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Ancient Egypt - The Great Sphinx

Updated: Nov 10, 2020


The Great Sphinx, located west of Khafre's pyramid, is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt. As to whether Djedefre or Khafre constructed it is a matter of debate. The Sphinx was carved from the bedrock of the plateau, which also served as the quarry for the pyramids and other monuments in the area. A possibility is that the workmen, when building Khafre's causeway, ran into into a huge sandstone rock, and instead of moving it, they carved out the Sphinx. If this is true, the Sphinx could be considered an accident, something not really planned.

It is about 66-feet high and about 240-feet long. The Great Sphinx is one of the world's largest and oldest statues, but basic facts about it are still subject to debate, such as when it was built, by whom and for what purpose. For most of the last four-and-a-half-millennia it has been buried in sand. In roughly 1419 B.C., Prince Tuthmosis cleared away the sand and erected a stele commemorating the event.

The one-metre-wide nose on the face is missing. Examination of the Sphinx's face shows that long rods or chisels were hammered into the nose, one down from the bridge and one beneath the nostril, thenm used to pry the nose off towards the south.

The Arab historian al-Maqrīzī, writing in the 15th century, attributes the loss of the nose to iconoclasm by Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim, in AD 1378. Upon finding the local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest, he destroyed the nose, and was later hanged for vandalism.

There is a story that the nose was broken off by a cannonball fired by Napoleon's soldiers. Other variants indict British troops. But sketches of the Sphinx in 1738 show the Sphinx missing its nose and this predates Napoleon's birth in 1769.

In addition to the lost nose, a ceremonial pharaonic beard is thought to have been attached, but this was most likely added in later periods after the original construction. Pharaohs wore false beards. They were usually clean shaven, but it was a sign of authority to have a beard. During official occasions, they wore a straw, or even human hair, beard that was plated and with a chin strap. Even the powerful female rulers participated in this custom at times. The Sphinx has indentations indicating a chin strap.

Fragments of red pigment are visible on areas of the Sphinx's face. Traces of yellow and blue pigment have been found elsewhere on the Sphinx, leading Mark Lehner to suggest that the monument: "was once decked out in gaudy comic book colors."

The Sphinx has the head of a man and the body of a lion. What is the significance of this? To the Ancient Egyptians the Sphinx represented two things: the power of the lion and the intelligence of man.

The lion during pharaonic rule was a sort of talisman or totem animal to the pharaoh. Later in Egyptian history, Ramesses II was reported to have a pet lion with him when he went into battle.


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