7 Common Misconceptions About The Great Sphinx of Giza

Egyptologist Gaston Maspero claimed that the Great Sphinx is so old that it is probably the oldest statue of ancient Egypt.

One cannot write about Ancient Egypt, the Pyramids and the land of Pharaohs without mentioning the Great Sphinx of Giza.

There is scarcely a person on Earth who is unfamiliar with the mindbending form and features of the man-headed lion that guards the Pyramids at the plateau. The Great Sphinx of Giza is perhaps the single most fascinating statue ever carved by human hands. Not because of its mysterious looks-although they, on their own are a massive mystery—but because we have simply not found one ancient text that dated back to the time it was carved, which could tell us anything about the enigmatic statue.

Therefore, many scholars agree that the Sphinx of Giza is synonymous with mystery.

In fact, such is the mystery of the Sphinx that up until relatively recently, the massive statue was buried to its neck in the sand, and the visitors that came by it could only speculate and imagine what lies beneath it.

Sitting along the thirtieth parallel, this monolith carved out of the limestone bedrock from which the pyramids at Giza were built, is sixty feet high, two hundred and forty feet long and thirty-eight feet wide.

Worn down and eroded, the Sphinx bears evidence on its body of a time long gone. A different history, a different era, when—perhaps—now lost civilizations roamed the Earth. The Sphinx is battered, fissured and collapsing slowly, evidence of its age. But despite its rather delicate situation, the Great Sphinx of Giza endures, with its majesty and mystery speaking of a time long gone.

The Sphinx: A time-capsule made of stone

Thousands of years passed from when the Sphinx was carved. Climates changed, rulers came and gone. New religions came, stayed and were replaced, just as the sight of the sky above the Sphinx, which at one time was very different.

A stunning view of the head of the Great Sphinx. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

Throughout its history, the great Sphinx was feared and admired. Believed to have been colorfully painted in the distant past, there is only so much we know about the Great Sphinx, and most of what we do know comes from a time when the Sphinx was already ancient to a civilization that is ancient to us.

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The Great Sphinx was often engulfed by Egypt’s golden sands. But just as the sands of Egypt engulfed the massive statue, so did mystery encompass the Great Sphinx. Although the sands were cleared and returned only to be cleared again, the mystery surrounding the statue has endured since time immemorial.

But just how long has the Sphinx stood there, inspecting the horizon, faithfully guarding the massive triangles that protrude from the ground behind it? Who was the massive statue carved for? And what is its purpose? Was it just a fused symbol representing the might of a Pharaoh? Or, is there something more to the massive statue that experts say is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt.

Not only that, but the Great Sphinx is also regarded as the world’s largest and oldest statue.

However, just how old the Sphinx may be is a mystery that we will perhaps never solve. That’s because it is impossible to identify the original Sphinx. We don’t know when it was originally carved, although Egyptologists like to believe that the Sphinx came into existence during ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, specifically during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, the builder of the second-largest pyramid at the plateau. This, of course, is mere guesswork as experts have never discovered any kind of ancient text that mentions the sphinx in any context.

There is not one papyrus, ancient text, hieroglyph that speaks of the time when the Sphinx was carved. There is no written record about the exact purpose of the Sphinx, and there are no details about the exact shape of the Sphinx. It is also impossible to know the original name the Sphinx had when it was completed. The closest to its original name is what the ancient Egyptians called the statue during the New Kingdom when the Sphinx was revered as the solar deity Hor-em-Akhet; Horus of the Horizon.

The name we use to refer to the statue today, the Sphinx, is actually a name given to the statue in classical antiquity, more than 2,000 years after the ‘commonly’ accepted construction date of the Sphinx.

Despite the lack of evidence that would prove the Sphinx dates back to the Fourth Dynasty, mainstream scholars maintain that the Sphinx was carved around 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafre, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza. 

Great Sphinx in the 1870s. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Great Sphinx in the 1870s. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Writing about the statue in 1949, Egyptologists Selim Hassan explained the contradiction when he addressed the biggest issue surrounding the Sphinx: “Taking all things into consideration, it seems that we must give the credit of erecting this, the world’s most wonderful statue, to Khafre, but always with this reservation: that there is not one single contemporary inscription which connects the Sphinx with Khafre; so, sound as it may appear, we must treat the evidence as circumstantial, until such time as a lucky turn of the spade of the excavator will reveal to the world a definite reference to the erection of the Sphinx.”

