,500 years ago. The team had enough puzzle pieces scattered around the building to accurately reconstruct the temple, he says.

TOO much intervention, however, can cause catastrophes. When an Egyptian engineering company put a weighty layer of insulation on the roof of the Amr Ibn Al-As mosque to protect it from rain, a 23-square-foot chunk of the roof fell down in early 1996. In the 1980s, an engineer ordered the removal of a column in a chapel of Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church, causing the chapel to fall four hours later.

Efforts to guarantee better conservation for Egypt's monuments are small. As guests in Egypt, most foreign experts fear government reprisals should they speak out. A few national experts complain to the authorities, but often with meager results. The stakes are high, conservationists say. Failure to improve current policy, they say, means risking the loss of priceless, magnificent treasures - possibly forever.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Keeping Up the Ruins
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today