The Great Sphinx: What We Know, What We Think We Know, What We Will Never Know

spx-tabAlmost everybody knows what the Great Sphinx of Giza is, but how much do we really know about it? In this article we will be looking at the role of sphinxes in Egyptian mythology—what they are, what they mean, and what they did. We will also be taking an in depth look at the history of the Great Sphinx. Who may have built it and why? When was it built? Do we really know?

We will also look at how the Great Sphinx’s significance in both religion and politics has changed over the many centuries of its known lifetime. From the ancient days of early Egypt, when little is really said about the Sphinx and its existence seems to be taken for granted, to the height of Egyptian culture, when the Sphinx was synonymous with the great solar deities and had the power to legitimize a king’s reign, the more we learn about the Sphinx, the more we know about Egypt.

What is an Egyptian Sphinx?

Most of the sphinxes in Egypt are statues with the body of a lion and the head of a royal person, such as a pharaoh or a queen. There are several levels to this symbolism. Most obvious is the combination of the power and ferocity of the lion combined with the intelligence and judgment of a human. On a deeper level, the lion is a cross-cultural symbol of royalty and is associated with the sun, which in its many forms, is the primary deity throughout most of ancient Egypt’s history. So the royal sphinxes of Egypt may be thought of as a symbol of the power and wisdom of the king, as well as his association with the eternal life-giving sun.

When most people think of a sphinx, they tend to envision the Great Sphinx of Giza, and not without good reason. The Great Sphinx is second only to the pyramids as a symbol of Egypt, and is among the largest, oldest, and most impressive monuments ever created. But sphinxes were fairly common in ancient Egypt, and a number of very remarkable examples have been recovered by archaeologists. They are usually associated with a particular temple or tomb where they stood as guardians.

The Sphinx of Queen Hatshepsut (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Sphinx of Queen Hatshepsut (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Greek Sphinx, Sphiggein (Photo by Rosemanios)

The Greek Sphinx, Sphiggein (Photo by Rosemanios)

The word sphinx has two possible derivations. It is commonly thought of as having its roots in the Greek word sphiggein, which means “to draw tight,” and is often translated as “the strangler.” This name originally applied to a creature from Greek mythology, a winged lion with the head of a woman who set upon visitors to the ancient city of Thebes. Before gaining access to the city the unfortunate traveler had to answer a riddle, and if they failed, they were strangled to death.

More recently it has been speculated that the word sphinx is a mistranslation of an ancient Egyptian phrase. Susan Wise Bauer has suggested in The History of the Ancient World that the original may have been shesep ankh, which means “living image.”

A British Egyptologist and linguist named Alan Gardiner took this a step further with shesep ankh Atum, which means “the living image of [the sun god] Atum.” In Word and Image in Ancient Egypt , Sergei Ignatov points out that the word shesep specifically refers to a type of statuary “in which [the] spiritual essence of a human or deity is instilled.” Thus, a sphinx is a statue constructed to receive the essence of the person or being it represents.

The sphinx is thought to be an invention of the Fourth Dynasty, a period of ancient Egyptian history characterized by social stability, religious sophistication, and centralized political power. Many of Egypt’s greatest monuments were constructed during this period, including all three of the Giza Pyramids and, according to conventional Egyptology, the Great Sphinx itself.

The head from King Djedefre’s Sphinx (Photo by Neithsabes)

The head from King Djedefre’s Sphinx (Photo by Neithsabes)

Of the two earliest sphinxes recovered so far, there is some disagreement as to which may be the oldest. According to many, the sphinx of Djedefre is the oldest known sphinx. Djedefre was one of Khufu’s sons who ruled Egypt for a few years prior to his more well-known brother, Khafre. However, some think that the sphinx of Queen Hetepheres II may predate that of Djedefre.

The Sphinx of Queen Hetepheres II (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

The Sphinx of Queen Hetepheres II (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Hetepheres II was a daughter of Khufu who married her brother, Djedefre, so it is very likely that their sphinxes were created within a few years of each other.

