The Giza Sphinx lies approximately 1600 feet (500 meters) east of the Pyramid of Khafre, close to the edge of the Giza Plateau itself. Like the pyramids, it’s perfectly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, with its gaze directed due east across the Nile River and the sprawling outskirts of Cairo. But unlike the pyramids, which were constructed out of stone blocks, the Sphinx was carved directly out of the bedrock of a natural depression on the plateau. The bulk of it thus sits in a trench that is itself below the level of the surrounding surface; this accounts for the Sphinx’s tendency to get buried under sand, and the resulting need to dig it out of its shallow grave whenever it has been neglected for too long. Such a process of burial and recovery has taken place again and again down through the millennia of the Sphinx’s existence.
While there is only one monumental Sphinx on the Giza Plateau, there were many sphinxes in ancient Egypt, as the French savants in the country during the time of Napoleon’s occupation couldn’t help but realize. Well before arriving in Cairo for the first time and venturing out to view the Sphinx, Vivant Denon was traveling along the coastline near Alexandria when he stumbled for the first time upon one of its smaller twins: a badly damaged white-marble statue of fine workmanship, encrusted with “petrified plants and small shells” washed up from the sea. Later, when exploring the ruins of Karnak and Luxor, he found sphinxes glowering down upon him at every turn: “some of them had a woman’s head, others that of a lion, a ram, and a bull.” Other motifs, including that of the pyramid, ebbed and flowed across the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history, but sphinxes were perennial.
Napoleon’s savants lacked much knowledge that is available to modern historians, but it wasn’t hard even for them to surmise how the creature first came to be. From time immemorial, the lion, that most noble of beasts, has seemed a natural symbol of royal hegemony. Recent archaeological evidence has revealed that, well before all of Egypt was united under a single pharaoh, lions were already being carved into stone as symbols of tribal power. What with the power of the tribe or, later, of the state being embodied in the chieftain or the pharaoh, the figure of the lion and the figure of the man were soon being blended into that of a sphinx: a leonine form with a human head and face.
Sphinxes are by no means the only example of this sort of blending. Pharaohs were also depicted as bulls or as falcons among other creatures, all fraught with meanings of their own. Nor were the various human/animal blendings always kept pure. As Denon discovered at Karnak and Luxor, all sorts of multi-species muddles were carved or painted; sphinxes with falcon wings were a particularly common sight. Still, sphinxes of one type or another were always supremely popular in royal iconography. In fact, they were so convincing as symbols of primacy and authority that they spread far and wide beyond Egypt, to cultures like those of ancient Assyria and Babylon.
Yet the Sphinx on the Giza Plateau is evocative of more than royal might and brutality; otherwise, it would be far less interesting than it is. Its enigmatic facial expression indicates a creature — and an aesthetic culture which birthed it — with more on their minds than conquest. For all its monumental size, it’s a far more subtle aesthetic statement than most Egyptian sphinxes; it’s already beginning to show some of the attributes of the later sphinxes of Greek myth.
Whether and how the ancient Greeks borrowed from the personality of the Giza Sphinx to create their own version of the beast is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the noble conqueror was transformed by the Greeks into a guileful trickster — a layer of traps and a poser of dangerous riddles. It was the Greeks who gave the creature the name we still know it by; “sphinx” means “strangler” in their tongue, a telling appellation for a creature which now preferred to kill by its wits from out of the shadows. To suit its new, more beguiling personality, the Greeks also changed the creature’s default sex. Female sphinxes, while not unknown, were somewhat unusual in Egypt; in Greece, they became the norm.
By far the most famous Greek tale of a sphinx — indeed, the most famous in history — involves Oedipus, the proud man doomed by inexorable fate to murder his father and marry his mother. The sphinx of his story has installed herself on a vital mountain pass leading to the Greek city-state of Thebes (not to be confused with the Egyptian city of the same name). To every passerby, she poses a riddle: “What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening, and is weakest when its legs are most?” She kills all those who fail to answer the riddle correctly; to date, this has been everyone.
