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One of the classic images of ancient Egypt is the Great Sphinx: an enormous stone statue which has the head of a Pharaoh with the body of a lion. The body and head were carved out of a single stone and the paws were formed from thousands of blocks. It is the largest sculpture in the world.

sphinx 1

sphinx 2

In order to understand the meaning of the Great Sphinx, including when and why it was created, it is necessary to start with an understanding of the Egyptian pyramids, and particularly the Pyramid of Khafre (called Chephren by the Greeks). While the Egyptian pyramids are pharaonic tombs, they are also a part of a larger sacred landscape. The pyramid itself contained the burial chamber for the Pharaoh. Adjacent to the east side of the pyramid was the mortuary temple. This served as an eternal palace for the Pharaoh, a place where the Pharaoh was to be worshiped as a god-king. Extending out from the mortuary temple was a causeway which connected to the valley temple. The causeway was constructed with walls and a roof. The valley temple, located near the Nile River, was the entry to the entire complex.

It was in the valley temple that the body of the pharaoh was mummified. Once the body had been mummified, it was carried in a sacred procession and placed in the burial chamber within the pyramid.

Khafre, a Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh, ruled Egypt from 2520 BCE to 2494 BCE. His pyramid was constructed on the Giza Plateau near the Great Pyramid of Khufu. His valley temple was constructed nearly half a kilometer away, downhill from the pyramid site. The causeway from his pyramid to his valley temple is not a straight line. In constructing the valley temple and the causeway, workers quarried the limestone from the area around the site. There was a large portion of the bedrock which protruded above the sand. The workers soon found that this bedrock was soft sandstone, thus not usable for the causeway or the temple. It was then decided to use this large piece of bedrock for a sculpture to honor Khafre. Workers quarried around it and the sculpture which was to become the Great Sphinx was then carved out of the natural stone.

To carve the sphinx, the workers first created a deep, u-shaped ditch that isolated the bedrock block. The good, hard limestone which was near the head of the sphinx was quarried for blocks to build the pyramid, the causeway, and the valley temple.

It is estimated that it took 1 million person hours to carve the Sphinx using copper tools. It took 100 carvers about three years to carve it. But there also had to be lots of people making tools and sharpening tools so the work force was significantly larger.

The completed sphinx is 200 feet long and 65 feet tall. The face is 13 feet wide and its eyes are 6 feet high.

The combination of the lion’s body with a royal head symbolizes the joining of the power and might of the lion with the intelligence of the pharaoh. The royal head, most likely a portrait of Khafre, included the symbols of royalty: the ritual beard and the royal headdress.

sphinx front

The pharaoh, like all Egyptian men, was clean shaven. However, the beard was a sign of authority, so the pharaoh would wear a false beard, particularly during official occasions and celebrations. As a representation of Kahfre, the Sphinx originally had a false beard. The beard fell off in ancient times and broke into two pieces. One of these pieces is currently in the library in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the other piece is in the British Museum in London (it’s not on display, but in a storage area).

Sphinx 3

Today, there are lots of common myths about the Sphinx. One common misconception is that when Napoleon visited Giza in 1798, he used the Sphinx for target practice for his canons. According to the legend, the nose of the Sphinx was shot off at this time. The story is totally false. First, Napoleon was reverential to the ancient monuments and wasn’t about to destroy them. Second, the drawings of the Sphinx done in the 18th century, before Napoleon arrived in Egypt, show the Sphinx with a missing nose.

There are also some people who feel that the Sphinx represents a woman because of the hair. People who are familiar with ancient Egypt, however, recognize that this is not hair, but is the menes, the headdress worn only by Pharaohs.

While popular fiction writers like to emphasize the "great mystery" of the Sphinx, archaeologists and Egyptologists know when it was built, who built it, and what it represents. It is a great sculpture, perhaps the greatest in the world.  

This diary was originallly posted on Street Prophets.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sun Dec 19, 2010 at 08:33 AM PST.

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