CAIRO — Each Sphinx, it seems, poses its own special riddle.
In Greek mythology, the Sphinx at Thebes destroyed itself after Oedipus solved its famous riddle. On a wind-swept plateau southwest of Cairo, an international team of scientists is trying to solve another Sphinxian conundrum--how to keep the Sphinx of Giza, Egypt's most famous statue, from being devoured by the winds, salts and airborne pollutants that are, almost literally, gnawing away at it.
Efforts to save the Sphinx may be nearly as old as the 4,600-year-old monument itself. There is evidence to suggest that stone props were needed to support the Sphinx soon after it was built about 2620 BC, during the reign of the 4th-Dynasty Pharaoh Chephren.
In the succeeding centuries, all sorts of restorations, ranging from the serious to the silly, have been attempted. The Sphinx has been injected with glue, covered with mud packs and, in one recent and rather disastrous renovation, partly refitted with new limestone blocks plastered together with cement.
None of this did much good, however, and so over the years the riddle of how to save the Sphinx remained unsolved. But last month, when a 500-pound block of stone fell off the Sphinx's right shoulder, the effort to find a solution was resumed in earnest.
Completion of a previous restoration project, begun in 1981, was suspended amid criticism by some foreign archeologists that the all-Egyptian effort had actually done more harm to the Sphinx than good.
"The new limestone blocks they were using," sniffed one angry archeologist, "were more suited to the facade of a bank than to the Sphinx."
A new committee, composed of both foreign and Egyptian experts, was assembled by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to diagnose the Sphinx's ailments and, it is hoped, come up with an effective cure.
The study is not yet completed, but several of the scientists participating in the project warn that much more is at stake than merely finding the best way to deal with the new chip on the Sphinx's shoulder.
'It Has Cancer'
For the Sphinx, says Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities for the Giza plateau and head of the new committee, "is very sick. It has cancer."
The form of limestone "cancer" afflicting the Sphinx consists of salt deposits in the rock itself. Mobilized by moisture, the salts dissolve and spread outward to the surface of the rock where, drying out again, they crystallize and crack the outer limestone layer, turning it to powder and making it fall off like peeling paint.
Authorities have been aware of the problem, known as efflorescence, for some time, because it plagues many of Egypt's ancient tombs and monuments. In the Sphinx's case, however, the source of the moisture catalyzing the salts is still being debated.
Most experts blame the water table beneath the plateau, but others cite atmospheric humidity from irrigation canals and occasional rainfall. Some experts cite different factors altogether: pollution, vibration from cars and tourist buses and the savage sandstorms that claw at the Sphinx's leonine body like a hand from the desert, eternally seeking to reclaim what the ancients took and fashioned from it more than 4 1/2 millennia ago.
Whatever the main reason for the Sphinx's deterioration, it is clear that this timeless symbol of ancient Egypt lives in a very unhealthy contemporary environment.
Besides the increasing pollution, the level of water beneath the plateau has been slowly rising, as it has elsewhere in Egypt, since the completion in 1970 of the Aswan High Dam. The problem is particularly acute in central Cairo, where higher levels of ground water have been blamed for hastening the collapse of a number of Islamic-era buildings, some hundreds of years old.
But in the case of the Giza plateau, the dam has created an additional problem. In the past, the Nile's annual floodwaters reached almost to the foot of the Sphinx and, acting like a purgative, washed away the salts as they receded. With the dam, however, the floods are no more.
The High Dam, more than any other man-made project, has been Egypt's salvation, sparing it, thus far, from the effects of the decade-long drought that has decimated the economies of many other African nations. But a price has been paid, for that which was built to guarantee Egypt's future is also destroying its past.
"Sometimes, when I look at the Sphinx, I have the feeling that he is alive and that he is crying," said Sanaa Hassan Mohammed, an inspector of antiquities at the Giza plateau. "He is unhappy because of the disease in his body."
Others take Mohammed's touching, if anthropomorphic, sentiment one step further. The progress of the "disease" afflicting the statue has been accelerated, they say, because the Sphinx was, in a sense, "born" with a congenital defect.