The Great Sphinx is one of the world’s largest and oldest statues, yet basic facts about it such as the real-life model for the face, when it was built, and by whom, are debated. These questions have collectively earned the title “Riddle of the Sphinx”, a nod to its Greek namesake, although this phrase should not be confused with the original Greek legend.
The Great Sphinx is thought by most Egyptologists to represent the likeness of King Khafra (also known by the Hellenised version of his name, Chephren) who is often credited as the builder as well. This would place the time of construction somewhere between 2520 BC and 2494 BC. Because the limited evidence giving provenance to Khafra is ambiguous and circumstantial, the idea of who built the Sphinx, and when, continues to be the subject of debate. As Dr. Selim Hassan stated in his report regarding his excavation of the Sphinx enclosure of the 1940s:
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.
Those Egyptologists who support this view believe that the context of the Sphinx resides within part of the greater funerary complex credited to Khafra which includes the Sphinx and Valley Temples, a causeway, and the 2nd pyramid. Both temples display the same architectural style employing stones weighing up to 200 tons. It is generally accepted that the temples, along with the Sphinx, were all part of the same quarry and construction process.
One circumstantial piece of evidence used to support the Khafra theory includes a diorite statue of the king that was discovered buried upside down along with other debris in the nearby Valley Temple. Because of its relative proximity to the Sphinx, it is from this relationship that Egyptologists further associate Khafra with the Sphinx.
In addition, the Dream Stela erected by Pharaoh Thutmose IV in the New Kingdom is believed by Egyptologists to associate the Sphinx with King Khafra. When discovered, however, the lines of text were incomplete, only referring to a “Khaf,” and not the full “Khafra.” The missing syllable “ra” was later added to complete the translation by Thomas Young, on the assumption that the text referred to “Khafra.” Young’s interpretation was based on an earlier facsimile in which the translation reads as follows:
...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.
Regardless of the translation, the stela offers no clear record of in what context the name Khafra was used in relation to the Sphinx – as the builder, restorer, or otherwise. The lines of text referring to Khafra flaked off and were destroyed when the Stela was re-excavated in the early 1900s.
In contrast, the “Inventory Stela” (believed to date from the 26th dynasty 664-525 BC) found by Auguste Mariette on the Giza plateau in 1857, describes how Khufu (the father of Khafra, the alleged builder) discovered the damaged monument buried in sand, and attempted to excavate and repair the dilapidated Sphinx. Because of the late dynasty origin of the document and reference to Khufu as the builder and not the accepted Khafra, this particular section of the Inventory Stela is often dismissed by Egyptologists as late dynasty historical revisionism despite other sections relating to Khufu being used by Egytologists as plausible historical reference.
Traditionally, the evidence for dating the Great Sphinx by Egyptologists has been based primarily on fragmented summaries of early Christian writings gleaned from the work of the Hellenistic Period Egyptian priest Manethô, who compiled the now lost revisionist Egyptian history Aegyptika. These works, and to a lesser degree, earlier Egyptian sources, mainly the “Turin Canon” and “Table of Abydos” among others, combine to form the main body of historical reference for Egyptologists, giving a consensus for a timeline of rulers known as the “King’s List,” found in the reference archive; the Cambridge Ancient History. As a result, since Egyptologists have ascribed the Sphinx to Khafra, establishing the time he reigned would date the monument as well.
In 2004, French Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev announced the results of a 20-year reexamination of historical records, during which he uncovered new evidence that suggests the Great Sphinx may have been the work of the little known Pharaoh Djedefre, Khafra's half brother and a son of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Dobrev suggests it was built by Djedefre in the image of his father Khufu, identifying him with the sun god Ra in order to restore respect for their dynasty.
Former director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo, Rainer Stadelmann, suggests it was Khufu, and not his son Khafra, who was responsible for constructing the monument. Stadelmann bases his ideas on the distinct iconography of the headdress and missing, collapsed, beard (the remains are housed in the Cairo museum), which he argues is more indicative of the style of Khufu than Khafra.. He supports this by suggesting that Khafra’s causeway was built to conform to a pre-existing structure, which he concludes, given its location, could only have been the Sphinx.
