Riddles of the Sphinx: Video Review

   Posted by: Shemsu Sesen   

Categories: Old Kingdom, New Kingdom, Video Reviews, Monuments, The Giza Plateau

riddles of the sphinx-tabWho built the Great Sphinx?  Why did they build it?  How did they build it?  These questions and more are addressed in Riddles of the Sphinx, by the PBS series NOVA.

Featuring Mark Lehner, Zahi Hawass, Rick Brown, Gunter Dreyer, Richard Redding, Rainer Stadelman, and Fathi Mohamed.



Riddles of the Sphinx primarily features Dr. Mark Lehner, but we also have significant face time with ancient tools specialist Rick Brown and informative snippets with Gunter Dryer, Richard Redding, Rainer Stadelman, and the obligatory sequences with Zahi Hawass.  It was written and produced by Gary Glassman of Providence Pictures for the PBS series NOVA (Original air date—January 19, 2010).

As the title suggests, the program addresses several timeless riddles of the Great Sphinx, namely, who built it, why, and how?


Who Built the Great Sphinx?

The question of who built the Great Sphinx is tackled by Rainer Stadelman, who makes the case for Pharaoh Khufu, and Mark Lehner, who makes a pretty convincing argument for Khufu’s son, Khafre.  Lehner points to the Sphinx’s location on the Giza Plateau.  Granted, it is located between the pyramids of both Khufu and Khafre, but Lehner explains that at the equinox the sun is aligned with the Sphinx, the Sphinx Temple, and Khafre’s Pyramid, which seems to associate these three monuments together.

Rainer Stadelman makes a much simpler, but nonetheless potent, argument:  the face of the Sphinx looks a lot more like Khufu than Khafre.  Incidentally, Em Hotep looks at this question in the article “The Great Sphinx: What We Know, What We Think We Know, What We Will Never Know”.  I have to admit, I didn’t get any further than Drs. Lehner and Stadelman in settling the question of who built the Sphinx, which isn’t too surprising!  But the face does seem to look an awful lot like Khufu.

One possibility the video does not address is that Khafre built the Sphinx, but may have attached his father’s face to it.  Some see this as a bit of a stretch, and Lehner’s geographic argument is pretty tight.  But there are geographic reasons for associating the Great Sphinx with Khufu as well, which are detailed in the Em Hotep article.


Why Was the Great Sphinx Built?

To explore why the Great Sphinx was built, the video first looks at what it represents.  We start with a trip to Abydos with Dr. Gunter Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute.  Excavations of the tomb of Aha, the second pharaoh of the First Dynasty, revealed that along with human servants, lions were sacrificed and buried with the king.  This shows that even in the earliest days of Egyptian history, lions were associated with the monarch.

The video states that these leonean sacrifices are the first clue to the meaning of the Sphinx’s form.  The lion was a symbol of pharaonic power, but the Great Sphinx was also a god.  The Egyptians often depicted their gods as human/animal hybrids, but typically with human bodies and animal heads.  But the sphinx has the body of a lion, to represent power and ferocity, and the head of a man, to represent intelligence and good judgment.

Shown from profile, the Sphinx’s head appears disproportionately tiny compared to the rest of its body (Photo by Keith Payne)Riddles of the Sphinx goes on to explain that by the Eighteenth Dynasty, after a thousand years of obscurity and neglect, the Sphinx was back in style.  After being rescued and restored by Pharaoh Thutmose IV the Sphinx becomes associated with the god Horemakhet (the video says Horus Akhet—same god), who is the personification of “Horus on the Horizon.”  The horizon is the gateway to the afterlife, and thus, the Sphinx is the guardian—and gatekeeper—of the afterlife.

Building on Lehner’s theory of who constructed the Sphinx, the video concludes that the reason for its construction was to assure Khafre’s passage into the afterlife.  Just as the sun aligns on the horizon with the Sphinx, its temple, and Khafre’s Pyramid during the equinox, the time of both rebirth and harvest, so the Sphinx as Horus on the Horizon guides the deceased Pharaoh into the hereafter.

But this is where I think the video glosses over some other possibilities.  A thousand years is a long time.  Egypt experienced a lot of development, along with a couple of Dark Ages, in the gulf between the Fourth Dynasty, when the Sphinx was presumably built, and the Eighteenth Dynasty, when it was clearly associated with Horemakhet. I don’t think the video makes a convincing case for the Eighteenth Dynasty interpretation of the Sphinx being a revival of the original beliefs and practices surrounding the Great Sphinx.

