After 4,600 years of mystery, the chief riddle about the Sphinx is what went wrong with it. Crumbling, in some places collapsing, sand-swept and shrouded in scaffolding, the majestic half-man, half-lion that crouches inscrutably at the entrance to the historic Pyramids plateau is dying, and no one has quite been able to say why.
Some blame ground vibrations or exhaust fumes from the tour buses that lumber past it each day. Others say it is the general gray-brown stench that passes for air over all of Cairo. Rising ground water, sewage from a nearby village, wind and sand erosion, baked-in salts, all have been fingered as culprits over the years.
In an attempt to settle once and for all the years of lucrative scientific inquiry and enthusiastic free-lance speculation, the Marina del Rey-based Getty Institute launched a major research project Tuesday aimed at collecting and analyzing detailed scientific data about what the Sphinx's neighborhood is doing to it, and perhaps later, how it can survive.
Scientists this week installed a 6.5-foot-tall, solar-powered assemblage of wires, antennae, wind vanes and monitoring devices that will provide, for the first time in four millenniums, a detailed, scientific look at the environmental forces at work on the ancient monument.
Looking like a spindly robot implanted on the limestone beast's flank, the high-tech meteorological station will collect data about wind speed and direction, solar radiation, temperature, humidity and rainfall, and transmit it all to a computer bank nearby, where it can be stored, sorted and analyzed.
Subsequent monitors will look at the effects of air pollution and traffic vibration, and a Los Angeles-based architectural firm has been hired to compile a record of photographs taken of the Sphinx since 1850.
The monitoring project, officially sponsored by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization with the Getty Institute's support, is designed to run one to two years before a final decision can be made about how to proceed with conserving and restoring the Sphinx.
"The urgency of the situation is demonstrated by the fact that the Sphinx has deteriorated more in the last 50 years than in all the previous centuries of its existence combined," said EAO chairman Sayed Tawfik.
As a stop-gap measure, the Getty has proposed installing a huge, moveable, climate-controlled bubble over the structure that can protect it by night from chill desert winds and condensation, then be removed by day to allow regular viewing. But the shelter so far is still in the talking stages, Frank Preusser, acting co-director of the Getty Institute, said in an interview.
Even at the end, he said, after any conservation work is complete, it cannot be helped that the Sphinx, like the Pyramids and the vast desert behind it, will continue to grow old.
"Even after everything, we cannot stop the deterioration," he said. "We can only slow it down."