It was a peaceful March evening and experts were watching a very special sunset over the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Obviously, it was an event that had happened many times before, but this occasion was different. This time the falling light did not just illuminate the great statue, but also revealed something that had gone unnoticed for years.
The date was March 19 and it was special because it was the spring equinox. This is one of the two times a year that day and night last an equal length of time because of the Earth’s position in relation to the sun. It’s an occasion loaded with symbolic significance and in this case, it seems the Ancient Egyptians may have been considering it when they built their Sphinx.
Every year the spring equinox recurs on or about March 20, while its opposite, the fall equinox, appears towards the end of September. They stand in contrast to the solstices in June and December, which are the longest day and longest night respectively. All around the world you can find festivals and monuments that are built around these dates.
The Egyptians were some of the greatest builders in the ancient world and the Sphinx is just one example of their lasting influence. They were also responsible for the equally iconic pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. This mighty monument is 481 feet tall and has stood for over 4,000 years.
Egyptian society was full of innovations that allowed it to overshadow other societies of the time period and ensure its influence lasted until the present day. Farming and medicine were also areas where Egyptians led the way, but the pyramids and the Sphinx are probably the most recognizable of their impressive feats.
It’s hard to ignore the scale of Egypt’s ancient monuments, especially considering the limited tools available at the time. It was 3,000 years before anything man-made stood higher than the Great Pyramid. There is another part to the monuments’ enduring appeal, however, and that’s the mystery behind them.
How were they built? Why? It’s generally accepted that the pyramids were primarily intended as tombs for kings, but the Sphinx is less easy to explain. What’s the significance of a statue with a lion’s body but a human’s head and pharaoh’s headdress? It’s massive, unmistakable and after 4,500 years, we still don’t know much more about it than we did when it was dug out of the sand.
The plain facts are straightforward enough. The Great Sphinx of Giza is 66 feet tall, 240 feet long and made out of limestone. Traces of pigment suggest it was once painted. It’s found at Giza, just feet away from the Great Pyramid and other ancient structures and it has become one of the most iconic statues in the world. There are other sphinxes, but none are as famous.
If you walk the two miles between the temples of Karnak and Luxor you will find yourself in an avenue known as “Sphinx Alley”. The temples and tombs that line this route are often decorated with sphinx carvings. Other sphinx statues have been found wearing the faces of various pharaohs, and it seems likely they were considered spiritual guardians.
Sphinx imagery also spread out from Egypt into other parts of the ancient world. It was in Greek mythology that the name sphinx first came into use, which means we don’t actually know what the Egyptians called their statue. In Ancient Greece the sphinx was a winged creature with a serpent’s tail.
According to Greek mythology there was one Sphinx and she was a monster. She guarded the city of Thebes and wouldn’t let anyone pass unless they could solve a riddle. Oedipus was the first man to answer correctly, which led to the Sphinx throwing herself off the city’s fortifications in despair. If Oedipus had answered wrongly then the Sphinx would have devoured him like she did every previous failed challenger.
Another creature similar to the sphinx can be found through south and southeast Asia. It’s generally portrayed as female and tends to sit on its back legs whilst holding a paw in the air. It has wings like the Greek Sphinx and its role is usually as a protector. This kind of sphinx still appears in temples and religious ceremonies today.
Some smaller sphinx statues from Ancient Egypt have been transported around the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a granite model of Hatshepsut that’s of particular interest because it depicts a rare female pharaoh. There’s another sphinx with Hatshepsut’s face at a temple in Memphis, Egypt, but it’s not as famous as the Great Sphinx.
There are a lot of theories about the origins of the Great Sphinx, but one of the most popular is based on the resemblance between the Sphinx’s face and a statue of the Pharaoh Khafre. This statue was found in the mid-1800s in the Valley Temple, which is next to the Sphinx. Khafre ruled between approximately 2603 and 2578 B.C.
The Great Pyramid at Giza belonged to Khafre’s father, Khufu, but Khafre himself also has a pyramid on the plateau. There is a mortuary next to Khafre’s pyramid with a road that connects it to the Valley Temple and there’s another temple of similar design right in front of the Sphinx. It could all be connected to the one pharaoh.
Not everyone agrees that the Sphinx’s face resembles Khafre’s and that’s one of the reasons for debate. Some people think it looks more like Khufu, and some think that Khafre’s brother had the statue built in honor of their father. A smaller contingent think it may have been a later pharaoh named Amenemhat II, just because he had a similar stripy headdress.
Another theory that has been mostly discredited is that the Sphinx is actually much older than originally thought. This idea is based on the pattern of erosion displayed on the statue’s body, but this can easily be explained by the relative softness of limestone. The head is carved in harder rock, which explains its better condition.
For many years the head was the only part of the Sphinx visible whilst the rest was buried in sand. It was in the early 1800s that Captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia began excavating the statue, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that an archaeologist called Selim Hassan finished the process. That was despite several other partial attempts during the years in between.
We know more about the statue than we used to do, even if we’re still uncertain about the details. Only one piece of limestone was shaped into the Sphinx, but that stone has different layers. The lower part (up to about 12 feet) is more brittle, whilst the bulk alternates layers of hard and soft rock. The neck is also quite soft before reaching the solid parts of the head.
Research suggests that a construction the size of the Sphinx would have taken three years to carve even with 100 laborers. They would have used hammers made of stone and copper chisels for their gigantic task. Some of these tools were left behind at the construction site, as were the remains of a worker’s lunch, which suggested the project wasn’t completely finished.
