15 Things You Might Not Know About the Sphinx
The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the oldest, largest, and—best of all—most mysterious monuments ever created by man. Between its expansive mythology, nebulous origins, and alleged connections to worlds beyond our own, the Sphinx is a proverbial treasure trove of esoteric history and information. Here are a few things you might not have known about the towering desert dweller.
1. TECHNICALLY, THE GREAT SPHINX OF GIZA IS NOT A SPHINX.
Not a traditional sphinx, anyway. Although heavily influenced by Egyptian and later Mesopotamian mythology, the classical Greek depiction of the Sphinx consists of the body of a lion, the head of a woman, and the wings of a bird. Giza’s male-identifying landmark is, technically, an androsphinx. The lack of wings further muddles its accepted taxonomy.
2. IN ITS EARLY DAYS, THE SCULPTURE WENT BY A FEW DIFFERENT NAMES.
This ambiguity helps account for the fact that Ancient Egyptians didn’t originally identify the behemoth creature as “the Great Sphinx.” In the text on the Dream Stela from circa 1400 BCE, it's referred to as a "statue of the very great Khepri." When Thutmose IV slept next to it, he dreamt that the god Horem-Akhet-Khepri-Re-Atum came to him and revealed that he was Thutmose's father and if Thutmose cleared the sand around the statue, he would become ruler of all Egypt. After this event, the statue became known as Horem-Akhet, which translates as "Horus of the Horizon." Medieval Egyptians gave the Sphinx various monikers including “balhib” and “bilhaw.”
3. NOBODY IS QUITE SURE WHO BUILT THE SPHINX.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is such a marvelous piece of work that it’s surprising nobody bothered to take credit for it. Even now, without definitive evidence of the statue’s age, modern archaeologists are split over which Ancient Egyptian pharaoh created the landmark.
A popular theory is that the Sphinx emerging during the rule of Khafre, whose reign during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom would give the statue a birth date in the neighborhood of 2500 BCE. The pharaoh is credited with the aptly named Pyramid of Khafre, the second largest constituent of the Giza Necropolis, and of the adjacent valley and mortuary temples. This collection’s proximity to the Sphinx would tend to support the belief that Khafre was likewise responsible for its development, as do the similarities between the Sphinx’s face and monuments of the pharaoh’s likeness.
However, without documentation of the age of the Sphinx, some scholars have forwarded the notion that the statue predated the works of Khafre. Some attribute construction to Khafre’s father, Khufu, the pharaoh who oversaw creation of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and to Khafre’s half-brother Djedefre. Others date the Sphinx back much further. Ostensible water damage to the face and head has prompted the theory that the Great Sphinx lived through an era during which extensive rainfall rocked the region, which could peg the statue’s origins as early as 6000 BCE.
4. WHOEVER IT WAS, THEY ABANDONED THE JOB IN A HURRY.
A number of findings suggest that the Sphinx was originally intended to be an even greater accomplishment than that which we see today. American archaeologist Mark Lehner and Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass discovered large stone blocks, tool kits, and—if you can believe it—lunches apparently abandoned midway through a workday.
5. LABORERS WHO CONSTRUCTED THE STATUE ATE LIKE KINGS.
Most scientists’ initial assumption was that the men who toiled to bring the Sphinx to life belonged to an enslaved caste. Their diets would suggest otherwise, however; excavations led by Lehner revealed that the statue’s laborers regularly dined on luxurious cuts of prime beef, sheep, and goat meat.
6. THE SPHINX WAS ONCE RATHER COLORFUL.
Though it is now indistinct from the drab tan of its sandy surroundings, the Sphinx may at one time have been completely covered in vivid paint. Remnants of red can be found on the statue’s face, while hints of blue and yellow remain on the body.
7. THE SCULPTURE HAS SPENT QUITE A BIT OF TIME BURIED UNDER SAND.
The Great Sphinx has fallen victim to the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert several times during its long life. The first known restoration of the nearly completely buried Sphinx occurred just prior to the 14th century BCE, thanks to Thutmose IV who would soon ascend to the throne as Egypt’s pharaoh. The three millennia that followed again buried the monument. By the 19th century, the statue’s front arms lived deep beneath the walking surface of Giza. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the statue would once again be fully excavated.
