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Crumbling Sphinx? Prediction Touches Off Storm in Egypt

May 21, 1996

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Pity the prophets of doom.

A Japanese scholar says the seemingly eternal Sphinx will crumble in just 200 years. More precisely, he predicts, its head will fall off.

The 4,600-year-old Sphinx? No more?

That’s blasphemy in Egypt, where antiquities are not only history, they’re big business, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue every year.

So, scholar Chikaosa Tanimoto has found himself in a bit of trouble. In the past few days, Egyptologists have accused the Kyoto University professor of everything from intellectual dishonesty to crass opportunism.

``These claims made by the Japanese are nonsense,″ said Zahi Hawas, Egypt’s chief antiquities inspector at the Giza plateau, site of the half-man, half-lion Sphinx and the Pyramids.

``Some experts seek fame and want to use the Sphinx to get it,″ he said. ``In my opinion, the Sphinx will live for eras.″

Tanimoto said he based his prediction on more than 40 visits by his research team to the Giza plateau since 1992.

``The Sphinx’s neck would fall in 200 years if present conditions continue,″ Tanimoto said.

Pollution and erosion are wearing off up to 0.2 inches of stone on the Sphinx’s chest every year, weakening the neck, he said. In 200 years, the head will fall.

Tanimoto is not the first to fear the antiquities may not be eternal.

Once surrounded only by desert, the monuments now sit at the edge of overcrowded Cairo, with roads, bazaars, apartment buildings and horse and camel stables at their doorstep.

Some of the colossal limestone blocks of the three pyramids _ Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus _ already are crumbling from erosion and the choking pollution from the city of 14 million people.

The Sphinx was built by Pharaoh Chephren, namesake of one of the pyramids. Various pharaohs restored the limestone statue in the succeeding millennia, one even painting it red.

But since 1926, when the sand that had buried the Sphinx for centuries was removed, wind and pollution have ravaged the statue.

In 1988, a chunk of its right shoulder toppled to the ground, costing the then-antiquities chief his job.

But Hawas and others say the statue is far from ruined, and restoration work has been underway for a decade.

Ali Hassan, who heads the Pharaonic department at the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, said the Japanese expedition spent only two seasons working at the Sphinx. And Reiner Stadelmann, director of the German Archeological Institute in Cairo, questioned the team’s expertise.

``I do not believe it and I do not trust that he is an expert,″ Stadelmann said. ``All the experts agree that something should be done, but not immediately.″

Hawas concedes that the Sphinx has a weak chest, but says restoration projects have drawn out harmful salts and stopped the flaking.

``The Sphinx is the oldest patient in the world and has needed treatment for ages,″ Hawas said. ``He needs a doctor with experience and we are giving him that.″

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