The Old and New Kingdom Sphinx Temples at Giza

The Old and New Kingdom

Sphinx Temples at Giza

by Allen Winston

View of the Giza Plateau with the Sphinx, and the Old and New Kingdom Temples

The Great Sphinx is, like many other monuments in Egypt, a complex rather than simply a single colossal statue. At the Sphinx on the Giza Plateau near Cairo, there are actually two Sphinx temples. One of them, directly in front of the Sphinx, dates to the time when the Sphinx monument was built, while the other is of New Kingdom construction.

In the older of the two temples, the core blocks are of the same generally poorer quality and more easily eroded limestone as the body of the Sphinx. Thus these temple can be regarded as contemporary with the carving of the monument. It should also be noted that the same core blocks also make up Khafre's lower, or valley temple, and thus place it, the Sphinx and the Sphinx temple in the same date range.

Hence, it was probably built by the same men who constructed the Pyramid temples of Khafre and is in fact almost an exact copy of the court of Khafre's mortuary temple. In fact, Khafre's lower temple was at one time thought to be the Sphinx Temple.The two temples are similar in size and both face east in a north-sought alignment. Each has a pair of north and south entrances in their eastern facades. Both temples were faced, inside and out, with finely dressed pink granite form Aswan in the far south of Egypt, and paved with alabaster.

Plan of the Sphinx with the Old and New Kingdom Sphinx temples

Specifically, the old Sphinx temple was built of local limestone, and cased on the inside with fine Tura limestone, granite and alabaster. On the exterior, only the portals were lined with granite, though apparently the builders intended originally to encase the whole of the exterior in this stone.

The Sphinx temple, which was built on a terrace eight feet lower than the floor of the Sphinx, is very ruined now, with little of its granite facing left and little of its alabaster floor. Any inscriptions it may once have carried, which might have told us much about its purpose, are long gone. Only the eroded limestone core of the structure remains, in part. It is enough to show that this templeonce boasted a central court, about 46 meters by 23 meters, which was open to the sky and afforded a good view of the Sphinx. Offerings would have been made on an altar in the court, which was paved with white alabaster. There was also an interior colonnade of rectangular pillars. Large recesses in the inside eastern and western walls suggest the original presence of cult statues.

A view of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple

The temple has two entrances on the east, one on the north, and the other on the south. These may represent doorways for Upper and Lower Egypt. There was no immediate access to the Sphinx from inside the temple. Its western wall was cut to a height of up to 2.5 meters from the living rock, and thereafter topped with limestone blocks. It was necessary to go by passages to the north and south of the temple to reach the Sphinx. There is evidence that this temple of the Sphinx was never finished, and perhaps never even used.

Another view of the Great Sphinx before its Old Kingdom Temple

Scholars believe that the temple would have something to do with the solar cycle, which would include Atum and the sun in its other phases, including Khepri, the rising sun, Re, at its zenith and Atum when it sets. If so, it would probably be the first solar temple in Egypt. As with Khafre's other temples, symbolic meaning has been seen several elements of the old Sphinx Temple. The twenty-four columns suggest that there was one for each hour of the day and night. There were also ten to twelve statues, again suggesting a statue for each hour of the day. The court statues sat in sockets cut in the floor in front of each pillar, bringing the base of the statue flush with the alabaster paving covering the bedrock floor. Each court statue was encased in red granite to match the statues. The temple is also unique in having two sanctuaries, one on the east and the other on the west, each at the back of a recessed bay such as that first seen in Khufu's mortuary temple. Perhaps one sanctuary was for the rising sun and one for the setting sun, but most everything about the temple is little more than guesswork. These were very small sanctuaries, and in front of each there were two pillars, which Ricke though represented the arms and legs of the goddess Nut.

Limestone doorframe from the New Kingdom Sphinx Temple, naming the Sphinx

The building as a whole is more symmetrical in design than any other temple of its period. Mark Lehner has shown that the temple may well have been solar oriented and the Great Sphinx could have been visualized as an image of the king merging with the sun or perhaps presenting offerings in the temple. However, the temple was left unfinished by its builders, and it is possible that it was never dedicated to service in the age of its construction.

In fact, it is striking that, in the hundreds of Old Kingdom tombs at Giza, Egyptologists have not been able to unearth any titles of priests or priestesses that clearly belong to the Sphinx temple.

The temple, which was uncovered at the beginning of the 20th century, had large boulders thrown both inside and outside. The Antiquities Department of Giza moved these two to eight ton stones and placed them in their appropriate locations with respect to the temple's original plans. Not long ago, cracks in the walls of the temple have been restored with mortar consisting of lime and sand.

New Kingdom pharaohs, ruling a thousand years after Khufu and Khafre, built new temples close to the Sphinx, who had become in their time (whatever his original significance may have been) a god in his own right. In the latter days of ancient Egypt, two thousand years after Khufuand Khafre, an atavistic passion for an idealized and (not surprisingly) misremembered past led to more rebuilding on the Giza site and fresh interpretations of the origin and meaning of the Sphinx. During the New Kingdom the Sphinx was called Horem-akhet, "Horus of the Horizon".

A view of the Sphinx from above, with the New Kingdom temple (upper left) and Old Kingdom Temple (upper right)

The major New Kingdom Sphinx temple sits on a small rise to the northeast of the Great Sphinx. Built by Amenhotep II, is was only a part of a number of building projects, including terraces, enclosures, rest houses and temples the formed almost a royal national park about the Sphinx during the New Kingdom. The temple of Amenhotep II, situated on the higher terrace northeast of the Sphinx, was built during the first year of his reign. Its cult was certainly activated, but the structure was destroyed, with only fragmentary remains surviving. However, today, the temple has been largely restored.

See Also:

An Introduction to the Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx Temples

The Meaning of the Great Sphinx

Conservation of the Great Sphinx

Age of the Sphinx

Sphinx in Pictures





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