Arguing for Hetepheres II’s sphinx being first is the fact that before being married to Djedefre she was married to Kawab, the original heir to Khufu who died before assuming the throne. Thus, as the future queen her sphinx may have been constructed prior to Djedefre, who was not originally in line for the throne. Without a contemporary account detailing when each sphinx was made it is unlikely this question will ever be resolved.

Sphinxes are a particularly common sight around the temple complexes of Luxor and Karnak. More than 2,000 sphinxes bearing the head of the Thirtieth Dynasty King Nekhtnebef I originally lined the causeway connecting the Luxor and Karnak complexes, many of which still remain. Although most sphinxes have human heads, this is not always the case. The approach to the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak is lined on each side with 20 ram-headed sphinxes erected by the Nineteenth Dynasty Pharaoh Ramesses II.

The Approach to the Great Temple of Amun located at Karnak, with its row of criosphinxes (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Approach to the Great Temple of Amun located at Karnak, with its row of criosphinxes (Photo by Keith Payne)

Also called criosphinxes, these ram-headed sentinels guard the way to the First Pylon of Karnak, which marks the entrance to the Great Temple of Amun. An additional 52 criosphinxes are located in the courtyard within, with 19 situated along the northern colonnade and 33 along the south. A symbol of the god whose temple they protect, each ram-headed sphinx holds a statue of Ramesses II in Osiris form between their paws.

One of Karnak’s ram-headed criosphinxes, Ramesses II in Osiris form held protectively between his paws (Photo by Keith Payne)

One of Karnak’s ram-headed criosphinxes, Ramesses II in Osiris form held protectively between his paws (Photo by Keith Payne)

Sphinxes were made of a variety of materials, most often limestone or granite, but other materials were used as well. A sphinx thought to depict Ptolemy XII, the father of famed Cleopatra VII, is made of diorite, a common material for royal statuary. The colossal sphinx that once guarded the Temple of Ptah at Mit Rahina was carved from a single 90-ton piece of alabaster.

The Alabaster Sphinx, guardian of the Temple of Ptah at Mit Rahina (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Alabaster Sphinx, guardian of the Temple of Ptah at Mit Rahina (Photo by Keith Payne)

At an impressive 26 feet long and 13 feet high, the Alabaster Sphinx is indeed quite large, but is a distant second to the largest sphinx in Egypt.

 

The Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the oldest sculpted monument known, and at 240 feet long and 66 feet high it is certainly one of the largest. It is believed to date from between 2589 to 2532 BC, having been created sometime during the reigns of Khufu, Djedefre, or Khafre, although there are arguments for an earlier date. While most Egyptologists believe the Great Sphinx is strictly a creation of the early Fourth Dynasty, there are persistent and not altogether unreasonable theories that it may predate the pyramids, and may have even been why Khufu built his pyramid at Giza.

The Great Sphinx of Giza crouches behind the ruins of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple and before the Pyramid of Khafre (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Great Sphinx of Giza crouches behind the ruins of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple and before the Pyramid of Khafre (Photo by Keith Payne)

Located near Khafre’s valley temple, the Great Sphinx was sculpted from a limestone monolith that was first defined by a horseshoe-shaped trench that formed the borders of the Sphinx enclosure. Although the enclosure seems to have been planned around the monolith that was carved into the Sphinx, it also seems to be a byproduct of the quarrying which produced some of the surrounding temples and which contributed to the pyramids themselves. This is offered as an argument against an earlier dating of the Sphinx.

Over thousands of years the Great Sphinx has suffered indignities from man and nature alike. There is evidence that at some point the Sphinx’s head was used for target practice. The notorious air pollution of modern Cairo likewise exacts a constant toll. But the most damage has been caused by the corrosive effects of wind and water. The combination of groundwater and torrential rains, along with windborne sand and grit, have eroded the Sphinx and worn deep scars into its surface. Ironically, the accumulation of the very sand that has blasted away at the Sphinx may also be responsible for its protection.

