The Great Sphinx of Giza

Egypt - Scott #29 (1879)
Egypt – Scott #29 (1879)

When most people refer to “the Shinx”, they are usually talking about the Great Sphinx of Giza (أبو الهول‎ — ʼabu alhōl in Arabic,  which translates in English as “The Terrifying One”, literally: “Father of Dread”). Commonly referred to as the Sphinx of Giza or just the Sphinx, this is a limestone statue of a reclining creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Facing directly from West to East, it stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile, 3 miles (4.9 km) southwest of central Cairo, Egypt. However, the oldest known sphinx, dated to 9,500 BCE, was found at either Nevalı Çori — an early Neolithic settlement on the middle Euphrates in Şanlıurfa Province, Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey — or 120 miles (195 km) to the east at Kortik Tepe, Turkey. Sphinx depictions are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples.

In Greek mythology, a sphinx is represented as a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent-headed tail. It is mythicized as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer its riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster. This deadly version of a sphinx appears in the myth and drama of Oedipus. Unlike the Greek sphinx, which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an androsphinx). In addition, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent, but having a ferocious strength similar to the malevolent Greek version and both were thought of as guardians often flanking the entrances to temples.

The word sphinx comes from the Greek Σφίγξ, apparently from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning “to squeeze”, “to tighten up”. This name may be derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride of lions are the lionesses, and kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. However, the historian Susan Wise Bauer suggests that the word “sphinx” was instead a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name “shesepankh“, which meant “living image”, and referred rather to the statue of the sphinx, which was carved out of “living rock” (rock that was present at the construction site, not harvested and brought from another location), than to the beast itself. The plural of sphinx is sphinxes or sphinges.

Basalt Egyptian sphinx from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. Roman Perdiod, 1st century AD. State Museum of Egyptian Art, Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin on August 14, 2014.
Basalt Egyptian sphinx from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Roman Perdiod, 1st century AD. State Museum of Egyptian Art, Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin on August 14, 2014.

What names their builders in Egypt gave to these statues is not known. At the Great Sphinx site, a 1400 BCE inscription on a stele belonging to the 18th dynasty pharaoh Thutmose IV lists the names of three aspects of the local sun deity of that period, Khepera–Rê–Atum. Although the date of construction of this largest and most famous sphinx is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx now is believed to bear the likeness of the pharaoh Khafra.

Many pharaohs had their heads carved atop the guardian statues for their tombs to show their close relationship with the powerful solar deity Sekhmet, a lioness. Besides the Great Sphinx, other famous Egyptian sphinxes include one bearing the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, with her likeness carved in granite, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, Memphis, Egypt, currently located within the open-air museum at that site. The theme was expanded to form great avenues of guardian sphinxes lining the approaches to tombs and temples as well as serving as details atop the posts of flights of stairs to very grand complexes. Nine hundred sphinxes with ram heads, representing Amon, were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.

The Great Sphinx has become an emblem of Egypt, frequently appearing on its stamps, coins, and official documents.

 Sphinx. Attic red-figure pyxis, 2nd half of the 5th century BC. From Nola (Italy). Currently in the Oppermann Collection of the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, located in the Richelieu-Louvois building – the former main building of the library – on the Rue de Richelieu, Paris. Photo taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen on June 5, 2010.
Sphinx. Attic red-figure pyxis, 2nd half of the 5th century BC. From Nola (Italy). Currently in the Oppermann Collection of the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, located in the Richelieu-Louvois building – the former main building of the library – on the Rue de Richelieu, Paris. Photo taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen on June 5, 2010.

In the Bronze Age, the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt, the Greek name, sphinx, was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about Egyptian culture. Herodotus called the ram-headed sphinxes Criosphinxes and called the hawk-headed ones Hieracosphinxes.

There was a single sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck. According to Hesiod, she was a daughter of Orthrus and either Echidna or the Chimera, or perhaps even Ceto; according to others, she was a daughter of Echidna and Typhon. All of these are chthonic figures from the earliest of Greek myths, before the Olympians ruled the Greek pantheon. The Sphinx is called Phix (Φίξ) by Hesiod in line 326 of the Theogony, the proper name for the Sphinx noted by Pierre Grimal’s The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

The sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of Chios, and appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the 6th century BCE until the 3rd century CE.

Classical Greek sphinx in the Corinth Archaeological Museum. Photo taken on April 9, 2010.
Classical Greek sphinx in the Corinth Archaeological Museum. Photo taken on April 9, 2010.

