Sphinx Temples

There are two Sphinx temples: one sits directly in front of the Sphinx and is dated to the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt; the second lies to the north-east of the Sphinx and is dated to the New Kingdom.

Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple

The Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple sits on a wide terrace roughly eight feet lower than the base of the Sphinx. This terrace was originally paved with alabaster with granite facing but this has almost all gone now and it is in poor condition.

Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple plan

The Sphinx temple is built from the same blocks of limestone as the Sphinx itself and the valley temple of Khafre leading many to suggest that the Sphinx is contemporaneous with Khafre’s pyramid complex. These blocks are of relatively poor quality and have eroded badly.

This temple is very similar in layout to Khafre’s mortuary temple. The two entrances in the eastern face, are lined with pink granite. It is thought that the builders planned on covering all of the external walls in granite, but the building was unfinished leaving the poorer quality limestone blocks open to the elements and so they were badly damaged. The inside of the Sphinx temple was paved in alabaster and clad in fine Tura limestone, alabaster, and granite.

Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple (copyright HoremWeb)

The eroded limestone core of the temple is all that remains now. From this we know that it featured a central open air court paved with alabaster with an altar in the centre. The court was surrounded by a pillared colonnade with a series of large recesses in the eastern and western walls to hold cult statues. The temple seems to have had two sanctuaries, one in the east and the other in the west. This level of symmetry was unconventional for its time, leading to much speculation on the form of worship intended to be carried out in the temple

Ricke’s suggestion that the temple was the home of a solar cult (which worshipped Khepri as the rising sun, Ra as the midday sun, and Atum as the setting sun) has gained fairly widespread acceptance from other Egyptologists. The temple itself was oriented to the rising and setting sun and the Great Sphinx is often associated with solar theology. If this is the case, it is the earliest known solar temple in ancient Egypt.

New Kingdom Sphinx Temple (copyright Ben Snooks)

Ricke also suggested that the twenty-four columns of the colonnade reflect the hours of the day and that there may have been ten or twelve statues in the court representing the hours of daylight. The two sanctuaries may have represented day and night. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain. Without more information the meaning of the temple architecture and the activities of any cult located there are conjecture.

Doorway of the New Kingdom Sphinx Temple with the cartouche of Amenhotep II (copyright HoremWeb)

Lehner’s measurements suggest that during the Fourth Dynasty an observer standing in the temple during the equinoxes would be able to see the sun set behind Khafre’s pyramid, and during the summer solstice would see the sun set at the midpoint between Khafre and Khufu’s pyramids. This further supports the conjecture that Khafre built this temple.

This temple was not finished and no references to any priests or priestesses servicing the temple have been recovered so far. It was probably never operational.

New Kingdom temples

The largest New Kingdom temple dedicated to the Sphinx was built by Amenhotep II to the north-east of the Sphinx. It was destroyed in antiquity but has now been restored. It takes the form of an open sun temple with a stepped dais and offering area.

  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Lehner, Mark (1997) The Complete Pyramids
  • Malek, J (2000) “The Old Kingdom”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
  • Verner, Miroslav (1997)The Pyramids

Copyright J Hill 2016