The Great Sphinx, circa 1880 (‘Le Sphinx Armachis, Caire’ by Henri Bechard, courtesy of the National Media Museum)

The Great Sphinx, circa 1880 (‘Le Sphinx Armachis, Caire’ by Henri Bechard, courtesy of the National Media Museum)

Because the Sphinx enclosure forms a trough that is considerably lower than the surface of the plateau, sand tends to accumulate pretty easily around the Sphinx. The Sphinx has been buried and restored numerous times throughout history, with the most famous restoration having been that of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, who we will discuss in more detail below. The most recent major restoration was conducted by the French engineer Emile Baraize between 1925 and 1936, although restoration and conservation efforts continue to this day. The Great Sphinx is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which helps fund its maintenance. The most imminent modern peril is the rising of the water tables, a problem that is threatening structures all over Egypt.

 

Why Does the Head Look So Odd?

Many questions and speculations, ranging from far-flung to undeniably valid, involve the Sphinx’s head. Even in the company of other human-headed lions, there is just something out of place about the head of the Great Sphinx. It just doesn’t seem to really belong to the body on which it rests!

The most obvious difference is its condition. The head of the Sphinx, bullet wounds and missing nose aside, is clearly in much better shape than the rest of its body. While the face and the headdress are smooth, the rest of the body is worn down to the point where the varying levels of strata are clearly visible, with channels of erosion making much of the body look like a natural mesa.

The head of the Great Sphinx, which is carved from a harder layer of limestone than the body, shows much less erosion, but is that the only reason for its smoother appearance (Photo by Keith Payne)

The head of the Great Sphinx, which is carved from a harder layer of limestone than the body, shows much less erosion, but is that the only reason for its smoother appearance? (Photo by Keith Payne)

Part of this can be explained by the nature of the limestone itself. The limestone where the Sphinx is located grows softer and more porous the deeper you dig, with the head having been formed from the hard top layer that was used for exterior casing stones in the surrounding monuments. The body is cut from the lower quality layers making it more vulnerable to the elements. This is one explanation for the head being in better condition than the body, but there are other questions as well.

Shown from profile, the Sphinx’s head appears disproportionately tiny compared to the rest of its body (Photo by Keith Payne)

Shown from profile, the Sphinx’s head appears disproportionately tiny compared to the rest of its body (Photo by Keith Payne)

Another inconsistency between the head and the body is the size. The Sphinx’s head is proportionately much smaller than the rest of its body, which prior to erosion would have been even larger than it is now. A number of explanations for the unusually small head have been offered. One idea is that the builders ran out of usable stone and had to shape the head smaller than originally planned. This doesn’t seem to make sense, as the quality of the stone would have been apparent before the rest of the body was shaped. Why didn’t they scale the body down to match the head?

According to another theory, the Sphinx’s head seems disproportionately small in profile because it was actually intended to be viewed from the front. The smaller size is intended to produce a dramatic effect when properly viewed. By creating a tapered appearance from the front, the small head makes the Great Sphinx appear larger and more imposing when viewed from that perspective. But there are a couple of problems with this explanation as well.

First, when viewed from a distance this effect is lost. To get the tapering effect one has to be standing close enough to the Sphinx to be looking up, and both the head and the body must be visible. However, the body of the Sphinx is largely obscured from this perspective by the Temple of the Sphinx, which is located in front of the Sphinx itself. While the tapering effect can be somewhat observed from the temple that lies to the northeast, and certainly from the chapel that was built between its paws, both of these structures date from the Eighteenth Dynasty, more than a thousand years after the head is believed to have been sculpted.

The Great Sphinx as viewed from the ruins of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Great Sphinx as viewed from the ruins of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple (Photo by Keith Payne)

The second problem with this theory is that there are legitimate questions about whether the Great Sphinx was intended to be viewed from the front or the side. This is no trivial question, and is tied to who the face on the Sphinx was intended to represent. We will be discussing this in detail later in the article. But if it does so happen that the Sphinx was intended to be viewed in profile rather than from the front, then this brings us back to the question of why it is so small, which in turn brings us back to the question of its age.

