The sphinx is a purely Egyptian creation, first attested in the early fourth dynasty, about 2575 BCE. Around the end of the second millennium BCE, Egyptian sphinx images were exported to Syria-Palestine, where local artists imitated them, mostly in bas-relief and especially as female figures. From there the idea and form of a female sphinx of malevolent character was transferred into Greek myths, such as that of Oedipus. In Egypt sphinxes were generally associated with the sun god and with the king as a “living image” (šsp-ʿnḫ); this word may well have been the origin of the Greek word sphinx, although in Greek this word had the meaning “strangler,” perhaps in association with the Greek interpretation of the sphinx as a malign creature.
The Great Sphinx at Giza, the most immense sculpture ever made by men—73.5 meters (235 feet) long and over 20 meters (64 feet) high—is the earliest example of this type of statue: part lion and part man, a creature metamorphosed into a divine being combining the strength of the most powerful wild animal and the intelligence of a human being, it is a great intellectual innovation. Two-dimensional images on slate palettes of the Early Dynastic period, three hundred to four hundred years earlier, depict the king as a wild lion or griffin destroying his enemies; in the Great Sphinx, animal power is tamed by human intelligence and is thus transformed into a divine calm.
A fourth dynasty date for the creation of the Sphinx is certain, but there is some question as to which of the kings residing at Giza envisaged and commissioned this unique sculpture. The possibilities are four: Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, or his successors Djedefre, Khafre, and Menkaure. Djedefre, who constructed but did not complete a pyramid on top of the northern hill of Abu Roash, has been suggested because he may have had several sphinxes of lesser size in his pyramid complex, which would be the earliest known sphinxes besides the Great Sphinx but this is not a strong argument. The pyramid complex of Menkaure lies too far from the Sphinx. Hence both Djedefre and Menkaure can be eliminated, and only Khufu and Khafre remain.
Most Egyptologists prefer Khafre because his name is mentioned on the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV in a context that includes the Sphinx. However, this large and elaborate stela, found by Caviglia in 1818, was erected by Thutmose IV in front of the Sphinx after he had become king. In the long inscription, Thutmose reports that once, when he still was a prince and head of the royal charioteers, he was hunting in the desert of Memphis near the pyramids. At noon he fell asleep in the shadow of the Sphinx and was then told in a dream that if he cleared the sand away from the flanks of the Sphinx, he would become king of Egypt. Of course he obeyed, and after ascending the throne he asked the people of Egypt to praise “Osiris of Rasetau (which is the area of the pyramids), the goddess Bastet, and the gods and goddesses of the resting place or sanctuary of … khaef.” The last name can be reconstructed as Khae [Re], or Khafre. This part of the inscription—which has now disappeared completely, eroded by subterranean water—is the only evidence for the identification of the Sphinx with Khafre. There exists an older stela, however, erected by Thutmose's father Amenhotpe II, on which the king reports a similar visit to the area of the pyramids, where he admired the wonderful buildings—and here the text is completely preserved—of the resting place, the sanctuary of Khufu and Khafre. Thus, in the same context, both kings are mentioned. The Dream Stela of Thutmose IV is therefore by no means clear inscriptional proof that Khafre was the creator of the Great Sphinx. In the upper register of each stela, Amenhotpe and Thutmose make offerings to images of the Sphinx, which is called Horemakhet (Gr., Harmachis, or “Horus in the horizon”). This name of the god Horus is an innovation of the New Kingdom; it retains, however, the old word ʒḫt (“horizon”) from the name of Khufu's pyramid, Akhet-Khufu.
It is frequently assumed that the Great Sphinx was carved from a single rock within the quarries of Khafre, but a careful investigation of the quarries at Giza contradicts this. According to the latest investigations, the quarries of the Great Pyramid of Khufu extend from the northern and eastern ridges of the Giza plateau in the area south of the Great Pyramid. The southern limit is marked by a rock face on which the causeway of Khafre is built. Recent excavations have brought to light the remains of a construction ramp leading to the south side of the Great Pyramid. This ramp is situated south of the Great Pyramid and north of the causeway of Khafre in a depression which was once part of Khufu's quarries.
