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A sphinx (Ancient Greek: Σφίγξ /sphinx, Bœotian: Φίξ /Phix) is a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head.

The sphinx, in Greek tradition, has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face and breast of a woman. She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are gobbled up whole and eaten by this ravenous monster. Unlike the Greek sphinx which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an androsphinx). In addition, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent in contrast to the malevolent Greek version and was thought of as a guardian often flanking the entrances to temples.

In European decorative art, the sphinx enjoyed a major revival during the Renaissance. Later, the sphinx image, something very similar to the original Ancient Egyptian concept, was exported into many other cultures, albeit often interpreted quite differently due to translations of descriptions of the originals and the evolution of the concept in relation to other cultural traditions.

Generally the role of sphinxes is associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples. The oldest known sphinx was found in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey and was dated to 9,500 BC.

Egyptian sphinxes

What names their builders gave to these statues is not known. At the Great Sphinx site, the inscription on a stele erected a thousand years later, by Thutmose IV in 1400 BCE, lists the names of three aspects of the local sun deity of that period, Khepera - Rê - Atum. The inclusion of these figures in tomb and temple complexes quickly became traditional and many pharaohs had their heads carved atop the guardian statues for their tombs to show their close relationship with the powerful solar deity, Sekhmet, a lioness. Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include one bearing the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, with her likeness carved in granite, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, Memphis, Egypt, currently located within the open-air museum at that site. The theme was expanded to form great avenues of guardian sphinxes lining the approaches to tombs and temples as well as serving as details atop the posts of flights of stairs to very grand complexes. Nine hundred with ram heads, representing Amon, were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.

Perhaps the first sphinx in Egypt was one depicting Queen Hetepheres II, of the fourth dynasty that lasted from 2723 to 2563 BC. She was one of the longest-lived members of the royal family of that dynasty.

The largest and most famous is the Great Sphinx of Giza, Arabic: أبو الهول, sited at the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile River and facing due east (29°58′31″N 31°08′15″E). It is also from the same dynasty. Although the date of its construction is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx now is believed to be that of the pharaoh Khafra.

Greek traditions

From the Bronze Age, the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt, the Greek name, sphinx, was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about Egyptian culture. Heredotus called the ram-headed sphinxes, criosphinges, and the hawk-headed ones, hieracosphinges.

The word sphinx comes from the Greek Σφίγξ, apparently from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning "to squeeze", "to tighten up".This name may be derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride of lions are the lionesses, and kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. The word sphincter derives from the same root. However, the historian Susan Wise Bauer suggests that the word "sphinx" was instead, a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name "shesepankh," which meant "living image," and referred rather to the statue of the sphinx, which was carved out of "living rock" (rock that was present at the construction site, not harvested and brought from another location), than to the beast itself.

There was a single sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck. According to Hesiod, she was a daughter of Orthus and either Echidna or the Chimera, or perhaps even Ceto; according to others, she was a daughter of Echidna and Typhon. All of these are chthonic figures from the earliest of Greek myths, before the Olympians ruled the Greek pantheon. The Sphinx is called Phix (Φίξ) by Hesiod in line 326 of the Theogony, the proper name for the Sphinx noted by Pierre Grimal's The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

In Greek mythology, a sphinx is represented as a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent headed tail.

The sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of Chios, and appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the 6th century BC until the 3rd century AD.

Athena appears in the middle of the upper-half of the middle of a sarcophagus found in the middle pyramid of Giza, with two sphinxes at her side.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

The Sphinx is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and to have asked a riddle of travellers to allow them passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the stories, and was not standardized as the one given below until late in Greek history.

It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asks all passersby the most famous riddle in history: "Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?" She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man - who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane in old age. An allegorical interpretation is also the development of man from a primitive state (four-footed animal), to self-sustained (two-footed) and finally to stable and mature (see tripod). By some accounts (but much more rarely), there was a second riddle: "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first." The answer is "day and night" (both words are feminine in Greek).

Bested at last, the tale continues, the Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. Thus Oedipus can be recognized as a "liminal" or threshold figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the death of the Sphinx, and the rise of the new, Olympian gods.

