Step by Step: “Eventful Visit to the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza just after Dawn—late 1798”

By Michael Berger

Following the French invasion of Egypt under General Napoleon Bonaparte in July, 1798, the center of the new French administration was Cairo. Just across the river in Giza were the fabled sphinx and pyramids, a tourist destination for millennia. Even though Giza was visible from Cairo and close to French military headquarters, a trip by curious soldiers and scholars could be a dangerous adventure. In mid-September, Vivant Denon, one of the principle French artists who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt, tells us in his Voyage dans la basse et la haute d’Égypte:

“On reaching the residence of the commander-in-chief (i.e., Bonaparte), M. Denon learned that a detachment of two hundred men had just marched from Kaira, to protect a party of curious persons, who had not yet seen the pyramids. ... After dinner, however, the commander-in-chief observed, that it was impossible to go to the pyramids in safety without an escort; and that the attendance of a detachment of two hundred men was an advantage that could not be frequently expected (vol. 1, p. 92).”

Of course, Denon decided to take advantage of the military escort, and set off immediately to join the party already on its way to the pyramids. Later, we learn that the entire company, escort and visitors, numbered three hundred (p. 94).

For my first major modeling project I decided to build a complicated boxed diorama depicting a similar visit by French soldiers and savants to the Sphinx. But I made a huge mistake: the scene is set outside, during daylight hours, with a panoramic view, to boot! Actually, my use of the word “decided” is a bit misleading, since the scene seemed to grow, by itself, insidiously, from a single object (the Great Sphinx at Giza) to a multi-figure display. Everything you read about box dioramas warns about the difficulties of creating a successful scene set outdoors, and the warnings are right [see Sheperd Paine, How to Build Dioramas, 1980, p. 86]! Despite reading and hearing about the difficulty of making a convincing outdoor scene, this is exactly what I foolishly attempted.

But once I decided that the Sphinx would form the centerpiece of the scene I forged ahead, by starting to look at old prints for inspiration. I chose a famous engraving of a visit to the Sphinx recorded in the Déscription de l’Égypte, (the publication resulting from the work of about 160 savants who accompanied the French expedition to Egypt from 1798-1801).

The Sphinx being examined, Déscription de l’Égypte, A. Vol.V, Pl. 11

Starting from this I planned the diorama, and the following images and descriptions will describe the process.

But first back to the sphinx itself: the real Sphinx was sculpted during the reign of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558 -2532 BCE) from stone remaining after quarrying the Giza plateau for material used to construct the Great Pyramids. For my Sphinx, I started with a cardboard puzzle of a bust of King Tutankhamun, and after cutting away all the detail I used the remainder as the armature for the Sphinx.

I built up the face in layers of acrylic modeling paste, cardboard, Styrofoam,  and plastic.

I painted it using American Painter paints that I purchased at Michael’s Craft Store (not wanting to use my better paints on such a large object). I was lucky that the puzzle was about the scale of one of the common figure sizes, 28mm—in fact, I am glad that it was not larger, even 54mm, because it would have required a lot more work, measuring almost two feet high at 54mm)! At that size, I probably would not have pursued the project, or I would have invested in modeling paste stock!

I chose the French, Arab, Turk, Mameluke, and American Civil War figures from various manufacturers—Dixon, Italeri, Old Glory, and others I cannot remember. I wanted to have several vignettes in different parts of the scene, with the Sphinx always remaining the focus of the scene. Almost immediately I realized that because of the distances I was trying to portray in a box that is only about a foot deep, I would need to force the perspective, using larger figures near the front (28mm), somewhat smaller figures at about mid-depth (about 20mm), and even smaller figures near the back (15mm). The scenery, pyramid backdrop and sand hills also would need to diminish in size as they approached the back of the box.

In his seminar at the 2012 MMSI Show, Doug Cohen talked about his method of carefully planning figure vignettes and dioramas. This can save a lot of time, especially later in the assembly process. Advanced planning is even more important when constructing a very complicated scene. With the Sphinx I tried something a little different, using my version of the green screen that is famously used in movies for CGI effects.