The Fourth Dynasty is silent with regard to the Great Sphinx.  There are no textual or graphic representations of what it meant or how it was revered within the Sphinx Temple, the pyramids, or on the Sphinx itself.  What we know comes from the time of Amenhotep IV, and may be more of a contemporary interpretation than an ancient revival. After all, everything Amenhotep IV knew of the Sphinx he learned in a mystical vision.

As with who built the Sphinx, the video does not really settle the question of why it was built either.


How Was the Great Sphinx Built?

The question of how the Great Sphinx was built takes up a generous portion of the video and is some of the most enjoyable viewing.  Operating on the philosophy that experience is the best teacher, the subjects of the video divide into two teams who attempt to reproduce various aspects of the building process. 

On one team we have Egyptologist Dr. Richard Redding of the University of Michigan working with local sculptor and stonemason, Fathi Mohamed.  Team One sets about sculpting a miniature sphinx from the same limestone that was used to construct the head of the original, which happens to also be the hardest layer of the strata from which the Sphinx was carved.  Redding and Mohamed use modern steel hand tools in their project.

ancient stone cutters at workOn the other team, Mark Lehner joins Rick Brown, a specialist in ancient tools, who reproduces the pounders and copper chisels that would have been used by the original stonecutters.  For their project, Lehner decides to attempt to reproduce a scaled-down model of the Great Sphinx’s missing nose using only the tools employed by the Fourth Dynasty builders.  This idea turned out to be better on the strategic level than on the tactical level.  Implementation had… mixed results.

Right off the bat Mohamed and Redding discover that the hard limestone is bending their steel tools.  As for Lehner and Brown, their copper chisels are faring much more badly.  They find they can only get a few dozen strikes out of each chisel before it is fouled beyond use.  They discover very quickly that the process of reheating and reshaping the chisels back at the forge is at least as labor intensive as the actual stonecutting itself.

One of the unexpected joys of watching Riddles of the Sphinx was how surprisingly musical the hammering and pounding were.  Not the chisels so much, but the sound of the harder stone pounders striking the limestone was actually very resonate and pleasing to the ear.  Striking varying densities of stone would produce different tones, so one can only imagine what a symphony the workers must have produced.  It is something you have to hear to understand, and is one of the several reasons I recommend you check out this video for yourself.

The effects of the limestone on the tools themselves, however, was decidedly less pleasant, and by the end of the video Lehner and Brown are forced to resort to a pneumatic chisel and a circular saw designed to cut stone.  But even using modern power tools they find that the methods for cutting the stone are the same.  Parallel cuts are made in the stone, and then a chisel is used to remove the material between the cuts.

This method of carving away the limestone by making cuts and then chiseling away the material between is actually very similar to how the layers of surrounding strata were cleared from the Sphinx enclosure.  The video explains that the ancient workers started out by cutting a horseshoe-shaped trench around what would become the Sphinx enclosure.  Then parallel lines were cut into the plateau and blocks were cut away from the material between.

The Great Sphinx as viewed from the ruins of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple (Photo by Keith Payne)In working this way the stonecutters carved through the strata, downward and inward, until a large central block was isolated, from which the Great Sphinx itself was then carved.  The blocks that were removed in the process were carted off for other projects such as temple and pyramid building.  In fact, by matching layers of strata, Lehner seems to have demonstrated that the blocks which make up the Sphinx Temple were quarried from around the Sphinx itself.

Although we may not know who made the Sphinx or why, we have a pretty good idea of how.  And even though Lehner and Brown had to abandon their ancient-style tools, they were able to complete enough work with them to calculate how long the project would have taken.

They counted an average of about 200 strikes with the stone pounders per five minutes, and given a constant supply of replacement chisels, a worker could remove one cubic foot of stone in about 40 hours.  Lehner projects that it thus took about 1 million man-hours to carve the Great Sphinx, or three years for 100 men.  But that is only counting the stonecutters.  There were also the smiths who reworked the spent chisels, the people who gathered fire wood for the forges, the runners carrying tools, etc.  As we shall see in the in-progress Pyramid City series, entire towns emerged around these construction projects.

Redding and Mohamed were also successful in completing their miniature sphinx, but given that Lehner and Brown also ended up resorting to modern tools, I am not really sure of what Redding and Mohamed contributed to the program. 