In Jean Cocteau's retelling of the Oedipus legend, The Infernal Machine, the Sphinx tells Oedipus the answer to the riddle, to kill herself so that she did not have to kill anymore, and also to make him love her. He leaves without ever thanking her for giving him the answer to the riddle. The scene ends when the Sphinx and Anubis, who is there to kill the victims who cannot answer the riddle, ascend back to the heavens. The Sphinx was very iconic in different cultures.

Sphinxes in South and South-East Asia

A composite mythological being with the body of a lion and the head of a human being is present in the traditions, mythology and art of South and South-East Asia Variously known as purushamriga (Sanskrit, "man-beast"), purushamirukam (Tamil, "man-beast"), naravirala (Sanskrit, "man-cat") in India, or as nara-simha (Sanskrit, "man-lion") in Sri Lanka, manusiha or manuthiha (Pali, "man-lion") in Myanmar, and nora nair or thepnorasingh in Thailand.

In contrast to the sphinx in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, where the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity of the civilization, the traditions of the "Asian sphinx" are very much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions of "sphinxes" from the South Asian subcontinent are to some extent influenced by Hellenistic art and writings. These hail from the period when Buddhist art underwent a phase of Hellenistic influence.

In South India, the "sphinx" is known as purushamriga (Sanskrit) or purushamirukam (Tamil), meaning "man-beast". It is found depicted in sculptural art in temples and palaces where it serves an apotropaic purpose, just as the "sphinxes" in other parts of the ancient world. It is said by the tradition, to take away the sins of the devotees when they enter a temple and to ward off evil in general. It is therefore often found in a strategic position on the gopuram or temple gateway, or near the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The purushamriga plays a significant role in daily as well as yearly ritual of South Indian Shaiva temples. In the sodasa-upacara (or sixteen honors) ritual, performed between one to six times at significant sacred moments through the day, it decorates one of the lamps of the diparadhana or lamp ceremony. And in several temples the purushamriga is also one of the vahana or vehicles of the deity during the processions of the Brahmotsava or festival.

In Kanya Kumari district, in the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, during the night of Shiva Ratri, devotees run 75 kilometres while visiting and worshiping at twelve Shiva temples. This Shiva Ottam (or Run for Shiva) is performed in commemoration of the story of the race between the Sphinx and Bhima, one of the heroes of the epic Mahabharata.

The Indian conception of a sphinx that comes closest to the classic Greek idea, is in the concept of the Sharabha, a mythical creature, part lion, part man and part bird, and the form of Sharabha that god Shiva took on to counter Narasimha's violence.

In Philippines, the sphinx is known as nicolonia. It is depicted as part man and part eagle that is known to ask riddles to wanderers who trespass in the Bicol region. Anyone who fails to answer its riddle is said to be carried off to the Mayon Volcano where they are said to be offered to the volcano god, Gev'ra, to appease his anger.

In Sri Lanka, the sphinx is known as narasimha or man-lion. As a sphinx, it has the body of a lion and the head of a human being, and is not to be confused with Narasimha, the fourth reincarnation of the deity Vishnu; this avatar or incarnation is depicted with a human body and the head of a lion. The "sphinx" narasimha is part of the Buddhist tradition and functions as a guardian of the northern direction and also was depicted on banners.

In Burma, the sphinx is known as manussiha (manuthiha). It is depicted on the corners of Buddhist stupas, and its legends tell how it was created by Buddhist monks to protect a new-born royal baby from being devoured by ogresses.

Nora Nair and Thep Norasingh are two of the names under which the "sphinx" is known in Thailand. They are depicted as upright walking beings with the lower body of a lion or deer, and the upper body of a human. Often they are found as female-male pairs. Here, too, the sphinx serves a protective function. It also is enumerated among the mythological creatures that inhabit the ranges of the sacred mountain Himapan.

