The Egyptian City Buried in California You Surely Didn’t Know About

For 60 years, the majestic dunes that rise above Guadalupe, a coastal town about 300 kilometers from Los Angeles, have kept one of Hollywood's oldest and strangest secrets: an Egyptian city.

Gabriela Castillo

Under the sands of Guadalupe lies an Egyptian city that served as a backdrop for a classic Hollywood movie: The Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments

Cecil B. DeMille, a film producer and director considered one of the pioneers of Hollywood, chose this remote site in 1923 to erect a plaster replica of ancient Egypt and stage his epic, glorious, and silent movie: The Ten Commandments. DeMille managed to create perfect sets on a monumental scale, which to this day remains one of the largest movie sets ever built.

DeMille originally wanted to make the silent film in Egypt, but his bosses, aware of the costs, sent him to Guadalupe Dunes. DeMille brought 200 camels from all over the country to the set and rented all the animals from stables miles around Guadalupe, which remains an agricultural community to this day. A temple approximately 12 stories high was also constructed, flanked by giant statues of the pharaoh Ramses II. An avenue flanked by over 20 sphinxes, each weighing five tons, led to the gates of the temple. When he finished, DeMille had spent $1.4 million filming the biblical epic, a stratospheric sum at that time, completely out of budget.

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After the filming of The Ten Commandments was finished, much of the scenery was packed up, and another good part disappeared without a trace. There was a rumor that the director had ordered the demolition of these constructions so that no one else could use them. Later, in his memoirs, DeMille dropped a hint about the mysterious treasure of the historic set. “If, in a thousand years, archaeologists excavate under the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they don’t hurry to publish the amazing news that the Egyptian civilization is far from the Nile Valley.”

The Discovery

In the early 1980s, a film buff named Peter Brosnan heard the story of the false Egyptian city, studied clues about its whereabouts, and located the buried set in 1983. Interest spread, and excavations were organized with professional archaeologists who approached the work with humor and professionalism, showing respect for the film industry and its history.

The large scale of DeMille’s production also turned this project into a rich time capsule preserved in a mountain of sand, with abundant records of daily life from the 1920s. Let’s not forget that more than 4,000 people, including actors and builders, lived and worked in these fake ruins for over 2 months.

However, the effort to uncover the secrets of the Guadalupe dunes was not enough. Financiers showed little interest and regulators were hesitant to allow excavations in the sensitive wildlife area. Additionally, some critics questioned the historical significance of the ancient set.

In recent years, excavations in the dunes have improved and have yielded a small treasure trove including a lion’s paw, a pharaoh’s head, and cryptic wooden hieroglyphics. The latest discovery was announced in 2018: a sphinx with an almost intact head. Some of these pieces are displayed as relics in the Museum of Film History.

Story originally written in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva.