CAIRO -- A week after a large chunk of limestone broke off the ancient Sphinx that adjoins the pyramids of Giza, Egypt's prime minister has removed the nation's antiquities chief, ending a political storm that has been raging since the accident became known.
The Feb. 7 incident, in which a 300-pound piece of the Sphinx's shoulder fell to the ground and broke in two, fueled the most bitter debate about Egyptian antiquities in years and called into question not only Egypt's restoration of the Sphinx but the extensive campaign by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization chairman, Ahmed Kadry, to restore not only Pharaonic relics but monuments of the Islamic period as well.
Kadry's departure settles a feud that began when Farouk Hosni, an artist and former cultural attache' in Paris, was appointed culture minister six months ago; the two men have been at loggerheads ever since. But controversy remains over the extent of the damage to the famous statue and who is responsible for it.
Officials in the Ministry of Culture allege that the damage to the 4,500-year-old Sphinx, which combines a human head with a lion's body, is serious, and they blame Kadry for not having taken action after a large crack appeared a few years ago.
Kadry, who holds a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Budapest and spent six years as the powerful guardian of Egypt's priceless heritage of temples and monuments, argues that the piece that was dislodged was superficial and that the Sphinx is not in danger. In an interview before his transfer from the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, Kadry called the ongoing restoration of the Sphinx the "greatest" ever and said it would be completed within a year.
His critics have called for an international team to examine the monument, which is a centerpiece for tourism here.
The Sphinx, a 70-foot likeness of the Pharaoh Chephren, was carved from a limestone outcropping at the eastern base of the Giza plateau overlooking Cairo. The fragility of the monument can be seen in the weather-beaten face and in the patchwork of restorations on the body that go back to Pharaonic times.
The piece that fell off was part of the right shoulder and is considered by some experts to be important in supporting the massive head. The damage was discovered when a guard at the site heard a thud.
"When Gamal Abdel Nasser lost the '67 war he resigned," said Mohammed Salmawy, undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Culture. "Kadry should have done the same. Egypt recovered Sinai after Nasser. But the Sphinx is unrecoverable."
"There's been no damage at all," said Kadry in the interview last week. "This was a superficial fissure and it should be restored." He said he and other antiquities officials knew the right shoulder was fragile, and it was on the list of items to be restored. But, he said, restorers concentrated first on the northern facade of the Sphinx, which was in even worse shape.
Despite Kadry's assurances, his critics allege that the fallen rock will be difficult to put back in place. They say that priority in restoration should have been given to supporting fragile areas near the head and injecting the chest with acrylics to lend further support. (A third possible support for the head, the Sphinx's beard, is in the British Museum; the British have so far refused to return it.)
"Anything that falls from the Sphinx has to be very dangerous," said Dr. Zahi Hawas, antiquities director of the Giza plateau, who holds a PhD in archeology from the University of Pennsylvania and is being mentioned as a possible successor to Kadry. Hawas said that injection of hardening agents should have been done earlier.
Egypt's restoration of the Sphinx, which began four years ago, represents the first time since the Pharaohs that the Egyptians have restored the monument by themselves. The antiquities team has virtually rebuilt the haunches and paws of the Sphinx, adding a 10-tiered row of large limestone slabs all around the base. "The restorations are based on studies by a hundred Egyptian scientists," Kadry said.
Some experts disagree with his methods. "I don't agree with changing the character of the Sphinx," said one prominent Egyptologist and Antiquities Organization employee who asked to remain anonymous. "The Sphinx restoration is really dismal," said an American expert. "It's reconstruction, not conservation, an obvious example of how things should not be done."
Kadry's critics also say that he changed the appearance of other monuments, particularly in Islamic Cairo, by replacing old doors with new ones and painting in a heavy-handed way.
But some American archeologists working in Egypt praise Kadry's work, which included an intensive campaign of conservation and restoration as well as exploration using sonar technology to look at ancient sites without disturbing them. This technology was used to examine hidden chambers inside the Great Pyramid. Last October, a team of American scientists financed by the National Geographic Society and commissioned by Kadry stuck a probe into a 4,000-year-old pit near the pyramids and confirmed that it contained a huge Pharaonic bark.
In Islamic Cairo, Kadry enlisted university volunteers to repair the 12th-century citadel of Saladin, a project he could not have afforded otherwise. After restoring two famous mosques, the antiquities head banned traffic in the smoke-filled street connecting them, turning it into Cairo's first pedestrian mall.
"Kadry has been active and rather bold in restoration and I'm not at all surprised that people have been attacking him," said Lanny Bell, head of Chicago House, a University of Chicago project intended to document ancient monuments in Luxor. "Before him, there was a string of directors not willing to make a move," Bell said last week. "He's done extremely well."
"You can't judge Kadry's career on the Sphinx," said Miguel Angel Corzo of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, which is working with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to restore the tomb of Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II, in Luxor. Corzo said that limestone consolidation is difficult and that every currently applied solution -- including acrylics -- is controversial.
Kadry had "the courage to make decisions," Corzo said. "The results are there. He was a hard worker, an honest man, deeply respectful of his country's traditions. He gave impetus to the Antiquities Organization and I'm sorry to see him go."