Revived sphinxes in Europe

The revived Mannerist sphinx of the 16th century is sometimes thought of as the French sphinx. Her coiffed head is erect and she has the breasts of a young woman. Often she wears ear drops and pearls as ornaments. Her body is naturalistically rendered as a recumbent lioness. Such sphinxes were revived when the grottesche or "grotesque" decorations of the unearthed "Golden House" (Domus Aurea) of Nero were brought to light in late 15th century Rome, and she was incorporated into the classical vocabulary of arabesque designs that spread throughout Europe in engravings during the 16th and 17th centuries. Sphinxes were included in the decoration of the loggia of the Vatican Palace by the workshop of Raphael (1515–20), which updated the vocabulary of the Roman grottesche.

The first appearances of sphinxes in French art are in the School of Fontainebleau in the 1520s and 1530s and she continues into the Late Baroque style of the French Régence (1715–1723).

From France, she spread throughout Europe, becoming a regular feature of the outdoors decorative sculpture of 18th-century palace gardens, as in the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, La Granja in Spain, Branicki Palace in Białystok, or the late Rococo examples in the grounds of the Portuguese Queluz National Palace (of perhaps the 1760s), with ruffs and clothed chests ending with a little cape.

Sphinxes are a feature of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adam and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the romantic, and later symbolism movements in the 19th century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx, rather than the Egyptian, although they may not have wings.

Sphinxes in Freemasonry

The sphinx image also has been adopted into Masonic architecture. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temple to guard the mysteries, by warning those who penetrated within, that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated. Champollion says that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods, by which Portal suggests that the priests intended to express the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to the initiates only. As a Masonic emblem, the sphinx has been adopted in its Egyptian character as a symbol of mystery, and as such often is found as a decoration sculptured in front of Masonic temples, or engraved at the head of Masonic documents. It cannot, however, be properly called an ancient, recognized symbol of the Order. Its introduction has been of comparatively recent date, and rather as a symbolic decoration than as a symbol that announces any dogma.

Similar creatures
  • The 32,000 year old Aurignacian Löwenfrau Goddess is the oldest known anthropomorphic statue. Previously known as the Lion man, she has a human female body and a lioness head.
  • Not all human-headed animals of antiquity are sphinxes. In ancient Assyria, for example, bas-reliefs of shedu bulls with the crowned bearded heads of kings guarded the entrances of the temples.
  • In the classical Olympian mythology of Greece, all the deities had human form, although they could assume their animal natures as well. All the creatures of Greek myth who combine human and animal form are archaic survivals: centaurs, Typhon, Medusa, Lamia.
  • Narasimha ("man-lion") is described as an incarnation (Avatar) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism who takes the form of half-man/half-Asiatic Lion, having a human torso and lower body, but with a lion-like face and claws.
  • The Manticore is a similar creature, who also features a lion's body with human-like face.

Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx of Giza (Arabic: أبو الهول‎ Abū al Hūl, English: The Terrifying One), commonly referred to as the Sphinx, is a statue of a reclining or couchant sphinx (a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head) that stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt. It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 73.5 metres (241 ft) long, 6 metres (20 ft) wide, and 20.22 m (66.34 ft) high. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture, and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of the pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558–2532 BC).

Origin and identity

The Great Sphinx is one of the world's largest and oldest statues, but basic facts about it, such as who was the model for the face, when it was built, and by whom, are still debated. These questions have resulted in the popular idea of the "Riddle of the Sphinx," although this phrase should not be confused with the original Greek legend of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Names of the Sphinx

It is not known by what name the creators called their statue, as the Great Sphinx does not appear in any known inscription of the Old Kingdom, and there are no inscriptions anywhere describing its construction or its original purpose. In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx was called Hor-em-akhet (English: Horus of the Horizon; Hellenized: Harmachis), and the pharaoh Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC) specifically referred to it as such in his Dream Stele.

The commonly used name Sphinx was given to it in Classical antiquity, about 2000 years after the accepted date of its construction, by reference to a Greek mythological beast with a lion's body, a woman's head and the wings of an eagle (although, like most Egyptian sphinxes, the Great Sphinx has a man's head and no wings). The English word sphinx comes from the ancient Greek Σφιγξ (transliterated: sphinx), apparently from the verb σφιγγω (transliterated: sphingo / English: I strangle), after the Greek sphinx who strangled anyone who failed to answer her riddle.

