Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx of Giza, commonly referred to as the Sphinx of Giza or just the Sphinx, is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx, a mythical creature.[1] Facing directly from west to east, it stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt. The face of the Sphinx appears to represent the pharaoh Khafre.[2]

Great Sphinx of Giza
Shown within Egypt
LocationGiza, Egypt
Coordinates29°58′31″N 31°08′16″E

Cut from the bedrock, the original shape of the Sphinx has been restored with layers of limestone blocks.[3] It measures 73 m (240 ft) long from paw to tail, 20 m (66 ft) high from the base to the top of the head and 19 m (62 ft) wide at its rear haunches.[4] It is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and one of the most recognisable statues in the world. The archaeological evidence suggests that it was created by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of Khafre (c.2558–2532 BC).[5][6][7]


The original name the Old Kingdom creators gave the Sphinx is unknown, as the Sphinx temple, enclosure and possibly the Sphinx itself was not completed at the time, thus cultural material was limited.[8] In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx was revered as the solar deity Hor-em-akhet (English: Horus of the Horizon; Coptic: ϩⲁⲣⲙⲁϣⲓ; Hellenized: Harmachis),[9] and the pharaoh Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC)[lower-alpha 1] specifically referred to it as such in his Dream Stele.[10]

The commonly used name "Sphinx" was given to it in classical antiquity, about 2,000 years after the commonly accepted date of its construction by reference to a Greek mythological beast with the head of a woman, a falcon, a cat, or a sheep and the body of a lion with the wings of an eagle. (although, like most Egyptian sphinxes, the Great Sphinx has a man's head and no wings).[11] The English word sphinx comes from the ancient Greek Σφίγξ (transliterated: sphinx) apparently from the verb σφίγγω (transliterated: sphingo / English: to squeeze), after the Greek sphinx who strangled anyone who failed to answer her riddle.[citation needed]

Medieval Arab writers, including al-Maqrīzī, call the Sphinx balhib and bilhaw, which suggest a Coptic influence. The modern Egyptian Arabic name is أبو الهول (ʼabu alhōl / ʼabu alhawl IPA: [ʔabu alhoːl], "The Terrifying One"; literally "Father of Dread").



The Sphinx is a monolith carved from the bedrock of the plateau, which also served as the quarry for the pyramids and other monuments in the area.[12] The archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Sphinx was created around 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafre, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza.[13] The stones cut from around the Sphinx' body were used to construct a temple in front of it, however both the enclosure and this temple were never completed and the relative scarcity of Old Kingdom cultural material suggests that a Sphinx cult was not established at the time.[14]

Selim Hassan, writing in 1949 on recent excavations of the Sphinx enclosure, made note of this circumstance:

Taking all things into consideration, it seems that we must give the credit of erecting this, the world's most wonderful statue, to Khafre, but always with this reservation: that there is not one single contemporary inscription which connects the Sphinx with Khafre; so, sound as it may appear, we must treat the evidence as circumstantial, until such time as a lucky turn of the spade of the excavator will reveal to the world a definite reference to the erection of the Sphinx.[15]

In order to construct the temple, the northern perimeter-wall of the Khafre Valley Temple had to be deconstructed, hence it follows that the Khafre funerary complex preceded the creation of the Sphinx and its temple. Furthermore, the angle and location of the south wall of the enclosure suggests the causeway connecting Khafre's Pyramid- and Valley Temple already existed before the Sphinx was planned. The lower base level of the Sphinx temple also indicates that it doesn't predate the Valley Temple.[5]

Natural rock formation at Farafra - Egypt
Natural rock formation at Farafra - Egypt

Egyptian geologist Farouk El-Baz has suggested that the head of the Sphinx may have been carved first, out of a natural yarding, i.e. a ridge of bedrock that had been sculpted by the wind. These can sometimes achieve shapes which resemble animals. El-Baz suggests that the "moat" or "ditch" around the Sphinx may have been quarried out later to allow for the creation of the full body of the sculpture.[16]

New Kingdom

The New Kingdom Dream Stele between the paws of the Sphinx.