In my personal opinion, Egyptologist Miroslav Verner gives us an excellent judgment on the Sphinx:

The Great Sphinx of Giza is more than simply a symbol of ancient and modern Egypt. It is the very embodiment of antiquity and mystery itself. Over the centuries it has fired the imaginations of poets and scientists, adventurers and travelers. Although it has often been measured, described, investigated using the most up-to-date scientific-technical means, and discussed at special scientific conferences, fundamental questions remain unanswered: Who built it, when, and why? (234)

The truth is that we don’t know who built it, when and why. We just know its there. And it has been there for a very long time. We know that civilizations rose and fell, yet the Sphinx remained. It survived, perhaps greatly because it spent most of its history buried beneath the sand.

However, it can be said that none of us, not even mainstream Egyptologists are in a position to claim or conclude that the Sphinx symbolizes the Pharaoh Khafre. The King’s body was never found, so the only thing we could compare the fact of the Sphinx to are surviving statues of the Pharaoh, which as Hancock and Bauval explained, may or may not resemble the king himself.

Early Egyptologists were keener to admitting that the Sphinx could predate even the fourth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. One such Egyptologist was Flinders Petrie who wrote in 1883 that “…the date of the Granite Temple [Valley Temple] has been so positively asserted to be earlier than the fourth dynasty, that it may seem rash to dispute the point.”

Another Egyptologists who had no issues agreeing that the Sphinx may predate the Fourth Dynasty reign of Khafre was E.A. Wallis Budge. In his 1914 book “The Gods of the Egyptians,” he wrote: “This marvelous object [the Great Sphinx] was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren, and it is probable that it is a very great deal older than his reign and that it dates from the end of the archaic period, around 2686 BC.”

This was shared by Maspero who claimed that the Great Sphinx of Giza was the most ancient monument of Egypt.

Misconceptions about the Sphinx

The more we claim we know, the more we realize how little we understand.

The Great Sphinx of Giza was not a monument that was built. There are many people who believe that the Sphinx was constructed, just as the pyramids, using blocks of stone. The truth is that the Great Sphinx was carved into the bedrock of the plateau. The original shape of the Sphinx has been restored with layers of blocks. The Sphinx is made of different layers of limestone. The body of the statue, all the way up to its neck is carved from the softer layers which have suffered a great deal of degradation. The layer out of which the head was sculpted is much harder.

The Great Sphinx of Giza was not always called the Sphinx. The truth is that we don’t know what its original sculptures called the statue when it was completed, thousands of years ago. The name we use today to refer to the statue was given to it in classical antiquity, more than 2,000 years after the monument was initially believed to have been carved.

The age of the Sphinx is a theory. Mainstream scholars argue that the Great Sphinx was carved by the ancient Egyptians during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre. Egyptologists say that the Sphinx resembles the face of Khafre, although we have not found that many reliable statues of the King to compare the Sphinx’s face to it. Mainstream scholars, therefore, argue that the Sphinx was carved between 2558–2532 BC.

Napoleon did not shoot down the Sphinx’s nose. Although there are stories that suggest Napoleon’s army destroyed the nose of the Sphinx, the truth is that long-before Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt, the Sphinx’s nose was already missing. Writing in the 15th century, Arab Historian al-Maqrizi attributed the loss of the nose of the Sphinx to Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, who is said to have defaced the Sphinx in an act of iconoclasm.

It was long believed that the Sphinx had the face, neck, and breast of a woman. Way back from the 16th century, and well into the 19th century, different explorers, adventurers, and observers noted that the Sphinx had the face, neck, and breast of a woman. Some of the more notorious examples include depictions of Johannes Helferich (1579), George Sandys (1615), Johann Michael Vansleb (1677), Benoît de Maillet (1735) and Elliot Warburton (1844).

Khafre’s face. Although Egyptologists maintain the Sphinx was a representation of Pharaoh Khafre, Frank Domingo, a forensic scientist in the New York City Police Department and an expert forensic anthropologist, took a number of accurate measurements of the Sphinx, performed a number of forensic drawings and computer imaging in hopes of figuring out who the monument depicted. Domingo would eventually conclude that the face depicted on the Great Sphinx is not the same face as is depicted on a statue attributed to Pharaoh Khafre.

The Sphinx was not only restored in modern times. As I’ve said in previous articles, to the ancient Egyptians the Sphinx was already ancient.  According to experts, the very first documented attempt at excavating a sphinx buried beneath the sand dates back to around 1400 BC, when young Pharaoh Thutmose IV organized a team of workers who after a long effort successfully revealed the front paws of the statue. It is believed that Pharaoh Ramesses II undertook another excavation in an attempt to free the complete statue. Some experts like Mark Lehner have maintained in the past that the Sphinx may have been restored even during the Old Kingdom, between 2686–2184 BC.