The name may alternatively be a corruption of the ancient Egyptian Ssp-anx (in MdC), a name given to royal statues of Dynasty IV (2575–2467 BC and later) in the New Kingdom (c. 1570–1070 BC) to the Great Sphinx more specifically, although phonetically the two names are far from identical.

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 (Abū al Hūl, English: The Terrifying One).

Builder and timeframe

Despite conflicting evidence and viewpoints over the years, the traditional view held by modern Egyptologists at large remains that the Great Sphinx was built in approximately 2500 BC by the pharaoh Khafra, the builder of the second pyramid at Giza.

Selim Hassan, writing in 1949 on recent excavations of the Sphinx enclosure, summed up the problem:

        "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."

The "circumstantial" evidence mentioned by Hassan includes the Sphinx's location in the context of the funerary complex surrounding the Second Pyramid, which is traditionally connected with Khafra. Apart from the Causeway, the Pyramid and the Sphinx, the complex also includes the Sphinx Temple and the Valley Temple, both of which display the same architectural style, with 200 - tonne stone blocks quarried out of the Sphinx Enclosure.

A diorite statue of Khafra, which was discovered buried upside down along with other debris in the Valley Temple, is claimed as support for the Khafra theory.

The Dream Stele, erected much later by the pharaoh Thutmose IV (1401–1391 or 1397–1388 BC), associates the Sphinx with Khafra. When the stela was discovered, its lines of text were already damaged and incomplete, and only referred to Khaf, not Khafra. An extract was translated:

    "... 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."

The Egyptologist Thomas Young, finding the Khaf hieroglyphs in a damaged cartouche used to surround a royal name, inserted the glyph ra to complete Khafra's name. However, the stela offers no indication of the relationship between the Sphinx and 'Khafra' – as its builder, restorer, worshipper or otherwise. When the Stela was re-excavated in 1925, the lines of text referring to Khaf flaked off and were destroyed.

Dissenting hypotheses

Some Egyptologists and geologists have disagreed with the mainstream theories of construction, and have proposed various alternative theories - about the builder or the dating - to explain the Sphinx's construction.

Early Egyptologists

Many of the early Egyptologists and excavators of the Giza pyramid complex believed the Great Sphinx and other structures in the Sphinx Enclosure predated the traditional date of construction (the reign of Khafra or Khephren, 2520 - 2492 BC).

In 1857, Auguste Mariette, founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, unearthed the much later Inventory Stela (estimated Dynasty XXVI, c. 678 - 525 BC), which tells how Khufu came upon the Sphinx, already buried in sand. Although certain tracts on the Stela are considered good evidence, this passage is widely dismissed as Late Period historical revisionism.

Gaston Maspero, the French Egyptologist and second director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, conducted a survey of the Sphinx in 1886 and concluded:

    "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 [i.e. Dynasty IV, c. 2575–2467 BC]."

In 1904, English Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge wrote in The 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 [c. 2686 BC]."

Modern dissenting hypotheses

Rainer Stadelmann, former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, examined the distinct iconography of the nemes (headdress) and the now-detached beard of the Sphinx and concluded that the style is more indicative of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 BC), builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza and Khafra's father. 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.

Colin Reader, an English geologist who independently conducted a more recent survey of the Enclosure, points out that the various quarries on the site have been excavated around the Causeway. Because these quarries are known to have been used by Khufu, Reader concludes that the Causeway (and thus the temples on either end thereof) must predate Khufu, thereby casting doubt on the conventional Egyptian chronology.

In 2004, Vassil Dobrev of the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in Cairo announced that he had uncovered new evidence that the Great Sphinx may have been the work of the little-known Pharaoh Djedefre (2528–2520 BC), Khafra's half brother and a son of Khufu. Dobrev suggests that Djedefre built the Sphinx in the image of his father Khufu, identifying him with the sun god Ra in order to restore respect for their dynasty. Dobrev also notes, like Stadelmann and others, that the causeway connecting Khafre's pyramid to the temples was built around the Sphinx suggesting it was already in existence at the time.

