I recently met the famous Australian singer, Kylie Minogue, in front of the Sphinx at Giza. Yasmine Shihata, the editor of the international Arab magazine, Enigma, arranged the meeting. Yasmine was responsible for inviting Kylie to Egypt to perform at a charity show in front of the colossus to celebrate the magazine’s 10th anniversary. I talked to Kylie about my work and gave her my book on Tutankhamun, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. When I gave her a goodbye kiss, I told her that no one else will be able to sing in front of the Sphinx again.
I went to visit the Sphinx before I met the singer. I looked up at its enormous face and told it that I had known it personally since I came to be the First Inspector of Antiquities for the Giza Pyramids in 1974. The first thing that I did back then was to go to see it and introduce myself, and I have felt like a good, close friend of the Sphinx ever since. More importantly though, I share a secret with this enigmatic creature. I tell people that it is not simply a giant statue made of stone; it is a living stone and I can talk to it.
There have been two secret moments between me and the Sphinx. The first was in February 1988 when it lost part of its shoulder. I had left Egypt between 1980 and 1987 on a Fulbright Scholarship to complete my PhD in the United States. During that time, the Sphinx was poorly restored by people who removed some of its ancient blocks and used completely unsuitable cement, which stopped the stone from breathing. When a chunk from its shoulder fell off, I could not believe it! The whole world was shocked and it was as if the red flag had been raised to say to these restorers, “Stop restoring our monuments with cement!” There was then a big fight between Ahmed Khadry, who was the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization in 1982-1988 (the forerunner of the Supreme Council Antiquities), and Farouk Hosny, the Minister of Culture.
The Sphinx has always been embroiled in politics. Thutmose IV, who reigned during the New Kingdom in c.1479-1425 BC, left the Dream Stele between the Sphinx’s front paws. This carved stone slab tells the story of how he dreamed that the Sphinx spoke to him and promised that he would become king of Egypt if he dug it out of the sand that it was buried in at the time. This is likely a piece of propaganda disguising the real reason he became king, and some scholars have even suggested Thutmose killed his older brother in order to gain the throne.
When stones fell from the north side of the Sphinx a few years before, Kamal el-Mallakh, the great writer who discovered the 4th Dynasty boat of Khufu in 1954, united with Ahmed Khadry and caused the removal of Fouad el-Oraby (the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization in 1981) from his position. This set a precedent, so that when the stones of the Sphinx’s right shoulder fell off, Ahmed Khadry was also fired from his job. It is important to remember all of this, so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future; we must learn from our past.
When I went to see the damage to the Sphinx that day in February 1988 at 1:30 in the afternoon, I saw a huge stone lying to the south of it. I looked at its face and I saw that the Sphinx was crying. It was saying, “Look at me. They took my old stones out, put new stones in and put cement all over my body. They caused me to stop breathing. Thank you for coming back from the States to put a stop to this bad restoration!” We spent 10 years removing these unsuitable stones and taking out the cement, and carried out great work.
I went to see the Sphinx one day and saw that it was smiling again. It was happy that we had saved it, this great statue that has kept all of Egypt’s secrets for thousands of years. I will never forget the moment in 1998 when President Hosni Mubarak came to celebrate our successful restoration work. We arranged a great event in front of the Sphinx, within its sanctuary with an orchestral symphony, and the President honored us all with medals.
I thought that for my first contribution to Ahram online, there was no better subject to start with than one of my wonderful experiences with the Sphinx. Keep reading and, one day, I shall reveal more.