What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Egypt? The first thing that come into my mind about Egypt would be the Pyramids, The Sphinx, The mysterious pharaohs and their enduring legacies, and most important of all Tutankhamun! The boy-king, who changed the way archaeologists, Egyptologists, historians, researchers and scientists, et al, thought about ancient Egyptian history and culture. Being one of the most ancient civilizations Egypt has always remained a constant source of fascination and curiosity for many people around the world for over so many thousands of centuries. Egyptian history and culture is steeped in ancient knowledge, mystery, splendid monuments which are considered as engineering marvels of ancient times. Today, we are going to talk about one such monument, The Sphinx, it has captured imaginations of millions of people all across the globe and all facets of life in the course of human history.
The Sphinx is located on the Giza plateau on the banks of river Nile, Egypt. This mammoth monument stands at a height of 73 metres tall(240 ft) from paw to tail, and 20 metres(66 ft) high from its head to 19(62 ft) metres at its haunches. The most awe inspiring feature of the Sphinx is its creation. Shaped as the head of a woman, a falcon, or a cat, the body a lion and the wings of an eagle, the Sphinx has its references in classical Greek antiquity as being compared to a mythical beast. According to the ancient history, ancient Greeks who came into contact with the Sphinx were so impressed with it that they incorporated it into their mythology. According to Greek mythology, the Sphinx was considered to be a demon of misfortune and destruction. Further, it was believed to have guarded the city of Thebes and posed a riddle to any traveller who wished to go farther. The story also goes that if anybody got the answer wrong, the Sphinx would devour the unfortunate victim! Finally, Oedipus, one of the heroes of Greek mythology, gave the correct answer and was able to kill the Sphinx, which also allowed him to win the throne of Thebes. The Egyptians also had their own version of mythological stories and they used to call it and still do as “Abu Alhol”, i.e. ‘father of dread’.
Now let’s talk about the creation of this magnificent megalithic structure, the Sphinx. According to historical records, Egyptologists and other scholars, the Sphinx was carved somewhere around 2500 B.C., during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, in the fourth dynasty period. However, according to experts in Egyptology and historians, there is a lot of evidence which suggests that the Sphinx belongs to a much earlier period. Colin Reader, one of the great Egyptologists, has suggested that a lot of evidence has been found that indicates that it might belong to the First or Second dynastic periods, according to the artifacts found. Selim Hassan, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, wrote in 1949, that stones were cut from the Sphinx’s body to construct a temple during the Second Dynastic Period. Still, few modern and present day geologists, archaeologists and historians like Robert Schoch, Robert Bauvall, Colin Temple and Egyptian geologist Farouk-el-Baz etc., are of the view that the Sphinx was built before the Pre-Pharaonic Dynastic Period, and they have gathered enough evidence to prove their point. According to them, there existed a civilization in Egypt that considered the Giza plateau as a sacred place and had constructed their temples and other places of worship there. Furthermore, El-Baz believes that the Sphinx of Giza was inspired by natural evocative landforms called yardangs that are abundant in the western deserts of Egypt. Sounds Interesting, doesn’t it. El-Baz doesn’t stop at this, he further propounds that many of these landforms were brought into the Nile valley by prehistoric people who were forced out of their original habitat. Therefore, he argues, that it is quiet natural that these natural mounds were worshipped by the primitive people as they believed it to be the work of supernatural gods! Now, that sounds absolutely crazy, as all our notions about the Sphinx and the Pyramids have been ousted by this gentleman! Well, he is not the only one making these crazy claims, rather, Robert Schoch (Ph.D.) and Egyptologist and Robert Bauvall, construction engineer and also an Egyptologist are also of the same opinion.
Yet, another opinion is in circulation which might seem a bit strange, but it has its base on solid evidence. According to this latest stream of thought process, as we have all been fascinated by seeing a human face on the surface of the planet Mars, similarly, there is phenomenon called “Pareidolia”. According to scientists and psychologists, this phenomenon is described as a psychological phenomenon which involves a vague and rather random stimulus, usually in cloud formations or sound waves is considered to be significant. Couple of famous instances of this phenomenon was the “face on the surface of Mars”, as described above, and the second one was the peculiar shape of a monkey in a tree in Singapore. Most of these sights were termed by psychologists and scientists as examples of “Pareidolia”. So, as per these modern Egyptologists and scientists, what the primitive people saw in these natural formations was something akin to human head. That is why this are of the Giza plateau had significant religious value to the primitive people. That is why, they are of the opinion that there were few structures already present before the first Pyramid was built and especially, there was this natural mound in the shape of a human head, which inspired the early Egyptians to carve the Sphinx from it. Therefor this place in the Giza plateau has also been referred to as the “Setep”, i.e., the ‘Select’, and, in the case of inscriptions on the Sphinx, “zep tepe”, which mean “splendid place of the zep tepe”. In more simple terms, it is referred to as the place where the “First” or Egyptian gods ruled. So you can see that there have been many instances strewn around the Giza Plateau landscape that suggests that it was used as a place of worship by a civilization that preceded the Egyptian Pyramids by many years. There are numerous evidences purporting to the fact that the Sphinx may have been constructed long before the Pyramids.
