Studying the clean, undulating sand dunes between the Pacific Ocean and the California town of Guadalupe, it becomes hard to imagine that in 1923 this area was filled with actors and crew members. participating in one of the most epic productions of the silent film era.
This relatively remote place along the Central California coast might resemble ancient Egypt, or at least, the widespread Western perceptions of it.
Although it’s often cold and foggy here, the scenery can bring to mind Giza on a hot, sunny day with camel-drawn caravans.
Cecil B DeMille saw opportunity in this area
Legendary director Cecil B DeMille used the area, officially known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, as a filming location for his 1923 silent epic, The Ten Commandments.
Although he would later make another version of the story – with sound this time – 30 years later, it is the remnants of this first attempt that have come to capture the imagination of archaeologists and filmmakers.
The famous director, who was known for his over-the-top productions, originally planned to film the biblical story on location in Egypt, but since that would have been costly, DeMille decided to recreate the country on this small stretch of coastline.
Owned at the time by the Union Sugar Company, the land was leased to DeMille for $10, with the stipulation that he would leave the dunes exactly as he found them once production was completed.
He set about building a set that was considered extraordinary for the time, benefiting from the talents of Paul Iribe, an illustrator and designer known as a master of the Art Deco style.
The centerpiece Iribe created was an enormous Egyptian temple in which he took some historical liberties by combining Egyptian motifs with an elegant 1920s aesthetic.
At the time, “Pharaoh’s City,” as the set was known, was the largest movie set ever built.
In addition to the set, DeMille also created “Camp DeMille,” a tent city for the cast. He outfitted it with street signs and a cafeteria.
When production ended, DeMille had to keep his promise “to leave no trace.”
Although some of the pieces and props were stolen by locals for use as lawn ornaments and the like, the temple, and some of the sphinxes, remained, along with other props.
Too big and expensive to bring back to Los Angeles and, DeMille insisted, too valuable to leave to rival filmmakers, legend has it that the director instructed that all the elements be buried in the sand, where they remained until the 1980s, when two amateur detectives began an odyssey almost as colossal as The Ten Commandments itself.
In 1990, portions of hieroglyphs and bas-reliefs from the temple’s facade were recovered, as well as parts of costumes.
Later, in 2017, a team of archaeologists, art restorers set out again to unearth more pieces of decoration. Among their discoveries was another sphinx head, now on display in the museum.