Everyone has seen pictures of the Sphinx but this legendary monument is far more impressive in real life, especially from the front, where it gazes down at you from twenty metres up, with Chepren’s pyramid for a backdrop. The Sphinx is carved from an outcrop of soft limestone supposedly left standing after the harder surrounding stone was quarried for the Great Pyramid; however, since most of the outcrop was too friable to work on directly it was clad in harder stone before finishing. Egyptologists credit Chephren with the idea of shaping it into a figure with a lion’s body and a human head, which is often identified as his own (complete with royal beard and uraeus), though it may represent a guardian deity. Some thousand years later, the future Tuthmosis IV is said to have dreamt that if he cleared the sand that engulfed the Sphinx it would make him ruler: a prophecy fulfilled, as recorded on a stele that he placed between its paws.
The name “Sphinx” was actually bestowed by the Ancient Greeks, after the legendary creature of Thebes (the Greek city, not the Egyptian one now known as Luxor) that put riddles to passers-by and slew those who answered wrongly. The Arabs called it Abu al-Hol (the awesome or terrible one); medieval chronicles relate how its nose and ears were mutilated by a Sufi sheikh in 1378, whereupon the Sphinx blew sand over the village at its feet and enraged residents lynched the sheikh. While there’s no evidence to support the oft-repeated story that the Sphinx was used for target practice by Mamluke and Napoleonic troops, much of its beard ended up in the British Museum in London – although the British were respectful enough to sandbag the monument for protection during World War II.
Three tunnels exist inside the Sphinx, one behind its head, one in its tail and one in its north side. Their function is unknown, but none goes anywhere. Other tunnels have been unearthed in the vicinity of the Sphinx; again, who built them or what they were for is unknown, but one suggestion is that they were created by later Ancient Egyptians looking for buried treasure.
The age of the Sphinx
The age of the Sphinx
In 1991, maverick Egyptologist John West – who had long claimed that Ancient Egyptian civilization was the inheritor of the lost culture of Atlantis – got together a team of American scientists led by geologist Robert Schoch to investigate apparent signs of water erosion on the sides of the Sphinx’s enclosure. Schoch’s team duly announced that the erosion could only have been caused by water, meaning the Sphinx was older than Egypt’s last known flood era back in 10,000–15,000 BC – several millennia before the date assigned to its creation by conventional Egyptology. Despite this evidence, most Egyptologists continue to believe that the Sphinx was built to honour Chephren; apart from anything else, a New Kingdom inscription on a stele in front of it bore Chepren’s name, and statues of the pharaoh have been uncovered in the neighbouring valley temple. The water erosion, they argue, can be explained by flooding from the Nile and severe storms in relatively recent times.