Great Sphinx in Situ
A photochrome print from around the turn of
the Century, showing the fissure across the
haunches that was filled with cement in the 1930s.
Fragment of the Sphinx
For the head and face of the Sphinx certainly belong with the Old Kingdom of the ancient Egyptians, and with their Dyn. IV in particular. The style of the headdress (known as the 'nemes' head-cloth), with its fold over the top of the head and its triangular planes behind the ears, the presence of the royal 'uraeus' cobra on the brow, the treatment of the eyes and lips all speak of that historical period.
The sculptures of kings Djedefre, Khafre and Menkaure all show the same configuration that we see on the Sphinx. The Sphinx was originally bearded with the sort of formally plaited beard to be seen on many Egyptian statues. Pieces of the Sphinx's massive beard found by excavation adorn the British Museum in London and the Cairo Museum: it was supported by a stone plate to the breast, parts of which have also been found.
There is a hole in the top of the head, now filled in, that formerly located some further head decoration: depictions of the Sphinx from the latter days of ancient Egypt show a crown or plumes on the top of the head, but these were not necessarily part of the original design. The top of the head is flatter, however, than is the case with later Egyptian sphinxes.
Below the head begins the serious natural erosion of the body of the Sphinx, the leonine body of the man-lion hybrid. The neck is badly weathered, evidently by wind-blown sand during those long periods when only the head was sticking up out of the desert and the wind could catapult the sand along the surface and scour the neck and the extensions of the head-dress that are missing altogether now. The stone here is not quite of such good quality as that of the head above.
In the 1920s it was deemed necessary to support the head with cement approximations of the absent parts of the head-dress, and it is these extensions that chiefly account for the altered appearance of the Sphinx's head in recent times, when compared with old photographs and drawings.
Erosion below the neck does not look like scouring by wind-blown sand. In fact, so poor is the rock of the bulk of the body that it must have been deteriorating since the day it was carved out. We know that it needed repairs on more than one occasion in antiquity. It continues to erode before our very eyes, with spalls of limestone falling off the body of the Sphinx in the heat of every day.
The Sphinx temple in front of the Sphinx. The rock was of poor quality here from the start, already fissured along joint lines that went back to the formation of the limestone millions of years ago. There is a particularly large fissure across the haunches, nowadays filled with cement, that also shows up in the walls of the enclosure in which the Sphinx sits.
So severe is the erosion of the body of the Sphinx that, for example, what may have been in the first place an entire statue or attached column standing proud from the breast of the beast, has been reduced to a formless line of protuberances on the front of the monument between the forelegs. It is plain that extensive repairs have been made to the front paws of the Sphinx and in many other places over the body.
Some of these repairs go back to the New Kingdom of around 1400 BC(the time when King Tuthmosis IV set up his stela between the paws), and there is reason to believe that parts of the Sphinx must from the first have been built on to the basically carved body, out of necessity arising from the poor state of the rock from the beginning. It is even possible that the body of the Sphinx was entirely plastered over at some stage.
Below the neck, the Sphinx has the body of a lion, with paws, claws and tail (curled round the right haunch), sitting on the bedrock of the rocky enclosure out of which the monument has been carved. The enclosure has taller walls to the west and south of the monument, in keeping with the present lie of the land: it is generally thought that quarrying around the original knoll (for pyramid blocks or blocks with which to build temples associated with the necropolis complex) revealed the too-poor quality of the rock for construction purposes at this point; whereupon some visionary individual conceived the plan of turning what was left of the knoll into the Sphinx; but, of course, the Sphinx may equally well have been planned from the start for this location, good rock or bad. The walls of the Sphinx enclosure are of the same characteristics as the strata of the Sphinx body and exhibit similar states of erosion.