In addition to its other problems, Thebes is leaderless, having recently lost its king to a random roadside dispute. The desperate people offer the kingship of the city-state, along with the hand of their newly widowed Queen Jocasta, to anyone who can save them from their plight. The orphan wanderer Oedipus, just arrived in the city, happens to have been the unwitting instrument of the king’s death, but neither he nor the Thebans are aware of this fact. He takes up the challenge and answers the riddle correctly: “Man! In the morning of his life he crawls on all fours; in his noontide he walks erect upon two legs; but in the evening of his life, as an old man, he uses a staff, which is a third leg; and in his infancy and in his old age he is weakest.” The sphinx is so angry at this end to her little game that she leaps from her perch and dashes herself to pieces on the rocks below, whereupon Oedipus becomes king of Thebes — and the husband of his mother, whom he, having been separated from her just after birth, has failed to recognize, just as he did his father before killing him. The sphinx, one might say, gets the last laugh after all.
Having been thus invested with wile by the Greeks, sphinxes saw their public image softened yet further by later ages. Today, the appellation of “sphinx” has long since lost its intimation of bad intent, having come to be applied to anyone with a complex, contradictory, or enigmatic personality. Ironically, this contemporary view of the creature is the one that would seem to align best with the Giza Sphinx, whose far-off gaze conveys thoughtfulness, perhaps even a certain cold remoteness, but no obvious ill will.
Despite the prominent place given to the creatures generally in Greek myth, the classical Greek and Roman texts have oddly little to say about this specific Sphinx; Herodotus, for example, is completely silent on the subject in his writings about the Giza Plateau. Only Pliny bothers to mention the Giza Sphinx at all; he wrote in AD 23 that it is “perhaps even more to be admired” than the pyramids: “It impresses one by its stillness and silence.” He reveals that it was painted red during his time, which must have made it a striking sight indeed. And he repeats the local belief that the Sphinx is the tomb of a pharaoh named Ahmose I, who lived much later than the pyramid builders Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.
Arab writers of later times mention the Sphinx occasionally, but, in keeping with their view of most artifacts of ancient Egypt, never convey much more than idle curiosity about it or the culture that produced it. Yet the ordinary people of Cairo viewed it far more positively, as a sort of protector and patron saint, making of it the last living legacy of the old religion of Egypt after the coming of Islam. Legend has it that, when a devout Muslim chieftain from outside Cairo declared the Sphinx to be a blasphemous pagan idol and ordered the head defaced in AD 1378, the people of the city were so outraged that they hanged him for the crime. (The damage done at this time is still sometimes erroneously attributed to Napoleon’s troops, who are accused of having used the Sphinx for artillery target practice. There is no truth whatsoever to this story; the French invaders actually treated the antiquities of Egypt with great respect by comparison to many Europeans who arrived later.)
Standing upon the Giza Plateau with Giovanni Caviglia in 1817, Henry Salt looked upon the Sphinx, even in its current reduced state of little more than a weathered head sticking out of the sand, with the appreciation of an aesthete:
The contemplative turn of the eye, the mild expression of the mouth, and the beautiful disposition of the drapery at the angle of the forehead, plainly attest the admirable skill of the artist by whom it was executed. It is true that no very considerable share of attention is paid to those proportions we are accustomed to admire, nor does the pleasing impression which it produces result from any known rule adopted in its execution; on the contrary, the effect may be rather attributed to the unstudied simplicity of the conception, the breadth, yet high finish, of the several parts, and the stupendous magnitude of the whole.
Such are the sentiments with which a repeated view of it has inspired me. At first, I confess I felt, like many other travellers, that the praises lavished upon it by Norden, Denon, and others, were exaggerated; but the more I studied it, at different hours of the day and under various effects of light and shade, the more I became convinced of their having barely done justice to its merits.
His friend Caviglia was perhaps less equipped to appreciate — or at least to describe — the Sphinx’s aesthetic merits, but he had a strong motivation of his own for wanting to recover its body from the sand. Rumor among the local Egyptians had it that the French savants, who had made some attempts to dig around the Sphinx if not to dig it out entirely, had discovered a door in its base. This door, said some, was the starting point of a secret passage to the as-yet unpenetrated interior of the Pyramid of Khafre. It was a dubious story on the face of it; as far as anyone knew, the savants had documented all of their excavations thoroughly in the public record, and they hadn’t said a word about any hidden doors in the Sphinx. Still, stories like this one were catnip to Caviglia, that indefatigable burrower after secret ways and ancient revelations.
