Egypt // Cairo and the Pyramids //

The Sphinx

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.

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