Farouk El-Baz served as lead scientist
for remote sensing in 1975 for the NASA-Soyuz mission, a joint effort
between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Can he recall his emotion upon seeing those first
images of his native Egypt from space?
"Yes. Disgust! Because I didn't understand them,"
El-Baz, an AAPG member who received the Michel T.
Halbouty Award in 1996 for "outstanding application of geology to
the benefit of human needs," is director of Boston University's
Center for Remote Sensing. He holds degrees from Ain Shams University
in Egypt, the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy and the University
of Missouri. He has conducted research at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and has taught at the University of Heidelberg.
"I thought I'd rubbed shoulders with the best geologists
in the world, and was lucky to do so," he said. "Then I looked at
the ground in my own country and I didn't understand it."
He's not bragging when he mentions his global activities.
El-Baz' wide-ranging and far-flung experience includes studies of
the four corners of the Earth, and beyond.
From 1967-72, he took part in NASA's Apollo program,
serving as chairman of the Astronaut Training Group and secretary
of the Landing Site Selection Committee for the Apollo missions
to the moon.
He then joined the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C., where he established the National Air and Space Museum's Center
for Earth and Planetary Studies.
In 1979, El-Baz coordinated the first official visit
by American scientists to deserts in northwestern China. As science
advisor to the president of Egypt, he helped identify desert tracks
for development in support of the country's growing population --
without damage to the environment.
The past 25 years have given El-Baz time to develop
numerous theories about Egypt's mostly desert-covered expanse.
He outlined the most recent, and one of the most
intriguing, in a recent issue of Archaeology magazine.
In his article "Pyramids and Sphinx: Gifts of the
Desert," El-Baz identified the most likely models for those enduring
monuments created by the ancient Egyptians:
Natural geologic forms found in the desert itself.
His theory begins with an understanding of the climate
cycles alternating in Egypt since at least 500,000 years ago.
"It was really the alternation of wet and dry climates
that shaped the features on the surface of the land," El-Baz said.
"The last episode was very wet and ended 5,000 years ago."
More than shaping geology, the end of the favorable
wet period shaped the course of Egyptian civilization, El-Baz believes.
Desert nomads wandered east in search of water and swelled the population
along the Nile River.
"The social organization, division of labor and increased
land productivity to feed the whole lot would have resulted in a
fertile ground for the development of a complex society," he wrote.
Earlier, rulers of individual towns began to extend
their kingdoms, El-Baz said, and one king eventually united Upper
and Lower Egypt around 3100 BC.
He said the development and accomplishments of the
Egyptian Early Dynastic Period during the following 500 years has
"no parallel in history."
Egypt's first pyramidal structure at Sakkara was
built by Imhotep, architect of King Djoser, around 2780 BC, El-Baz
noted. The famous Pyramids of Giza were completed just 125 years
An entry in El-Baz's own notebooks from 1978 led
him to develop a theory about the pyramids' origins. In a brief
note, he wondered if the early Egyptians had been inspired by the
natural conical shapes of the desert.
Years of geological field trips to Egypt's Western
Desert convinced him that was exactly the case.
El-Baz described this desert region as windblown
terrain, 40 percent sand with fragments and pebbles on the surface.
Mostly crescent-shaped sand dunes dominate the landscape.
Of more interest to the petroleum industry, there
are hints of sedimentary basins from 1.5-4 kilometers deep, as well
as "a great deal of structural deformation, domes, arches, many
faults," he said.
"In this whole western desert, the features are only
sandstones and limestones," he said. "Once in a while you find a
pile of shales, soft shale that has been shaped by the wind and
Conical hills, many of them faceted, dot the deep
"These appear to have developed from flat-topped
or mesa-like elevations, which had separated from large escarpments
that bounded the many depressions," El-Baz explained.
Over time, water erosion began to reduce the hills
into pyramidal shapes. A conical or pyramidal form evades wind-erosion
destruction by leading the wind upslope to dissipate at its apex,
The desert people who emigrated to the settlements
along the Nile took their memory of the shape and durability of
those natural pyramids, according to El-Baz.
He compared Egypt's great pyramids to a public works
initiative under the U.S. Work Projects Administration in the 1930s.
"I think this was a kind of WPA project to unite the people of the
north and south (Nile area)," he said.
Some movies may depict the workers who built the
pyramids as slaves, whipped to exhaustion by cruel overlords, but
El-Baz said they were more likely proud craftsmen carving out a
"Everybody who worked on the pyramid had a measure
of beer and bread every day," he noted. "We know that because of
messages they left behind: 'Not a day without beer and bread.'"
Secret of the Sphinx
The Great Sphinx might also reflect a natural form
from the desert, El-Baz theorized.
Exploring the Taklimakan Desert in northwest China
in the 1890s, Swedish explorer Sven Hedin encountered a strange
landform of parallel ridges separated by gullies. His guides called
the ridges yardang, from the Turkish word for "steep bank."
Numerous yardang exist in the Western Desert of Egypt,
carved and shaped by the ever-blowing wind, El-Baz said. He described
them as resembling inverted boat hulls with prows pointing into
The Sphinx-shapers may have started with a limestone
yardang near the edge of the Giza plateau, El-Baz suggested.
They sculpted its upward protrusion into an image
of their king, in a royal headcloth, and gave it a lion-like body
conforming to the shape of the rock.
To complete the form, the ancient engineers had to
dig a moat around the sculpture, El-Baz said. They then completed
the lion with its characteristic, elongated legs.
To support his theory, El-Baz provided a photograph
of a yardang with a protruding mass -- looking amazingly like a
Ancient Egyptians had a deep understanding and knowledge
of desert geology, as evidenced by their mines, quarries and excavations,
he said. The oldest known map in the world is that of a gold mine
between the Nile and the Red Sea, according to El-Baz.
To further understanding of desert geology, the Geological
Society of America in 1999 created the Farouk El-Baz Desert Research
Desert covers two-thirds of Egypt's 387,000 square
miles, and he considers this an ideal area for study.
"It is a geological paradise because there is no
vegetation," he said. "The features and the faults and the joints
are clearly visible on the surface."
But the desert is not much studied, El-Baz observed,
and he gave three possible reasons for that lack of interest:
- Classical geology developed in Europe, where there are no deserts.
- Deserts present a hostile environment.
"Grad students like to study in cool areas," El Baz said, "in
places where they can go out at night and have a glass of beer."
- Geologists typically study rocks in situ.
"In the desert there are no rocks in situ. It's a
mixture of fragments, rocks and sand," El-Baz said. "So in the desert,
there's nothing for the classical geologist to do."
His own experience has convinced him that the desert
rewards careful study. It also happens to be a wonderful area for
remote sensing, with few clouds and no ground disturbance, he noted.
Even the great monuments of Egypt attest to what
can be learned from an observation of desert geology, El-Baz said.
As for his theory published in Archaeology, it took
more than 20 years from that fist note in his notebook until his
thoughts about the pyramid builders finally sank in.
"No one had a theory about why this civilization
developed when it did," he said. "When it sank in, I thought I'd
tell it to the archaeologists."