He began by digging next to the left shoulder of the Sphinx, the top of which was just visible above the sand. He quickly learned, as had the French before him, how infuriating trying to remove so much sand from a trench in the desert could be. Every night, the winds which coursed across the plateau blew at least half of the sand which his workers had removed during the day right back into the trench. The digging process was not just taxing and frustrating, but also dangerous. As they dug steadily deeper, he and his workers lived in constant fear of the landslide which could bury them alive if the wind should suddenly start to blow too hard in the wrong direction.
They had to go down almost 40 feet (12 meters) to reach the bottom of the statue’s base, whereupon Caviglia could ascertain that it measured 66 feet (20 meters) in height from bottom of base to top of head. And he noted traces of red paint on the stonework that had been hidden beneath the sand, confirming at least that part of Pliny’s description of the monument during Roman times.
Inspired by this proof that he could, with sufficient time and labor, reach the bottom of the Sphinx, Caviglia determined to tackle the enormous task of digging the front of the creature’s body fully out of the sand. This project wound up consuming the better part of four months. On some nights, the damnable winds reversed all of the progress made during the previous day, rather giving Caviglia the feeling of running to stand still. Gradually, however, he and Salt got to see the Sphinx as no one else had in countless generations. To his disappointment, he discovered no secret door beneath the sand. Yet he did unearth many other things of major interest.
The first of his discoveries were many small and large fragments of stone whose surfaces were carved into plaited, hair-like strands, surrounded by kneeling figures and hieroglyphs. Observing closely the damage done to the Sphinx’s face, Salt surmised, correctly, that these were the remainders of an ornamental beard which had once extended from the bottom of the statue’s chin in the distinctive fashion of Egyptian royalty.
Just underneath where the beard had once extended, cradled against the Sphinx’s breast between its immense front legs, was a paved platform. On the platform stood a towering rectangular stele made out of granite, 14 feet (4.3 meters) high, 7 feet (2.1 meters) wide, and 2 feet (.6 meters) thick. And here the inability to read Egyptian hieroglyphs smarted more than ever. For on the stele’s surface, beneath a beautifully executed bas-relief of two priests giving sacred offerings to two sphinxes, was a long hieroglyphic inscription. The whole was surmounted by a globe, a serpent, and a pair of falcon wings — all, like the sphinxes, obvious symbols of both godhood and royal hegemony (the two being largely one and the same in ancient Egypt). Could the Giza Sphinx have deigned to answer the riddle of its origins right here, with this object that resembled nothing so much as an oversized museum label? As long as the words on the stele couldn’t be read, no one could know for sure.
On the same platform, in front of the great stele and facing one another to either side, used to be two smaller steles. But only one of these was still intact and in place, the other having fallen down and been broken into fragments. The smaller steles were made of “calcareous stone,” like that used for the Sphinx proper and the pyramids, rather than the granite of the great stele, but upon their surfaces were more figures and more hieroglyphs. Two short pedestals standing just in front of the smaller steles resulted in a very narrow, enclosed space. Lying between the pedestals, with its gaze directed toward the large granite stele, was “a small lion of good workmanship.”
Digging backward — that is to say, eastward — along the length of the Sphinx’s outstretched front legs, Caviglia found two more lions, one of them broken. Then, just where the Sphinx’s great paws began, he came upon a partial enclosing wall, about as high as a man’s waist, with an entryway cut out of its middle. On the other side of the wall was what had to be an altar, consisting of a simple granite base and an elaborately carved superstructure. It had scorch marks on its upper surface, an indication of its function as a recipient for burnt offerings.
The little temple which Caviglia had uncovered was perfectly positioned for priests to greet the first rays of the rising sun with prayers and sacrifices. The Sphinx, it would appear, was an object of worship as well as a monument to royal pride. (But, again, it was well understood even during Caviglia’s time that a pharaoh in ancient Egypt was like unto a god.)
