The Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest, the oldest and probably the most famous monumental statues in the world and an iconic symbol of Ancient Egypt. It is a massive seventy-three and a half meters (two hundred and forty-one feet)long and twenty meters (sixty-six feet) high. It takes the form of a couchant lion with the head of a man wearing the Nemes headdress of a pharaoh (although some have argued that it originally had the head of a lion and was later recarved). However, there are numerous debates about its meaning, its age and the name of the pharaoh that built it.

Sphinx copyright Christian Rosenbaum

History

There is no firm evidence that a cult of the Sphinx was active during the Old Kingdom. The Sphinx temple located in front of the Sphinx is thought to date to the Old Kingdom but it was never finished and there are no records of any priests or priestesses servicing this temple so it may never have been operational.

There are some who argue that the Sphinx pre-dates the pyramids and that there was a solar cult acting in the Giza area before Giza became the necropolis of the fourth dynasty kings. It has been proposed that the Sphinx, the Sphinx temple, the mortuary temple and the valley temple of Khafre were built at the same time and that their attribution to Khafre is erroneous. Referring to the Inventory Stela discovered by Mariette and the Dream Stele some have suggested that the Sphinx was in fact renovated during the Old Kingdom. However, this view is unpopular amongst Egyptologists and some who once proposed it now reject the theory.

Sphinx copyright Olaf Tausch

The popularity of the Sphinx reached its height in the New Kingdom, often at the expense of the buildings of the pyramid complexes. In particular the causeway of the pyramid of Khafre seems to have been harvested for the stone to repair the Sphinx and build temples in its honour.

Amenhotep II (eighteenth dynasty, New Kingdom) built a temple to the Sphinx in which he also praises Khufu and Khafre, implying that he considered there was a connection between those two pharaohs and the Sphinx.

The Dream Stele (or Sphinx Stele) records that the son of Amenhotep II, Prince Tuthmosis, apparently fell asleep by the Sphinx who prophesised in his dream that he would become pharaoh if he cleared the sand that had engulfed it.

He did indeed effect repairs to the Sphinx and went on to become Thuthmosis IV of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Tuthmosis replaced sections of masonry that had eroded and built a huge mud brick enclosure wall which resembles a cartouche around the Sphinx quarry. Devotional stele were built into this wall including seventeen which depict Thuthmosis (sometimes accompanied by his wife Nefertari) making offerings to the Sphinx. He also built a temple dedicated to Horemakhet in which the Sphinx is named as Horemakhet-Hauron (Hauron being the Syrian and Palestinian god of the underworld).

The Sphinx fared better than most of the traditional gods during the Amarna Period, perhaps because of its strong solar connection. The remains of a villa built by Tutankhamun (and adapted by Ramesses II) have been found close to the Valley temple of Khafre and there is some evidence of another villa dating to the Amarna Period but it is not clear who should be credited with its construction. Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti were depicted as sphinx so it is possible that the other villa was constructed by this enigmatic pharaoh.

Seti I repaired and renovated the temple built by Amenhotep II and Ramesses II renovated the temple of Tuthmosis IV and added two base reliefs on which he appears making offerings to the sphinx.

Unfortunately a number of New Kingdom mudbrick structures were cleared from the area around the Sphinx during the early twentieth century with little or no record being made of them for posterity.

There is evidence of a fairly major repair during the twenty-sixth dynasty (Third Intermediate Period). Patches of masonry that had crumbled away were replaced and the structure was clad in the same limestone used in earlier repairs. Further restoration was conducted during the Roman Period, but this only consisted of the addition of small brick-sized stones to eroded parts of the body of the Sphinx. These can still be seen in places but as they used relatively soft white limestone they have deteriorated badly.

At some point in history, the Sphinx's nose was damaged. This is blamed on a number of individuals or groups:

  • Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr (a Sufi Muslim living in the area at around AD 1378) apparently vandalised the monument when became enraged on finding Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx to boost the harvest;
  • Either Napoleon himself or members of his army are said to have broken the nose when practicing with their cannon;
  • Mameluk troops are also accused of using the Sphinx for target practice; and
  • The British Army are also said to have taken pot shots at the Sphinx

The accusation against Napoleon is particularly unfair as he undertook one of the first systematic records of the monuments of Giza and by all accounts showed great appreciation of the monuments. In any case, a sketch by Frederic Luis Norden in 1737 shows that the Sphinx was damaged before Napoleon visited Egypt.

There is some evidence that a ceremonial beard was added to the Sphinx some time after its original construction. However, this too is missing.

Names

We do not know what the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom called the Sphinx.

By the New Kingdom the Sphinx was associated with the god Horemakhet (Horus of the Horizon known to the Greeks as Harmachis). The Sphinx enclosure was known as "setepet" ("The Chosen"), possibly referring to the fact many pharaohs visited the Sphinx early in their reign in order to legitimise their rule.

In the Dream Stele the Sphinx is refered to as Horemakhet (Harmachis), Horemakhet-Atum-Khepri and Atum-Re-Horemakhet. In the temple to Horemakhet built by Tuthmosis IV the Sphinx was described as Horemakhet-Hauron. Hauron was the Syrian god of the underworld, and it is thought his name was applied because of Syrian and Palestinian workers employed by Thuthnosis worked in the area.

The name "Sphinx" in fact relates to a Greek mythological beast with the body of a lion, the head of a woman and the wings of an eagle. The Greek name derived from the verb "to strangle" as the Greek sphinx strangled anyone who failed to answer her riddle. This is a story from Greek mythology and although in the legend the sphinx was said to sit outside Thebes it is generally held that it was Thebes in Greece and a completely different sphinx that were referred to. Nevertheless the tale is still told to many tourists who visit Giza!

It is sometimes suggested that this Greek name stuck because of similarities with the term "shesep-ankh" ("living image") which applied to both the Sphinx and to royal statues.

Medieval Arab writers name the Sphinx balhib or bilhaw, but although there appears to be a coptic link to these names their origin is not known. In modern Arabic the Sphinx is called "Abu al-Hol" ("Father of Terror").

copyright J Hill 2010
Return to Top
Ancient Egypt Online

Predynastic period Early Dynastic Old Kingdom First Intermediate Middle Kingdom Second Intermediate New Kingdom Third Intermediate Graeco-Roman period Late period