Wondering Egypt

The Sphinx
By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com
The Sphinx with the Great Pyramid of Khufu right behind. (BikeAbout)

A sphinx is a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Its most famous portrayal is the huge statue located just in front of the great pyramids at Giza. Though dwarfed by the pyramids, the Sphinx at Giza is still pretty big. Its body is 172 feet (52.4 meters) in length while the height to the top of the head is 66 feet (20 meters).

The Greeks, as is common with the closely inter-related civilizations of the Mediterranean, borrowed the idea of a sphinx from the Egyptians, and it is the Greek legend of the sphinx with which we are most familiar. In that legend the sphinx asked every passerby a riddle and devoured anyone that failed to answer it correctly. After many travelers were eaten, Oedipus answered the riddle correctly and killed the sphinx.

The Egyptians, however, did not seem to have the same sort of legends about the sphinx. Indeed, no one really knows what the Sphinx represented to them. Some Egyptologists think that the Sphinx represented the sky-god Horus, but there is certainly evidence to indicate that the head of the sphinx portrayed the reigning pharaoh. If this is the case then the face staring out eastward towards the Nile is that of Pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid lies directly behind the great statue.

The mystery of the Sphinx at Giza extends to the strange circumstances surrounding the loss of both its beard and its nose. No one seems to know when or why these pieces of the Sphinx fell off. The most common story is that occupying Ottoman (or French, depending on who tells the story) soldiers used the Sphinx for target practice and essentially shot the nose off its face. Or it could just have fallen off with the passage of time. The issue is whether the monument should be restored to its former glory. Of course the question of a face-lift is complicated by the fact that the British snapped up the nose and are keeping it in the British Museum even though the Egyptians have long demanded its return.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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