The Great Sphinx of Giza (or, commonly, 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, near modern-day Cairo, Egypt. It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 73.5 meters (241 ft) long, 6 meters (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 in the reign of the pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558–2532 BC). 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.
Name of the Sphinx:
It is not known by what name the original 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 Abū al-Hūl (English: Father of Terror).
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 supposed 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 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.
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 [in 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 revisionist scholars :
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.
Water erosion debate:
The Sphinx in 1839, by David Roberts, who unlike most Western artists depicting it, had seen it R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, a French polymath and amateur Egyptologist, first noticed 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.
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