One of the more controversial explanations for the small head posits that its current shape is not the original, and that the monument predates the Fourth Dynasty. According to this theory, the original head may have been simply the head of a lion, which would have been proportionate to the rest of the body, and that the human head is the result of modifications dating from the Fourth Dynasty. A more recent date for the current shape of the head may also help explain its finer condition than the rest of the body. These alterations may have been the result of a pharaoh, most likely Khufu or Khafre, usurping the colossal lion for their own purposes.

Alternately, the change may have been the result of a genuine effort to restore an earlier monument where the head had been damaged to the point where it was already out of proportion to the body. Rather than attempt to recreate a lion’s head, which would have been carved even smaller than the current human head in order to shape the snout, perhaps a decision was made to turn the lion into a royal sphinx. As we saw in the first section, the sphinx was already a statuary form in the Fourth Dynasty.

To piece together possible answers to these dilemmas we first have to formulate a reasonable theory about who the face represents, and that requires a better understanding of the lay of the land. To see the Great Sphinx in context we need an idea of what structures surround it, when they were built, and by whom.

 

The Great Sphinx Complex

Although we often think of the structures of the Giza Plateau in terms of individual monuments, temples, and tombs, it would be more accurate to think of the entire region from Saqqara in the south to the Giza Plateau in the north as one large necropolis made up of distinct but integrated complexes. Pyramids, for example, are but the centerpiece of mortuary complexes consisting of temples, monuments, family cemeteries, sometimes complete microcosmic models of the entire kingdom, all within an enclosure wall. Pyramid and tomb complexes combine to represent dynasties, and some areas serve to connect entire periods of Egypt’s long history.

spx13 – nocap map of the Great Sphinx complex

The complex of the Great Sphinx is laid out in such a way that allows us to see how the Sphinx was viewed in the context of different epochs. Some of these periods are better understood than others due to more complete records and more easily interpreted archaeological discoveries. The role of the Great Sphinx as a god during the New Kingdom Period, for example, is well attested to. Less obvious is what the Sphinx represented to the Old Kingdom, where we have what was apparently a major temple dedicated to its service, but not a single tomb attributed to one of its priests.

 

The Old Kingdom Temple

The Old Kingdom Temple is situated directly in front of the Great Sphinx, although there is no direct passage leading from the temple to the Sphinx. The core of the Sphinx Temple was constructed of the same porous limestone as the body of the Sphinx and bears the same signs of erosion, which seems to indicate that they were both constructed at around the same time. The inside of the temple was originally lined with superior Tura limestone and pink granite imported from Aswan. The floor was paved with fine alabaster, and the temple’s overall construction closely resembles that of the valley and mortuary temples of Khafre.

The outside of the temple was partially faced with granite and it appears that it was originally intended to be entirely covered, leading to speculation that it may have never been completed, or possibly never even used. This, while a mystery by its own right, would at least explain why no priests’ tombs have been located, and why no Old Kingdom records of the temple’s use have been found. Most of its internal granite and finer limestone were stripped away long ago, exposing the soft core to erosion. There are no surviving inscriptions, if there ever were any.

The eastern wall of the Old Kingdom Temple of the Sphinx, which lies just to the east of the Sphinx itself (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

The eastern wall of the Old Kingdom Temple of the Sphinx, which lies just to the east of the Sphinx itself (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

The Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple was built with a north-south orientation with two entrances—each with its own chapel—on the eastern face. The entrances and their chapels may have represented Upper and Lower Egypt. The temple proper, which has east, west, and central sanctuaries, is thought to have been associated with the sun god as he made his daily transition. In the morning the Sphinx and his temple would face Khepri, the rising sun. At noon they would be under Re at his zenith. In the evening the Sphinx in its enclosure and the temple before it would lie in the shadows cast by Atum at his setting.

The Solar Temples of Re built by the kings of the Fifth Dynasty appear to have been modeled after the Sphinx Temple. There was a center court that was open to the sky, and the face of the Sphinx was visible to devotees. The court was ringed with rectangular columns, and there are indentations in the floor before these columns that suggest statuary would have once lined the court. Covered sanctuaries are located in the east and west sections of the temple, within their own colonnades.

