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The Message of the Sphinx: What a Bummer


Chris Loethen

The Message of the Sphinx by Hancock and Bauval

In The Message of the Sphinx Robert Bauval, veteran of The Orion Mystery, joins forces with Graham Handcock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods, to settle once and for all the riddle of the Sphinx. Though the title of the work is alluring and the opening pages offer the promise of "hidden libraries" and lost, pre-dynastic, Egyptian civilizations, the remainder of the book is as dull and uninteresting as a Henry James novel, often oscillating between the extremes of a travel narrative and techno-babble. It makes claims that it never even attempts to substantiate--often referring the reader to copies of their previous works in the hopes of boosting their own royalty checks--and leaves the reader with not so much as even the stuff of one fantasy.

Part I, entitled "Enigmas," is meant to lay the groundwork for Bauval and Handcock’s theory of the Sphinx as a time marker, supposedly built some 12,500 years ago. It’s principle points, aside from the usual mumbo-jumbo about the unparalleled precision of Egyptian monuments being proof of some ancient, esoteric knowledge, revolve around the geological findings of Robert Schoch, the construction method of the Sphinx, and its strangely disproportionate head.

The idea that the Sphinx is much older than previously imagined underlies all of Bauval and Handcock’s theory. To substantiate this claim they make use of the research of Boston University’s Robert Schoch, a professor of geology, who was first recruited to the mystery of the Sphinx by John Anthony West. After studying the erosional patterns of the Sphinx, Schoch concluded that the heavy degree of weathering was caused by rainfall and could not have occurred if the Sphinx, like the Great Pyramids, was only 4,500 years old.

Bauval and Gilbert use Schoch’s data to "prove" that the Sphinx is really much older than previously imagined and set the date for its construction at 10,500 bc. However, when their own geologist states that it is more likely that the stone had been weathered since only 5,000 to 7,000 BC. Bauval and Hancock mention it only casually and are quick to attribute the discrepancy to Schoch’s, and for that matter any scientist’s, overly cautious nature rather than to the inadequacies of their own theory.

One of the strangest facets of Bauval and Handcock’s theory is their purported construction method of the Sphinx--a huge object some 66 feet high and 240 feet long. They claim that "the Sphinx itself was made by hewing a deep, horseshoe shaped trench

out of the bedrock of the Giza plateau, leaving a central core which was then carved into shape...." (31) This method of construction is essential to their theory because it allows them to set the erosion pattern of the stone at zero--a stone beneath ground cannot erode--and thus eliminate the hypothesis that the Sphinx was carved out of a large, natural outcropping of rock which had already experienced substantial erosion.

Bauval and Hancock downplay the difficulties involved in digging such a trench, but it is something that must be scrutinized. To dig a trench that was wide enough to hold the Sphinx some seventy feet deep into the earth and extend it for almost 250 feet would take monstrous degrees of effort. Not to mention that the trench itself would have to be much larger than this as the Sphinx was carved from a central core that by necessity would have had to have been larger than the Sphinx itself. Additionally, from the pictures provided the walls that surround the Sphinx complex are nowhere near 70 feet tall. In fact they are much closer to ten.

Because of Bauval and Hancock’s need to "zero" the erosional patterns, they are also forced to come up with bizarre theories concerning the disproportionate shape of the Sphinx’s head in relation to the rest of its body. Though they claim that the Sphinx was a monument highly revered by the ancient Egyptians, they propose that successive pharaohs literally whittled away the head in an effort to bring the original face of the Sphinx closer to a representation of their own face. This constant re-working of the Sphinx’s facial features is what accounts for the its head being only 50-65% of what it was originally: "[T]he head was once much was reduced in size by recarving" (9).

Again, the more logical explanation would be that the Egyptians found an already heavily weathered natural rock foundation and used it to suit their needs. Since the formation’s natural features would largely constrain efforts to modify it, this would eliminate the need to explain the head size and the need for the builders to have dug so deep into the bedrock and make for a much more parsimonious explanation.

In Part II, "The Seekers," Hancock and Bauval devote some 43 pages (pp. 85-128) of their book to the elucidation of a conspiracy involving Zahi Hawass the Director-General of the Giza pyramids, the esteemed American archaeologist Mark Lehner, the head of the German Archaeological Institute Rainer Stadelmann, and the Freemasons. Throughout this section, they go out of their way to demonize and ridicule the members of this vague conspiracy. They focus particularly on Hawass, using close-up photographs and quotes most likely taken out of context to make him seem more like the Ayatollah than an archaeologist.