Some time around the First Intermediate Period, the Giza Necropolis was abandoned, and drifting sand eventually buried the Sphinx up to its shoulders. The first documented attempt at an excavation dates to c.1400 BC, when the young Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC) gathered a team and, after much effort, managed to dig out the front paws, between which he erected a shrine that housed the Dream Stele, an inscribed granite slab (possibly a repurposed door lintel from one of Khafre's temples). When the stele was discovered, its lines of text were already damaged and incomplete. An excerpt reads:

... the royal son, Thothmos, being arrived, while walking at midday and seating himself under the shadow of this mighty god, was overcome by slumber and slept at the very moment when Ra is at the summit [of heaven]. He found that the Majesty of this august god spoke to him with his own mouth, as a father speaks to his son, saying: Look upon me, contemplate me, O my son Thothmos; I am thy father, Harmakhis-Khopri-Ra-Tum; I bestow upon thee the sovereignty over my domain, the supremacy over the living ... Behold my actual condition that thou mayest protect all my perfect limbs. The sand of the desert whereon I am laid has covered me. Save me, causing all that is in my heart to be executed.[17]

The Dream Stele associates the Sphinx with Khafre, however this part of the text is not entirely intact:

which we bring for him: oxen ... and all the young vegetables; and we shall give praise to Wenofer ... Khaf ... the statue made for Atum-Hor-em-Akhet.[18]

Egyptologist Thomas Young, finding the Khaf hieroglyphs in a damaged cartouche used to surround a royal name, inserted the glyph ra to complete Khafre's name. When the Stele was re-excavated in 1925, the lines of text referring to Khaf flaked off and were destroyed.[citation needed]

Later, Ramesses II the Great (1279–1213 BC) may have undertaken a second excavation.

In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became more specifically associated with the sun god Hor-em-akhet (Hellenized: Harmachis) or "Horus-at-the-Horizon". Pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427–1401 or 1397 BC) built a temple to the northeast of the Sphinx nearly 1000 years after its construction and dedicated it to the cult of Hor-em-akhet.[19]

Classical antiquity

Pliny the Elder describes the face of the Sphinx being colored red and gives measurements for the statue.[20]

Middle Ages

Some ancient non-Egyptians saw it as a likeliness of the god Horon. The cult of the Sphinx continued into medieval times. The Sabians of Harran saw it as the burial place of Hermes Trismegistus. Arab authors described the Sphinx as a talisman which guarded the area from the desert.[21] Al-Maqrizi describes it as the "talisman of the Nile" of which the locals believed the flood cycle depended upon.[22] Muhammad al-Idrisi stated that those wishing to obtain bureaucratic positions in the Egyptian government gave incense offering to the monument.[23]

European travellers

French archaeologist Auguste Mariette (seated, far left) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (seated, far right) with others in front of the Sphinx, 1871
The Great Sphinx partly under the sand, ca. 1870s

In the last 700 years, there has been a proliferation of travellers and reports from Lower Egypt, unlike Upper Egypt, which was seldom reported from prior to the mid-18th century.[citation needed] Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Cairo and the Giza Pyramids are described repeatedly, but not necessarily comprehensively. Many accounts were published and widely read. These include those of George Sandys, André Thévet, Athanasius Kircher, Balthasar de Monconys, Jean de Thévenot, John Greaves, Johann Michael Vansleb, Benoît de Maillet, Cornelis de Bruijn, Paul Lucas, Richard Pococke, Frederic Louis Norden and others. But there is an even larger set of more anonymous people who wrote obscure and little-read works, sometimes only unpublished manuscripts in libraries or private collections, including Henry Castela, Hans Ludwig von Lichtenstein, Michael Heberer von Bretten, Wilhelm von Boldensele, Pierre Belon du Mans, Vincent Stochove, Christophe Harant, Gilles Fermanel, Robert Fauvel, Jean Palerne Foresien, Willian Lithgow, Joos van Ghistele, etc.

Over the centuries, writers and scholars have recorded their impressions and reactions upon seeing the Sphinx. The vast majority were concerned with a general description, often including a mixture of science, romance and mystique.[citation needed] A typical[citation needed] description of the Sphinx by tourists and leisure travelers throughout the 19th and 20th century was made by John Lawson Stoddard:

It is the antiquity of the Sphinx which thrills us as we look upon it, for in itself it has no charms. The desert's waves have risen to its breast, as if to wrap the monster in a winding-sheet of gold. The face and head have been mutilated by Moslem fanatics. The mouth, the beauty of whose lips was once admired, is now expressionless. Yet grand in its loneliness, – veiled in the mystery of unnamed ages, – the relic of Egyptian antiquity stands solemn and silent in the presence of the awful desert – symbol of eternity. Here it disputes with Time the empire of the past; forever gazing on and on into a future which will still be distant when we, like all who have preceded us and looked upon its face, have lived our little lives and disappeared.[24]

From the 16th century far into the 19th century, observers repeatedly noted that the Sphinx has the face, neck and breast of a woman. Examples included Johannes Helferich (1579), George Sandys (1615), Johann Michael Vansleb (1677), Benoît de Maillet (1735) and Elliot Warburton (1844).