Riddles Upon Riddles

There are other riddles addressed in the video as well.  For example, Dr. Zahi Hawass addresses another question people often ask about the Sphinx—If it was carved from one massive block, straight out of the living stone of the Giza Plateau, then why are there so many smaller blocks visible?  The answer is simple:  thousands of years of repair work by various cultures.  In addition to the original project by Thutmose IV, the Sphinx has undergone renovations right up to modern days.

Part of the problem in modern times is the pollution and vibrations caused by tourists, traffic, and near-by construction.  But the main destructive force, and one which has been in progress since the Sphinx was first built, is the process of rising ground water forcing residual salt up into the limestone.  The salt then dries and crystallizes, which is literally pushing the grains of limestone apart from within.

The effect is devastating.  In one particularly wince-worthy scene, Mark Lehner pulls a flake of limestone the size of his hand from the surface of the Sphinx and literally crumbles it to dust.  The effect of viewing this is akin to hearing fingernails on a chalkboard, but Lehner gets his point across—the Great Sphinx is in great peril.

(Author’s Rant:  If Albert Zink and Carsten Pusch can drill holes into royal mummies, and Mark Lehner can tear chunks from the Great Sphinx and crush them in his bare hands, then why is Jean-Pierre Houdin not allowed to, in effect, take high tech photographs of the Great Pyramid?  Is someone afraid that Houdin’s work might drill holes in, or crumble to dust, something more personal?  Hmmmm?)  


Riddles of the Sphinx, which I had the privilege of viewing in high definition, is beautifully filmed and edited.  In addition to the above-mentioned musical stones, there are many scenes which make its viewing well worth your time.  In one scene, for instance, we see Zahi Hawass walking down the back of the Sphinx toward its head.  This is an angle of the Sphinx we normally do not see, and it drives home how long and narrow the structure is.  The odd shape of the Sphinx—its long body and disproportionately small head—has spawned its own series of queries and riddles.

I highly encourage you, Gentle Reader, to check out Riddles of the Sphinx for yourself.  I am not convinced with all of the answers it proposes, but sometimes the fun is in not yet knowing.  I tend to enjoy journeys more than arrivals, myself.

Transcripts of the video are available here.


See Also


Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010.  All rights reserved.

Drawing “Stone-cutters finishing the dressing of limestone blocks” Drawn by Faucher-Gudin (Maspero, Gaston. History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria. Vol. II, Part A. London: Grolier Society) courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 at 11:24 pm and is filed under Old Kingdom, New Kingdom, Video Reviews, Monuments, 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.

3 comments so far

Jean-Pierre Houdin

Hi Keith,

Once again, I enjoyed reading your article…and thanks for …Author’s Rant 😉

In fact the true questions are:
Who carved the Sphinx ?
and who gave his face to the Sphinx ?

Who knows ?….;-)

March 22nd, 2010 at 7:29 am


Thank you! The author’s rant is a privilege that comes with doing the work. It has to be used with discretion, or you risk discrediting yourself, but it seemed both timely and relevant.

And of course, I was being a bit dramatic to make my point. I know Mark Lehner was not damaging the Great Sphinx! The damage he was showing has already been done by natural forces. And the work done by Drs. Zink and Pusch was done under the most exacting and demanding of standards, and I have spent a considerable amount of time in the last month sorting out the data, as a post later this evening will show.

My point is that your work is every bit as well structured, even less invasive, and at least as important as the work done by the above. Its time. You should be allowed to progress.

I agree that the salient questions are who carved the Sphinx and whose face is on it. Would that be a wink of the knowing variety?

My money is on Khufu. I could be wrong, and that’s ok. But when I look at the face of the Sphinx I see Khufu, regardless of who carved the face and when. Hopefully readers will weigh in here with their own theories. Consider yourselves invited!

March 22nd, 2010 at 1:23 pm
Tanmoy Chakraborty


I enjoyed your article. I never saw this video program myself, but would try to find one copy soon.

I have two questions for you. I hope you would find time to answer them. I am intrigued by Egypt, and by the fact that we may not duplicate the Great Pyramids with out most modern technology and equipments. Anyway, these are the questions-

1) We know that the Sphinx was built by carving out a single massive block of limestone. Now, what was (approximate) weight of that original stone, and how did the Egyptians moved that stone to its place?

2) We know that in August-September in 1999, this team, after learning from their experiences, they were able to successfully erect one (It was done by Rick Brown).

Now, I don’t know the details of that experiment. What was the weight of the stone that they erected? What was that method that they employed to erect it? Did they use any (modern) machine? And does the success of this experiment affirms that we can rebuild the Great Pyramids?

Thank you.

November 10th, 2012 at 6:03 am

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