Bauval and Handcock’s conspiracy theory is a whirlwind ride that begins in the early 1970s with then undergraduate student Mark Lehner receiving a grant from the Edgar Cayce Foundation. Apparently the ECF wanted to pay an American student to go to Egypt and study at the American University in Cairo. In return the student would worm his way into the Egyptian Antiquities political scene and use his influence to garner permits for the ECF to excavate in the Valley of the Kings. Well, Mark Lehner went to Egypt, earned his degree, and then failed to use his position to help the ECF conduct its "research" at the pyramids.

Bauval and Hancock claim that the only logical explanation for Lehner’s abandonment of the ECF is Zahi Hawass’s own scheme to keep the ECF from gathering the proof it needs to establish the veracity of all of Cayce’s prophesies, especially those pertaining to the "Hall of Records" that is supposedly buried under the paws of the Sphinx. Bauval and Hancock even mention that some prominent early Egyptologists had ties to Freemasonry, and that perhaps the Freemasons have some secret, vested interest in keeping the "Hall of Records" buried in the sand. Though conspiracy theories are fun and intriguing, it seems much more reasonable that an archaeology student saw a chance to get his education for next to nothing, accepted the ECF’s money, and then refused to discredit himself in the intellectual community by further associating himself with the ECF’s exploratory investigations.

After "The Seekers," Bauval and Handcock move onto ideas involving duality in Egyptian theology. This section and the following section on the astronomical alignments on which part of their theory is predicated seem purposefully confusing. Their are many technical references to precession and alignments of stars. While some of this is necessary information in order to properly explain their theory, a good deal of it seems overly technical with many references to the author’s "earlier works"--in fact I counted at least seven such references. It left me wondering if Bauval and Handcock purposefully inundated their readers with technical jargon to both bolster their theory by the illusion of irrefutable numerical data and also to boost paperback sales of their previous books.

A key aspect to this section is the idea that the monuments at Giza are an attempt to map the "Duat" or heavens onto the Giza plateau and that the Sphinx was purposefully positioned in such a way as to be a time marker so that later generations would always know the date of "Zep Tepi" or the "First Time." Bauval and Hancock place Zep Tepi at approximately 10,500 BC when, due to a phenomenon known as precession--the slow, cyclical wobble of the earth that causes sun to rise in different constellations at the vernal equinox--the sun rose in Leo. Bauval and Hancock allege that it is because of Leo’s association with the first time that the Sphinx is leonine in form.

That being said, the question that comes to mind is, "Did the Egyptians ascribe leonine qualities to the constellation that we know as Leo, or to them was it some other creature--a hippo perhaps?" Virginia Trimble, whose credits Bauval and Handcock go out of their way to enumerate--Vice-president of the American Astronomical Society, senior professor of astronomy at UCLA and the University of Maryland, "an acute and formidable thinker" who was "undaunted" by the Egyptological establishment--casts a large shadow of doubt upon this issue. While quoting her on the astrological significance of the shafts in the Great Pyramid, they actually undermine their argument: "Which constellations the Egyptians saw in the sky is still something of a mystery" (244). I looked at several sites on the internet, among them a site constructed by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, but I could find nothing that stated our zodiac, which is based on the Greek zodiac, is also a replica or even derivative of an earlier Egyptian zodiac. Like most of the rest of the book, Bauval and Handcock never provide any supplemental information in regards to this question.

After concluding that the Sphinx was meant to mark Zep Tepi and was positioned in such a manner as to gaze at Leo during the vernal equinox of 10,500 bc, Bauval and Handcock delve into the complicated precessional calculations the form the crux of their argument. These calculations are complicated, and diagrams are inserted to supposedly clarify their points. However, the majority of the diagrams are unlabeled, leaving the reader to figure out exactly what the authors are describing. Consequently, with only a vague caption as a guide, the diagrams serve more to obfuscate the reader than anything else.

This is how the book ends. This is how the book ends. This is how the book ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. After some 270 pages, most of which is overly technical jargon, Bauval and Gilbert return to the possibilities of undiscovered cultures lurking in the sands of the past. They make vague references to hidden libraries and fabulous dates. But these passages seem merely obligatory, as if the authors’ felt compelled to mention such things even though they had dealt with them in only the most superficial of manners. What disappointed me most about this book, was not that they failed to prove their hypothesis, but that they failed to entertain me in the process. I don’t read books like The Message of the Sphinx to be ensconced in star charts, precession, and angles of ascent. I read them in the hopes that the author can strike some mystical chord that makes my pillow seem softer at bed-time.

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