Most early Western images were book illustrations in print form, elaborated by a professional engraver from either previous images available or some original drawing or sketch supplied by an author, and usually now lost. Seven years after visiting Giza, André Thévet (Cosmographie de Levant, 1556) described the Sphinx as "the head of a colossus, caused to be made by Isis, daughter of Inachus, then so beloved of Jupiter". He, or his artist and engraver, pictured it as a curly-haired monster with a grassy dog collar. Athanasius Kircher (who never visited Egypt) depicted the Sphinx as a Roman statue, reflecting his ability to conceptualize (Turris Babel, 1679). Johannes Helferich's (1579) Sphinx is a pinched-face, round-breasted woman with a straight haired wig; the only edge over Thévet is that the hair suggests the flaring lappets of the headdress. George Sandys stated that the Sphinx was a harlot; Balthasar de Monconys interpreted the headdress as a kind of hairnet, while François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz's Sphinx had a rounded hairdo with bulky collar.[citation needed]

Richard Pococke's Sphinx was an adoption of Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of 1698, featuring only minor changes, but is closer to the actual appearance of the Sphinx than anything previous. The print versions of Norden's careful drawings for his Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie, 1755 are the first to clearly show that the nose was missing. However, from the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt onwards, a number of accurate images were widely available in Europe, and copied by others.[citation needed]

Modern excavations

The Great Sphinx partially excavated, ca. 1878
The Spinx circa 1880s, by Beniamino Facchinelli

In AD 1817 the first modern archaeological dig, supervised by the Italian Giovanni Battista Caviglia, uncovered the Sphinx's chest completely. One of the people working on clearing the sands from around the Great Sphinx was Eugène Grébaut, a French Director of the Antiquities Service.[25]

In the beginning of the year 1887, the chest, the paws, the altar, and plateau were all made visible. Flights of steps were unearthed, and finally accurate measurements were taken of the great figures. The height from the lowest of the steps was found to be one hundred feet, and the space between the paws was found to be thirty-five feet long and ten feet wide. Here there was formerly an altar; and a stele of Thûtmosis IV was discovered, recording a dream in which he was ordered to clear away the sand that even then was gathering round the site of the Sphinx.[26]

Opinions of early Egyptologists

Prior to thorough excavations and evaluation of the evidence that was yet to be unearthed, Egyptologists and excavators were of divided opinion regarding the age of the Sphinx and the associated temples.

In 1857, Auguste Mariette, founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, unearthed the much later Inventory Stela (estimated to be from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, c. 664–525 BC), which tells how Khufu came upon the Sphinx, already buried in sand. Although certain tracts on the Stela are likely accurate,[27] this passage is contradicted by archaeological evidence, thus considered to be Late Period historical revisionism,[28] a purposeful fake, created by the local priests as an attempt to imbue the contemporary Isis temple with an ancient history it never had. Such acts became common when religious institutions such as temples, shrines and priests' domains were fighting for political attention and for financial and economic donations.[29][30]

Flinders Petrie wrote in 1883 regarding the state of opinion of the age of the Khafre Valley Temple, and by extension the Sphinx: "The date of the Granite Temple has been so positively asserted to be earlier than the fourth dynasty, that it may seem rash to dispute the point. Recent discoveries, however, strongly show that it was really not built before the reign of Khafre, in the fourth dynasty."[31]

Gaston Maspero, the French Egyptologist and second director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, conducted a survey of the Sphinx in 1886. He concluded that because the Dream Stela showed the cartouche of Khafre in line 13, it was he who was responsible for the excavation and therefore the Sphinx must predate Khafre and his predecessors—possibly Fourth Dynasty, c.2575–2467 BC. Maspero believed the Sphinx to be "the most ancient monument in Egypt".[32]

Ludwig Borchardt attributed the Sphinx to the Middle Kingdom, arguing that the particular features seen on the Sphinx are unique to the 12th dynasty and that the Sphinx resembles Amenemhat III.[32]

James Henry Breasted reserved his opinion on the matter.[32]

E. A. Wallis Budge agreed that the Sphinx predated Khafre's reign, writing in The Gods of the Egyptians (1904): "This marvelous object [the Great Sphinx] was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren,[lower-alpha 2] and it is probable that it is a very great deal older than his reign and that it dates from the end of the archaic period [c.2686 BC]."[33]

Selim Hassan reasoned that the Sphinx was erected after the completion of the Khafre pyramid complex.[32]

Recent restorations

In 1931, engineers of the Egyptian government repaired the head of the Sphinx. Part of its headdress had fallen off in 1926 due to erosion, which had also cut deeply into its neck.[34] This questionable repair was by the addition of a concrete collar between the headdress and the neck, creating an altered profile.[35] Many renovations to the stone base and raw rock body were done in the 1980s, and then redone in the 1990s.[36]

