What Is the Great Sphinx?

The Half-Lion Lyin' in the Sand

The Sphinx in front of the Pyramid of Chephren
The Sphinx in front of the Pyramid of Chephren. Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Question: What Is the Great Sphinx?

Answer:

The Great Sphinx is a massive statue with the body of a lion and the face of a man. Don't get worried if you mix this one up with the Greek monster that riddled Oedipus at Thebes - they share the same name and are both mythical beasts that are part-lion.

Just how big is the Sphinx? It measures 73.5 m. in length by 20 m. in height. In fact, the Great Sphinx is the earliest known monumental sculpture, although the statue has been missing its nose since at least Napoleonic times.

It resides on the plateau of Giza, where the most famous - and biggest - of the Old Kingdom pyramids are located. The Egyptian necropolis at Giza contains three monumental pyramids:

  1. the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops),
    who may have ruled from about 2589 to 2566 B.C.,
  2. the Pyramid of Khufu's son, Khafra (Chephren),
    who may have ruled from about 2558 B.C. to about 2532 B.C., 
  3. the pyramid of Khufu's grandson, Menkaure (Mycerinus).

The Sphinx was probably modeled after - and built by - one of these pharaohs. Modern scholars think that guy was Khafre - although some disagree - meaning the Sphinx was built in the twenty-sixth century B.C. (although some archaeologists maintain otherwise). Khafre probably modeled the Sphinx after himself, meaning that famous head represents this O.G. pharaoh.

What was the point of a king showing himself as a half-lion, half-human mythical creature, especially if he'd already built a pyramid to commemorate his life? Well, for one, having a giant god version of yourself watching over your pyramid and temple for eternity is a pretty good way to keep tomb robbers away and impress future generations, at least in theory. He could watch over his tomb complex forever!

The Sphinx was a special creature whose crafting showed how the man he represented was both royal and divine. Both lion and man, he wore the names headdress of the pharaoh and the long "false beard" that only a king wore. This was the representation of a god king above and beyond his usual depiction, a creature beyond normal comprehension.

Even in antiquity, the Egyptians themselves were fascinated by the Sphinx. The pharaoh Thutmose IV - who hailed from the Eighteenth Dynasty and ruled in the late fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries B.C.  - set up a stele between its paws that declared how the statue's spirit came to him in a dream and promised to make him king in exchange for the young man's dusting the Sphinx off. This proclamation, a.k.a. the "Dream Stele," records how Thutmose took a nap near the Sphinx, who popped up in his dream and made him the bargain if Thut got rid of the sand burying him.

Egypt FAQ Index

-Edited by Carly Silver