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The city buried under the dunes

Updated: Jul 14

‘As a boy, I used to look upon hieroglyphics as so many wonderful pictures’

Cecil B. DeMille

Amazingly, one hundred years ago in 1923, pioneer filmmaker Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest film set in movie history in the Guadalupe-Nupomo dunes California, for his silent epic, The Ten Commandments ( This was DeMille’s first version of the film, 30 years later he went on to remake the movie. But, unable to film in Egypt because it would prove too costly, for the first version of the film, he decided to re-create an Egyptian landscape with 21 giant sphinxes which lined a path leading to a massive temple in the dunes in California. The set was known as ‘The City of Pharaoh’, and was the largest movie set ever constructed.

The set was too large and too difficult to move and therefore once filming was complete, DeMille ordered that the entire set be dismantled… and secretly buried in the dunes. Its existence was nearly forgotten but a few of the older residence in the small farming town of Guadalupe and members of the historical society were aware of the treasures hiding in the dunes.

It’s difficult to imagine what would have happened in another hundred years if the ruins of this site had been left where they were and only later found by archaeologists! Would they have thought that there had been an Egyptian civilization living on the America continent? Would any of the items have withstood the passage of time, the wind and the elements may not have left any trace of the once vast film set.

Last week while watching a National Geographic documentary, we saw how items from this buried city have once again seen the light of day, archaeologists have been slowly unearthing the set and it is now on display in the Dune’s Centre in Guadalupe. It all started in 1982 when Peter Brosnan, an American freelance writer and filmmaker was staying with a friend, Bruce Cardozo and over drinks they shared and discussed a passage from DeMille’s 1959 autobiography which indicated that the movie set might still be found buried beneath the sand. This was the beginning of the adventure to locate and unearth the film set. They quickly found the first artefact and went on to get permission to dig and make an exciting documentary, ‘The Lost City of Cecil B DeMille’, interviewing surviving cast members and film crew.

In 2017 a team of archaeologist set out to find more pieces of the set. The archaeologists treated the finds as though they were working on an ancient site working slowly and steadily to exhume the sphinxes because over the years’ they had become very fragile and needed specialist attention. The sphinx was made of plaster that was nearly “paper thin” and hollow and, over time, filled with sand. They were originally built to last two months during the filming in 1923, but they have lasted since then and are now once again being restored and admired by visitors to the centre.

For residents of Guadalupe, the “The Ten Commandments” and the Lost City of DeMille are now woven into the small town’s history. Soon after the filming had ended, a local welder found nails — lots of them — from the old movie set and welded them into tiny Christian crosses that have become cherished mementos for townspeople.

For now, no-one is allowed to dig in the dunes! Any remaining pieces of the set will remain hidden until dreams that have faded in the sand of time will unfold once more!


National Geographic ‘Drain the Oceans’

Los Angeles Times

Guadaloupe-Nipomo Dunes Centre

BBC: A city under the sand: The Lost City of Cecil B DeMille

Photo credits:

Courtney Lichterman

Screenshot 'The Ten Commandments' 1923

Dunes Centre

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