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The Riddle of the Sphinx

The Egyptian Sphinx with Khafre's Pyramid behind it

The Sphinx is not only Egyptian in origin, but also has roots in ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The ancient Greeks described the Sphinx as a creature with a woman's head, a lion's body and a bird's wings.

Greek lore also described what is known as the Riddle of the Sphinx. Legend has it that the Sphinx guarded a mountain pass and would only let those who correctly answered its riddle to pass. Those who answered incorrectly would be killed.

The Riddle of the Sphinx goes like this: "What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?" The Greek legendary hero Oedipus managed to destroy the Sphinx by providing the correct answer: "Man".

The Egyptian Sphinx is slightly different from the Greek version. It is usually portrayed as a lion with the head of a man. It is associated with the horizon, as the god Harmakhet, another version of the god Horus.

Profile of the Egyptian Sphinx

As a symbol of holiness and protection, the Egyptian Sphinx was commonly used as guardian statues for the tombs of pharaohs and high priests. However, the most well-known Egyptian Sphinx is the one located next to the Pyramids of Giza.

This Sphinx is huge, measuring 74 m (241 ft) in length and 20 m (65 ft) in height. It is located directly east of the 2nd Great Pyramid (that of Khafre), and it faces east, staring at the equinoctial sunrise.

Most Egyptologists agree that the Egyptian Sphinx was built at roughly the same time as the Pyramids of Giza, at around 2500 BC. This is primarily because the face of the Sphinx bears a very strong likeness to Pharaoh Khafre (Chephren), who built the 2nd Great Pyramid. However, there are theories that the Sphinx could have been built long before that time.

The temple next to the Sphinx

Surrounding the Egyptian Sphinx is a temple complex, most likely a place of worship for either Horus the lion god, or Ra the sun god, since the Sphinx faces the sunrise.

The Sphinx was carved out of a single rock formation, composed of various types of limestone. However, the various layers of limestone had different strengths and therefore eroded at different rates. The head and paws of the Sphinx contained stronger limestone and therefore escaped much wear and tear. However, the body has eroded extensively.

Between the front paws of the Egyptian Sphinx rest a tablet, commonly known as the "Dream Stela". On it is a story dating back to the 18th Dynasty. The story tells of a time when Pharaoh Thutmosis IV (Thutmose) was still a prince.

Profile of the Sphinx

The Sphinx was at that time buried up to the neck in sand. During a hunt, the prince fell asleep under the jaw of the Sphinx. He then dreamt of the Sphinx telling him that if he cleared all the sand and released the Sphinx, he would become Pharaoh. He cleared the sand, and true enough, become Pharaoh, even though he had an older brother. Historians believe that he made up the story as a divine excuse for murdering his brother.

Another Riddle of the Sphinx was how it lost its nose. It is widely accepted that it occurred during the Muslim Arabs' invasion of Egypt. Since the Sphinx was a symbol of pagan gods, the Arabs defaced it by scratching the eyes and chopping off the nose.

Tourists visiting the Sphinx

The Egyptian Sphinx is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Egypt, together with the Pyramids of Giza. However, due to pollution and increased acidity in the rain, the Sphinx is eroding more quickly now, and might not last much longer.

Restoration works were undertaken throughout the 1980's. However, the process failed, causing additional damage. The Egyptian authorities have since taken over responsibility of the restoration process, and with more advanced technology, it appears to be working. And the enigmatic Sphinx will live on.

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