The Sphinx is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, asking a riddle to travelers to allow them passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the myth, and was not standardized as the one given below until late in Greek history.

It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Aethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asked all passersby the most famous riddle in history:

“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”

She strangled and devoured anyone who could not answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering:

“Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age”.

By some accounts (but much more rarely), there was a second riddle:

“There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?”

The answer is “day and night” (both words — ἡμέρα and νύξ, respectively — are feminine in Ancient Greek). This second riddle is also found in a Gascon version of the myth and could be very ancient.

Sphix of the Naxians in Delphi. Naxian marble, 570-560 BC. Archaeological Museum of Delphi.Sphix of the Naxians in Delphi. Naxian marble, 570-560 BC. Archaeological Museum of Delphi.

Sphix of the Naxians in Delphi. Naxian marble, 570-560 BC. Archaeological Museum of Delphi, added to drawing of Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach, published in 1882, to show size of the column.
Sphix of the Naxians in Delphi. Naxian marble, 570-560 BC. Archaeological Museum of Delphi, added to drawing of Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach, published in 1882, to show size of the column.

Bested at last, the Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. In both cases, Oedipus can therefore be recognized as a “liminal” or threshold figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the death of the Sphinx, and the rise of the new, Olympian gods.

In Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the Oedipus legend, The Infernal Machine, the Sphinx tells Oedipus the answer to the riddle in order to kill herself so that she did not have to kill anymore, and also to make him love her. He leaves without ever thanking her for giving him the answer to the riddle. The scene ends when the Sphinx and Anubis ascend back to the heavens.

There are mythic, anthropological, psychoanalytic and parodic interpretations of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and of Oedipus’s answer to it. Sigmund Freud describes “the question of where babies come from” as a riddle of the Sphinx.

Numerous riddle books use the Sphinx in their title or illustrations.

Limestone funerary stele (shaft) surmounted by two sphinxes Greece 530 BCE. Photo taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, on June 28, 2018.
Limestone funerary stele (shaft) surmounted by two sphinxes Greece 530 BCE. Photo taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, on June 28, 2018.

Michael Maier, in his book the Atalanta Fugiens writes the following remark about the Sphinx’s riddle, in which he states that its solution is the Philosopher’s Stone:

Sphinx is indeed reported to have had many Riddles, but this offered to Oedipus was the chief, “What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the Evening upon three?” What was answered by Oedipus is not known. But they who interpret concerning the Ages of Man are deceived. For a Quadrangle of Four Elements are of all things first to be considered, from thence we come to the Hemisphere having two lines, a Right and a Curve, that is, to the White Luna; from thence to the Triangle which consists of Body, Soul and Spirit, or Sol, Luna and Mercury. Hence Rhasis in his Epistles, “The Stone,” says he, “is a Triangle in its essence, a Quadrangle in its quality.”

A composite mythological being with the body of a lion and the head of a human being is present in the traditions, mythology and art of South and Southeast Asia. Variously known as purushamriga (Sanskrit, meaning “man-beast”), purushamirugam (Tamil, “man-beast”), naravirala (Sanskrit, “man-cat”) in India, or as nara-simha (Sanskrit, “man-lion”) in Sri Lanka, manusiha or manuthiha (Pali, “man-lion”) in Myanmar, and norasingh (from Pali, “man-lion”, a variation of the Sanskrit “nara-simha“) or thep norasingh (“man-lion deity”), or nora nair in Thailand.

Buddhist sphinx on a stupa gateway, Bharhut, in the Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, central India. 1st century BCE. Photo taken on July 20, 2018.
Buddhist sphinx on a stupa gateway, Bharhut, in the Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, central India. 1st century BCE. Photo taken on July 20, 2018.

In contrast to the sphinxes in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, of which the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity of the civilization, the traditions related to the “Asian sphinxes” are very much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions of “sphinxes” from the South Asian subcontinent are to some extent influenced by Hellenistic art and writings. These hail from the period when Buddhist art underwent a phase of Hellenistic influence. Numerous sphinxes can be seen on the gateways of Bharhut stupa, dating to the 1st century BCE.

