Egypt - The riddle of the Sphinx

Egypt - The riddle of the Sphinx Last updated on Friday 16th April 2010

The Sphinx (pictured) is the first large, royal statue known in ancient Egypt and is one of the world's most significant monuments. A colossal 240 feet long and 66 feet high, it lies in the old kingdom quarry, carved from a core of solid bedrock and completed with masonry.

It represents a couchant lion with the head of a king, wearing a false beard and the traditional Nemes head-dress. The image represented by the Sphinx is generally accepted as Chephren, son of King Cheops, builder of the Great Pyramids at Giza. Most scholars believe that it dates back to about 2500BC, the time of the Fourth Dynasty.

The giant statue represents Chephren as Horus presenting offerings to Ra, the sun god, in the temple courtyard of the Sphinx. Although in common usage, Sphinx is a Greek word, and was not originally used as a name for the statue. In the New Kingdom, around 1550BC, it was known as ::I, 'Horus in the Horizon' or ::I, 'Place of Horus'.

Horus, originally a sky god, whose eyes were the sun and the moon, was often depicted as a falcon-headed man, and was revered as the protector of Kings.

In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx became a symbol of kingship and many kings of this period built temples and stelae (upright stone tablets bearing inscriptions) in the area surrounding the statue. Amenhotep II built a mud-brick temple to the north-east of the Sphinx, and Rameses II, one of the ancient kingdom's most prolific builders, constructed an altar of granite between its paws. Ancient tablets also show images of worshippers presenting burnt offerings to the Sphinx.

There can be no doubt that the Sphinx once had a beard. Pieces of it were found between the Sphinx's paws by the archaeologist Caviglia in 1816, but these fragments represented only about 15% of the original beard. Graphic reconstructions were attempted, but the work proved difficult with so little of the beard available as a basis. Egyptologists also had difficulty in dating the beard to the Old or New Kingdom, and attempts at restoration were abandoned, particularly as the beardless Sphinx was already famous worldwide. Caviglia therefore donated some of the fragments to the Cairo Museum; others can now be seen in the British Museum in London.

Enigmas and stories connected with the Sphinx are numerous. One such apocryphal tale has it that a record of the lost city of Atlantis lies somewhere under the Sphinx's paws, while others believe in the story of a huge temple beneath the Sphinx itself. Both of these are -- sadly -- untrue. Tales of a tunnel stretching from the Sphinx to the Great Pyramids have also been negated, although two passages were found in 1978, one behind the head of the Sphinx and another on the tail. Far from leading to the Pyramids, however, these tunnels merely led downwards under the monument and were made during the past century by treasure-hunters.

During the past two centuries many have come to study and excavate the monument. These include French scholars accompanying Napoleon's army in 1798, Caviglia in 1816, H. Vyse in 1840, Mariette in 1853, Kamal and Daressy in 1909 and Baraize in 1926. It was Baraize who first began restoration work, by renovating the head using cement, and clearing the sand completely around the Sphinx.

The most recent period of restoration began in 1953, continuing until the present day. The cement which had been used in earlier attempts at restoration was now found to be causing problems. The statue is mostly constructed of porous limestone, which allows the passage of air. Because cement is non-porous and rigid, changes in the basic proportions of the statue were found to be occurring.

Another problem is caused by the rising water table, which evaporates, leaving salts behind. These salts react with the limestone, causing it to become powdery and to crumble. Pollution from the nearby city of Cairo, together with heat, wind, sand and humidity are all agents in the monument's slow process of disintegration.

In 1982, stones were lost from the north paw and in 1988 a large stone fell from the Sphinx's shoulder. From 1989 onwards, the restoration project entered a more enlightened phase, with more thought being given to the monument's long-term preservation in its original form.

H.E. Farouk Hosni, Egyptian Minister of Culture, supported the project. It was his far-sighted approach to the problem which led to the inclusion of a sculptor on the team of restorers, which already included archaeologists, geologists and other scientific experts.

The restoration project was planned in three stages: first, to restore the southern side, next the northern side and the chest and lastly, to protect the whole monument from the ravages of the elements.

The large old stones and cement were removed from the southern side and replaced with new stones from a quarry at ::I, which contains rock consistent with the limestone of the original structure. Mortar made of lime and sand replaced the cement as a fixative, and the chest was protected by a limestone course. The first stage of the project is now complete.

The Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics at ::I conducted important studies on the level of the water table, and this has been found to be seven metres below the base of the monument. An electronic weather station nearby at the Getty Institute now records wind, heat and humidity, and a study of the bedrock under the Sphinx has been undertaken by the Engineering Faculty at Cairo University.

At a recent symposium held in Cairo, convened to discuss the preservation of the Sphinx, H.E. Farouk Hosni summed up by saying that the Sphinx's importance is global. It belongs not only to Egypt, but to the whole of mankind. He pledged his continuing support to its protection and restoration.

The true origin and purpose of the Sphinx remains a mystery, and it is perhaps a puzzle which will never be fully solved. Despite its fundamental enigma, the image of the Sphinx remains in the mind of history as the keystone of ancient Egyptian civilisation and a part of its religious beliefs. Thus, the smile on the face of the Sphinx is eternal.

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