The extension of Khufu's quarries is the reason that Khafre's causeway does not run perpendicular to the east side of the pyramid, and also the reason that his valley temple is not situated in the axis of the pyramid complex but displaced to the south. This means that Khafre had to take account of some earlier, very important structure that already stood there. This can only have been the Sphinx. Thus, the large rectangular ditch in the center of which the Sphinx was carved surely belongs to the quarries of Khufu, as can be demonstrated by comparison of the different components of the rock formation in the body of the Sphinx and the layers of core stones of Khufu's pyramid. The sequence of the stones quarried from the different strata and used in the pyramid can be determined by their degree of erosion. Khufu was a great innovator who chose the commanding position on the ridge above what is now Giza. Each of his creations is somehow new: his pyramid layout, his cult temple, the cemeteries, and even his statuary. As the surviving fragments show, Khufu utilized all types of Egyptian statues except the kneeling form; all are at once innovative and supreme achievements. It is thus reasonable to assume that the Sphinx, too, is his creation.
There are also firm stylistic and iconographic considerations that point to Khufu. The only attempt at such an iconographic investigation has been that of Mark Lehner (1997), in his painstaking excavations and restoration of the Sphinx. He tried to superimpose the contours of the head of Khafre's famous statue with the Horus falcon (Cairo Museum CG 14) on that of the Sphinx; however, neither the contours of the face nor those of the nms-wig fit, even though Lehner took the result as further support for his thesis that the Sphinx is a work of Khafre.
Most of Khufu's statuary is probably still hidden in his as yet unexcavated valley temple, so as a basis for comparison we have only a famous small ivory statue from Abydos bearing his name, and two heads ascribed to Khufu—one in red granite, with the White Crown, in the Brooklyn Museum, and another rather small one in limestone, in the Bavarian State Collection in Munich. Of Khafre, several life-size statues and hundreds of fragments are preserved, all together representing about sixty or seventy statues. It may be questionable to compare a colossal sculpture like the Sphinx with statues of normal or even very small size; on the other hand, art historians have dated some famous artworks by comparison with portraits on coins.
The overall form of the Sphinx's face is broad, almost square. The chin is broad. By contrast, the features of Khafre are long, and noticeably narrower, and the chin almost pointed. The Sphinx wears the earlier, fully pleated type of nemes headcloth, like that of Djoser's statue. The same nemes headcloth, also fully pleated, can be seen on a statue fragment from Khufu's pyramid temple now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In one important detail, the nemes of the Sphinx has no band in the form of a raised hem over the brow—again, the older type of the nemes as on Djoser's statue. From Djedefre's statues onward, the raised hem band over the brows becomes the norm. Under Khafre, only the lappets of the nemes headcloth are pleated, never the nemes peak or the nemes hood as is attested on the Sphinx. The side wings of the nemes headcloth of the Great Sphinx are deeply hollowed, but on Khafre's statues hardly at all. On all of Khafre's statues the headcloth corners curl up, but they do not do so on the Sphinx.
The Sphinx has a uraeus cobra on the lower edge of the headcloth. In contrast to those of Khafre and Menkaure, it shows high relief with naturalistic detailing of the serpent's neck and the scales of its hood. The eyebrows of the Sphinx bulge powerfully forward, and they are pitched high and slope down toward the temples. The eyes are deep-set but strongly modeled. They are large and wide open, typical of sculpted heads from the time of Khufu. The ears are fundamentally different: those of the Sphinx are very broad and folded forward, while those of Khafre are elongated and situated closer to the temples.
A decisive criterion is the absence of a beard. The Sphinx has no indications of hair on its chin, nor is there any trace of a break under the chin. The fragments of a pleated god's beard which are now in the British Museum and in the Cairo Museum are certainly of New Kingdom origin, added to the Sphinx when it was identified with the god Horemahket. The rounded divine beard is an innovation of the New Kingdom and did not exist in the Old or the Middle Kingdom. When this beard was added, a small platform was carved out of the Sphinx's chest on which the beard and a newly added royal statue rested. In the Old Kingdom there is a strict rule: if a king wears a beard, it appears in all his representations, round plastic and relief, in Upper as well as Lower Egypt, without exception. In the fourth dynasty one can observe that Sneferu never has a beard. Neither does Khufu, either on his small ivory statue or on the Brooklyn or the Munich head. From Djedefre on, however, all kings, including Khafre and Menkaure wear the ceremonial beard. The fact that the Sphinx had no beard is strong evidence that the Great Sphinx is an original creation of Khufu.
