The Great Sphinx
If the Pyramids of Giza are the most famous landmark in the world, then the Sphinx is the most famous fictional animal. A lion's body with a man's head, the mythical creature was the symbol of fear and awesome power in ancient Egypt. Its name has been interpreted as "The Wonderful One," "The Terrible One," "The Father of Terror," "The Living Statue," and "Horus of the Horizon."
Egyptian tradition holds that the face of the Sphinx is the image of Khafre (Chephren). But archæologists believe it does not represent the form of a great leader. Rather, it is a mythical creature whose job is to guard the bodies of the dead in the cemeteries surrounding the Giza pyramid complex. This theory is supported in part because it was built more than 2,600 years before Khafre's rule.
Unlike the nearby pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx was was carved largely from a natural limestone outcropping by a civilization that has long since vanished. It is 190 feet long, and 66 feet tall. On many picture postcards, the Sphinx's paws seem to be too big. In fact, they are in proportion to the rest of the body, if you look at it from where it was intended to be seen -- the bottom of the valley below, where those who created the creature, and presumably worshipped it, would look up to see the statue watching over them.
One thing the Sphinx illustrates very well is the shifting nature of its environment. It has been repeatedly covered up by the desert then revealed either through the efforts of man or the unpredictable forces of nature. Even the ancient Egyptians had to adapt, building an adjoining altar on top of another that had been swallowed by the sand. The ancient Greeks would come to this place and marvel at the half-man, half-beast resting in the desert. In fact, it was they who christened it the "Sphinx," naming it after a mythical winged creature in their own culture. Evidence of Greek life in the area can be found in a bit of ancient graffiti scratched into the paws of the Sphinx -- it is a poem of peace. Later, the Romans would build a stairway and a ramp over both altars after they had vanished under the sands of time. In 1816, a French expedition uncovered part of the limestone monster, but only managed to dig away at the rear portion because of the shifting sand. Then in 1925 yet another expedition managed to clear the front part of the Sphinx, revealing its true form. It was all these layers of buildings underneath the sand that has given rise to the myths of hidden chambers and buried treasures in the desert. Those rumors led to fortune-seekers burrowing into the monument.
Since it was first uncovered, the Sphinx has been repeatedly patched and repaired over more than 3,000 years. In fact, the first recorded patch-up job was ordered by Pharaoh Tutmosis IV when he was just a prince about 1500bc. Some jobs were of a better quality than others. A restoration project started in 1990 and lasting seven years used more than 100,000 stones to restore the Sphinx's body, but the rising Nile water table continues to wreak havoc on the monument. The United States government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to help the Egyptian people remedy the situation.
It seems there are as many rumors surrounding what happened to the Sphinx's nose and beard than there are theories about who built it and why. One popular theory is that Napoleon's French solders shot it off because he considered it a threat to his power. That is not possible because the nose was gone long before Napoleon's army first came to the area. Another version of this tale has Turkish soldiers joining in for target practice. A theory that rose in the early 1990's held that European conquerors who came to Egypt removed the nose to conceal that black Egyptians built the monument in their image. However, this theory has only gained acceptance in limited circles of power usually surrounding racists with a political agenda. It is further diminished by early records of the Sphinx's crumbling state that existed hundreds of years before Europeans trod on the sands of Giza. One of these older theories has a Muslim Fatmid personally taking an axe to the Sphinx between 969 and 1071 because he thought it was a symbol of a pagan religion. Another puts the loss of the nose at about 1300ad. There is one fact, however -- part of the Sphinx's beard was recovered from the sand during excavation and is now in the British Museum in London.
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