In South India, the “sphinx” is known as purushamriga (Sanskrit) or purushamirugam (Tamil), meaning “human-beast”. It is found depicted in sculptural art in temples and palaces where it serves an apotropaic purpose, just as the “sphinxes” in other parts of the ancient world. It is said by the tradition, to take away the sins of the devotees when they enter a temple and to ward off evil in general. It is therefore often found in a strategic position on the gopuram or temple gateway, or near the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The purushamriga plays a significant role in daily as well as yearly ritual of South Indian Shaiva temples. In the shodhasha-upakaara (or sixteen honors) ritual, performed between one and six times at significant sacred moments through the day, it decorates one of the lamps of the diparadhana or lamp ceremony. And in several temples, the purushamriga is also one of the vahana or vehicles of the deity during the processions of the Brahmotsava festival.

The Indian conception of a sphinx that comes closest to the classic Greek idea is in the concept of the Sharabha, a mythical creature, part lion, part man and part bird, and the form of Sharabha that god Shiva took on to counter Narasimha’s violence.

Manussiha (Manokthiha) in Burmese representation, sourced from The Thirty Seven Nats by Sir Richaard Carmac Temple, 1906.
Manussiha (Manokthiha) in Burmese representation, sourced from The Thirty Seven Nats by Sir Richaard Carmac Temple, 1906.

In Sri Lanka, the sphinx is known as narasimha or man-lion. As a sphinx, it has the body of a lion and the head of a human being, and is not to be confused with Narasimha, the fourth reincarnation of the deity Vishnu; this avatar or incarnation is depicted with a human body and the head of a lion. The “sphinx” narasimha is part of the Buddhist tradition and functions as a guardian of the northern direction and also was depicted on banners.

In Burma, the sphinx is known as manussiha (manuthiha). It is depicted on the corners of Buddhist stupas, and its legends tell how it was created by Buddhist monks to protect a new-born royal baby from being devoured by ogresses.

Nora Nair, Norasingh and Thep Norasingh are three of the names under which the “sphinx” is known in Thailand. They are depicted as upright walking beings with the lower body of a lion or deer, and the upper body of a human. Often they are found as female-male pairs. Here, too, the sphinx serves a protective function. It also is enumerated among the mythological creatures that inhabit the ranges of the sacred mountain Himapan.

Sphinx at La Granja de San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, Spain, situated 34 miles (54 km) northwest of Madrid. Philip V built a splendid palace - La Granja — in the town in 1721-24. It has been called
Sphinx at La Granja de San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, Spain, situated 34 miles (54 km) northwest of Madrid. Philip V built a splendid palace – La Granja — in the town in 1721-24. It has been called “the Versailles of Spain”. Photo taken on October 13, 2005.

In European decorative art, the sphinx enjoyed a major revival during the Renaissance. The revived Mannerist sphinx of the late 15th century is sometimes thought of as the “French sphinx”. Her coiffed head is erect and she has the breasts of a young woman. Often, she wears ear drops and pearls as ornaments. Her body is naturalistically rendered as a recumbent lioness. Such sphinxes were revived when the grottesche or “grotesque” decorations of the unearthed Domus Aurea of Nero were brought to light in late 15th-century Rome, and she was incorporated into the classical vocabulary of arabesque designs that spread throughout Europe in engravings during the 16th and 17th centuries. Sphinxes were included in the decoration of the loggia of the Vatican Palace by the workshop of Raphael (1515–20), which updated the vocabulary of the Roman grottesche.

The first appearances of sphinxes in French art are in the School of Fontainebleau in the 1520s and 1530s and she continues into the Late Baroque style of the French Régence (1715–1723). From France, she spread throughout Europe, becoming a regular feature of the outdoors decorative sculpture of 18th-century palace gardens, as in the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, La Granja in Spain, Branicki Palace in Białystok, or the late Rococo examples in the grounds of the Portuguese Queluz National Palace (of perhaps the 1760s), with ruffs and clothed chests ending with a little cape.

Sphinxes are a feature of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adam and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the Romanticism and subsequent Symbolism movements in the 19th century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx and the myth of Oedipus, rather than the Egyptian, although they may not have wings.

A sphinx at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo taken on December 20, 2007.
A sphinx at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo taken on December 20, 2007.

The sphinx image also has been adopted into Masonic architecture. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temples to guard their mysteries, by warning those who penetrated within that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated. Champollion said that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods. The placement of the sphinxes expressed the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to initiates only. As a Masonic emblem, the sphinx has been adopted in its Egyptian character as a symbol of mystery, and as such often is found as a decoration sculptured in front of Masonic temples, or engraved at the head of Masonic documents. It cannot, however, be properly called an ancient, recognized symbol of the order. Its introduction has been of comparatively recent date, and rather as a symbolic decoration than as a symbol of any particular dogma.