What with all the hieroglyphs inside the temple area, the Sphinx was positively loquacious by comparison to the stubbornly silent pyramids — or it would have been, that is, had anyone been able to read said hieroglyphs. As it was, they brought only frustration. Salt and Caviglia were therefore shocked and more than a little pleased when, excavating around the paws, Caviglia began to uncover Greek characters carved into their surfaces. Most of them were jumbled, confusing, and badly damaged, referencing deities and religious practices that were not well understood. But on the front of the left paw was a relatively clear inscription that mentioned the most famous sphinx of Greek myth, as well as three of the most well-known Greek gods:
Thy form stupendous here the gods have placed,
Sparing each spot of harvest-bearing land;
And with this mighty work of art have graced
A rocky isle, encumbered once with sand;
And near the pyramids have bid thee stand;
Not that fierce Sphinx that Thebes erewhile laid waste,
But great Leto’s servant mild and bland;
Watching that prince beloved who fills the throne
Of Egypt’s plains and calls the Nile his own.
That heavenly monarch who his foe defies,
Like Hades powerful and like Athena wise.
Two more lines were illegible, but an attribution at the bottom stood out plainly: Arrian, a Greek historian who lived and wrote around AD 150. It was clear, then, that this inscription had to have been added well after the Sphinx was made, given that Pliny had already described its existence and great antiquity some 125 years before the inscription was carved. Whoever the “heavenly monarch” mentioned here might be — presumably the Roman emperor? — it couldn’t be the man who had had the Sphinx built in his image.
Continuing to work backward from the Sphinx’s front paws, Caviglia came upon a flight of thirty steps leading upward, enclosed within retaining walls made of brick and plaster. The walls, like the stairs, were of obviously later construction than the Sphinx itself, sporting more jumbled inscriptions in Greek. They appeared to branch off to form an enclosure around the whole of the Sphinx.
At the top of the stairs was an elevated dais, which must have been intended to allow important visitors who came to view ceremonies conducted at the temple below to see and be seen. The pillars that would once have framed such personages, however, had collapsed into rubble. A Greek inscription on the front of the dais was too worn to read.
But a lengthy and mostly legible inscription was found on a stele lying near the dais, written in officious prose rather than the florid verse of the inscription attributed to Arrian. This one referenced the Roman Emperor Nero, who reigned from AD 54 to 68.
Whereas the Emperor Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [Nero], the Good Genius of the world, besides all other services which he has rendered to Egypt, taking the most especial care of its interests, has appointed us Tiberius Claudius Balbillus for a prefect; and by his favors and benefits, abounding with all good things, Egypt has seen the gifts of the Nile increasing from year to year, and has now still more fully enjoyed the due ascent of the deity: it has seemed fit to the inhabitants of the village of Busiris in the Letopolitan district… living near the pyramids, and to the local scribes and village scribes among them, to pass a decree, and to erect a fifteen-stone column… to celebrate his divine virtues, engraved in the sacred character, by which it is customary to record them: for having been present at our lawful rites, and having worshiped the sun, the overseer and savior of the world: and… being excessively delighted with the… of the py…
The processionary way — for that, it was now becoming evident, was what it must be — continued eastward beyond the dais to another flight of thirteen stairs leading upward. At their top was a second badly damaged viewing dais. Its inscription was, once again, almost obliterated, but did seem to mention the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned from AD 193 to 211.
Yet another stele lay near the second dais. It was blessedly legible, and blessedly explicit as to its date, saying that the Roman prefect of Egypt during the month of May of the sixth year of the joint reign of Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius had “rebuilt the walls for a good purpose.” The year in question must be AD 167; the walls in question were presumably the retaining walls of the processionary way and those that seemed to branch off to surround the Sphinx itself in an effort to keep the ever-blowing sand at bay. The walled pathway continued another 135 feet (41 meters) beyond the top of the second stairway, making the last of an ascent out of the depression in which the Sphinx lay, ending very close to the edge of the plateau.
It was slowly becoming clear that the Sphinx was a palimpsest of thousands of years of competing cultures and agendas. With so many having left their mark, unpacking it all would be extraordinarily difficult. Even as things stood, though, Caviglia had revealed much about the Sphinx’s long history. It had plainly still been considered an important cultural and religious symbol at the height of the Roman Empire, when Egypt was one of Rome’s most important possessions, when the fertile fields on either side of the Nile had served as the breadbasket of the empire. Emperors and other important dignitaries must have walked down the grand processional pathway before the Sphinx to witness ceremonies to the gods.