Panoramic view of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza, 2010

Degradation and violation

The nummulitic limestone of the area consists of layers which offer differing resistance to erosion (mostly caused by wind and windblown sand), leading to the uneven degradation apparent in the Sphinx's body.[12][37] The lowest part of the body, including the legs, is solid rock.[1] The body of the animal up to its neck is fashioned from softer layers that have suffered considerable disintegration.[38] The layer in which the head was sculpted is much harder.[38][39] A number of "dead-end" shafts are known to exist within and below the body of the Great Sphinx, most likely dug by treasure hunters and tomb robbers. Prior to 1925, a large gaping shaft similar to these existed on the top of the Sphinx's head. It is believed to have possibly been an anchoring point for a sculpted crown or headdress added during the period of the New Kingdom.[citation needed]

Missing nose and beard

The Sphinx in profile in 2010
Limestone fragments of the Sphinx's beard in the British Museum, 14th Century BC.[40]

Examination of the Sphinx's face shows that long rods or chisels were hammered into the nose area, one down from the bridge and another beneath the nostril, then used to pry the nose off towards the south, resulting in the one-metre wide nose still being lost to date.[41] Mark Lehner, who performed an archaeological study, concluded that it was intentionally broken with instruments at an unknown time between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD.[42]

Drawings of the Sphinx by Frederic Louis Norden in 1737 show the nose missing.[43] Many folk tales exist regarding the destruction of its nose, aiming to provide an answer as to where it went or what happened to it. One tale erroneously attributes it to cannonballs fired by the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Other tales ascribe it to being the work of Mamluks. Since the 10th century some Arab authors have claimed it to be a result of iconoclastic attacks.[42]

The Arab historian al-Maqrīzī, writing in the 15th century, attributes the loss of the nose to Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim from the khanqah of Sa'id al-Su'ada in 1378, who found the local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest and therefore defaced the Sphinx in an act of iconoclasm. According to al-Maqrīzī, many people living in the area believed that the increased sand covering the Giza Plateau was retribution for al-Dahr's act of defacement.[44][45] Ibn Qadi Shuhba mentions his name as Muhammad ibn Sadiq ibn al-Muhammad al-Tibrizi al-Masri, who died in 1384. He attributed the desecration of the sphinxes of Qanatir al-Siba built by the sultan Baybars to him, and also said he might have desecrated the Great Sphinx. Al-Minufi stated that the Alexandrian Crusade in 1365 was divine punishment for a Sufi sheikh of the khanqah of Sa'id breaking off the nose.[23]

In addition to the lost nose, a ceremonial pharaonic beard is thought to have been attached, although this may have been added in later periods after the original construction. Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev has suggested that had the beard been an original part of the Sphinx, it would have damaged the chin of the statue upon falling.[46] The lack of visible damage supports his theory that the beard was a later addition.[citation needed]

Residues of red pigment are visible on areas of the Sphinx's face and traces of yellow and blue pigment have also been found elsewhere on the Sphinx, leading Mark Lehner to suggest that the monument "was once decked out in gaudy comic book colours".[47] However, as with the case of many ancient monuments, the pigments and colours have since deteriorated, resulting in the yellow/beige appearance it has today.


Numerous ideas have been suggested to explain or reinterpret the origin and identity of the Sphinx, that lack sufficient evidential support and/or are contradicted by such, and are therefore considered part of pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology.

Ancient Astronauts/Atlantis

  • The Sphinx is oriented from west to east, towards the rising sun, in accordance with the ancient Egyptian solar cult. The Orion correlation theory posits that it was instead aligned to face the constellation of Leo during the vernal equinox around 10,500 BC. The idea is considered pseudoarchaeology by academia, because no textual or archaeological evidence supports this to be the reason for the orientation of the Sphinx.[48][49][50][51]
    Weathering Sphinx's body
  • There is a long history of speculation about hidden chambers beneath the Sphinx, by esoteric figures such as H. Spencer Lewis. Edgar Cayce specifically predicted in the 1930s that a "Hall of Records", containing knowledge from Atlantis, would be discovered under the Sphinx in 1998. His prediction fueled much of the fringe speculation that surrounded the Sphinx in the 1990s, which lost momentum when the hall was not found when predicted.[56]
  • Author Robert K. G. Temple proposes that the Sphinx was originally a statue of the jackal god Anubis, the god of funerals, and that its face was recarved in the likeness of a Middle Kingdom pharaoh, Amenemhet II. Temple bases his identification on the style of the eye make-up and style of the pleats on the headdress.[57]

Racial characteristics

Until the early 20th century, it was suggested that the face of the Sphinx had "Negroid" characteristics, as part of now outdated historical race concepts.[58][59]


See also


  1. See Thutmose IV#Dates and length of reign
  2. Early Egyptologists were inconsistent in their transliteration of pharaonic names: Khafre and Khephren are both references to Khafre.


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