The first Egyptian postage stamps comprised seven definitives overprinted in Turkish, released in 1866. The following year saw the release of the first set of stamps portraying the sphinx in front of a single pyramid. A second type with the basic design appeared in 1874 with the sphinx moved to the left of the pyramid. Type 3 issued on April 1, 1879, was surface printed by Thomas de la Rue Ltd. of London and added the inscription POSTES EGYPTIENNES at the top. A final set in 1888 moved POSTES EGYPTIENNES to the bottom. Of course, this is an over-simplification of these iconic stamps and I would have a look at a more specialized overview for help in identifying some of the various “Sphinx and Pyramid” stamps. I also highly recommend the Big Blue blog’s page on Egypt for more information and illustrations for these issues.

The Great Sphinx of Giza, partially excavated, with two pyramids in background. Most probably published in De l'Égypte et de la Nubie, vol. 1-2, éd. Bonfils, Alais (Alès, FR), 1878.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, partially excavated, with two pyramids in background. Most probably published in De l’Égypte et de la Nubie, vol. 1-2, éd. Bonfils, Alais (Alès, FR), 1878.

The Great Sphinx is one of the world’s largest and oldest statues, but basic facts about it are still subject to debate, such as when it was built, by whom and for what purpose. The monolith was carved into the bedrock of the plateau, which also served as the quarry for the pyramids and other monuments in the area. The nummulitic limestone of the area consists of layers which offer differing resistance to erosion (mostly caused by wind and windblown sand), leading to the uneven degradation apparent in the Sphinx’s body. The lowest part of the body, including the legs, is solid rock. The body of the lion up to its neck is fashioned from softer layers that have suffered considerable disintegration. The layer in which the head was sculpted is much harder.

The original shape of the Great Sphinx has been restored with layers of blocks. It measures 240 feet (73 meters) long from paw to tail, 66.31 feet (20.21 m) high from the base to the top of the head and 62 feet (19 m) wide at its rear haunches. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre (circa 2558–2532 BC).

Map of Egypt from Nations Online Project
Map of Egypt from Nations Online Project.
Map of modern metropolitan Cairo, Egypt, showing Giza on the west bank of the Nile River.
Map of modern metropolitan Cairo, Egypt, showing Giza on the west bank of the Nile River.
Map of the Giza pyramids complex, Egypt.
Map of the Giza pyramids complex, Egypt.
Plan of the Great Sphinx of Giza and adjacent temples.
Plan of the Great Sphinx of Giza and adjacent temples.
Cross-section of the subterranean features of the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt.
Cross-section of the subterranean features of the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt.

It is impossible to identify what name the creators called their statue, as the Great Sphinx does not appear in any known inscription of the Old Kingdom and there are no inscriptions anywhere describing its construction or its original purpose. In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx was called Hor-em-akhet (Horus of the Horizon), and the pharaoh Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC) specifically referred to it as such in his “Dream Stele.”

The commonly used name “Sphinx” was given to it in classical antiquity, about 2000 years after the commonly accepted date of its construction by reference to a Greek mythological beast with a lion’s body, a woman’s head and the wings of an eagle (although, like most Egyptian sphinxes, the Great Sphinx has a man’s head and no wings). The English word sphinx comes from the ancient Greek Σφίγξ apparently from the verb σφίγγω (sphingo, “to squeeze”), after the Greek sphinx who strangled anyone who failed to answer her riddle. The name may alternatively be a linguistic corruption of the phonetically different ancient Egyptian word Ssp-anx. This name is given to royal statues of the Fourth dynasty of ancient Egypt (2575–2467 BC) and later in the New Kingdom (c. 1570–1070 BC) to the Great Sphinx more specifically.

Medieval Arab writers, including al-Maqrīzī, call the Sphinx balhib and bilhaw, which suggest a Coptic influence. The modern Egyptian Arabic name is أبو الهول (Abū al Hūl, “The Terrifying One”).

The Great Sphinx of Giza. Photo taken on May 17, 2005.
The Great Sphinx of Giza. Photo taken on May 17, 2005.

Though there have been conflicting evidence and viewpoints over the years, the view held by modern Egyptology at large remains that the Great Sphinx was built in approximately 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafra, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza.

