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Carved in place from limestone, the Sphinx is among the world's largest statues. (Sandro Vannini / Corbis)

Uncovering Secrets of the Sphinx

After decades of research, American archaeologist Mark Lehner has some answers about the mysteries of the Egyptian colossus

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When Mark Lehner was a teenager in the late 1960s, his parents introduced him to the writings of the famed clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. During one of his trances, Cayce, who died in 1945, saw that refugees from the lost city of Atlantis buried their secrets in a hall of records under the Sphinx and that the hall would be discovered before the end of the 20th century.

In 1971, Lehner, a bored sophomore at the University of North Dakota, wasn’t planning to search for lost civilizations, but he was “looking for something, a meaningful involvement.” He dropped out of school, began hitchhiking and ended up in Virginia Beach, where he sought out Cayce’s son, Hugh Lynn, the head of a holistic medicine and paranormal research foundation his father had started. When the foundation sponsored a group tour of the Giza plateau—the site of the Sphinx and the pyramids on the western outskirts of Cairo—Lehner tagged along. “It was hot and dusty and not very majestic,” he remembers.

Still, he returned, finishing his undergraduate education at the American University of Cairo with support from Cayce’s foundation. Even as he grew skeptical about a lost hall of records, the site’s strange history exerted its pull. “There were thousands of tombs of real people, statues of real people with real names, and none of them figured in the Cayce stories,” he says.

Lehner married an Egyptian woman and spent the ensuing years plying his drafting skills to win work mapping archaeological sites all over Egypt. In 1977, he joined Stanford Research Institute scientists using state-of-the-art remote-sensing equipment to analyze the bedrock under the Sphinx. They found only the cracks and fissures expected of ordinary limestone formations. Working closely with a young Egyptian archaeologist named Zahi Hawass, Lehner also explored and mapped a passage in the Sphinx’s rump, concluding that treasure hunters likely had dug it after the statue was built.

No human endeavor has been more associated with mystery than the huge, ancient lion that has a human head and is seemingly resting on the rocky plateau a stroll from the great pyramids. Fortunately for Lehner, it wasn’t just a metaphor that the Sphinx is a riddle. Little was known for certain about who erected it or when, what it represented and precisely how it related to the pharaonic monuments nearby. So Lehner settled in, working for five years out of a makeshift office between the Sphinx’s colossal paws, subsisting on Nescafé and cheese sandwiches while he examined every square inch of the structure. He remembers “climbing all over the Sphinx like the Lilliputians on Gulliver, and mapping it stone by stone.” The result was a uniquely detailed picture of the statue’s worn, patched surface, which had been subjected to at least five major restoration efforts since 1,400 B.C. The research earned him a doctorate in Egyptology at Yale.

Recognized today as one of the world’s leading Egyptologists and Sphinx authorities, Lehner has conducted field research at Giza during most of the 37 years since his first visit. (Hawass, his friend and frequent collaborator, is the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and controls access to the Sphinx, the pyramids and other government-owned sites and artifacts.) Applying his archaeological sleuthing to the surrounding two-square-mile Giza plateau with its pyramids, temples, quarries and thousands of tombs, Lehner helped confirm what others had speculated—that some parts of the Giza complex, the Sphinx included, make up a vast sacred machine designed to harness the power of the sun to sustain the earthly and divine order. And while he long ago gave up on the fabled library of Atlantis, it’s curious, in light of his early wanderings, that he finally did discover a Lost City.

The Sphinx was not assembled piece by piece but was carved from a single mass of limestone exposed when workers dug a horseshoe-shaped quarry in the Giza plateau. Approximately 66 feet tall and 240 feet long, it is one of the largest and oldest monolithic statues in the world. None of the photos or sketches I’d seen prepared me for the scale. It was a humbling sensation to stand between the creature’s paws, each twice my height and longer than a city bus. I gained sudden empathy for what a mouse must feel like when cornered by a cat.

Nobody knows its original name. Sphinx is the human-headed lion in ancient Greek mythology; the term likely came into use some 2,000 years after the statue was built. There are hundreds of tombs at Giza with hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back some 4,500 years, but not one mentions the statue. “The Egyptians didn’t write history,” says James Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University, “so we have no solid evidence for what its builders thought the Sphinx was....Certainly something divine, presumably the image of a king, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.” Likewise, the statue’s symbolism is unclear, though inscriptions from the era refer to Ruti, a double lion god that sat at the entrance to the underworld and guarded the horizon where the sun rose and set.

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