The Great Sphinx was carved out of a high rock, which dominated the southeastern corner of Khufu's quarries. We will perhaps never know how Khufu and his master artist envisaged the Great Sphinx. There must have been a prototype, perhaps in Heliopolis, the city of the sun god; later texts mention a great Sphinx of Heliopolis. Whenever sphinxes were placed in front of Egyptian temples, they had a solar aspect and connotation. Thus, the idea of a creature in the form of a sphinx which is the form of appearance—that is, the phenotype—of the sun god might already have existed in Heliopolis from the times of Djoser, who had a shrine in Heliopolis, and of Sneferu, who identified himself with the sun god as Nebmaat, Lord of the Right World Order.
In front of the Great Sphinx lie the architectural remains of a large but uncompleted temple. The design of this building with large niches to the east and west indicates a solar connection. The temple is surely of fourth dynasty date, but it is not certain who began it, Khufu or Khafre. The axis of the temple is not on the axis of the Great Sphinx, nor was there a direct exit from the temple to the Sphinx statue.
Pairs of sphinxes were found lying in front of each gate of the valley temple of Khafre. The traces of the plinths were clearly visible during the excavation of the temple. Fragments of the forelegs of a large sphinx of Khafre were found in front of his pyramid temple. In the Middle Kingdom, sphinxes become more numerous and new types appear. The great Louvre sphinx (A 23) of Amenemhet II is clearly inspired by the Great Sphinx of Giza. For the first time, powerful queens and princesses are depicted as female sphinxes. At the end of the Middle Kingdom, a group of sphinxes of Amenemhet III amplify the grandeur of this part-human part-lion creature by replacing the nemes headcloth with a lion's mane surrounding the royal face. None of these sphinxes were found in situ; they were certainly transported from different locations to royal residence cities of the New Kingdom—Memphis, Piramesse, and Tanis—and may even have been resituated several times. Originally they may have been present in the temples of the sun god in Heliopolis. In the New Kingdom, we find sphinxes with the heads of rams and hawks in front of the temples of Amun at Karnak and Re-Horahkty at El-Gebua in Nubia. In one mortuary temple, a sphinx with the head of a crocodile was unearthed. All these creations display a definite connection with a sun god, whether Amun-Re, Re-Horahkty, or Sobek-Re. Avenues of sphinxes line the processional ways leading to temples or even connect temples over long distances, as at Karnak and Luxor. Two large sphinxes were lying in the first court of the mortuary temple of Sety I at Gurneh. It is probably the carving of this pair of sphinxes that is illustrated in the tomb of Paser (tomb 106) at Western Thebes.
Sphinxes of various materials, including painted and gilded wood and metal, are a common decoration on processional barks of gods and kings in the New Kingdom. In decorative art a sphinx is often depicted fighting or trampling enemies, as on a shield of Tutankhamun, or in Middle Kingdom pectorals, where falcon-headed sphinxes are shown smashing enemies. In pictures on jewelry and ivories, the ancient tradition of the king as a violent lion or a fierce griffin remain alive.
Roman emperors brought Egyptian sphinxes to Europe to decorate their temples and palaces. In the palace of Spalato (Split) of Emperor Diocletian at least thirteen sphinxes were unearthed. The rediscovery of ancient Egypt resulted in a revival of ancient Egyptian motifs, especially the sphinx. Impressive male sphinxes now decorate entrances to castles and bridges, as in Saint Petersburg, while female sphinxes adorn gardens and pavilions in European cities or beautify furniture, fireplace surrounds, or even luxurious table services.
- Dessenne, A. Le Sphinx: Étude iconographique. Paris, 1957. Egypt: The World of the Pharoahs. Köln, 1998. See pp. 73–75.
- Esmael, F. A. Book of Proceedings: The First International Symposium on the Great Sphinx. Cairo, 1992.
- Hassan, Selim. The Sphinx: Its History in Light of Recent Excavations. Cairo, 1949.
- Lehner, M. “Reconstructing the Sphinx.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1 (1992), 3–26.
- Lehner, M. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. London, 1997.
- Shaw, I., and P. Nicholson, eds. “The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt.” In Association with the British Museum. London, 1995.