Along with this, I also use the old-fashioned method of stacking cardboard and Styrofoam to test a layout before building it.

I photographed the Sphinx and figures to scale and dumped all the images into Photoshop where I can easily select them (if you can photograph them against an unusual color, like lime green, this can reduce some steps—in movie production lime green is often chosen as a backdrop because the color is rarely worn, so it is easier to distinguish by software programs from more usual colors). I cut all these out by selecting, inverting, and cutting the selections in Photoshop. I took a photo of my outer box (already cut and built with the help of my Dad), pyramid, and virtually built the scene. [Note – if you already know the arrangement of the figures you can photograph them facing in the required direction.]

Since I already knew that I wanted my 18 figures to interact in smaller vignettes within the larger scene, I arranged them physically, and in Photoshop to determine their final placement.

Sphinx with virtual background. (Note: the Pyramid of Khufu and smaller pyramid are much smaller in the finished diorama.)

Sphinx with virtual figures. (Note: the fires were added to see if these could effectively mask the corners of the box. It didn’t work!

The actual Sphinx on its real base of plywood, cardboard, Styrofoam, and modeling paste.

Groundwork added, note the Sphinx has turned color to match the surrounding desert, since much of both are made from the same material.

Close-up of 20mm Arab/Turkish allies of French during painting. (The sheikh does not yet have his tri-colored sash—a gift for his loyalty!)

The scene as almost complete—outside the box.

There are 5 vignettes (from left to right):

  1. The group going up or on top of the Sphinx. The two officers (medical and infantry) are looking across the Nile toward Cairo (“Grande Caire”)
  2.  The group, just to the right of center, in front of the Sphinx is checking measurements. The Turkish soldier (now allied with the French—not all were enemies!) is shouting to the savant on the ladder or to the boy holding it—thus, tying these 2 scenes together.
  3.  The French light infantry on guard duty have spotted some Mameluke scouts up in the sand hills toward the pyramid and have sent some of the Arab allies of the French to investigate and run them off.
  4. The materials in the foreground are some supplies and materials for constructing scaffolding and sand-fences to hold back whatever sand is removed from the excavation.


Detail showing perspective. The scene is only about 11” deep.

Completing the Interior of the box

The main scene of Sphinx and figures was composed on a removable platform that could slide in and out of the box, making work on the figures and the scenery around the sides of the box much easier. The power supply and wiring for the lighting are located in the area below the platform.

I experimented with a few different ways to represent the early morning sky above Giza: I made a paper mâché dome around a balloon, but it was not large enough for the size of the box; I tried a rectangular arrangement of features, but this was not at all convincing; I settled on the curved, horizontal background as the best way to represent the expanse of the sky, as well as the surrounding Giza Plateau.

I took a picture of a cloudless, early morning sky in Chicago and opened the image in Photoshop. I expanded it, but my printer can only print tabloid size, so I was still faced with gluing 2 pages to make up the whole sky—there are 2 seams, but they are fairly difficult to see!

The sand hills and pyramids were cropped from a scan of the original plate from the Déscription. This was also manipulated and tinted in Photoshop, printed in sheets, and glued to a piece of cardboard to create a bit of depth against the sky. The seams are partially obscured by the direction of the lighting.

The lighting is a simple mix of warm and neutral LEDs on flexible strips. These are arranged above and to the left of the viewing window to approximate the location of the morning sun on a late fall day. The LED strips have adhesive backing so they are easy to attach to hard surfaces. The power supply is located in the base of the box.

A word about the front of the box: the same page of the Déscription that provided the inspiration for the diorama also decorates the front of the box. In Photoshop I removed the image from the plate, leaving just the textual description and used this to frame the opening to the diorama. So the entire plate is reunited, but the image portion of it is now in 3D!

Frame for Diorama – text of Plate 11 from A. Vol. V of the Déscription de l’Égypte.

The completed diorama.