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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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The implication is that the Sphinx and the pyramids, epic feats of engineering and architecture, were built at the end of a special time of more dependable rainfall, when pharaohs could marshal labor forces on an epic scale. But then, over the centuries, the landscape dried out and harvests grew more precarious. The pharaoh’s central authority gradually weakened, allowing provincial officials to assert themselves—culminating in an era of civil war.

Today, the Sphinx is still eroding. Three years ago, Egyptian authorities learned that sewage dumped in a nearby canal was causing a rise in the local water table. Moisture was drawn up into the body of the Sphinx and large flakes of limestone were peeling off the statue.

Hawass arranged for workers to drill test holes in the bedrock around the Sphinx. They found the water table was only 15 feet beneath the statue. Pumps have been installed nearby to divert the groundwater. So far, so good. “Never say to anyone that we saved the Sphinx,” he says. “The Sphinx is the oldest patient in the world. All of us have to dedicate our lives to nursing the Sphinx all the time.”

Evan Hadingham is senior science editor of the PBS series “Nova.” Its “Riddles of the Sphinx” aired on January 19.

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