Sphinxes of Egypt

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What is a Sphinx?

The Sphinx is a mythical creature found in various traditions. It has the body of a lion and the head of a human. The body is believed to create a connection between the person and Sekhmet, an important goddess that had the form of a lioness. In Egypt, the sphinx was seen as good being and acted as a guardian. This creature was often found at the entrance of temples. The sphinx is typically male; although, there are examples of females as well. Today the sphinx is used as an emblem of Egypt often appearing on Egyptian currency and stamps.

The First Sphinx

The sphinx depicting Queen Hetepheres II is believed to be the first sphinx of Egypt. She was Queen during the fourth dynasty dating back to over 4,500 years ago. Another example is the sphinx of Hatshepsut. The sphinx of Hatshepsut has distinct feminine qualities, both in the lioness body and the human face. It is believed that she had this done to stress her importance as one of the most successful female pharaohs. This sphinx is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


The Ram Headed Sphinxes of Thebes

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As the tradition of having sphinxes guard temples grew, more and more were placed throughout the various temples. There are nine hundred of them creating an avenue that leads to the temple of Karnak in Thebes. Instead of having the traditional human head, these sphinxes had the head of a ram, which represented the God Amon. This is because Amon sometimes took the form of a ram according to stories. Other examples of different sphinx’ include those with the head of a hawk or a falcon.

The Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis

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This sphinx is believed to have been carved during the 18th dynasty, between 1700 and 1400 BCE. The Alabaster Sphinx once stood outside the Temple of Ptah, and is now located at the open air museum in Memphis. The pharaoh has not been identified; however, it is believed to be either Hatshepsut, Amenhotep II, or Amenhotep III. Although it is known as the Alabaster Sphinx, it is actually made of Calcite, a similar material that was prized in Egypt for its beauty and connection to the sun god. This sphinx is the largest statue made of calcite with a height of 13 feet and length of 26 feet. It was discovered in 1912 and is treasured as one of the few works that were not destroyed during the pillaging of Memphis.

There is still a lot of damage done to the surface of the Alabaster Sphinx and some of this comes from years of pillaging while the rest can be attributed to erosion. The Alabaster Sphinx spent many years partially submerged so that may be why it was somewhat protected by the winds; however, it probably sustained some damage from the water elements.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx is the largest monolithic statue in the world, and dates back to the Old Kingdom under the reign of Pharaoh Khafra. It is a total of 241 feet long, with the paws alone being 50 feet in length. It is 63 feet wide and just over 66 feet high. The Great Sphinx is located on the Giza Plateau alongside the western bank of the Nile River.

Before Giza became a necropolis, the Sphinx was most likely the focus of solar worship. While we are unsure of what it was called during the time of its construction, by the time of the New Kingdom it was called Hor-em-akhet, or Horus of the Horizon.

Excavation and The Dream Stele

The Great Sphinx was eventually buried to its shoulders in sand, and pharaoh Thutmose IV made an attempt to excavate it around 1400 BCE. His team was able to dig up the front paws, where he placed the Dream Stele, a granite slab with an inscription. The stele tells a story of Thutmose falling asleep sitting in the shadow of the sphinx, and was awoken when it spoke to him. It bestowed upon him sovereignty over Egypt and supremacy over mortals. The first modern excavation began in 1817, and the Great Sphinx would not be completely excavated until 1936. During this time the Egyptian government made repairs to the Sphinx to fix some of the damage caused by erosion.

The Missing Nose

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Sphinx-and-pyramid2 The Great Sphinx of Giza is missing its nose, and it has been discovered that there are chisel marks upon the face. This means that the nose was most probably pried off. Stories tell of a cannonball knocking it off during the time of Napoleon, but it appears that it had already been missing during that time. It is more likely that in 1378, Muhammad Sa’im al’Dahr had it removed after finding peasants making offerings to it. He viewed this as iconoclasm and decided to deface the sphinx to stop it.

The Great Sphinx is also missing the Uraeus, the serpent on the headdress that represents royalty and divinity. Missing also, is the ceremonial beard, which was later added during the New Kingdom.

Restoration

There have been numerous attempts of restoration to the Great Sphinx of Giza, the earliest of which was likely under Thutmose IV. This has become known as Phase I restoration. It would later be further restored under Ramses II in the 26th Dynasty. It would once again be restored under the Romans; however, they used a different, lighter form of limestone that turned out to not be a permanent fix. Modern attempts at restoration date back to the 1920’s.

In 1979, the American Research Center in Egypt drew up plans that showed that one third of the north side and nearly two-thirds of the south side were covered with masonry from restoration attempts. The masonry from both the Romans and Modern era is flaking quickly compared to the original stone, so the restoration has become a continuing project.

An attempt was made to encase the Sphinx with a new outer covering, but this too began to flake and fall off, causing damage to the body and earlier restoration. It was then decided to strip off the rest of this covering and to find limestone similar to that used during the Phase I restoration. While this has helped the issue, Egypt is still working on finding a permanent solution to fixing the deterioration issues.