Now, let’s see when the first time the Sphinx was discovered. According to old historical texts, it was first excavated and renovated by Tuthmoses IV (New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1400 B.C.) According to legend, Tuthmoses was on a hunting expedition when he got tired and went to lie down under the shadow of the Sphinx, which was still visible above sand. He had a dream in which the Sphinx told him that if he cleared the area around it, he would become the king of Egypt. This spurred Tuthmoses to excavate and restore the Sphinx. He even went further and erected mud-brick walls to prevent the constant incursions of sand. Also, according to the Dream Stella, a stone tablet with inscriptions, in the middle of the paws of the Sphinx has also fragmentary mention of Tuthmoses. Furthermore, it is also mentioned in the Dream Stella that Tuthmoses’s predecessors also had excavated and restored the Sphinx. Similarly, in the Nineteenth Dynasty, Rameses II also tried to restore the Sphinx to its somewhat former glory. Though all these efforts were in vain as it was a constant war against the encroaching sands and human efforts all seemed to fail in front of it. Even the Greeks and later on the Romans who ruled Egypt tried to restore the Sphinx to its former majestic beauty and splendour. The Greeks even worshipped the Sphinx and Herodotus, called as “father of modern history” has even mentioned the existence of a Sphinx temple and a Sphinx cult also. Again, as mentioned earlier, it was a losing battle against the constant onslaught of the encroaching sands.
Despite all these efforts the Sphinx and its grandeur was almost lost under the sands of time; both metaphorically, and physically until the eighteenth century. Though many writers, scholars and poets who visited the ancient the ancient land gave some rudimentary mention of the Sphinx. It was not until former merchant navy captain Giovanni Batista Caviglia (1770–1845), arrived in Egypt in 1816 and who was so fascinated and engrossed with the subject of Sphinx that he decided to stay in Egypt for the next twenty years. During his stay he made it his personal mission to excavate the Sphinx and restore it to its former glory. He was assisted in his mission by the British Consul General Henry Salt (1780–1827). Henry Salt was a trained artist and the progress made by Caviglia was captured in Salt’s drawings. The early part of the nineteenth century was also famous for the Napoleonic wars. There have also been rumours that Napoleon’s army used to target practice on the Sphinx. That’s why according to some scholars, the nose of the Sphinx has been damaged. The interest in the Sphinx rapidly grew during the Nineteenth century, and many archaeologists, historians, scholars and writers made their way to Egypt during the whole period of the nineteenth century. Most famous among was the American writer and poet Mark Twain. It is interesting to note here that it was Caviglia who discovered the Dream Stella of Tuthmoses, the headdress of the Sphinx and some fragments of the Sphinx’s beard also. Though none of the parts are beard are present today. Also, it was not until Jean Francois Champollion (1790–1832) who translated the inscriptions on the Dream Stella. It is also interesting to note that inscriptions on the Stella had mention of Roman and Greek rulers who ruled Egypt. Other inscriptions described that Sphinx was also considered as the tomb of Osiris. Following the footsteps of Caviglia and Salt, other archaeologists and Egyptologists like Carl Richard Lepsius (1810–1844), and Auguste Mariette (1821–1881) were instrumental in excavating once again the Dream Stella and the chapel of the Sphinx, which was again buried under the sand after Caviglia had it cleared. Gaston Maspero, another director of Egyptian Antiquities Department had the Sphinx cleared out again during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Though most of the European early archaeologists and adventurers had their personal motives and agendas in excavating the Sphinx and restoring it to its ancient grandeur and beauty. Caviglia for instance was a deep occultist and believed that the Sphinx had a lot of knowledge about world stored in it. It was only in the early 1920s that Emile Baraize, who showed some genuine care and concern for the Sphinx and had it cleared from all the sand. He also took some preventive measures to slow the advance of the ever permeating sand. During the 1930s, actual progress was made in fully excavating the Sphinx and removing all the sand surrounding it. The man responsible for all this was himself an Egyptian, and his name was Selim Hassan. Selim Hassan has been regarded as the person who has truly redesigned the way today’s Egyptologists and archaeologists and other scholars approach Egyptian ancient history. Hassan had made it his goal to excavate not just the Sphinx, but the Sphinx temple, the Sphinx enclosure also. To achieve this he used wagons which were instrumental in clearing 1,300 cubic metres of sand every day. For his efforts Selim Hassan was also made the director of the Egyptian Antiquities department. Though his initial regret in 1949 was that most of his efforts have been negated after his exit from the Egyptian Antiquities Department. All of the monuments which any visitor can see in the Sphinx complex today are possible because of Selim Hassan’s incessant efforts and time he invested in it The Sphinx is such an essential monument for Egyptian history and culture that it was even given protection during the second world war, lest any enemy tries to damage it.
Today, the Sphinx stands proudly in all its splendour and magnificence because of the efforts of all those people who took an interest in restoring it to its ancient grandeur. For any visitor the Sphinx is both an engineering marvel and splendid monument which has withstood the vagaries of time and sand, and been a witness to the evolution of human history and Egyptian history through ancient times to the present. Writers, archaeologists, geologists, Egyptologists and scholars like Graham Hancock, Robert Temple, Robert Schoch, Robert Bauvall, Colin Reader etc.have all been in awe and wonder when they first witnessed this majestic beast of antiquity. It seems to proudly say to the human race “ Man will come and go, Time will come and go, but I will still be there to record all of this and relay it to the next generation of man and next cycle of time.” “As I have done so for so many millennia.”
Finally, all that can be said the Sphinx was and will remain an enigma for the ensuing generations also as it has been for the preceding generations over so many thousands of years. The mystery of the creation of the Sphinx has still not been solved and whatever information has been derived through excavations and hypothesis are the only facts which are present with us today. Still, the Sphinx is one of the most beautiful and splendid monuments that has ever been built in the history of the mankind for over a million years.