Sting and the Pyramids
Zahi Hawass

The Pyramids of Giza are sacred and divine.  This is a site that we visit to learn about history, about a great people and their achievements.  But when a concert is performed in front of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, I call this destruction and site pollution.   

A few years ago I said these exact words when an Egyptian living in New York wanted to bring famous singers to perform in front of the Sphinx.  At that time, many people agreed with me, but those who work in tourism argued that these famous singers would promote Egypt abroad and stimulate tourism as a result of the publicity they would generate. However, I believe that tourism is the greatest enemy to archaeology.  Mass tourism causes damage to ancient monuments, monuments that have weathered thousands of years only to witness their greatest decay this last century.

 UNESCO has organized many conferences in many countries to heighten awareness of what can happen in the future to archaeological sites as a result of mass tourism.  It has been stated that, unless there are drastic changes, we can expect that within 200 years, these sites will be irrevocably destroyed.   

I still remember in 1977 when I was a young archaeologist and I attended a Grateful Dead concert in front of the Sphinx.  There was a huge crowd of 10,000 young people standing, shouting, screaming, drinking beer, and I even saw some foreigners smoking.  The sound of their music was so loud that I could feel the stones of the pyramids trembling with the vibration, and the delicate rock of the Sphinx crumbling. 

I felt that day that the Sphinx was sad, and I imagined that he was appalled that his descendents would do such a thing.  He kept it inside and did not speak, but ten years later, a big chunk from his right shoulder fell off.  The world was shocked and media from all over the world descended upon Egypt to comment on it.  Many experts argued that it was the water table and the rain that caused this damage, but I was the only one who knew the truth: he could not stand what we have been doing to him. People built their houses only fifteen meters away from him; water and sewage runoff seeped into his body from below.  An Antiquities Director who is now retired gave permission to some amateurs from the streets of nowhere to knock on the Sphinx’s body, and the Grateful Dead gave a concert right at his feet. 

We never learn.  Two decades later, a letter came to my office asking for permission for Sting to sing in front of the Sphinx.  We sent a letter to Dr. Gaballa A. Gaballa, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and we said no, giving our reasons as mentioned above.  The man respected our opinion and also refused.

Since the organizer couldn’t get permission to do it on Antiquities land, he decided to hold the show in front of the Sound and Light Theater that belongs to the Sound and Light Company.  The organizer sold 15,000 tickets, and it was only then that security investigated and found that the theater, filled to capacity, holds only 3,000 people.  The overflow, decided the concert organizers, would have to be accommodated on Antiquities land located to the north of the Sound and Light building.

Negotiations took place for days and days.  The Egyptian Tourist Authority wanted the concert to happen, while the Egyptian Antiquities authorities continued to refuse.  A few hours before the time of the concert, Antiquities had to give permission. 

About fifteen thousand, most of the young people in their teens and twenties, packed the area.  Many of them could not even enter the plateau because it was so crowded, and there was no crowd control.  Sting started to sing, and the vibrations of the music coming from the gigantic speakers shook the ground.  The fifteen thousand spectators jumped around with the beat of the music; the sound from both sources shook every stone of the pyramids, not to mention the Sphinx.  At midnight, Marwa Naeem, one of my students called me and said, “Dr. Zahi, you taught us to preserve the monuments, and I cannot understand how you gave them permission to do this.”

I was glad to hear that the concert finished at midnight.  I did not attend.  I will never forget that first scene that, two decades ago, had transformed this magical and divine site into an anthropoid zoo.  I had no desire to repeat the experience.

 The next day, I went to the Sphinx and walked around the statue to see if anything had happened to him.  I searched his face for anger; I was afraid that what happened in 1988 could happen again, and another large section of the ancient monument could fall down.

I agree to Antiquities sites being used for cultural performances, such as Aida, that are in keeping with the dignity of this sacred site.  They are also much easier to manage than an overcrowded rock concert.  We have selected a site to the west of the pyramids for these kinds of performances.  What is done is done, but we should think carefully before something like this is allowed to happen again.  I am afraid that I will hear the Sphinx crying again, but I hope that this time he will forgive us.


BACK to The Plateau Homepage