Indentation in the alabaster floor of the Sphinx Temple where cult statues would have once stood (Photo by Daniel Mayer)

Indentations in the alabaster floor of the Sphinx Temple where cult statues would have once stood (Photo by Daniel Mayer)

The similarities between the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple and Khafre’s adjacent valley temple cannot be denied. The core masonry of Khafre’s valley temple appears to be made of the same limestone as the Sphinx Temple and the body of the Sphinx itself. Like the Sphinx Temple, the valley temple was dressed with higher quality limestone and pink Aswan granite, and has similar rectangular pillars unadorned with inscriptions. The floors of both temples were paved with alabaster and even posses the same square indentations for cult statues. (For more read Khafre’s Valley Temple.)

A good case is made for Khafre being the pharaoh who had the Great Sphinx and its Old Kingdom Temple constructed. But there are other contenders, and before we can fully consider all the evidence we need to leap forward a millennium to the next major phase of construction—and reconstruction—in the complex of the Great Sphinx.

 

The Dream of Thutmose IV

The Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt is full of intrigue, high drama, and famous pharaohs. Hatshepsut, Akhenaton, Tutankhamun.. Their stories have filled books and made careers. Amidst these larger than life personalities we have Thutmose IV, a pharaoh who was probably not intended to be king, but who wrote his own romance and crafted his story with the skill of a Hollywood promoter.

Thutmose IV (Photo by Siren)

Thutmose IV (Photo by Siren)

Once upon a time, as the story goes, a young prince named Thutmose IV, son of Amenhotep II, was hunting on the Giza Plateau. Finding himself tired and in need of a nap, the prince sought shelter in the shade of the head of the Great Sphinx, which had become buried up to its neck in the drifting sand. As he dozed, the sun god Horemakhet came to Thutmose and promised him that if he would clear away the accumulated sand and restore the Sphinx to his former glory, then he would become the next pharaoh. This was good news indeed for, while he may have been a royal prince, Thutmose was not next in line to become king.

A reproduction of the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV, the original remains in the votive chapel between the Great Sphinx’s paws (Photo by Capt. Mondo)

A reproduction of the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV, the original remains in the votive chapel between the Great Sphinx’s paws (Photo by Capt. Mondo)

Thutmose IV did his part by clearing out the Sphinx enclosure and making various repairs and restorations, including a small open chapel between the Great Sphinx’s paws, and a large memorial stela that detailed the dream and the pact formed between the prince and Horemakhet. For his part, Horemakhet kept his promise and Thutmose IV became the next pharaoh after Amenhotep II.  

  

The Great Sphinx as Horemakhet, Validator of Thutmose IV

By the Eighteenth Dynasty the Great Sphinx had become associated with the sun god Horemakhet, which means “Horus in the horizon.” At least as early as the time of Thutmose I the area around the Sphinx was a hive of activity. Royalty and commoners alike made pilgrimages from all over Egypt to pay homage at the pyramid complexes of Khufu and Khafre and to make offerings to Horemakhet.

In the first year of his reign Amenhotep II constructed a temple dedicated to Horemakhet just to the north of the Old Kingdom temple on a small bluff overlooking the Sphinx enclosure. Although this was the primary New Kingdom temple dedicated to the Great Sphinx as Horemakhet, Amenhotep II built numerous terraces, chapels, and related facilities around the Sphinx dedicated to the sun god as well as the cults of royal ancestors. It might be fair to say that Thutmose IV’s clearing of the enclosure and restoration work on the Sphinx was an extension and continuation of the building projects already instituted by his father.