8. THE SPHINX TEMPORARILY LOST ITS CROWN IN THE 1920s.
During this most recent restoration, the Great Sphinx suffered the loss of part of its iconic headdress, as well as severe damage to the head and neck. Consequently, the Egyptian government employed a team of engineers to patch up the statue in 1931. But these restorations began wreaking havoc on the soft limestone, and in 1988 a 700-pound piece of the shoulder fell in front of a German reporter. So, the Egyptian government embarked on a massive restoration effort to undo the damage that earlier restorers had done.
9. A CULT VENERATED THE SPHINX LONG AFTER IT WAS BUILT.
Thanks to Thutmose’s mystical vision at the Sphinx, the sculpture and its represented mythological deity began to win new popularity during the 14th century BCE. Pharaohs ruling over the New Kingdom even ordered the development of a new temple from which the Great Sphinx might be observed and revered.
10. THE EGYPTIAN SPHINX IS MUCH KINDER THAN ITS GREEK COUSIN.
The Sphinx’s modern reputation for tyranny and trickery spawns not from Egyptian mythology, but Greek. The creature’s most famous appearance in Ancient Greek lore came from her run-in with Oedipus, whom she challenged with her allegedly unsolvable riddle. Ancient Egyptian culture valued its Sphinx as a much more benevolent, albeit no less powerful, godlike figure.
11. NAPOLEON ISN’T TO BLAME FOR THE SPHINX’S MISSING NOSE.
The mystery of the Great Sphinx’s lack of nose has generated all kinds of myth and speculation. The most pervasive of these legends blames Napoleon Bonaparte for blasting the protuberance away in a fit of militaristic pride. It’s a great story, but 18th century sketches of the Sphinx indicate that the statue’s dismemberment occurred before the French emperor was even born. Historical writings from the early 15th century accuse a devout Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr of defacing the monument in an effort to undermine the idolatry of Sphinx worshippers. He was lynched soon afterwards.
12. THE SPHINX WENT THROUGH A BEARD PHASE.
Today, remnants of the Great Sphinx’s beard, which was eventually shaved off the statue’s chin via erosion, live in the British Museum and in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, established in Cairo in 1858. However, French archaeologist Vassil Dobrev asserts that the beard was not an original component of the statue but a later amendment. Dobrev backs up his hypothesis with the argument that removal of the beard, if attached from the get-go, would have resulted in damage to the statue’s chin that isn’t readily apparent. The British Museum supports Dobrev’s assessment, proposing that the beard was added to the Sphinx at some point during or soon after Thutmose IV’s restoration project.
13. THE STATUE IS THE OLDEST MONUMENT, BUT NOT THE OLDEST SPHINX.
Nebulous though its age may be, the Great Sphinx of Giza is accepted as the oldest monumental sculpture in human history. However, it could well fall shy of the longevity superlative when compared with other sphinxes. Even if you date the statue to Khafre's reign, sphinxes depicting his half-brother Djedefre and sister Hetepheres II are suspected to predate the Great Sphinx.
14. THAT SAID, IT IS CERTAINLY THE LARGEST.
Furthermore, at 241 feet long and 66 feet high, the Sphinx holds the distinction as the largest monolith statue on the planet.
15. THE SPHINX IS THE FOCUS OF A FEW ASTRONOMICAL THEORIES.
The enigma of the Great Sphinx of Giza has made it a key part of a number of theories about the Ancient Egyptians’ supernatural comprehension of extraterrestrial matters. Some scholars, such as Lehner, have discussed the Sphinx’s involvement alongside the pyramids of the Giza Necropolis, in a massive “power harnessing machine” meant to digest energy from the sun. Another theory, propagated chiefly by British writer Graham Hancock, notes an alignment of the Sphinx, the pyramids, and the Nile River with the stars of the constellations Leo and Orion and the Milky Way. Each theory has encountered its share of skepticism, but with a statue as mysterious as the Great Sphinx, the speculation isn’t likely to stop any time soon.