Cover: The Message of the Sphinx

Book Review:

The Message of the Sphinx

By Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval

Crown Publishers, 1996
ISBN 0-517-70503-6
Hardcover, 362 pp., $27.50

Reviewed by Jeff Duntemann

Iím a contrarian. When somebodyís up on stage roasting conventional wisdom, Iím right there in the front row with a big bag of popcorn. I donít necessarily accept every attack on What The Experts Say, but itís the sort of theater I prefer to all others. So when I spotted this latest book from Professor of Historical Weirdness Graham Hancock, I had to have it, hardcover or no hardcover.

Iíll cut to the fistfight here: The authors claim (and make a pretty good case) that the famous Sphinx of Giza is older than Egyptologists say. Not by a little, either, or by a lot, in fact, but by an almost inconceivable 7000 years. Are they nuts? They donít sound nuts to me. Theyíre not talking about space aliens or mysterious beings from Atlantis. They point out the studies of several accomplished geologists and climatologists who claim that the heavy weathering observable over the entire body of the Sphinx (except those parts restored in Classical times or recent years like the front paws) is of a type due to heavy rains experienced over a long period of time.

Heavy rains. Guys, there havenít been heavy rains in that part of Egypt since 7500 or 8000 BC. But we know from geological evidence that prior to 8000 BC, the climate in Giza was quite wet. To have been eroded that severely by water, the Sphinx had to have been around for some years prior to 8000 BC. Hancock and Bauval put forth the theory that the Sphinx was built in approximately 10,500 BC by persons unknown, or at least unacknowledged by conventional archeologists.

Why? To mark what the ancient Egyptians called Zep Tepi, the "First Time"--a historical moment when the rich mythology of ancient Egypt had its genesis. At Zep Tepi, the constellation of Orion--acknowledged as the most significant constellation to the ancient Egyptians, and associated with the god Osirus--was at its lowest position in the southern sky. From Zep Tepi onward, precession of the equinoxes has been gradually carrying Orion/Osirus higher and higher in the sky.

The Sphinx is positioned such that in 10,500 BC (give or take a few years; precession is a very slow process) a remarkable astronomical arrangement of the Sun, Orion, and the constellation of Leo occurs. The Sphinx has the body of a lion, after all--and some think that it originally had the head of a lion as well. The current head, carved to look like some pharaoh unknown, might have been a reworking of the original lionís head in ancient times. The authors show on diagrams that the current head of the Sphinx is far too small to be in proportion to the prone leonine body. Furthermore, the head shows little of the same sort of water erosion that the rest of the body does, which is all the more remarkable since the head is the only part of the Sphinx to have been above the sands since before the time of Christ.

The pyramids of Giza are involved here as well. The authors donít claim that the pyramids are as old as the Sphinx (we have better evidence of the dates of the pyramids) but suggest that the pyramids of Giza may have been planned back at Zep Tepi, as part of a mysterious master plan shepherded down through history by a secret priesthood of mystical adepts. The pyramids of Giza are definitely related to the Sphinx and its mystical astronomical alignments. In fact, they may have been a sort of "checksum" added to the Sphinx complex to remind Egyptians of the importance of the Sphinx by creating alignments with certain stars important to the Egyptian religion.

Nonsense? I donít know. The authors have certainly done their homework. Their explanations of the astronomy involved here is strictly orthodox, and they explain it well. (I have been an amateur astronomer for most of my life and I feel that I understand it completely.) They make the whole thing harder to figure by pointing up lots of embarrassing little enigmas about the Sphinx and the Giza complex. Some of the stones erected as part of the Sphinx Temple (a cyclopean edifice, now mostly in ruins, to the east of the Sphinx proper) are calculated to weigh about 200 tons. Wrestling with 200 tons of rock in one chunk is a good trick, especially for primitives with bad rope and no metal. No metal? Well, maybe...a piece of unusual iron was discovered in the wall of the Great Pyramid in the 1870ís.

That and a rich collection of Egyptian weirdnesses are described beautifully, with plenty of footnotes on sources to corroborate their theory. For example, in 1993 a young scientist sent a tiny computer-controlled crawler robot into a previously sealed and unknown shaft in one of the Giza pyramids, and the robot sent back a video of a metal hook and a wooden stick over a hundred feet up in the 8" X 8" shaft through solid rock. The seal on the shaft was broken open only in recent times, and if the stick could be recovered it could be easily carbon dated, to give us a reliable year for the construction of the pyramid. Yet, remarkably, the Egyptian government has forbidden the retrieval of the stick from the shaft. No explanation was given, but in reading between the lines one sees the authorities as irritated by intimations that the pyramids were not in fact constructed by the ancient Egyptians, but by mysterious outsiders from lost civilizations. That stick could prove conclusively that the pyramids are older than Egyptian civilization--so one could imagine the cultural nervousness of the authorities. The fact that Egyptian civilization itself might well be far older than conventional wisdom admits doesnít seem to occur to them, so trapped are they in the teachings of orthodox Egyptology.

The book is rich with that sort of lore, beautifully written, with a great deal of historic "sweep" and the tension of a good mystery. The skeptic (and I consider myself among them) might ask, Well, does any of it really matter except as a titanic historical curiosity? Perhaps not. But an intriguing part of the legend surrounding the Sphinx is that ancient wisdom concerning the origins and destiny of humanity has been gathered in an underground crypt beneath the Sphinx, and recent seismic probings of the rock foundation of the Sphinx suggests the presence of two such crypts. For now the Sphinx is off-limits to further excavation, but the legend suggests that the wisdom will be revealed when Orion/Osirus reaches the highest point of his precessional journey, begun at Zep Tepi in 10,500 BC--and gang, we are only a few years away.

Synchronicity? Pure silliness? No matter how you see it, itís terrific theater, and a great read.