This vast regal creature has patiently watched over the Giza necropolis for thousand of years: it is the world ‘s oldest known monumental sculpture, and some believe it predates the pyramids and mortuary temples it guards. No one really knows it age, or who carved it, or why.
The civilization of ancient Egypt was amazingly strong and stable, surviving for almost three millennia, but its most enduring symbols – the pyramids – were constructed during a relatively short period, beginning around 2650 BC and culminating in the great pyramids of the fourth dynasty pharoahs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, which dominate the Giza Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile. Each was part of a larger funerary complex that included a mortuary temple and a causeway up to it from a lower temple at the riverside. The Great Sphinx, which appears to preside over the tombs of Giza, sits to the east of the site, gazing towards he river. Unusually in Egyptian iconography – in which many deities are depicted with human figures and animal heads – he Sphinx has the body of a lion ( a guardian figure ) and the head of a king, identifiable by it s royal headcloth. Its face is thought to be a portrait of Khafre, and it is in almost exact alignment with Khafre’s mortuary temple. But it bears no inscriptions, and its age and origin are still the subject of debate.
The Sphinx is a monolith, 73 m/2440 ft long and 20 m/66 ft high, carved in situ from a rocky knoll. The figure lies in a dip on the plateau because its lower body was formed by quarrying stone out of the base rock around it. The blocks obtained in this way were used in the construction of the surrounding temples. At the level of the body the limestone is yellow and rather crumbly, so the statue was faced with block of granite similar to that used for Khafre’s pyramid. Above this level, the stratum from which the head was carved is a harder, greyer stone. Surviving particles of pigment on the surface of the stone show that the Sphinx was once painted.
Despite its identification with Khafre, some archaeologist and geological evidence has been interpreted to suggest that the Sphinx is much older, and was merely restored during the Old Kingdom. The so-called ‘Inventory Stele’ discovered in the 19th century says that Khufu ordered a temple to be built alongside the ( already existing ) Sphinx, and local legends date it to long before the building of the pyramids. The American geologist Robert M. Schoch believes that the erosion on the body could only have been caused by water, implying that s existed when Egypt was subject to sever rainfall, which would have to be before 5000 BC, and that the dynastic head – which is certainly small in relation to the body – is a later re-carving. However, this controversial theory presupposes a ‘lost’ ancient civilization for which Egyptologists have found no other evidence.
After then necropolis was abandoned the Sphinx’s body was engulfed in sand – people were said to walk up to its head and press their ears to it mouth in the hope of gaining wisdom. A granite stele mounted between the creature’s front paws relates the dream of Thutmose IV ( resigned 1400-1390 BC ), who fell asleep in its shade while hunting. He dreamed that the Sphinx complained to him about its ruinous state and promised him the throne if he would restore it. When he did indeed become king he cleared away the sand and repaired the facing. By the time of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign at the end of the 18th century the Sphinx was again buried up to its neck in the sand. Napoleonic troops are often said to have used its face for target practice and destroyed the nose, but this is a myth, as earlier sketches made by Frederic Louis Norden in 1737 show that the nose was already missing.
There were several 19th – century attempts to clear the sand, but all were abandoned, though Giovanni Battista Caviglia found a piece of the royal beard that had fallen from its chin. ( It is now in two pieces, in the British and Cairo Museums respectively. ) Emile Baraize eventually revealed the whole figure in 1925-36.
At present the stone is vulnerable to chemical damage from the Cairo smog. Over a period of six years in the 1980s there was a further attempt at restoration, but the new blocks that were added flaked away and the left shoulder crumbled in 1988. The focus now is on finding a way to prevent further erosion.