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The Great Sphinx and the Glimmering Light of History

The Sphinx engulfed by desert sands

The Sphinx engulfed by desert sands

In the shadow of the Pyramids, on the edge of the Giza plateau, sits one of Egypt's most extraordinary monuments—the Great Sphinx.

Carved out of the natural bedrock and enlarged with blocks of limestone, this enormous statue of a recumbent lion with a human head is the largest surviving sculpture from the ancient world. It is also the earliest colossal sculpture the Egyptians erected, so old that for much of history the Egyptian Pharaohs knew not from when it came, and themselves worshipped it as a God.

It is generally accepted that the Sphinx was built by Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2575—2465 BC) during the Old Kingdom, the age of the great pyramid builders. There is speculation that the monument may be older than this, however, for an inscription within the Great Pyramid, dating from 600 BC, records that Pharaoh Khufu—Khafre's father—carried out repairs on the Sphinx's tail and headdress. Some believe that the Sphinx may have been built by Khufu; others date it as far back as 3100 BC, before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and think that the Old Kingdom temples were simply built around it. If so, the Sphinx would predate the earliest phase of Stonehenge, and be among the most ancient monuments from antiquity that have survived intact into modern times.

What was the Sphinx?

The original purpose of the Sphinx is unknown. It may have been built to symbolically guard over the Giza plateau, and it may have been a portrait of Pharaoh Khafre. It's face seems to bear a resemblance to Khafre's, and the royal headdress that it wears is particular to pharaohs.

The Sphinx today

The Sphinx today

Facing due east, the Sphinx is aligned with the rising sun each morning, and later Egyptian rulers worshipped it as an aspect of the sun god, calling it Hor-Em-Akhet (meaning "Horus of the Horizon"). A small chapel between it's outstretched paws contained dozens of inscribed stelae placed by the Pharaohs to honor the god. One of these recounts a dream that Thutmose IV had while taking a nap in the shade of the monument, in which the Sphinx came to him and promised him the crown of Egypt if he would only dig it out of the sand that was engulfing it.

The Sphinx was likely carved out of the bedrock with stone hammers and copper chisels, and as it was being sculpted, a large defect was found in the rock near its hindquarters. Its builders extended the body with large blocks of high-quality Tura limestone—the same stone that encases the pyramids—to cover up the fault, and as a result, the Sphinx's head is far too small for its 236-foot-long body. Legend recorded that there were secret passages under this elongated body, and archaeologists have in fact found three tunnels beneath it. They seem to date from pharaonic times, but their purpose remains a mystery.


In front of the pyramids is the Sphinx, which is perhaps even more to be admired than they. It impresses one by its stillness and silence, and is the local divinity of the inhabitants of the surrounding district."

—Pliny the Elder, Roman author and statesman, 1st century AD

The Missing Nose of the Sphinx

There are several stories explaining the Sphinx's famous missing nose; one is that it fell off when Napoleon's archaeologists were investigating the statue; another is that the Mameluke army used the Sphinx for target practice, and a lucky artillery shot blew it off. Neither of these tales are true.

The nose was probably removed in the 8th century AD by a Sufi who considered the Sphinx a blasphemous idol, but all that can be said for certain, based on the tool marks that remain, is that it was deliberately pried off with chisels. The Sphinx's face, which in ancient times was painted dark red, was also decorated with a stone beard and displayed a sculpted cobra on its forehead, both of which have also fallen off. This may explain why for much of the Sphinx's later history, its face was interpreted as a woman's.

Even without its nose the Sphinx's battered visage, jutting out of the shifting sands and weathered rock, beckons to us with its enigmatic smile and watchful eyes. Over the last five millennia the Sphinx has gazed out upon the builders of the pyramids and the armies of Ramesses II, Greek soldiers under Alexander, and Romans under Caesar. It has watched Napoleon and his men as they passed by on their ill-fated expedition in the land of the Pharaohs, and seen British armies marching off to fight Rommel in World War II. Visitors from Herodotus to Mark Twain have gazed upon its face in the setting sun, pondering the glimmering light of history that, slowly receding into the distance, fades into the unknowable past...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum


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