The Great Sphinx as viewed from behind the New Kingdom Temple of Horemakhet built by Amenhotep II during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Photo by Francesco Gasparetti)

The Great Sphinx as viewed from behind the New Kingdom Temple of Horemakhet built by Amenhotep II during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Photo by Francesco Gasparetti)

When viewed in the context of his political circumstances, Thutmose IV’s civic improvements, and indeed, the story on the Dream Stela itself, seem to have more to do with propaganda than piety. Thutmose was not the heir apparent, and the destruction of memorial stelae erected by his brothers in their father’s Sphinx temple suggests his ascension was not without conflict. Evoking not only the blessing of Horemakhet, but a prophetic covenant with the sun god of the Sphinx would have helped legitimize his reign in the eyes of the people.

Thutmose IV’s construction program may have served as a grand diversion from the political turmoil associated with his ascension to the throne. But whatever the Dream Stela may or may not tell us of Thutmose IV’s rise to power, it is thought by some to contain a clue as to who built the Great Sphinx.

 

Who Built the Sphinx?

Egyptologists traditionally attribute the construction of the Great Sphinx to Pharaoh Khafre. Along with the above cited similarities between the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple and the valley temple of Khafre, the Sphinx’s location in relation to Khafre’s pyramid complex is taken by some to suggest the Sphinx was intended to be a part of that complex. The valley temple and the Sphinx Temple are parallel to each other, with Khafre’s causeway angling past the Sphinx to his mortuary temple. The Great Sphinx’s location in front of Khafre’s Pyramid as it rises from the high point of the plateau certainly seems to have been planned for maximum effect.

The Dream Stela is considered significant to this question because part of Khafre’s name seems to be written on it, although the section is damaged, so we can’t be 100% certain. And even if it is Khafre’s name, it does not appear in a context that suggests the Sphinx’s construction is being attributed to him. It would seem that the evidence of the Dream Stela is inconclusive at best.

In addition, another tablet called the Amenhotep II Stela has been recovered from the Sphinx enclosure that dates from the same time, but lists both Khafre and Khufu, also without attributing the Sphinx to either of them. This raises the question of whether Khufu’s name may also have originally appeared on the Dream Stela in the section near Khafre’s name that has been damaged. Having these kings mentioned on a couple of stelae so clearly associated with the Sphinx without attributing the Sphinx’s construction to either of them seems odd, as if its existence during their time was a given.

Yet another argument in support of the Sphinx having been built by Khafre comes from Dr. Zahi Hawass. Hawass suggests that a drainage ditch leading from Khafre’s causeway empties into the Sphinx enclosure, something the builders would never have done if the Sphinx had already been there. Thus, the Sphinx must have been built after the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre.

But geologist Colin Reader has pointed out that the proposed drainage ditch does not actually extend all the way to the enclosure, falling some 35 meters short, and excavations have failed to indicate any evidence that the ditch ever extended beyond that point (source: Khufu Knew the Sphinx). Reader proposes that the “ditch” may actually be a boundary marker, citing more likely catchment areas for water runoff.

Rainer Stadelman, formerly of the German Archaeological Institute, has offered several reasons for thinking the Great Sphinx predates Khafre. One observation he made is that the earliest New Kingdom depictions of the Sphinx seem to associate it with Khufu’s Pyramid rather than Khafre’s. Stadelman also points to the fact that the Sphinx enclosure was quarried by Khufu’s builders as well as Khafre’s. Why would they have left the limestone outcropping from which the Sphinx is carved for Khafre to develop rather than either excavating it for building materials or creating the Sphinx themselves? Bear in mind that the section of hard limestone from the top layer that was left in place for the head suggests that a monolithic sculpture was planned from the very beginning of quarrying in the area.

The front-on view from the east, seems to associate the Sphinx with Khafre’s Pyramid complex (Photo by Keith Payne)

The front-on view from the east, seems to associate the Sphinx with Khafre’s Pyramid complex (Photo by Keith Payne)

And let us now return the question of which angle is the Great Sphinx to be viewed from. As mentioned before, if viewed from the front (the east) then the Pyramid of Khafre does indeed frame the Sphinx in a most impressive manner. But Egyptian art, from hieroglyphics to frescos, depicts its subjects in profile. When the Great Sphinx is approached from the south, the direction of the ancient city of Memphis rather than from the much later city of Cairo, it appears in profile with Khufu’s Pyramid behind it. The presence of the Sphinx’s tail on the south side further seems to indicate that its builder intended it to be viewed from that perspective.

