Compelling Facts and Myths About the Ancient Egyptian Sphinx

The Ancient Egyptian Sphinx
Unlike the Ancient Greeks who described their sphinx as a female, the Ancient Egyptians often depicted it as a male. The most famous among the Ancient Egyptian sphinxes is the Great Sphinx of Giza.
The sphinx is a major landmark of Egypt, a country with vast deserts. The concept of the sphinx originated here. The Greek version of the sphinx is a female monster with a feminine face, breasts, wings, and a tail. According to Ancient Egyptian mythology, the sphinx is a creature with a human head and the body of a lion. You may come across different types of Egyptian sphinxes. Most of them are depicted as males, but there are a few exceptions. The sphinx was considered to be the guardian of royal tombs or temples. The face of the Ancient Egyptian sphinx usually portrays a pharaoh, as he is supposed to be an incarnation of the Sun God.

The Sphinxes of Ancient Egypt

The concept of sphinx originated from the Old Kingdom of Egypt. The first of its kind was made during the reign of the Fourth dynasty rulers, who ruled from 2723 BCE to 2563 BCE. It is believed that, this sphinx portrayed Queen Hetepheres II of the same dynasty. Now, it is kept in the Cairo Museum, Egypt.

Famous Egyptian sphinxes include the granite sphinx of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut, which is now preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Other sphinxes found in the temple complex at Karnak in modern-day Luxor, are ram-headed. It is said that, the temple of God Amun had 900 ram-headed sphinxes. These sphinxes were built by King Ramesses II. A statue of this king can be seen between the paws of these sphinxes. Perhaps, the most striking among the Ancient Egyptian sphinxes is the Great Sphinx of Giza.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

Among the numerous Egyptian sphinxes, the largest, oldest, and the most famous one is the Great Sphinx of Giza. It is situated on the Giza plateau, located on the outskirts of Cairo; and is part of the ancient pyramid complex at Giza. The sphinx of Giza, which is 73.5 meters long, 6 meters wide and 20 meters high; is the largest, single-stone structure in the world. Though there is no evidence pertaining to its age, it is believed that, this sphinx was constructed around 4,600 years ago. It is also said that, the face of the Sphinx of Giza portrays the Fourth dynasty Pharaoh Khafra.

This sphinx faces east, where the Valley Temple of the pyramid complex of Khafra is located. The face is broad and square, with a royal cobra emblem embossed on the forehead. Parts of head cloth can be seen behind the ears. Traces of paint near one ear show that it was once colorful. Originally, the sphinx had a beard, which was excavated later and handed over to the British Museum, London. It is said that, the sphinx lost its nose during a target practice by Napoleon's army. Another contention is that, Turks were responsible for the dilapidated nose.

The head of this Ancient Egyptian sphinx is 10 meters long and 4 meters wide. Its eyes are two meters high and the mouth is two meters wide; the paws are 15 meters long. The body of this gigantic structure has paws, claws and a tail, just like a lion. Between its paws, there is a stone slab with some inscriptions. This slab was added to the original monument at a later stage, by the young King Thutmose IV. The inscriptions narrate a dream of the King (Thutmose); hence, the slab is called 'Dream Stela'. The three tunnels discovered in the sphinx lead nowhere. There are no chambers inside the structure.

The sphinx was carved out of a huge hill of limestone. The structure has several strata of limestone. Compared to its body parts, the head is made of harder strata; and it is more resistant to erosion. However, the hardest part is the base. As the body comprised softer stone, it started wearing away right from the time of its construction. Strong desert winds and annual flooding of the River Nile led to the erosion of the structure. Constant winds buried the sphinx with sand many times over the years, so much so that it has remained under sand for much of its existence. The sphinx had to be dug out on numerous occasions. However, it is considered that, the sand protected this monument from the harsh desert winds and other natural calamities.

Till date, this sphinx has undergone restoration several times; importance is now given to its preservation, rather than excavation-related activities. After all, this national symbol of Egypt, represents the country's ancient history and heritage.