Frank Domingo, a forensic scientist in the New York City Police Department and an expert forensic anthropologist, used detailed measurements of the Sphinx, forensic drawings and computer imaging to conclude that Khafra, as depicted on extant statuary, was not the model for the Sphinx's face.

Author Robert Temple proposes that the Sphinx was originally a statue of the Jackal-Dog Anubis, the God of the Necropolis, 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 the style of the pleats on the head-dress.

Water erosion debate

R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, a French amateur Egyptologist, first reported evidence of water erosion on the walls of the Sphinx Enclosure in the 1950s. Author John Anthony West investigated further and in 1989 sought the opinion of a geologist, Robert M. Schoch, associate professor of natural science at the College of General Studies, Boston University.

From his investigation of the Enclosure's geology, Schoch concluded that the main type of weathering evident on the Sphinx Enclosure walls could only have been caused by prolonged and extensive rain. According to Schoch, the area has experienced a mean annual rainfall of approximately one inch (2.5 cm) since the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2134 BC), and since Egypt's last period of significant rainfall ended between the late fourth and early 3rd millennium BC, he dates the Sphinx's construction to the 6th millennium BC or 5th millennium BC.

Contrary to Schoch's paleometeorological conclusions, recent studies by German climatologists Rudolph Kuper and Stefan Kröpelin, of the University of Cologne, and geologist Judith Bunbury, of St Edmund's College, Cambridge, suggest that the change from a wet to a much drier climate may have occurred later than is currently thought, and that Dynasty IV (the traditional era of the construction of the Sphinx) may still have been a period of significant rainfall; a conclusion also accepted by Mark Lehner. However, Schoch points out that fragile mudbrick structures nearby, indisputably dated to Dynasties I and II, have survived relatively undamaged, indicating that no heavy rainfall has occurred in the region since the Early Dynastic Period.

Colin Reader, a British geologist, agrees that the evidence of weathering indicates prolonged water erosion. Reader found, inter alia, that the flow of rainwater causing the weathering had been stemmed by the construction of 'Khufu's quarries', which lie directly "upstream" of the Sphinx Enclosure, and therefore concludes that the Sphinx must predate the reign of Khufu (2589–2566 BC), and certainly Khafra, by several hundred years. Reader however disagrees with Schoch's palaeometeorological estimates, and instead concludes that the Sphinx dates to the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150–2686 BC).

David Coxill, a geologist working independently of both Schoch and Reader, concludes from the evidence of weathering in the Enclosure:

    "The Sphinx is at least 5,000 years old and pre-dates dynastic times [before 3100 BC]."

Most Egyptologists, dating the building of the Sphinx to Khafra's reign (2520–2492 BC), do not accept the water erosion theory. Alternative explanations for the evidence of weathering, from Aeolian processes and acid rain to exfoliation, haloclasty, thermal expansion, and even the poor quality limestone of the Sphinx, have been put forward by Egyptologists and geologists, including Mark Lehner, James A. Harrell of the University of Toledo, Lal Gauri, John J. Sinai and Jayanta K. Bandyopadhyay, Alex Bordeau, and Lambert Dolphin, a former senior research physicist at SRI International.

The chief proponents of the water erosion theory have rejected these alternative explanations. Reader, for example, points to the tombs dug into the Enclosure walls during Dynasty XXVI (c. 600 BC), and notes that the entrances of the tombs have weathered so lightly that original chisel marks are still clearly visible. He points out that if the weathering on the Enclosure walls (up to a metre deep in places) had been created by any of the proposed alternative causes of erosion, the tomb entrances would have been weathered much more severely. Similarly, Schoch points out that the alternative explanations do not account for the absence of similar weathering patterns on other rock surfaces in the Giza pyramid complex.

Fringe hypotheses

The origin and identity of the Sphinx are the subject of many fringe theories that are not generally accepted by mainstream Egyptologists or are unsupported by scientific evidence.