Selim Hassan, writing in 1949 on recent excavations of the Great Sphinx enclosure, summed up the problem:

Taking all things into consideration, it seems that we must give the credit of erecting this, the world’s most wonderful statue, to Khafre, but always with this reservation: that there is not one single contemporary inscription which connects the Sphinx with Khafre; so, sound as it may appear, we must treat the evidence as circumstantial, until such time as a lucky turn of the spade of the excavator will reveal to the world a definite reference to the erection of the Sphinx.

The “circumstantial” evidence mentioned by Hassan includes the Sphinx’s location in the context of the funerary complex surrounding the Second Pyramid, which is traditionally connected with Khafra. Apart from the Causeway, the Pyramid and the Sphinx, the complex also includes the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple, both of which display similar design of their inner courts. The Sphinx Temple was built using blocks cut from the Sphinx enclosure, while those of the Valley Temple were quarried from the plateau, some of the largest weighing upwards of 100 tons.

A diorite statue of Khafre, which was discovered buried upside down along with other debris in the Valley Temple, is claimed as support for the Khafra theory.

The Great Sphinx of Giza partly under the sand. Photo taken by Henri Béchard, circa 1870-1880.
The Great Sphinx of Giza partly under the sand. Photo taken by Henri Béchard, circa 1870-1880.

The Dream Stele, erected much later by the pharaoh Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC), associates the Sphinx with Khafra. When the stele was discovered, its lines of text were already damaged and incomplete, and only referred to Khaf, not Khafra. An extract was translated:

which we bring for him: oxen … and all the young vegetables; and we shall give praise to Wenofer … Khaf … the statue made for Atum-Hor-em-Akhet.

The Egyptologist Thomas Young, finding the Khaf hieroglyphs in a damaged cartouche used to surround a royal name, inserted the glyph ra to complete Khafra’s name. When the Stele was re-excavated in 1925, the lines of text referring to Khaf flaked off and were destroyed.

Theories held by academic Egyptologists regarding the builder of the Sphinx and the date of its construction are not universally accepted, and various persons have proposed alternative hypotheses about both the builder and dating.

French archaeologist Auguste Mariette (seated, far left) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (seated, far right) with others surrounded by local Egyptians during the Emperor's trip to Egypt in the end of 1871. Behind them can be seem the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Giza Necropolis.
French archaeologist Auguste Mariette (seated, far left) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (seated, far right) with others surrounded by local Egyptians during the Emperor’s trip to Egypt in the end of 1871. Behind them can be seem the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Giza Necropolis.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, circa 1880s, by Beniamino Facchinelli.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, circa 1880s, by Beniamino Facchinelli.

Some early Egyptologists and excavators of the Giza pyramid complex believed the Great Sphinx and associated temples to predate the fourth dynasty rule of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Petrie wrote in 1883 regarding the state of opinion regarding the age of the nearby temples, and by extension the Sphinx: “The date of the Granite Temple [Valley Temple] has been so positively asserted to be earlier than the fourth dynasty, that it may seem rash to dispute the point”.

In 1857, Auguste Mariette, founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, unearthed the much later Inventory Stela (estimated Dynasty XXVI, c. 678–525 BC), which tells how Khufu came upon the Sphinx, already buried in sand. Although certain tracts on the Stela are considered good evidence, this passage is widely dismissed as Late Period historical revisionism, a purposeful fake, created by the local priests with the attempt to certify the contemporary Isis temple an ancient history it never had. Such an act became common when religious institutions such as temples, shrines and priest’s domains were fighting for political attention and for financial and economic donations.

Gaston Maspero, the French Egyptologist and second director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, conducted a survey of the Sphinx in 1886. He concluded that because the Dream stela showed the cartouche of Khafre in line thirteen, it was he who was responsible for the excavation and therefore the Sphinx must predate Khafre and his predecessors—possibly Dynasty IV, c. 2575–2467 BC. English Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge agreed that the Sphinx predated Khafre’s reign, writing in The Gods of the Egyptians (1914): “This marvelous object [the Great Sphinx] was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren, and it is probable that it is a very great deal older than his reign and that it dates from the end of the archaic period [c. 2686 BC].” Maspero believed the Sphinx to be “the most ancient monument in Egypt”.

The Great Sphinx of Giza and the pyramid of Khafre. Photo taken on January 2, 2005.
The Great Sphinx of Giza and the pyramid of Khafre. Photo taken on January 2, 2005.

