Unwritten Mystery: Why the Great Sphinx is Absent From Ancient History

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.

Of all the ancient statues that have been carved and crafted in ancient times, none is as impressive as the Great Sphinx at Giza, Egypt.

Cut from the Giza bedrock, the original shape of the Sphinx remains lost to history as the statue and its shape have been restored through millennia with layers of blocks.

The enigmatic Sphinx measures 73 m (240 ft) long from paw to tail, 20 m (66 ft) high from the base to the top of the head and 19 m (62 ft) wide at its rear haunches, this ancient statue is considered the oldest known monumental statue in Egypt.

Despite the fact that most of its history and origins are shrouded in mystery, it is commonly believed by Egyptologists that the ancient statue was carved by the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom, more specifically during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre, the builders of the second-largest pyramid at Giza.

A side-view of the Great Sphinx at Giza. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

The exact shape of the Sphinx remains a mystery, despite the fact that scholars would like to believe that the sculpture was crafted as the body of a lion, and the head of the Egyptian king Khafre.

Theories concerning its true shape and who the head of the Sphinx represents are numerous. There are some scholars (notably Dobrev) who argue that the Sphinx was crafted by Djedefre (2566-2558 BCE).

All in all, scholars remain in disagreement over who had the Sphinx carved, and when exactly it was created. Nonetheless, all of them agree that the Great Sphinx is the most impressive sculptural work in the history of mankind.

Egyptologist Miroslav Verner comments on the significance of the Sphinx, reporting  on its importance and numerous mysteries:

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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 Great Sphinx with the Pyramid of Pharaoh Cheops in the background. 1877 photo by French photographer Henri Bechard. Shutterstock.
The Great Sphinx with the Pyramid of Pharaoh Cheops in the background. 1877 photo by French photographer Henri Bechard. Shutterstock.

Although many theories try (and have tried) to explain the origin of the Sphinx, there isn’t one that satisfied experts entirely.

Nonetheless, the leading theories statues that the sphinx was carved during Khafre’s reign when the second-largest pyramid at Giza was being constructed. It is argued that the masons who were quarrying stones for the Pyramid encountered a massive piece of rock and were directed to carve a massive Sphinx from it.

Whether this was so, and what the exact purpose of the Sphinx is, remains a profound mystery which experts have not been able to answer despite studying the statue for centuries.

No one summed up the problems concerning the history of the Sphinx as Selim Hassan, who writing in 1949explained the issues 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

Just as the origin of the Sphinx is shrouded in mystery, so is its name. The commonly used name “the Sphinx” was given to the statue as early as classical antiquity, which is around 2,000 years after the supposed construction date of the statue.

Since there are no ancient documents that mention the carving process of the Sphinx, its purpose or exact date of construction, we can’t possibly know what the ancient builders of the statue called it.

It is known that medieval Arab writers called the Sphinx balhib and bilhaw. However, in modern Egyptian Arabic, the Great Sphinx is called Abu Alhol, which translates into “The Terrifying One.”

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

Despite the fact that modern Egyptologists suggest Khafre may be the King who commissioned the Sphinx, some of the greatest Egyptologists in history like Auguste Marriete or Flinders Petrie argued the Sphinx predate the reign of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, perhaps the entire Fourth Dynasty which began with Pharaoh Sneferu.

Flinders Petrie wrote in 1883: “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”.

Gaston Maspero was another Egyptologist who was convinced that the Sphinx was much older than the Fourth Dynasty.

In 1886 he performed archeological excavations at the Sphinx and concluded that since the Dream Stela showed the cartouche of Khafre in line 13, it was he who was responsible for the excavation and therefore the Sphinx must predate Khafre and his predecessors. Maspero is one of the few Egyptologists who–surprisingly–claimed the Sphinx was the oldest statue in all of ancient Egyptian history.

Another expert on the matter, Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge was convinced the Sphinx was older than the Fourth Dynasty.

Writing in The Gods of the Egyptians (1914) Budge explained: “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 circa 2686 BC.”

These are all relatively new details about the Sphinx which are based on theory and nothing more.

The badly damaged head of the Great Sphinx. Shutterstock.
The badly damaged head of the Great Sphinx. Shutterstock.

Although modern Egyptologists argue that Khafre is the mastermind behind the Sphinx, the only thing that supports their theory is a diorite statue of Khafre which was discovered buried along other debris at the so-called Valley Temple.

In fact, the only “written evidence” mentioning the Sphinx we have comes from the Dream Stele, an epigraphic stele erected by Pharaoh Thutmose IV. Egyptologists claim that this Stele, most likely erected several thousand years after the construction of the Sphinx, provides evidence that the statue was carved by Khafre. The stele reads Khaf, not Khafre.

It was Egyptologist Thomas Young who inserted the glyph Rato complete Khafre’s name.

Prior to the Dream Stele, not one ancient text has been found making reference to the date when the statue was carved, nor what its original purpose is. We can also only guess what the original name of the Sphinx was.

For reasons we are unable to understand–and just as the Pyramids of Egypt–not one ancient text dating back from the reign of Khafre has been found to confirm the Sphinx was actually built by him.

The so-called Sphinx Water Erosion Hyptohesiss suggests that water erosion visible on the Sphinx suggests the statue was exposed to prolonged and extensive rainfall. Since during the reign of Khafre climate models suggest rain was scarce at the Giza plateau, several authors suggest the statue must predate the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt.

The Great Sphinx is so old that it spent most of its time hidden and buried beneath Egypt’s golden sands. In fact, the first documented attempt at an excavation dates to around 1400 BC to the reign of Thutmose IV.

It is believed that a second restoration may have been undertaken by Ramesses II the Great, between 1279–1213 BC.

It wasn’t until 1817 that the first archeological expedition supervised by Italian Giovanni Battista Caviglia uncovered the chest of the statue entirely.

In the beginning of the year 1887, the chest, the paws, the altar, and plateau were all made visible. Flights of steps were unearthed, and finally accurate measurements were taken of the great figures.