Other evidence that work was still ongoing comes from stone that had only partially been quarried. Some of the rock that fell from the Sphinx whilst it was being carved appears to have been used in the construction of the Sphinx Temple, but blocks of limestone have also been found abandoned nearby. It seems that Khafre’s great monument was meant to have been even bigger.
The importance of the Sphinx has varied through time, with it experiencing periods of neglect and eras of veneration. It spent hundreds of years of its early history being ignored, until the future Thutmose IV fell asleep at its feet. Thutmose was still a prince at the time; his father, Amenhotep II, was pharaoh. At this point it was over 1,000 years since the Sphinx had been built.
According to legend, Thutmose had a dream in which the Sphinx promised to help him ascend to his father’s throne. In return he would have to clear the sand that half-buried the statue and help return it to its former glory. When Thutmose was eventually crowned he kept his promise and encouraged his people to worship the Sphinx.
One of the most important deities in Ancient Egypt was Ra, god of the sun, and the Sphinx became associated with the sun. Khafre was also particularly devoted to the sky god Horus, which may have led to the Sphinx being known as “Harmakhet.” This means “Horus of the Horizon” and is also the name used in Thutmose’s dream.
Thutmose’s devotion to the Sphinx is recorded on a piece of pink granite known as the Dream Stele. This can be found in front of the statue and may have helped inspire the Sphinx-cult in their worship. Time continued to pass, however, and with the arrival of new religions the statue lost its holy status. It may even have been damaged because it was seen as a false idol.
Erosion over time is one of the greatest threats to the Sphinx and it doesn’t seem to be going away. The Ancient Egyptians started trying to repair it thousands of years ago and experts today are still working hard to preserve it. Wind and weather regularly break off pieces of limestone, with restoration efforts having mixed results.
To figure out the full story of the Sphinx we may also need to consider the pyramids standing close to it. These are the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre, all of which are situated on the Giza Plateau near Cairo. It’s possible that the mass of limestone used to carve the Sphinx was discovered whilst quarrying building materials for one of these pyramids.
The monuments of the Giza Plateau were built during the period known as the Fourth Dynasty, which began in 2613 B.C. and lasted over 100 years. The Great Pyramid was built first and is largest. Its current 451-foot height is actually significantly smaller than the original 481 feet, but theft and vandalism have worn it down. It’s still the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that remains standing.
Pyramids in Ancient Egypt were used as tombs and memorials for pharaohs. There are over 70 in total and all were built close to the Nile. When Khufu came to power there were already impressive structures at Saqqara and Dahshur. He didn’t want his tomb to be overshadowed by these others, so he picked a new site at Giza to construct the greatest monument yet.
There are a lot of ideas about how the Ancient Egyptians managed to construct such a large structure with the tools and knowledge of the time. Ramps and hydraulics have both been suggested, though there’s no conclusive evidence. Some people have even suggested the somewhat outlandish theory that it must have been aliens.
It may have taken as long as 20 years to build the Great Pyramid and we still don’t really know how it was achieved. The scale of the construction and skill that would have been required seem almost inconceivable. When Khafre came to the throne he had his own monument built and at 471 feet, it’s not much smaller than his father’s.
The other pyramid that needs to be considered in relation to the Sphinx is the Red Pyramid at Dahshur. The Great Pyramid, Khafre’s pyramid and the Red Pyramid share one baffling characteristic. All have the four corners of their base situated just a 15th of a degree off a perfect north/south/east/west alignment.
Experts have long been baffled at how the Egyptians managed to be so precise and it’s a question that sits right with all the other unanswered mysteries of the pyramids. It was not until recently that an engineer conducted an experiment to finally reveal one way that the alignment could have been achieved.
The engineer’s name was Glen Dash and he actually conducted his experiment in Connecticut. He used what’s sometimes called a gnomon, which is a type of rod, and placed it on a wooden platform. All he had to do was mark the progress of the gnomon’s shadow as the day passed by.
He found that the straight line of the shadow had a tiny degree of error just like the one found in the pyramids. Dash’s experiment took place on the date of the fall equinox, so it seems that the special alignment of the sun on that day was what allowed his angle to be calculated. The Egyptians may have used a similar technique for the pyramids, but how is that relevant to the Sphinx?
When officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities watched the sun set over the Sphinx on the spring equinox they saw something that couldn’t have happened at any other time of year. The light touched the statue’s right shoulder as it slowly descended towards the horizon. It gave the Sphinx a distinctive aura that could only appear when day and night were equal.
This suggests that the Ancient Egyptians were considering the sun and the equinox when they situated the Sphinx, just like they did when building the pyramids. It’s not surprising when you consider how many monuments around the world have been influenced by the equinox or the solstice; Stonehenge in southern England is one famous example.
The discovery of the Sphinx’s connection to the equinox also shows it aligned with Khafre’s pyramid. When the light hit pyramid, statue and temple all together then the Egyptians may have thought it gave power to the deceased pharaoh. Some have speculated that the alignment could have been a way to help Khafre’s soul achieve resurrection.
This latest revelation still doesn’t entirely answer every question about the Sphinx. We know the Egyptians worshipped the sun but they didn’t leave us any blueprints for their great monuments. We don’t know what the architects and engineers were thinking so we have to make educated guesses. Dash’s rod method is just one of several possible ways to align the pyramids, and the Sphinx.
Researchers have experimented with different techniques that the Egyptians could have used but the rod is one of the simplest. Without any solid records or evidence it may be the best theory we can form, but that doesn’t prove it’s true. What we do know is that the Sphinx is still eroding and that makes it important to learn as much as we can as soon as possible.