Senior forensic expert Frank Domingo of the New York Police Department, using his own detailed measurements taken of the Sphinx, determined through forensic drawings and computer analysis that the face of the Sphinx and the face seen on signed statues of Khafra could not be one and the same person .
Many of the most prominent early Egyptologists and excavators of the Giza plateau believed the Sphinx and its neighboring temples to pre-date the 4th dynasty. British Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge stated in his 1904 book Gods of the Egyptians:
This marvelous object [the Great Sphinx] was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren, 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.
French Egyptologist and Director General of Excavations and Antiquities for the Egyptian government, Gaston Maspero, who surveyed the Sphinx in the 1920s asserts:
The Sphinx stela shows, in line thirteen, the cartouche of Khephren. I believe that to indicate an excavation carried out by that prince, following which, the almost certain proof that the Sphinx was already buried in sand by the time of Khafre and his predecessors.
Not withstanding this, the Sphinx’s link with Khafra continues to be the view most widely held by Egyptologists.
What name ancient Egyptians called the statue is unknown. The commonly used name “Sphinx” was given to it in antiquity based on the legendary Greek creature with the body of a lion, the head of a woman and the wings of an eagle, though Egyptian sphinxes have the head of a man. The word “sphinx” comes from the Greek Σφιγξ — Sphinx, apparently from the verb σφιγγω — sphingo, meaning “I strangle,” as the sphinx from Greek mythology strangled anyone incapable of answering her riddle. A few, however, have postulated it to be a corruption of the ancient Egyptian Shesep-ankh, a name applied to royal statues in the Fourth Dynasty, though it came to be more specifically associated with the Great Sphinx in the New Kingdom. In medieval texts, the names balhib and bilhaw referring to the Sphinx are attested, including by Egyptian historian Maqrizi, which suggest Coptic constructions, but the Egyptian Arabic name Abul-Hôl, which translates as “Father of Terror,” came to be more widely used.
The Great Sphinx is a statue with the face of a man and the body of a lion. Carved out of the surrounding limestone bedrock, it is 73.5 meters (241 ft) long, 6 m (20 ft) wide, and has a height of 20 m (65 ft), making it the largest single-stone statue in the world. Blocks of stone weighing upwards of 200 tons were quarried in the construction phase to build the adjoining Sphinx Temple. It is located on the west bank of the Nile River within the confines of the Giza pyramid field. The Great Sphinx faces due east, with a small temple between its paws.
After the Giza Necropolis was abandoned, the Sphinx became buried up to its shoulders in sand. The first attempt to dig it out dates back to 1400 BC, when the young Thutmose IV formed an excavation party which, after much effort, managed to dig the front paws out. Tutmosis IV had a granite stela known as the Dream Stela placed between the paws. The stela reads, in part:
...the royal son, Thothmos, having been 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.
Ramesses II may have also performed restoration work on the Great Sphinx.
It was in 1817 that the first modern dig, supervised by Captain Caviglia, uncovered the Sphinx’s chest completely. The entirety of the Sphinx was finally dug out in 1925.
The one-metre-wide nose on the face is missing. Some legends claim that the nose was broken off by a cannon ball fired by Napoléon’s soldiers and that it still survives. Other variants indict British troops, Mamluks, or others. However, sketches of the Sphinx by Dane Frederick Lewis Norden made in 1737 and published in 1755 illustrate the Sphinx without a nose. The Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, writing in the fifteenth century, attributes the vandalism to Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi fanatic from the khanqah of Sa'id al-Su'ada. In 1378, upon finding the Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest, Sa'im al-Dahr was so outraged that he destroyed the nose, and was hanged for vandalism. Al-Maqrizi describes the Sphinx as the “Nile talisman” on which the locals believed the cycle of inundation depended.
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. The lack of visible damage supported his theory that the beard was a later addition. Additionally, Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann has posited that the rounded divine beard may not have existed in the Old or Middle Kingdoms, only being conceived of in the New Kingdom to identify the Sphinx with the god Horemakhet . This may also relate to the later fashion of pharaohs, which was to wear a plaited beard of authority — a false beard (chin straps are actually visible on some statues), since Egyptian culture mandated that men be clean shaven. Pieces thought to be of this beard are today kept in the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum.
