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Great Sphinx of Giza

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 29.9753 N 31.1376 E
No:346        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Ancient monuments and memorials, Rock cut architecture
Values:Art, History, Archaeology, Unexplained
Rank:1
Address:Africa, Egypt, Giza Plateau, some hundred meters south-east from great pyramids of Giza
Writing in Arabian:أبو الهول العظيم في الجيزة, also أبو الهول‎
Age:˜ 2558 - 2532 BC (?) or earlier
UNESCO World Heritage status:Part of "Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur", 1979, No.86
Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt
Great Sphinx in Giza / Cary Bass, / CC BY-SA 2.0

No one knows for sure why and when was built the largest monolithic statue in the world - the Great Sphinx of Giza. But most likely this is the oldest large, monumental sculpture in the world.

Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt
Great Sphinx in Giza / David Holt London, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Giza Plateau - important ancient shrine

Giza Plateau formed some 50 million years ago, when the Eocene limestone (so called Mokkattam Formation) was exposed above the sea level. The dry desert plateau is overlooking the wide valley of Nile and rises some 30 - 60 m above the fertile plains.

As one of the first civilizations in the world - Ancient Egypt - started to develop here, Giza Plateau became an important sacred place. Plateau is suitable for this - it is above the flood level of Nile and consists of good construction stone. Most likely before the construction of pyramids and sphinx here was located an important shrine of the Sun.

As it happens worldwide and in many cultures, the men of weight in Egypt wanted to preserve their status after death. One way to achieve this is to be buried in a sacred place, thus raising the deceased to the status of gods. The sacred Giza Plateau was used as the necropolis of pharaohs and other important people since 27th century BC. Here were built most amazing structures of the antique world - Great Pyramids and Sphinx.

Great Sphinx in 1858
Great Sphinx in 1858, half buried in the sand / / public domain

Sphinxes

Sphinx - mythical creature with a body of animal and human head - is very ancient symbol. The oldest known depictions of sphinxes were made in Neolithic Age: in Nevali Çori site (Turkey) have been found some 11,500 years old, small, exquisite sculptures of these beings.

Although the purpose of this mythical creature is not clear with certainty, it seems that often sphinxes "served" as guardians of sacred places - temples, important burials. Such ancient, stone carved guardians spread from Levant to Egypt, Persia, India, Indonesia and elsewhere.

In Greece sphinx was a demon of evil, bad luck. There is a famous legend about Oedipus who saved the city of Thebes from a monster with the head of women and body of lion. Monster stopped all travellers and asked a riddle: "What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" None knew the answer, and sphinx strangled and devoured her hapless victims.

Oedipus knew the answer: "This is man - he crawls on all fours when he is child, walks on two in manhood and leans on a staff when he is old". Upon hearing this sphinx cast herself from the rock.

Name "sphinx" also comes from Greek language and means "to bind" or "to squeeze".

Great Sphinx, pyramids and Sphinx Temple in the forefront
Great Sphinx, pyramids and Sphinx Temple in the forefront / Francesco Gasparetti, / CC BY 2.0

The oldest Egyptian sphinx

Great Sphinx of Giza is the oldest known sphinx in Egypt.

This is a riddle - exactly when and why was it shaped - but this Sphinx is the oldest monumental sculpture in the world. Many specialists consider that it was built in the time of pharaoh Khafra who reigned in 2558 - 2532 BC, but there are no direct proofs to this.

There are speculations that Sphinx is older and only its head was reshaped in the times of Khafra - made similar to pharaoh. Head of statue is disproportionately small indeed and less eroded than the body of statue.

This difference in erosion though can be explained by different properties of limestone layers - the lower layer of limestone has comparatively low quality and is heavily eroded - banded with deep, horizontal ridges. Upper layer at the height of the head is less porous.

The exotic "water erosion hypothesis" concedes that this monument could be built even in the 6th - 5th millenium BC - in the period when the rainfall here was much higher and caused erosion of the enclosure around the Sphinx. The known history of Ancient Egypt does not support such hypothesis - such grand works required organized, centralized society which did not exist yet.

Building of the statue

It is possible that there was a natural limestone hill in the site of this giant sculpture - but it is hard to tell now, because ancient Egyptians have heavily reshaped this area when taking material for Great Pyramids and other structures. Most of statue though was shaped by removing the limestone ground and creating a deep moat around the monument.

The removed stone blocks were used to build the so called Sphinx Temple next to the statue and another - Valley Temple.

There have been found traces of color at one ear of Sphinx - thus it is possible that statue was brightly painted.

The statue had also a beard - most likely added after its construction. Parts of this beard have been preserved up to this day and are located in the British Museum, London.

Head of Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Chephren
Head of Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Chephren / /CC BY-SA 3.0

Giant guardian

Length of statue is 73.5 m, 15 m of this is forelegs. Width is 19.3 m, height - 20.22 m.

Sphinx looks towards the sunrise, towards Nile. The symbol of lion in Old Egyptian mythology was closely linked to Sun (Sun deity Sekhmet) - thus it is possible that Sphinx was created as the guardian of the shrine on Giza Plateau.

There have been not found mentions of Sphinx in the writings of Old Kingdom but in the New Kingdom it was called Hor-em-akhet. This name was found on a granite slab - Dream Stele, which was placed between the forelegs of Sphinx by pharaoh Thutmose IV circa 1390 BC.

Later history

Sphinx was located in the grounds of the most important funerary complex in Egypt. But, when the necropolis was abandoned, Sphinx became buried in the sand up to its shoulders.

Several attempts to recover it were made in the times of New Kingdom and Roman times. Statue was reinforced by ancient Greeks and Romans.

Monument has lost its nose - most likely this was done deliberately by Muslim fanatics in the late 14th century upon seeing that Egyptian peasants are making offerings to the Sphinx.

For many generations, throughout millenia people used to see just a part of statue - a giant head perching out from the sand (which helped to preserve the unique statue). Spinx was recovered from the sand in 1925 - 1936 and now is one of the symbols of Egypt and one of the best known monuments of antiquity.

Map

See Great Sphinx of Giza on the map of Egypt!