Ancient Egyptian Art: The Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx is one of the most recognizable monuments in Egypt. Built during the Old Kingdom, an amazing period for Egyptian art, it is thought to represent the pharaoh Khaefre (c. 2555-2532 B.C.). The Great Sphinx guards the entrance to Khaefre’s mortuary temple and the second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau.

With the head of a human and the body of a lion, the Sphinx was the perfect symbol of Egyptian kingship. Lions were associated with the very first pharaohs. At Abydos, site of early Egyptian burials, lions were found buried with pharaohs. The Great Sphinx represented a combination of animal strength and royal power. It wore the pleated nemes head cloth often used by pharaohs, which provided a substitute for a lion’s mane.

Great_Sphinx_of_Giza_2

The Great Sphinx. Photo by Manek Kocjan May 30, 2006 http://www.kocjan.pl

Building the Great Sphinx was a massive undertaking, especially during an era when only stone and copper tools were available. The base of the sphinx was carved from hard limestone that stuck out of the surface of the Giza plateau. The middle section of the Sphinx was made of softer limestone, and the head was made of very firm limestone. When the workers finished, the Great Sphinx was approximately 240 feet long (about the length of a football field) and almost 70 feet tall. Though other pharaohs built colossal statues, Khaefre’s Sphinx remained the largest.

Though the Great Sphinx was impressive, by the New Kingdom (c. 1539 B.C.), it needed some major repairs. Since the Sphinx was built on a seabed, salt eroded parts of it, including the paws. In addition, its body was covered in sand. According to the legend carved on a stela between the Sphinx’s paws, a young prince named Tuthmosis IV came to the Sphinx’s rescue. One day while Tuthmosis hunted in the desert, he needed a place to rest. He fell asleep in the shadow of the Sphinx. By the New Kingdom a god named Horemakhet, whose name meant Horus on the Horizon, was associated with the Sphinx. The god appeared in the prince’s dream and promised him that if Tuthmosis helped to restore the Sphinx, Horemakhet would make him pharaoh.

Tuthmosis set about restoring the Great Sphinx. He had tons of sand removed from it and had its broken paw repaired. To top off the restoration, the prince had the Sphinx repainted in bright colors, including blue, yellow, and red. The god must have been satisfied with Tuthmosis’ project, since he became king despite not being first in line for the throne.

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