Rainer Stadelmann, former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, examined the distinct iconography of the nemes (headdress) and the now-detached beard of the Sphinx and concluded the style is more indicative of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 BC), builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza and Khafra’s father. He supports this by suggesting Khafra’s Causeway was built to conform to a pre-existing structure, which, he concludes, given its location, could only have been the Sphinx.

Colin Reader, an English geologist who independently conducted a more recent survey of the enclosure, agrees the various quarries on the site have been excavated around the Causeway. Because these quarries are known to have been used by Khufu, Reader concludes that the Causeway (and the temples on either end thereof) must predate Khufu, thereby casting doubt on the conventional Egyptian chronology.

Frank Domingo, a forensic scientist in the New York City Police Department and an expert forensic anthropologist, used detailed measurements of the Sphinx, forensic drawings and computer imaging to conclude the face depicted on the Sphinx is not the same face as is depicted on a statue attributed to Khafra.

In 2004, Vassil Dobrev of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo announced he had uncovered new evidence the Great Sphinx may have been the work of the little-known Pharaoh Djedefre (2528–2520 BC), Khafra’s half brother and a son of Khufu. Dobrev suggests Djedefre built the Sphinx in the image of his father Khufu, identifying him with the sun god Ra in order to restore respect for their dynasty. Dobrev also notes, like Stadelmann and others, the causeway connecting Khafre’s pyramid to the temples was built around the Sphinx suggesting it was already in existence at the time.

Views, Objects: Egypt. Gizeh [selected images]. View 06: Sphinx and Pyramid., n.d. Brooklyn Museum Archives
Views, Objects: Egypt. Gizeh [selected images]. View 06: Sphinx and Pyramid., n.d. Brooklyn Museum Archives

At some unknown time, the Giza Necropolis was abandoned, and the Sphinx was eventually buried up to its shoulders in sand. The first documented attempt at an excavation dates to c. 1400 BC, when the young Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC) gathered a team and, after much effort, managed to dig out the front paws, between which he placed a granite slab, known as the Dream Stele, inscribed with the following excerpt:

… the royal son, Thothmos, being arrived, while walking at midday and seating himself under the shadow of this mighty god, was overcome by slumber and slept at the very moment when Ra is at the summit [of heaven]. He found that the Majesty of this august god spoke to him with his own mouth, as a father speaks to his son, saying: Look upon me, contemplate me, O my son Thothmos; I am thy father, Harmakhis-Khopri-Ra-Tum; I bestow upon thee the sovereignty over my domain, the supremacy over the living … Behold my actual condition that thou mayest protect all my perfect limbs. The sand of the desert whereon I am laid has covered me. Save me, causing all that is in my heart to be executed.

Later, Ramesses II the Great (1279–1213 BC) may have undertaken a second excavation.

The Great Sphinx of Giza from Hogenberg & Braun's (map), Cairus, quae olim Babylon (1572), exists in various editions, from various authors, with the Sphinx looking different. This is an extract from the map, not the complete map.
The Great Sphinx of Giza from Hogenberg & Braun’s (map), Cairus, quae olim Babylon (1572), exists in various editions, from various authors, with the Sphinx looking different. This is an extract from the map, not the complete map.
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Frederic Louis Norden's, Voyage d'Égypte et de Nubie (1755).
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Frederic Louis Norden’s, Voyage d’Égypte et de Nubie (1755).
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Description de l'Egypte (Panckoucke edition), Planches, Antiquités, volume V (1823), also published in the Imperial edition of 1822.
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Description de l’Egypte (Panckoucke edition), Planches, Antiquités, volume V (1823), also published in the Imperial edition of 1822.
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, oil on canvas by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-1868. Currently in the collection of Hears Castle, San Simeon, California.
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, oil on canvas by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-1868. Currently in the collection of Hears Castle, San Simeon, California.

Mark Lehner, an Egyptologist who has excavated and mapped the Giza plateau, originally asserted that there had been a far earlier renovation during the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2184 BC), although he has subsequently recanted this “heretical” viewpoint.

In AD 1817, the first modern archaeological dig, supervised by the Italian Giovanni Battista Caviglia, uncovered the Sphinx’s chest completely. One of the people working on clearing the sands from around the Great Sphinx was Eugène Grébaut, a French Director of the Antiquities Service:

In the beginning of the year 1887, the chest, the paws, the altar, and plateau were all made visible. Flights of steps were unearthed, and finally accurate measurements were taken of the great figures. The height from the lowest of the steps was found to be one hundred feet, and the space between the paws was found to be thirty-five feet long and ten feet wide. Here there was formerly an altar; and a stele of Thûtmosis IV was discovered, recording a dream in which he was ordered to clear away the sand that even then was gathering round the site of the Sphinx.