The profile view from the south, which shows the most detail, including the tail, seems to associate the Sphinx with Khufu’s Pyramid complex (Photo by Hedwig Storch)

The profile view from the south, which shows the most detail, including the tail, seems to associate the Sphinx with Khufu’s Pyramid complex (Photo by Hedwig Storch)

This also brings us full circle to the question of the Sphinx’s smallish head, made all the more conspicuous when viewed in profile. Is it possible that the Great Sphinx was indeed originally a regal lion, a solar god from the Early Dynastic Period, possibly the First or Second Dynasty? Rather than having been constructed by Khafre or Khufu, perhaps its presence was the reason Khufu broke with tradition and built his pyramid at Giza rather than the southern part of the necropolis. And perhaps his desire for his pyramid to appear behind the Sphinx in profile may have led to his decision to build his pyramid where he did, rather than the higher, seemingly more ideal location used later by his son, Khafre.

spx21 – no caption facesSo whose face appears on the Great Sphinx, and why did it replace the original head? The reason is uncertain and may have been, as suggested previously, due to damage rendered to the head that made restoring it as a lion impossible without throwing it even more out of proportion. But it has been suggested by some (and rejected by others) that the broad, flat face and the square chin seem to favor Khufu more than Khafre.

The Great Sphinx’s Beard – An Eighteenth Dynasty addition, or an Old Kingdom artifact that was updated (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

The Great Sphinx’s Beard – An Eighteenth Dynasty addition, or an Old Kingdom artifact that was updated (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

It has also been pointed out that, unlike both the Sphinx and Khufu, Khafre was always depicted with a beard. A beard for the Great Sphinx has been discovered, but its style is more indicative of the Eighteenth Dynasty, leading some to believe that it is an attachable beard created for the Sphinx sometime around the reign of Thutmose IV. However, Dr. Zahi Hawass and Dr. Mark Lehner have found evidence suggesting the beard comes from the same layer of strata as the head, and that rather than having been created in the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was coifed (re-sculpted) to match the prevailing style. But then again, the bearded statues of Khafre all have the beard attached solidly from the chin to the neck, whereas the Sphinx’s beard appears to be detachable. Etc!

These arguments could be hashed and rehashed until we wear a hole in the floor as deep as the Sphinx enclosure. The simple truth is we do not know, and will likely never know, who built the Sphinx, when it was built, what it originally may or may not have looked like, and whose face now adorns it, sans a nose. But we will never stop trying to figure it out, nor should we.

 

Modern Conservation Efforts

Rising water tables is a problem that is popping up all over Egypt, and the appearance of pools of standing water around the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple and southeast of the Sphinx enclosure made it obvious that radical measures were called for. In 2008 Cairo University’s Engineering Center for Archaeology and Environment drilled four holes beneath the Sphinx that enabled them to lower cameras and other equipment into Giza’s subterranean world.

They discovered that the ground water had risen to just over fifty feet above sea level. The decision was made to place eight pumping stations around the Sphinx complex, which remove about 7,000 cubic meters of water every day. The pools of water have mostly disappeared, and Cairo University, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and geologists, Egyptologists, and scientists of all walks continue to search for a more permanent solution than pumping out the ground water as it seeps in.

The Great Sphinx and its related complex continue to draw thousands of visitors every day from all corners of the Earth. It is one of the world’s perennial sources of ancient information, mystical inspiration, and curious speculation. Like many of Egypt’s treasures, its ability to tease with occasional revelations while still maintaining a storehouse of unanswered mysteries is what holds our attention century after century.

