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The Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx of Giza

An icon of ancient Egyptian culture, the enigmatic Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most instantly recognizable artifacts in the world. Hewn from a single colossal limestone outcrop, the origins of this 20 metres (66 feet) high, 73 metres (241 feet) long and 19 metres (63 feet) wide figure of a recumbent lion with the head of an Egyptian pharaoh remains as controversial and as mysterious as ever.

The Great Sphinx’s west-to-east orientation aligns with the ancient Egyptian’s view that the East represents birth and renewal, whilst the West represents death.

This immense carving on the Giza plateau is widely thought by Egyptologists to have been created during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE), in the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre (2558-2532 BCE). Other archaeologists contend it was created by Khafre’s brother Djedefre (2566-2558 BCE), following his attempt to usurp the throne after the death of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589-2566 BCE), the inspiration behind the Great Pyramid.

Facts About The Great Sphinx of Giza

  • The Great Sphinx is a colossal carving of a mythological creature with the head of a Pharaoh and body of a lion carved from a single massive limestone outcrop
  • Its axis is oriented East to West and it stands 20 metres (66 feet) high, 73 metres (241 feet) long and 19 metres (63 feet) wide
  • The Great Sphinx forms part of the sprawling Giza Necropolis complex on the west bank of the Nile
  • To date, no inscriptions have been discovered on the Great Sphinx indicating who built it, the date it was commissioned or its purpose
  • The most commonly accepted date for the Great Sphinx is around 2500 BC, however, some archaeologists or historians believe it is as much as 8,000 years old
  • Over the years, numerous attempts to stabilise and restore the Great Sphinx have been made, however, the Sphinx continues to deteriorate under the combined assaults of weather, climate and human air pollution.

Academic Disputes

Few ancient artifacts have garnered as many competing theories as to its age and origin as the Great Sphinx of Giza. New Age theorists, Egyptologists, history and engineering professors have proffered competing theories. Some claim the Sphinx is far older than the generally accepted 4th-Dynasty date accorded to by most mainstream Egyptologists. Some have propounded theories that the Great Sphinx is 8,000 years old.

While the archaeologists and Egyptologists vigorously debate who ordered the Sphinx to be shaped in their image and when it was refashioned, the one thing they can agree on is it remains a masterful work of art. Indeed, for centuries, the Great Sphinx was the world’s largest sculpture.

Why the Great Sphinx was created and what purpose it served remains hotly debated.

What’s In a Name?

The ancient Egyptians referred to the immense statue as shesep-ankh or “living image.” This name was also associated with other statues depicting royal figures. The Great Sphinx is actually a Greek name, which may have originated from the Greek legend of the mythical sphinx in the Oedipus tale where the beast combined the body of a lion with a woman’s head.

The Giza Plateau

The Giza Plateau is a large sandstone plateau overlooking the Nile River’s West Bank. It is one of the world’s great archaeological sites. The three majestic pyramids built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure physically dominate the plateau.

Alongside the Great Sphinx of Giza sits the three pyramids and the Giza Necropolis. The Great Sphinx is located slightly southeast of Khufu’s Great Pyramid.

Dating the Construction of the Great Sphinx

Mainstream Egyptologists largely agree the Sphinx was carved during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre around 2500 BC. Most Egyptologists agreed the Great Sphinx’s face is that of the Pharaoh Khafre’s likeness. However, there is some dissent over this time frame.

Currently, evidence supporting the theory of the Sphinx being carved during the reign of Khafre remains circumstantial. To date, no inscriptions have been discovered on the statue tying its construction to any specific pharaoh or date.

Initially, Egyptologists believed the Sphinx stele a slab of stone inscribed with hieroglyphs indicates the shifting desert sand buried the monument prior to Khafre’s reign. Contemporary theories point out that the artistic style of the Sphinx’s execution appears to align with the style of the Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre’s father.

Khafre’s Causeway especially seems to have been constructed to accommodate an existing structure, which could have only been the Great Sphinx. Another fringe theory is that the visible damage caused by water erosion on the Great Sphinx suggests it was carved during a time when Egypt experienced heavy rainfall. This factor places its construction around 4000 to 3000 BC.

What was the Great Sphinx’s Purpose?

If the Sphinx really was constructed during Khafre’s reign, it is likely it was built to celebrate the pharaoh. The Sphinx is just one of a cluster of structures built in honour of the sun god cult and the deceased pharaoh. The colossal structure could have been designed to associate the deceased king with Atum the sun god. One translation of the Egyptian name for the Sphinx is “living image of Atum.” Atum represented both the god of creation symbolized by the sunrise in the east and the setting sun in the west. Hence, the Great Sphinx was oriented along an east-west axis.