The entire Sphinx was finally excavated in 1925 to 1936, in digs led by Émile Baraize.

In 1931, engineers of the Egyptian government repaired the head of the Sphinx. Part of its headdress had fallen off in 1926 due to erosion, which had also cut deeply into its neck. This questionable repair was by the addition of a concrete collar between the headdress and the neck, creating an altered profile. Many renovations to the stone base and raw rock body were done in the 1980s, and then redone in the 1990s.

Profile of the Great Sphinx of Giza, showing age of base stones.
Profile of the Great Sphinx of Giza, showing age of base stones.
Panoramic view of the Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza. Photo taken on October 13, 2010.
Panoramic view of the Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza. Photo taken on October 13, 2010.

Colin Reader has proposed that the Sphinx was probably the focus of solar worship in the Early Dynastic Period, before the Giza Plateau became a necropolis in the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2134 BC). He ties this in with his conclusions that the Sphinx, the Sphinx temple, the Causeway and the Khafra mortuary temple are all part of a complex which predates Dynasty IV (c. 2613–2494 BC). The lion has long been a symbol associated with the sun in ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Images depicting the Egyptian king in the form of a lion smiting his enemies date as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.

In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became more specifically associated with the god Hor-em-akhet (Hellenized as Harmachis) or “Horus-at-the-Horizon”, which represented the pharaoh in his role as the Shesep-ankh (Living Image) of the god Atum. Pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427–1401 or 1397 BC) built a temple to the north east of the Sphinx nearly 1000 years after its construction, and dedicated it to the cult of Hor-em-akhet.

In the last 700 years, there has been a proliferation of travelers and reports from Lower Egypt, unlike Upper Egypt, which was seldom reported from prior to the mid-18th century. Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Cairo and the Giza Pyramids are described repeatedly, but not necessarily comprehensively. Many accounts were published and widely read. These include those of George Sandys, André Thévet, Athanasius Kircher, Balthasar de Monconys, Jean de Thévenot, John Greaves, Johann Michael Vansleb, Benoît de Maillet, Cornelis de Bruijn, Paul Lucas, Richard Pococke, Frederic Louis Norden and others. There is an even larger set of more anonymous people who wrote obscure and little-read works, sometimes only unpublished manuscripts in libraries or private collections, including Henry Castela, Hans Ludwig von Lichtenstein, Michael Heberer von Bretten, Wilhelm von Boldensele, Pierre Belon du Mans, Vincent Stochove, Christophe Harant, Gilles Fermanel, Robert Fauvel, Jean Palerne Foresien, Willian Lithgow, Joos van Ghistele, and others.

The Great Sphinx of Giza from Jan Sommer, (unpublished) Voyages en Egypte des annees 1589, 1590 & 1591, Institut de France, 1971 (Voyageurs occidentaux en Égypte 3)
The Great Sphinx of Giza from Jan Sommer, (unpublished) Voyages en Egypte des annees 1589, 1590 & 1591, Institut de France, 1971 (Voyageurs occidentaux en Égypte 3)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in George Sandys, A relation of a journey begun an dom. 1610 (1615)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in George Sandys, A relation of a journey begun an dom. 1610 (1615)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz, Les Voyages et Observations (1653)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz, Les Voyages et Observations (1653)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Cornelis de Bruijn', Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698)
The Great Sphinx of Giza in Cornelis de Bruijn’, Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698)

Over the centuries, writers and scholars have recorded their impressions and reactions upon seeing the Sphinx. The vast majority were concerned with a general description, often including a mixture of science, romance and mystique. A typical description of the Sphinx by tourists and leisure travelers throughout the 19th and 20th century was made by John Lawson Stoddard:

It is the antiquity of the Sphinx which thrills us as we look upon it, for in itself it has no charms. The desert’s waves have risen to its breast, as if to wrap the monster in a winding-sheet of gold. The face and head have been mutilated by Moslem fanatics. The mouth, the beauty of whose lips was once admired, is now expressionless. Yet grand in its loneliness, – veiled in the mystery of unnamed ages, – the relic of Egyptian antiquity stands solemn and silent in the presence of the awful desert – symbol of eternity. Here it disputes with Time the empire of the past; forever gazing on and on into a future which will still be distant when we, like all who have preceded us and looked upon its face, have lived our little lives and disappeared.

From the 16th century far into the 19th century, observers repeatedly noted that the Sphinx has the face, neck and breast of a woman. Examples included Johannes Helferich (1579), George Sandys (1615), Johann Michael Vansleb (1677), Benoît de Maillet (1735) and Elliot Warburton (1844).

Most early Western images were book illustrations in print form, elaborated by a professional engraver from either previous images available or some original drawing or sketch supplied by an author, and usually now lost. Seven years after visiting Giza, André Thévet (Cosmographie de Levant, 1556) described the Sphinx as “the head of a colossus, caused to be made by Isis, daughter of Inachus, then so beloved of Jupiter”. He, or his artist and engraver, pictured it as a curly-haired monster with a grassy dog collar. Athanasius Kircher (who never visited Egypt) depicted the Sphinx as a Roman statue, reflecting his ability to conceptualize (Turris Babel, 1679). Johannes Helferich’s (1579) Sphinx is a pinched-face, round-breasted woman with a straight haired wig; the only edge over Thevet is that the hair suggests the flaring lappets of the headdress. George Sandys stated that the Sphinx was a harlot; Balthasar de Monconys interpreted the headdress as a kind of hairnet, while François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz’s Sphinx had a rounded hairdo with bulky collar.

Richard Pococke’s Sphinx was an adoption of Cornelis de Bruijn’s drawing of 1698, featuring only minor changes, but is closer to the actual appearance of the Sphinx than anything previous. The print versions of Norden’s careful drawings for his Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, 1755 are the first to clearly show that the nose was missing. However, from the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt onwards, a number of accurate images were widely available in Europe, and copied by others.

Limestone fragments of the Sphinx's beard in the British Museum, 14th Century BC. Photo taken by Jon Bodsworth on December 10, 2007.
Limestone fragments of the Sphinx’s beard in the British Museum, 14th Century BC. Photo taken by Jon Bodsworth on December 10, 2007.

The one-metre-wide nose on the face is missing. Examination of the Sphinx’s face shows that long rods or chisels were hammered into the nose, one down from the bridge and one beneath the nostril, then used to pry the nose off towards the south.

The Arab historian al-Maqrīzī, writing in the 15th century, attributes the loss of the nose to iconoclasm by Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr — a Sufi Muslim from the khanqah of Sa’id al-Su’ada — in AD 1378, upon finding the local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest. Enraged, he destroyed the nose, and was later hanged for vandalism. Al-Maqrīzī describes the Sphinx as the “talisman of the Nile” on which the locals believed the flood cycle depended.

There is a story that the nose was broken off by a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers. Other variants indict British troops, the Mamluks, and others. Sketches of the Sphinx by the Dane Frederic Louis Norden, made in 1738 and published in 1757, show the Sphinx missing its nose. This predates Napoleon’s birth in 1769.

In addition to the lost nose, a ceremonial pharaonic beard is thought to have been attached, although this may have been added in later periods after the original construction. Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev has suggested that had the beard been an original part of the Sphinx, it would have damaged the chin of the statue upon falling. The lack of visible damage supports his theory that the beard was a later addition.

Residues of red pigment are visible on areas of the Sphinx’s face. Traces of yellow and blue pigment have been found elsewhere on the Sphinx, leading Mark Lehner to suggest that the monument “was once decked out in gaudy comic book colors”.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. Photo taken on May 14, 2011.
The Great Sphinx of Giza in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. Photo taken on May 14, 2011.

Scott #29 was released by Egypt Post (البريد المصري‎ — El-Barid El-Maṣri) on April 1, 1879, the lowest (5 para) denomination in the new series of Sphinx and Pyramid definitives (Scott #29-41). It was surface-printed in brown ink by Thomas de la Rue Ltd. of London on ordinary paper with a crescent and star watermark in sheets of 240 subjects. These were divided into panes of 60 (six by 10 stamps each) for sale, perforated 14 x 13½.

October 4, 1984
Flag of Egypt. Adopted October 4, 1984
Flag used in Egypt during the rules of Isma'il Pasha and Tewfik Pasha (1867–1881)
Flag used in Egypt during the rules of Isma’il Pasha and Tewfik Pasha (1867–1881)
Flag of Giza Governorate
Flag of Giza Governorate
Egypt Post
Egypt Post
.
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