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Great Sphinx of Giza

Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt
Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt / , Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

WorldBlue  In short

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.

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GPS coordinates
29.9753 N 31.1376 E
Location, address
Africa, Egypt, Giza Plateau, some hundred meters south-east from great pyramids of Giza
Ancient monuments and memorials, Rock cut architecture
Writing in Arabian
أبو الهول العظيم في الجيزة, also أبو الهول‎
Time of the construction
˜ 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

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Giza Plateau – important ancient shrine

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

Giza Plateau formed some 50 million years ago when the Eocene limestone (so-called Mokkattam Formation) was exposed above sea level. The dry desert plateau is overlooking the wide valley of the 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 the 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. This raises the deceased to the status of a god. The sacred Giza Plateau was used as the necropolis of pharaohs and other important people since the 27th century BC. Here were built the most amazing structures of the antique world – the great Pyramids and Sphinx.


Sphinx – a mythical creature with a body of an animal and a human head – is a very ancient symbol. The oldest known depictions of sphinxes were made in the Neolithic Age. Some of the oldest are in Nevali Çori site (Turkey): approximately 11,500 years old, small, exquisite sculptures of these beings.

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

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

In Greece sphinx was a demon of evil and bad luck. There is a famous legend about Oedipus who saved the city of Thebes from a monster with the head of a woman and the body of a lion. The monster stopped all travelers 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 a man – he crawls on all fours when he is a child, walks on two in manhood, and leans on 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".

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 of this.

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

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

This difference in erosion though can be explained by the different properties of limestone layers. The lower layer of limestone has comparatively low quality and is heavily eroded – banded with deep, horizontal ridges. The 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 millennium BC. This was a 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 the hypothesis – such grand works required an organized and centralized society that did not exist yet.

Building of the statue

It is possible that there was a natural limestone hill at the site of this giant sculpture. Nevertheless, it is hard to tell now, because ancient Egyptians have heavily reshaped this area when taking material for the Great Pyramids and other structures. Most of the 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 the Sphinx – thus it is possible that the 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 the statue is 73.5 m, 15 m of this is forelegs. Width is 19.3 m, height – 20.22 m.

Great Sphinx of Giza looks towards the sunrise, towards the Nile. The symbol of the 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 the Giza Plateau.

There have been not found mentions of the Sphinx in the writings of the Old Kingdom. 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 the Sphinx by Pharaoh Thutmose IV sometime around 1390 BC.

Later history

Sphinx was located on 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 the 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 millennia people used to see just a part of the statue – a giant head perching out from the sand. In fact, this sand helped to preserve the unique statue. Spinx was recovered from the sand in 1925 – 1936. Now it is one of the symbols of Egypt and one of the best-known monuments of antiquity.

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The Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza

The pyramids of Egypt are such recognizable symbols of antiquity that for millennia, people have made assumptions about what they are and why they exist, without full consideration of the various meanings these ancient symbolic structures have had over the centuries.

The Pyramids and the Sphinx

Presenting up-to-date research and all-new photographs and plans, this authoritative volume provides a fascinating study of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. There are described also the lesser-known pyramids and tombs from Saqqara to Meidum and Dashur.

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