The Great Sphinx will always withhold some of his secrets for himself (Photo by Keith Payne)

The Great Sphinx will always withhold some of his secrets for himself (Photo by Keith Payne)

 

See Also

 

  

Additional Online Resources

 

Egyptian Monuments

The Sphinx, by Su Bayfield

 

Talking Pyramids

Riddle of the Sphinx, by Vincent Brown

Photo of the Week – Sphinx, by Vincent Brown

 

Tour Egypt

The Great Sphinx of Giza- an Introduction, by Allen Wilson

The Old and New Kingdom Sphinx Temples at Giza, by Allen Wilson

 

Heritage Key

Drilling Under the Sphinx: A Heritage Key Video About Keeping Your Paws Dry, by Keith Payne

 

Zahi Hawass’ Blog

Sphinx Scientific Update Report, by Zahi Hawass

 

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Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.

Photographs Sphinx MET 11.185.jpg,” by Rosemanios, “Louvre 032007 19” by Neithsabes (Sebi), “Le Sphinx Armachis, Caire” from National Media Museum, “Giza_Plateau_-_Great_Sphinx_temple-_area_where_ statues_used_to_be” by Daniel Mayer, “ThoutmôsisIVLouvre” by Siren, “ReproductionOfDreamSteleOfThutmoseIV RosicrucianEgyptianMuseum” by Capt. Mondo, “Giza sfinge e piramidi” by Francesco Gasparetti, courtesy of Gaspa, “Great Sphinx of Giza 0912” by Hedwig Storch are provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of those files under the conditions that you appropriately attribute them, and that you distribute them only under a license identical to this one. Official license Photographs “07_sphinx_front,” “Beard_of_the_sphinx,” and “Sphinx of Hetepheres II – fourth dynasty of Egypt” are provided courtesy of Jon Bodsworth.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 24th, 2009 at 7:33 pm and is filed under Monuments, New Kingdom, Old Kingdom, The Giza Plateau. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 comments so far

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 1 

You’ve got my problem – where to put treatises like this that aren’t news but are long articles for future reference. I don’t have the answer yet either, but I hope this is an article to manage to keep toward the top somehow because it really is very comprehensive. I’ll drop you a link now at AE4All.

November 2nd, 2009 at 9:08 pm
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 2 

Hi Kate! Thanks for the linkback from AE4All.

Content management is always a challenge. The way I have been dealing with it is to just post reference articles like this the same as news, and rely on the category system in the sidebar.

So far it is working pretty well. I get fairly regular hits daily on articles such as Khufu’s Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, and of course, the series on Jean-Pierre’s work on Khufu. And there will be more reference material to come. The next big project will be Abydos. I plan on expanding what I did with Heritage Key, but over the course of several articles, and in more detail than I could really get into with those, which were really focused on the ARCE symposium. (What I wouldn’t give to have been at that!)

WordPress is pretty good for content management, and I am not using the software anywhere near its capabilities. I will probably begin porting the reference articles into static pages at some point, but for now I like being able to premier them on the front page.

Always a work in progress, as you very well know!

November 2nd, 2009 at 10:03 pm
john
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 3 

Those were great pictures! how’d you get so many close ups?

March 4th, 2012 at 8:01 am
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 4 

Hi John,

Thank you so much for reading the article and taking the time to post!

At the time I was in Egypt (Spring 1997) it was not too difficult to get fairly close to the Great Sphinx. I was not able to get into the Sphinx enclosure because they were doing repair and restoration work, and it is important to protect heritage monuments from souvenir hunters! Just look at Khufu’s sarcophagus, where people have knocked off their own chips from the breakage originally wrought by ancient tomb robbers. Photography from the 1800’s compared to its condition today shows that people have been gradually wearing it down so they can bask in the private glory of knowing they helped destroy an ancient artifact for personal reasons.

But I don’t mean to get off on a tangent!

When I was there we were able to view the Sphinx from the Royal Causeway to Khafre’s Pyramid, which when you are talking about something as large as the Great Sphinx, is pretty close indeed. The other sphinx shots I took were from the open air museums at Mit Rahina, and the Temples of Luxor and Karnak.

–K

March 7th, 2012 at 6:00 pm
Austin
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 5 

Just what I needed for my project! Thanks! Great pictures by the way

February 28th, 2013 at 8:28 pm
Sky Lackey
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 6 

this is all very cool

March 12th, 2013 at 11:41 am

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