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Desert gives up avenue of lost sphinxes

From The Sunday Times

March 14, 2010

A HIDDEN wonder of the ancient world is to be unveiled in Egypt after excavation of the first stretch of a two-mile avenue lined with hundreds of carved sphinxes.

Built more than 3,000 years ago, the so-called Avenue of Sphinxes linked two giant temples and was used once a year for a religious procession. It was gradually buried by silt and built over after falling out of use in the 5th century AD.

Now it is being uncovered and the first part is expected to open within weeks. Visitors will have the chance to stroll under the imperious gaze of the sphinxes — mythological creatures with the body of a lion and head of a human or ram.

The remainder of the buried avenue, 75 yards wide and flanked originally by an estimated 1,350 sphinxes, will be opened in the next few years.

“It is the longest processional avenue in the world,” said Jihane Zaki, a government Egyptologist. Its restoration, he said, would return “dignity and glory” to Luxor, in what was once the ancient city of Thebes.

Controversy has surrounded the project, not least because of the speed of the excavation in which bulldozers have cut a 100-yard trench through some of the densely populated districts of Luxor.

Foreign archeologists say historical buildings have been demolished to make way for a lucrative new attraction.

“The whole thing is a disgrace,” said an American archeologist, who declined to be named because of fears of reprisals from Egyptian officials. “The work is being done in a big rush to get the place ready for tourism. Several very special buildings have been destroyed on purpose. They’re murdering the soul of the place.”

The dispute has drawn in Unesco, which has responsibility for world heritage sites such as the Luxor and Karnak temples at each end of the avenue. It accused Egypt of bulldozing potentially significant ruins in a rush to get the job done. “It is inconceivable that such an enormous expanse of the avenue was thoroughly excavated and recorded in such a short period of time,” Unesco has complained. “Heavy machinery was obviously used, as betrayed by the levelling of the soil and the marks on some of the stone blocks.”

Controversy has also flared over a rehousing programme for local people whose homes were in the path of the bulldozers. About 800 families have been forcibly relocated since the renovation of the avenue began three years ago.

Others have defied the eviction orders, complaining of low levels of compensation. They say the government is trying to pressure them out of their homes by cutting off electricity and water.

Egyptian officials say half the overall cost of the project, about £3.75m, has been earmarked to pay those who do not wish to be relocated to new homes outside the city.

They deny demolishing any important historical remains. Several ancient buildings, including chapels and a Roman wine factory, have been saved. Archeologists also discovered a cartouche, or tablet inscribed with hieroglyphics, bearing the name of Cleopatra, suggesting that the fabled Ptolemaic queen had once visited the avenue.

Restoration of the avenue and its sphinxes will pay rich dividends to the city on the Nile that already draws crowds. The work is part of an ambitious reorganisation of Luxor that involves turning it, in the words of Samir Farag, the governor, into a “living museum” with “tourist villages”.

There has even been talk of a tourist monorail in place by 2030 and critics have attacked what they refer to as a “pharaonic park” that could ruin the atmosphere at the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

After the pyramids at Giza, the temples, noted for their stone columns with painted hieroglyphs, are among the top attractions in Egypt and have featured in films such as Death on the Nile. Amenhotep III, who ruled about 3,400 years ago, built the avenue to connect the temples. Sphinxes were carved on either side of the road next to chapels stocked with offerings for the gods. Workers have so far found 650 of the sphinxes.

•A 3,000-year-old wooden sarcophagus stolen from Egypt 125 years ago has been returned from the US. It was confiscated at Miami airport in a shipment from Spain in 2008.

A HIDDEN wonder of the ancient world is to be unveiled in Egypt after excavation of the first stretch of a two-mile avenue lined with hundreds of carved sphinxes.

Built more than 3,000 years ago, the so-called Avenue of Sphinxes linked two giant temples and was used once a year for a religious procession. It was gradually buried by silt and built over after falling out of use in the 5th century AD.

Now it is being uncovered and the first part is expected to open within weeks. Visitors will have the chance to stroll under the imperious gaze of the sphinxes — mythological creatures with the body of a lion and head of a human or ram.

The remainder of the buried avenue, 75 yards wide and flanked originally by an estimated 1,350 sphinxes, will be opened in the next few years.

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“It is the longest processional avenue in the world,” said Jihane Zaki, a government Egyptologist. Its restoration, he said, would return “dignity and glory” to Luxor, in what was once the ancient city of Thebes.

Controversy has surrounded the project, not least because of the speed of the excavation in which bulldozers have cut a 100-yard trench through some of the densely populated districts of Luxor.

Foreign archeologists say historical buildings have been demolished to make way for a lucrative new attraction.

“The whole thing is a disgrace,” said an American archeologist, who declined to be named because of fears of reprisals from Egyptian officials. “The work is being done in a big rush to get the place ready for tourism. Several very special buildings have been destroyed on purpose. They’re murdering the soul of the place.”

The dispute has drawn in Unesco, which has responsibility for world heritage sites such as the Luxor and Karnak temples at each end of the avenue. It accused Egypt of bulldozing potentially significant ruins in a rush to get the job done. “It is inconceivable that such an enormous expanse of the avenue was thoroughly excavated and recorded in such a short period of time,” Unesco has complained. “Heavy machinery was obviously used, as betrayed by the levelling of the soil and the marks on some of the stone blocks.”

Controversy has also flared over a rehousing programme for local people whose homes were in the path of the bulldozers. About 800 families have been forcibly relocated since the renovation of the avenue began three years ago.

Others have defied the eviction orders, complaining of low levels of compensation. They say the government is trying to pressure them out of their homes by cutting off electricity and water.

Egyptian officials say half the overall cost of the project, about £3.75m, has been earmarked to pay those who do not wish to be relocated to new homes outside the city.

They deny demolishing any important historical remains. Several ancient buildings, including chapels and a Roman wine factory, have been saved. Archeologists also discovered a cartouche, or tablet inscribed with hieroglyphics, bearing the name of Cleopatra, suggesting that the fabled Ptolemaic queen had once visited the avenue.

Restoration of the avenue and its sphinxes will pay rich dividends to the city on the Nile that already draws crowds. The work is part of an ambitious reorganisation of Luxor that involves turning it, in the words of Samir Farag, the governor, into a “living museum” with “tourist villages”.

There has even been talk of a tourist monorail in place by 2030 and critics have attacked what they refer to as a “pharaonic park” that could ruin the atmosphere at the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

After the pyramids at Giza, the temples, noted for their stone columns with painted hieroglyphs, are among the top attractions in Egypt and have featured in films such as Death on the Nile. Amenhotep III, who ruled about 3,400 years ago, built the avenue to connect the temples. Sphinxes were carved on either side of the road next to chapels stocked with offerings for the gods. Workers have so far found 650 of the sphinxes.

•A 3,000-year-old wooden sarcophagus stolen from Egypt 125 years ago has been returned from the US. It was confiscated at Miami airport in a shipment from Spain in 2008.