A Pharaoh’s Head and a Lion’s Body

At the heart of the Great Sphinx’s mystique were its lion’s body and its male head and human face. This current appearance is one of several forms the Sphinx is thought to have adopted. Considerable debate surrounds the Sphinx’s human head. One question is whether the Sphinx’s head was intended to be male or female. Another question is whether the face is typically African in form.

Early drawings depict the Sphinx as appearing clearly female, while others show it as definitively male. Complicating the discussion is the missing lips and nose. The Sphinx current flat profile adds to the difficulty of defining how the Sphinx appeared originally.

One fringe theory suggests the human inspiration for the Great Sphinx’s appearance may have sprung from an individual suffering from prognathism, which surfaces in a protruding jaw. This medical condition would manifest in lion-like features together with a flatter profile.

Some authors suggest the Great Sphinx has a strong connection with astrology. They claim the Great Sphinx’s lion shape is associated with the constellation of Leo, while the Giza pyramids are oriented towards the constellation of Orion with the Nile reflecting the Milky Way. Most Egyptologists view these claims as pseudoscience and dismiss their hypotheses.

Great Sphinx’s Construction

The Great Sphinx of Giza was carved from a single monumental limestone outcrop. This stratum displays marked colour variations graduating from soft yellow to a harsher grey. The body of the Sphinx was carved from the softer, yellow shades of stone. The head is formed from the harder grey stone. Other than the damage to the Sphinx’s face, its head remains its defining attribute.  The Sphinx’s body has suffered from significant erosion.

The lower body of the Sphinx was built from massive stone blocks from the base quarry. Engineers also employed these blocks in constructing the neighbouring temple complex. Building began on the Sphinx with the excavation of aspects of the rock outcrop to remove some massive stone blocks. The monument was then carved from the exposed limestone. Unfortunately, this construction method frustrated attempts to use carbon dating techniques to pinpoint the Sphinx’s construction date.

Three tunnels have been discovered in the Sphinx. Unfortunately, the passage of time has obscured their original destinations. Similarly, the scarcity of inscriptions found on and around the Great Sphinx has limited our understanding of the structure, giving rise to the evocative “Riddle of the Sphinx.”

The Sphinx’s Rich Mythology

In ancient mythology, the Sphinx is a monster combing a lion’s body with a human head. Some cultures depict the Sphinx as having an eagle or a roc’s wings.

The ancient Greek’s version of their Sphinx myth shows the Sphinx with a woman’s head, in contrast to the earlier Egyptian myth, where the Sphinx had a man’s head.

In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx was predominantly a benevolent creature, which acted as a guardian entity. By contrast, in Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a cruel monster, eternally ravenous that posed riddles before eating all those unable to correctly answer its riddles.

The Greek Sphinx was similarly shown as a guardian, but one renowned for its pitiless dealings with those it questioned. The Greek Sphinx guarded the city gates of Thebes. Believed to be a demonic manifestation heralding destruction and doom, the Greek Sphinx is usually shown with the head of a seductive woman, the wings of an eagle, a powerful lion’s body and a serpent as a tail.

Re-Discovery and Continuing Restoration Efforts

Thutmose IV launched the Great Sphinx’s first recorded restoration effort in around 1400 BC. He ordered the Sphinx’s now buried front paws to be excavated. The Dream Stele, a granite slab commemorating the work was left there by Thutmose IV. Egyptologists also suspect Ramses II ordered a second excavation effort sometime during his reign between 1279 and 1213 BC.

The first excavation attempt on the Sphinx of the modern era occurred in 1817. This major excavation effort successfully excavated the Sphinx’s chest. The Sphinx was uncovered in its entirety between 1925 and 1936. In 1931, the Egyptian government ordered engineers to restore the Sphinx’s head.

Even today, restoration work on the Sphinx continues. Unfortunately, much of the earlier masonry employed in its restoration has done more harm than good, while wind and water erosion has badly affected the Sphinx’s lower body. The layers on the Sphinx continue to deteriorate, particularly around its chest area.

Reflecting on the Past

The Great Sphinx has served as an enduring symbol of Egypt from ancient times to the present day. The Sphinx has fired the imaginations of poets, artists, Egyptologists, adventurers, archaeologists and travellers over the centuries. Its enigmatic style has also provoked endless speculation and contending theories concerning its age, its commissioning, its meaning or its inscrutable secrets.

Header image courtesy: MusikAnimal [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons