Jinx of the sphinx
Poised at the dawn of recorded history, the ancient Egyptians and their culture have fascinated mankind down through the ages. The Egyptians’ beliefs and gods, their arts and sciences, their massive building projects, their mummification of bodies in preparation for the afterlife—all these elements coalesce to make the ancient kingdom of the Nile a magnet for wonder
THE SPHINX: A mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a lion, the sphinx was a common icon in Egypt. The Great Sphinx of Giza, at right, is the most splendid and familiar of the breed. Facing east with a temple between its paws, it is some 26o ft. long and 65 ft. high. Its head is said to be modeled after that of the Pharaoh Khafra, who ruled from 2558 to 2532 B.C.; some scholars suspect it may be even older. The Greeks adopted the beast, making it a sign of ill omen. The Great Sphinx may well be jinxed, but the familiar story that Napoleon’s soldiers blew its nose off while firing cannons in target practice is not true. The structure may have been vandalized by Islamic fanatics in the 14th century. Some recent writers have speculated that the Sphinx is some 10,500 years old, and that it is oriented to the constellations; scientists are unconvinced.
AFTERLIFE JOURNEYS: Remote in time and alien in belief, Egypt’s culture has attracted speculation and pseudoscience for centuries. Like many of mankind’s earliest major structures, pyramids, tombs and the passageways within them are in some cases oriented to the positions of the stars or the movement of the sun. Above is a passageway in the funerary chamber of the Pharaoh Ramses VI, in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. The Egyptians believed in life after death, as seen in the detail from the Papyrus of Ani (circa 1240 B.C.), which shows the winged Ba, a soul or spirit through which the dead would someday join the afterlife, leaving Ani’s mummy.
TUT’S CURSE: Since British archaeologist Howard Carter first entered the vault where the sarcophagus of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, right, reposed in 1922, “King Tut” has fascinated the world. Above, a 2005 reconstruc-tion of Tut’s face is based on CT scans of his mummy. When the expedition’s sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, died shortly after the find, rumors arose of a supposed “curse of King Tut’s tomb.” But tales of legions ofcientists dying after being in the vault are pure fiction.
MUMMIES: Believing the spirit would rejoin the body in the afterlife, the Egyptians removed many of the body’s organs, then covered it with natron, a salt, to speed dehydration. The corpse was then shrouded in strips of linen. Animals were also mummified. Arab scholars were the first to believe that mummies possessed magical, medicinal powers. Curses were placed on the rich tombs of royal mummies in Egypt, to ward off grave robbing—a boon to Hollywood scriptwriters, if not a deterrent to crime. Above, a beaded faience covers the face of a mummy discovered in March 2005. The images below it are CT scans showing different views of the 2,000-year-old mummified body of a 4- to 6-year-old girl preserved in its linen wrappings.