In the last 700 years there have been an endless number of travel reports from Lower Egypt, unlike Upper Egypt where reports prior to the mid 18th century are a rarity. Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Cairo and the Giza Pyramids are described repeatedly, but not necessarily comprehensibly. Many travellers, such as 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 many more, gained fame and fortune due to their often highly popular works. But there is an even larger crowd of more anonymous people that have left reports which exist only in obscure and little-read works, sometimes only as 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 being concerned rather with a general description, often including a mixture of science, romance and mystic. A typical description of the Sphinx by tourists and leisure travellers throughout the 19th and 20th century is echoed by John Lawson Stoddard;
A recurring statement applied to the Sphinx from the 16th century far into the 19th century, is that, it has the face, neck and breast of a woman, like written by Johannes Helferich (1579), George Sandys (1615), Johann Michael Vansleb (1677), Benoît de Maillet (1735) and Elliot Warburton (1844).
When one looks at the portraits by pencil or paint that were done by European travellers (see the gallery below), one realizes that it took Europeans some time to focus accurately on the image of the Sphinx. Seven years after visiting Giza, André Thévet (Cosmographie de Levant, 1556) describes the Sphinx as "the head of a colossus, cause to be made by Isis, daughter of Inachus, then so beloved of Jupiter". He pictured it as a curly haired monster with a grassy dog collar. Athanasius Kircher (who never visited Egypt) depicts the Sphinx as a Roman statue, reflecting his ability to conceptualize, rather than to depict accurately (Turris Babel, 1679). Johannes Helferich's (1579) Sphinx is a pinched-face round-breasted woman with straight hair; the only edge over Thevet is that the hair suggests the flaring lappets of the headdress. George Sandys states that the Sphinx is a harlot; Balthasar de Monconys interprets the headdress as a kind of hairnet, while François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz's Sphinx has a rounded hairdo with bulky collar.
Richard Pococke's Sphinx is 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. With Norden arrives the first near realistic drawing of the Sphinx (Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie, 1755) and he is the first known to depict the missing nose.
Only a minority of observers has left comments on racial characteristics of the Sphinx; When writers do include racial descriptions in in their works, is it nearly always to inform the reader of the non-Hellenized Egyptian, Copt or Muslim characteristics of the Sphinx, as observed by them, using words like Ethiopian, Nubian, African and Negro. Emphasis on the 'black' characteristics of the ancient Egyptians is a common topic in Afrocentrism.
French philosopher Constantin-François Chassebœuf, visited Egypt between 1783 and 1785 remark upon what he saw as "typically negro in all its features". Upon visiting Egypt in 1849, French author Gustave Flaubert, in his travel log chronicling his trip, wrote of the Sphinx: "..its head is grey, ears very large and protruding like a negro’s...the fact that the nose is missing increases the flat, negroid effect. Besides, it was certainly Ethiopian; the lips are thick..
In his work The Negro, published in 1915, W.E.B. Du Bois asserted that the great sphinx is similar to other statues of the world and represented "black, full-blooded negros" which he stated were described as having "high cheek bones, flat cheeks,.. a massive nose, firm projecting lips, and thick hair with an austere and almost savage expression of power.
Not all are so definite in their description. British orientalist Edward William Lane, travelling in Egypt during 1825-1828, writes: "The face is much mutilated; the nose being broken off. This loss gives, to the expression of the face, much of a Negro character; but the features of the countenance of the ancient Egyptians (as well as the comparative lightness of complexion) widely distinguished him from the Negro; and the nose of the former particularly differed from that of the latter; being slightly aquiline, and rather rounded at the end." American writer George William Curtis, travelling in Egypt in 1849, gives a rather short description, reflecting his uncertainty on the subject, writing "Its beauty is more Nubian than Egyptian or rather a blending of both."
According to professor of Jewish history, Yaacov Shavit, most of the European travelers and scholars rejected Volney's views about the sphinx, including British Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge, who wrote that '...all attempts to prove that the Egyptians are of the Negro race are overthrown at the outset by facts which cannot be controverted... the fact, however, remains that the Egyptian fellah is exactly what he was in the earliest dynasties.'
Modern observers have also made notes of the sphinx's characteristics. In 1992, the New York Times published a letter to the editor submitted by then Harvard professor of orthodontics Sheldon Peck in which he commented on a study of the Giza sphinx conducted by New York City Police Department senior forensics artist Frank Domingo. Peck Wrote of the Sphinx, "This is an anatomical condition of forward development in both jaws, more frequently found in people of African ancestry than in those of Asian or Indo-European stock.
