The Great Sphinx in Situ

Great Sphinx in Situ

The Great Sphinx

The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza has a rival for size and grandeur very close at hand: standing next to it is the pyramid of Khufu's successor Khafre, which from many angles looks bigger than the Khufu pyramid, being built on slightly higher ground. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians called Khafre's 'The Great Pyramid' and that of Khufu 'The Pyramid which is the Place of Sunrise and Sunset'. There were originally only a couple of metres in height between these pyramids, but our Great Pyramid of Khufu is the taller, has a shallower angle of incline than Khafre's and encloses a greater volume.

Just down the escarpment from the pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx stands alone, with no rivals either on site or elsewhere among all the sphinxes of Egypt. Truly, this is the Great Sphinx, as well as being very likely the first of the breed. It might possibly have had a companion if its sculptors had cared to repeat the exercise of carving it.

For the Great Sphinx started life as a knoll of rock (quarried in the course of pyramid building) on the slope down from the Giza Plateau towards the river valley of the Nile; and there is another knoll not far to the south, clearly visible to every visitor to Giza, which might have been fashioned into another giant monument.

The later sphinxes of Egypt were often installed as pairs to guard entrances to significant places, but the Great Sphinx of Giza is a one-off, and perhaps the other knoll was just a little too far from the necropolis to be convenient. And perhaps the original meaning of the Great Sphinx was too particular to be shared with another of its kind. An eminent Egyptologist once spent some time looking for another Great Sphinx on the other side of the river, but eventually gave up the idea.

The damaged face of the Sphinx, smiling inscrutable smile.

The damaged face of the Sphinx, smiling inscrutable smile.

The Sphinx is in essence a carving out of the living rock, though parts of it have been repaired (and possibly were originally constructed) with cut blocks of stone. It is immediately apparent that the rock strata out of which the Sphinx has been made vary from a hard grey to a soft yellowish limestone. The head is formed of good, hard limestone of the same sort as was quarried all around locks of the pyramids. The hulk of the body, on the other hand, is made of poorly consolidated and therefore readily eroded limestone. The rock improves again at the base of the monument, with a return to harder (but brittle) reef-formed limestone that has allowed some carved details of the beast to remain visible after at least four-and-a-half thousand years of natural and human attrition.

In keeping with the whole Giza Plateau, these strata within the Sphinx run upwards from east to west, in other words from the breast to the hindquarters, and down from north to south. The Sphinx faces due east, with the same great precision of orientation as is seen in the disposition of the Giza pyramids.

It seems inevitable that the monument was made from the start to point directly to the equinoctial sunrise. Interestingly, the face (but not including the ears) is a little awry in relation to the head as a whole: the left eye is slightly higher than the right and the mouth off-centre, and the entire face is tilted back a little.

The Great Sphinx in Situ

The heavily eroded Sphinx. Despite the generally better quality of the stone of the head, the face - as is immediately apparent - is badly damaged, and not just by natural erosion. The nose is missing altogether and the eyes and the areas around them are seriously altered from their original state as carved, as is the upper lip. Napoleon's artillerymen have been blamed for using the face of the Sphinx for target practice.

The alteration of the face has brought an insinuation of mood to the features, changing with different lights (sometimes into a knowing smile), that needs to be borne in mind when any attempt is made to compare the face of the Sphinx with the portrayals in sculpture of various Dyn. IV kings.

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