Orion Correlation Theory

The Orion Correlation Theory, as expounded by popular authors Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, is based on the proposed exact correlation of the three pyramids at Giza with the three stars ζ Ori, ε Ori and δ Ori, the stars forming Orion's Belt, in the relative positions occupied by these stars in 10500 BC. The authors argue that the geographic relationship of the Sphinx, the Giza pyramids and the Nile directly corresponds with Leo, Orion and the Milky Way respectively. Sometimes cited as an example of pseudoarchaeology, the theory is at variance with mainstream scholarship; Bauval and Hancock in turn say that archaeologists are engaged in a conspiracy to ignore or suppress evidence contradicting the established scholarly consensus.

Racial characteristics

Over the years several authors have commented on what they perceive as "Negroid" or Ethiopian characteristics in the face of the Sphinx. This issue has become part of the Ancient Egyptian race controversy, with respect to the ancient population as a whole. The face of the Sphinx has been damaged over the millennia, making conclusive racial identification of its characteristics difficult or impossible, much less assuming that a part-lion mythical creature was carved to accurate racial standards or intent.


After the Giza Necropolis was abandoned, the Sphinx became buried up to its shoulders in sand. 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 placed a granite slab, known as the Dream Stele, inscribed with the following (an extract):

    ... 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.

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

Mark Lehner, an Egyptologist, originally asserted that there had been a far earlier renovation during the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2184 BC), although he has subsequently recanted this "heretical" viewpoint.

In AD 1817, the first modern archaeological dig, supervised by the Italian Captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia, uncovered the Sphinx's chest completely. The entire Sphinx was finally excavated in 1925 to 1936, in digs led by Émile Baraize.

Missing nose and beard

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, then used to pry the nose off towards the south.

The Egyptian Arab historian al-Maqrīzī, writing in the 15th century AD, attributes the loss of the nose to iconoclasm by Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim from the khanqah of Sa'id al-Su'ada. In AD 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-Maqrīzī describes the Sphinx as the "talisman of the Nile" on which the locals believed the flood cycle depended.

A story claims that the nose was broken off by a cannonball fired by Napoleon's soldiers and that legend still lives on today. Other variants indict British troops, the Mamluks, and others. However, sketches of the Sphinx by the Dane Frederic Louis Norden, made in 1737 and published in 1755, illustrate the Sphinx already without a nose.

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 supports his theory that the beard was a later addition.


Colin Reader has proposed that the Sphinx was probably the focus of solar worship in the Early Dynastic Period, before the Giza Plateau became a necropolis in the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2134 BC). He ties this in with his conclusions that the Sphinx, the Sphinx temple, the Causeway and the Khafra mortuary temple are all part of a complex which predates Dynasty IV (c. 2613–2494 BC). 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 date as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.

In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became more specifically associated with the god Hor-em-akhet (Hellenized: Harmachis) or Horus at the Horizon, which represented the pharaoh in his role as the Shesep-ankh (English: Living Image) of the god Atum. Pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427–1401 or 1397 BC) built a temple to the north east of the Sphinx nearly 1000 years after its construction, and dedicated it to the cult of Hor-em-akhet.

Images over the centuries

In the last 700 years there have been a proliferation of travellers and reports from Lower Egypt, unlike Upper Egypt, which was seldom reported from prior to the mid-18th century. Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Cairo and the Giza Pyramids are described repeatedly, but not necessarily comprehensively. Many accounts, by no means all by people who had actually seen it, 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 crowd 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. A typical 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 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. John L. Stoddard's Lectures (1898)

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 straight hair; the only edge over Thevet 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.

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.

The Disney film Aladdin attributes the Sphinx's broken nose to a stonemason who accidentally chipped it off after being distracted by Aladdin and Jasmine flying past on their magic carpet. In the cartoon book Asterix and Cleopatra, Obelix climbs up the face of the Sphinx and accidentally knocks the nose off.

In 2008, the film 10,000 BC showed a supposed original Sphinx with a lion's head. Before the film, the theory was presented on earlier documentary films about the origin of the Sphinx.

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