What is a sphinx?
A sphinx (or sphynx) is a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, with some variations. He is an important mythological figure in Egyptian, Asian and Greek mythology.
In ancient Egypt, the sphinx was a spiritual guardian and most often depicted as a man with a pharaoh’s headdress – as is the case with the Great Sphinx – and figures of the creatures were often included in tomb and temple complexes. For example, the so-called Sphinx Alley in Upper Egypt is a three-kilometer avenue that connects the temples of Luxor and Karnak and is lined with sphinx statues.
Sphinx with the image of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut also exist, such as the granite sphinx statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art In new York and the great alabaster sphinx of the Ramesside temple of Memphis, Egypt.
From Egypt, the sphinx was imported to Asia and Greece between the 15th and 16th centuries BC. Compared to the Egyptian model, the Asian sphinx had eagle wings, was often female, and was often seated on its haunches with one paw raised in depictions.
In Greek traditions, the sphinx also had wings, as well as a serpent’s tail: in legends, it devours all travelers unable to answer its riddle.
How old is the Sphinx?
The most common and widely accepted theory regarding the Great Sphinx suggests that the statue was erected for the pharaoh Khafre (ca. 2603-2578 BC).
Hieroglyphic texts suggest that Khafre’s father, Pharaoh Khufu, built the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids at Giza. When he became pharaoh, Khafre built his own pyramid alongside his father’s; Although Khafre’s pyramid is 10 feet shorter than the Great Pyramid, it is surrounded by a more elaborate complex that includes the Great Sphinx and other statues.
Residue of red pigment on the face of the Sphinx suggests that the statue may have been painted.
Considering the organization of the pyramids and the Sphinx, some scholars believe that the Great Sphinx and the temple complex may have had a celestial purpose, namely to resurrect the soul of the pharaoh (Khafre) by channeling the power of the sun and other gods.
There are several pieces of evidence that connect the Great Sphinx to Pharaoh Khafre and his temple complex.
On the one hand, the head and face of the Sphinx bear a striking resemblance to a life-size statue of Khafre that French archaeologist Auguste Mariette found in the Valley Temple – the ruins of a building located next to the Great Sphinx – in the mid-1800s.
Additionally, Mariette discovered the remains of a causeway (processional route) that connected the valley temple to a mortuary temple next to the pyramid of Khafre. In the early 1900s, French archaeologist Emile Baraize unearthed another building (the Temple of the Sphinx) directly opposite the Sphinx, which is similar in design to the Valley Temple.
In the 1980s, researchers discovered evidence that the limestone blocks used in the walls of the Temple of the Sphinx came from the moat surrounding the great statue, suggesting that workers transported quarry blocks for the Temple of the Sphinx then that they were being chipped away by the Great Sphinx during its construction. .
Researchers estimate that it would have taken 100 people 3 years to sculpt the Great Sphinx from a single mass of limestone. But there is evidence that these workers may have suddenly quit before completely completing the sphinx and temple complex, such as partially quarried bedrock and the remains of a worker’s lunch and tool kit .
Over the years, researchers have put forward many other theories about the origins of the Great Sphinx, although most are refuted by mainstream Egyptologists.
Some theories suggest that the face of the sphinx actually resembles Khufu and therefore it was Khufu who built the structure. Alternatively, Pharaoh Djedefre, Khafre’s older half-brother and another son of Khufu, built the Great Sphinx in commemoration of his father.
Other theories hold that the statue depicts Amenemhat II (c. 1929 to 1895 BC) based on the style of the stripes on the sphinx’s headgear.
Some scientists also claim that the Great Sphinx is much older than commonly believed, based on the potential age of the pavement or the statue’s various erosion patterns.
The enigma of the Sphinx
What the Egyptians called the Great Sphinx in its heyday remains an enigma, as the word sphinx originated in Greek mythology some 2,000 years after the statue was built.
It is also unclear to what extent the Egyptians held the Great Sphinx during the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BC), as there are few texts discussing the statue. However, Khafre associated himself with the god Horus and the Great Sphinx may have been known as Harmakhet (“Horus on the Horizon”), as it was during the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BC) .
Regardless, the statue began disappearing into the desert at the end of the Old Kingdom, at which point it was ignored for centuries.
Inscriptions on a slab of pink granite between the legs of the Great Sphinx tell how the statue was saved from the sands of time. Prince Thutmose, son of Amenhotep II, fell asleep near the Sphinx, the story goes. In Thutmose’s dream, the statue, calling itself Harmakhet, complained of its helpless state and made a deal with the young prince: it would help him become pharaoh if he removed the sand from the statue and restored it.
It is unknown whether the dream actually came true or not, but when the prince became Pharaoh Thutmose IV, he introduced a cult of worship of the Sphinx to his people. Statues, paintings and reliefs depicting the figure appeared across the country and the sphinx became a symbol of royalty and the power of the sun.
Restoration of the Great Sphinx
The Great Sphinx was eventually forgotten again. His body suffered from erosion and his face was also damaged by time.
Although some stories claim NapoleonEgypt’s troops shot the statue’s nose with a cannon upon their arrival in Egypt in 1798. Drawings from the 18th century suggest that the nose disappeared well before this date. It is more likely that the nose was deliberately destroyed by a Sufi Muslim in the 15th century in protest against idolatry. Part of the Sphinx’s royal cobra emblem, its sacred headdress and beard, were also broken, the latter now on display in the British Museum.
The Sphinx was actually buried up to its shoulders until the early 1800s, when a Genoese adventurer named Captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia attempted (and ultimately failed) to unearth the statue with a team of 160 men.
Mariette managed to clear part of the sand around the sculpture and Baraize undertook another major excavation campaign in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan finally managed to free the creature from its sandy grave.
Today, the Sphinx continues to deteriorate due to wind, humidity and pollution. Restoration efforts have continued since the mid-1900s, but some failed and ultimately caused more damage to the Sphinx.
In 2007, authorities learned that the local water table beneath the statue was rising due to sewage spilling into a nearby canal. The moisture eventually spread through the porous limestone of the structure, in some cases causing the rock to crumble and break into large flakes. Authorities installed pumps near the Great Sphinx, diverting groundwater and saving the relic from further destruction.
Road lined with sphinxes discovered in Egypt; Physical Organization.
The Great Sphinx of Giza; Encyclopedia of ancient history.
The mystery of the Great Sphinx; Encyclopedia of ancient history.
Ancient Kingdom of Egypt; Encyclopedia of ancient history.
What happened to the Sphinx’s nose?; Smithsonian.
Saving the Sphinx; PBS/NOVA.