The famous gigantic statue of the Great Sphinx rises from the Giza plateau adjacent to and directly north of Khafre’s valley temple and causeway. This monument – almost the national emblem of Egypt, has aroused the imagination of travellers, scholars, poets and writers for centuries, but today still retains the mysteries which have puzzled adventurers for millennia. Fashioned from an outcrop of limestone left behind from the quarrying of stone for the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx crouches in a rectangular ditch bounded by Khafre’s causeway to the south, a modern road to the north and the Old Kingdom ‘Sphinx Temple’ to the east. A small reconstructed New Kingdom religious structure, probably dating from Amenhotep II, lies to the north-east.
The colossal statue takes the form of a crouching lion with a human head, thought to be carved with the features of Khafre, though this is the subject of some debate. Sphinxes are typical elements of Egyptian statuary, but the unique architecture of the Great Sphinx has long fired the imaginations of ‘fantasy archaeologists’ who assert that the sculpture is the work of a civilisation far more ancient than the builders of the pyramids. While the enigmatic history of the Sphinx is undeniable, recent intensive excavations and restorations have revealed no secret subterranean chambers or evidence of vanished civilisations – to the disappointment of many, who now claim a conspiracy on the part of the Egyptian government to keep this information from the world.
The body of the Sphinx, almost 60m long and 20m high, was carved from alternate soft and hard layers of sediments of marly limestone laid down during the formation of the Giza plateau in the geological Eocene period. The harder layers were quarried, blocks extracted for Old Kingdom building projects and it is now possible to identify the stone used in each of the nearby structures, providing evidence of the sequence of quarrying. The walls of Khafre’s valley temple were probably composed of massive blocks from the upper part of the Sphinx’s body, while some of the limestone blocks of the Sphinx Temple came from an area around the Sphinx’s chest.
The head of the Sphinx represents an Egyptian ruler wearing a nemes head-dress and once had a uraeus-serpent on it’s forehead and a royal beard (fragments exist now in museums). The human head is small in proportion to the lion’s body and it is suggested that the body may have been elongated to take into account a natural fissure in the rock which would have prevented the workmen from completing the carving of the rear quarters.
The Sphinx has been deteriorating for many centuries – a thousand years after it was carved, as far back as Dynasty XVIII, the body of the statue was covered by the desert sands. Between the Sphinx’s front paws the ‘Dream Stela’ tells the story of how the young Prince Tuthmose (later Tuthmose IV) was resting there during a gazelle hunt in the desert when he had a prophetic dream. In the dream the Sphinx spoke to the prince, foretelling his accession to the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt and asking for its body to be freed from the sand. When he became pharaoh many years later, Tuthmose remembered the dream and apparently had the statue cleared of sand, setting up a commemorative stela in a small open-air chapel between its paws.
Evidence from remains of mudbrick walls surrounding the Sphinx, bearing the name of Tuthmose IV suggests that this pharaoh did indeed undertake the first restoration, also perhaps repairing some of the blocks which had become dislodged. From this time there is evidence of more interest in the Sphinx, which had became the focus of a cult revival from the reign of Amenhotep II, under the name of Horemakhet (Horus of the Horizon). Others are documented as attempting restorations – especially Rameses II and his son, the restorer of monuments, Prince Khaemwaset. It was cleared of sand and perhaps also restored during the Saite Period, according to the ‘Inventory Stela’ which was found to the east of the Great Pyramid. During the first two centuries AD the Sphinx became a popular tourist attraction for the Romans and was cleared by Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus before being once more covered by sand for many centuries.
When Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt in 1798 he was very impressed by the statue of the Sphinx, though by this time it was again covered by sand. His ‘savants’ or scientists excavated the monument, discovering the Dream Stela in the process. In 1816 Giovanni Battista Caviglia carried out a more thorough investigation, discovering fragments of the Sphinx’s false royal beard (now in the British Museum). Although Mariette, Maspero and others had investigated the Sphinx, the next phase of conservation was carried out in the 1920s by the French archaeologist Emile Baraize, who uncovered the temple beneath the creature’s forepaws and restored a crack on the top of the Sphinx’s head among other things.
Sporadic restorations by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation were carried out between 1955 and 1989, when the most recent conservation work began. Egyptian archaeologists under the direction of Zahi Hawass, with the help of foreign expertise, have been concentrating on the deteriation of the monument caused by increased humidity, the rising water table and air pollution. In these studies much-needed conservation work has been completed, with restorative work on areas especially around the south forepaw, the southern flank and the tail of the Sphinx. During the course of the restorations Zahi Hawass found a tunnel at ground level in the northern side of the body, which led to a small, empty, uninscribed cavity. The final phase of the Sphinx restoration, using the most up-to-date technologies has now been completed and the monument was formally dedicated on 25 May 1998, but it is not yet certain whether it can be saved from further deterioration.
The colossal figure is oriented east to west and the Sphinx Temple with it’s huge courtyard has been called a solar temple. The Sphinx can be identified with the god Re, who rises and sets on the horizon and also with Horus, the son of Re. So is the Sphinx a ‘living image’ (translation of the Egyptian word for sphinx, shesep-ankh) of Khafre or some other ruler, presenting offerings to the sun-god or some mythical image of a solar deity, guardian of the necropolis?
The Sphinx enclosure is open daily. Visitors enter through a passage in the south side of the Sphinx Temple and are currently allowed to view the monument from the ledge beside Khafre’s causeway.