The Great Sphinx was believed to stand as a guardian of the Giza Plateau, where it faces the rising sun. It was the focus of solar worship in the Old Kingdom, centered in the adjoining temples built around the time posited for its construction. Its animal form, the lion, has long been a symbol associated with the sun in ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Images depicting the Egyptian king in the form of a lion smiting his enemies appear as far back as the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt. During the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became more specifically associated with the god Hor-em-akhet (Greek Harmachis) or Horus at the Horizon, which represented the Pharaoh in his role as the Shesep ankh of Atum (living image of Atum). A temple was built to the northeast of the Sphinx by King Amenhotep II, nearly a thousand years after its construction, dedicated to the cult of Horemakhet.
English geologist Colin Reader concludes that the Sphinx is only several hundred years older than the traditionally accepted date believing the Sphinx to be a product of the Early Dynastic period. Independently, geologist David Coxill has also come forward to confirm in principle Schoch’s findings, but like Reader has taken a more conservative approach to the dating of the Sphinx, yet concludes: “Nevertheless, it (the Sphinx) is clearly older than the traditional date for the origins of the Sphinx-in the reign of Khafre, 2520-2490 B.C.” Both Schoch and Reader base their conclusions not only on the Sphinx and surrounding enclosure, but have also taken into account other congruent weathering features found on the Giza plateau from monuments such as the Sphinx Temple which are known to be consistent with the time period the Sphinx was constructed.
Because these conclusions require a re-dating of the Sphinx to an earlier time before the construction of large monuments, this theory has not been accepted by mainstream Egyptologists. Alternative theories offered by Egytologists and other geologists to explain this type of erosion include wind and sand, acid rain, exfoliation or the poor quality of the limestone used to construct the Sphinx. Schoch, Reader, and Coxill have independently argued, regardless of when the Sphinx was actually built, that none of these explanations can account for what they consider as geologists to be “classic” water erosion patterns. James Harrell, Lal Gauri, John J. Sinai, and Jayanta K. Bandyopadhyay, who are geologists, have written on the issue in disagreement.
Schoch has also noted, as have others, that the clearly evident disproportionately small size of the head compared to the body suggests the head to have been originally that of a lion, but later re-carved to give the likeness of a pharaoh. Supporting this, he notes the lack of water erosion present on the head, which is of course carved from the same rock as the rest of the statue. This implies that the Egyptian Kings were the inheritors of an already existing structure which they re-made in their own image.
Their initial claims regarding the alignment of the Giza pyramids with Orion (“…the three pyramids were an unbelievably precise terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt”— Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods, 1995, p.375) are later joined with speculation about the age of the Sphinx (Hancock and Bauval, Keeper of Genesis, published 1997 in the U.S. as The Message of the Sphinx). By 1998’s The Mars Mystery, they contend:
…we have demonstrated with a substantial body of evidence that the pattern of stars that is “frozen” on the ground at Giza in the form of the three pyramids and the Sphinx represents the disposition of the constellations of Orion and Leo as they looked at the moment of sunrise on the spring equinox during the astronomical “Age of Leo” (i.e., the epoch in which the Sun was “housed” by Leo on the spring equinox.) Like all precessional ages this was a 2,160-year period. It is generally calculated to have fallen between the Gregorian calendar dates of 10,970 and 8810 BC. (op. cit., p.189)
A date of 10,500 B.C. is chosen because they maintain this is the only time in the precession of the equinoxes when the astrological age was Leo and when that constellation rose directly east of the Sphinx at the vernal equinox. They also suggest that in this epoch the angles between the three stars of Orion’s Belt and the horizon was an “exact match” to the angles between the three main Giza pyramids. This time period coincidentally also coincides with the American psychic Edgar Cayce’s “dating” of Atlantis.
In 2008, the film 10,000 BC became the first motion picture to represent the theories of Hancock and others about the Giza Plateau, showing in one scene, the supposed original Sphinx with a lions head, a possibility considered by Hancock. Nevertheless, Hancock himself is known to have helped the director in the making of the film. Before the film, the theory was presented on earlier documentary films about the origin of the Sphinx.