Henry Salt could see the scene vividly in his mind’s eye: “The spectator advanced on a level with the [Sphinx’s] breast, and thereby witnessed the full effect of that admirable expression of countenance, which characterizes the features, whilst, as he descended the successive flights of stairs, the stupendous image rose before him, whilst his view was confined, by the walls on either side, to the interesting object, for the contemplation of which, even when he had reached the bottom of the steps, a sufficient space was allowed for him to comprehend the whole at a single glance.” Painted a vivid red, the Sphinx must have made for an impressive sight indeed, particularly when the great head was illuminated from directly in front by the first pale yellow rays of the rising sun, or lit up from behind by the red glow of the setting sun. It seemed an altogether fitting symbol for Roman Egypt, more than worthy of its imperial visitors.
And yet, while Caviglia and Salt had learned much about the Sphinx’s Roman-era history, they had learned very little at all about the people who had first built it and first worshiped at its feet (assuming they had done the latter at all). They had traveled back in time, but not nearly all the way back to the Sphinx’s point of origin. If there were answers to their questions about the Sphinx’s earlier history in what they had uncovered, they were hidden in the hieroglyphic steles nestled against the great beast’s breast.
Caviglia would have loved to continue to excavate around the body of the Sphinx, with the goal of extracting its entirety from the sand — and, of course, of continuing to search diligently for secret doors and hidden passages. But it wasn’t to be; by now, the tireless Italian was finally tiring out. After defying dirt, heat, hard labor, and terrible food for months, he was felled at last by the dreaded Egyptian ophthalmia.
Diseases of the eye, brought on by poor sanitation and poor nutrition combined with the arid climate, were a constant scourge in Egypt, remarked upon by virtually every European visitor. Many Egyptians wound up blind in one or both eyes, and Europeans were not immune either. The only sure cure seemed to be to leave the country for cooler climes. When the disease struck Caviglia, he recognized that he had no choice but to do just that if he wasn’t willing to risk his eyesight. He decided, sensibly enough, that even uncovering the rest of the Sphinx wasn’t worth that price.
Just before leaving Egypt, Caviglia did something that caused considerable controversy: he had his workers rebury much of what they had unburied. The French contingent in Egypt was predictably outraged, condemning the “unpardonable egotism” of the act, which they deemed to have been carried out only to keep them away from the latest British discoveries. It was enough to prompt Caviglia to speak up for himself in a letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, one of the few examples we have of his own voice in print. His intentions, at least as he stated them, had been pure, his only aim being to preserve the fragile temple he had discovered between the statue’s front legs:
I was concerned to find a number of Arab women, allured by superstition, coming at first to worship and kiss the images, on their first view of them, but not content with this proceeding afterwards, to break off amulets or charms; in this way, several hieroglyphics have been already disfigured. At length, being apprehensive that this fine workmanship, which it had cost me so much labour (even at the hazard of losing my sight) to explore, should come to destruction, I resolved to inter it anew, till circumstances more auspicious might authorize the disclosure to every eye.
It does seem reasonable to take Caviglia at his word here. At a time when antiquities hunters in Egypt tended to be as cagey about their finds as prospectors in a gold rush, he was lauded by many for his transparency about his work and discoveries.
Indeed, by the standards of the time, Caviglia and Salt looted their discoveries around the Sphinx only modestly. They sent merely the broken hieroglyphic stele, the superstructure of the altar, and the small sphinx and lion statues to the British Museum before re-covering everything else with the sand that had sheltered it for so long. The difficulty of transporting the other large and heavy steles probably had much to do with the decision to leave them where they lay for the time being.
Thanks to Giovanni Caviglia, 1817 had been the most exciting year on the Giza Plateau since antiquity. But, remarkably, the following year would be just as exciting. For, even as Caviglia was departing the plateau after reburying the Sphinx, another of Salt’s proteges was about to arrive there — in fact, another Italian, and one who shared a first name with Caviglia at that. And yet no one was likely to confuse the departing soft-spoken sea captain with the new arrival who styled himself The Great Belzoni.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)