The Sphinx Decoded?

"The first time I went to Egypt and saw the Sphinx with my own eyes, I was deeply shocked," writes Robert Temple, Ph.D in his recent book (with Olivia Temple), The Sphinx Mystery, for "the Sphinx did not look at all like a lion."

Everyone knows that the Great Sphinx, ensconced for millennia on the Giza plateau near modern-day Cairo, is a lion with a man's head; specifically the head of the Pharaoh Chephren, thought by archaeologists to have built the Sphinx during Egypt's Old Kingdom, roughly the mid-third millennium B.C.

But Robert Temple, try as he might, could see no lion:  For one thing, the back of the monument, the spine (as it were) of the animal, is flat.  It neither rises nor falls along its length, in striking contrast to the many representations of lions from Ancient Egyptian art which commonly portrayed the animal with a mane, broad shoulders, and muscular, sloping back.

Nevertheless, the notion that the Sphinx is a lion is a very old one, dating even to Egypt of the New Kingdom (circa 1400 B.C.), when the Pharaoh Thutmosis IV excavated and restored the already-ancient monument.  Later restorations made during the Roman and modern eras cemented this notion, when the badly damaged paws of the beast were reconstructed in the image of a lion's.  (Few modern tourists, or even knowledgeable amateur Egyptologists, are aware that the leonine forepaws are not original with the monument; in fact, we have no idea what the paws looked like when the Sphinx was first carved.)

So if not a lion, then, what is the Sphinx?  Robert Temple has hit upon an ingenious theory that seems at once both shocking and obvious: The Great Sphinx of Giza was originally carved in the shape of a gigantic Jackal.

The god Anubis, often represented as a jackal or wild dog (the precise breed is unknown and may be extinct), was guardian of the dead in Ancient Egyptian cosmography, with special provenance over cemeteries and necropoleis.  Temple recollects:  "As I looked at the Sphinx that first time, noting the straight back of the creature...I was struck by the fact that I appeared to be staring at a dog."

The more he thought about it, the more sense it made - Anubis, guardian of the dead, looming over this most famous and ancient of cemeteries.  But Temple doesn't stop with this suggestion alone, as radical as it is; he is also sure that he has discovered the true identity of the king whose visage graces the Sphinx.  As it turns out, not only does Temple not see a lion in the Great Sphinx, he doesn't see the face of Chephren either.

Whose Face?

It has long been noted that the head of the Sphinx is diminutive in relation to the gargantuan, recumbent body, leading some rogue researchers -- to the consternation of the Egyptological establishment -- to speculate that the head was originally a lion's, and that the Pharaoh Chephren, rather than constructing the monument himself, instead merely re-carved the head in his own image (such usurpations of already-existing monuments was quite common in Ancient Egypt).

Temple agrees that the head was originally an animal, though of course he thinks it was a jackal and not a lion.  But he suspects that the re-carving of the Sphinx's head came long after Chephren's time.  For one, the iconography of the sphinx as a human-headed beast was a comparatively late one in Egyptian art. Temple writes:

"The human-headed sphinx as a motif in Egyptian art is really something that became popular in the Middle Kingdom only after about 2,000 B.C. and was not a motif of the Old Kingdom...."

Temple therefore reasons that the head of the very-old, Anubis monument was re-carved in the Middle Kingdom to represent a Middle Kingdom Pharaoh.  But by whom?  Temple found a clue in an article published in an obscure journal in 1897 by the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt, an article which Temple has translated and made available as an appendix in his book.

Borchardt conducted a careful analysis of the paint stripes emanating from the back of the eyes of the Sphinx and the pleating patterns visible on its headdress, or nemes.  Egyptian eye makeup and royal headwear were, like all such trappings, subject to fashionable trends. Borchardt asked:  In which dynasty were the accoutrements seen on the Sphinx in pharaonic fashion?  (Borchardt was fortunate in that, in his day, the Sphinx was still buried up to the neck in sand, allowing for a closer scrutiny of the head than is possible now that the Sphinx stands a full seven stories from the floor of the cleared Sphinx pit.)

After a careful examination of the stripe pattern running down the sides of the Sphinx nemes, Borchardt concluded:

"The grouped stripes on the King's bonnet are only found during the 12th Dynasty, perhaps only under [Pharaoh] Amenemhet III, because those pieces which are precisely dated and which have such an arrangement of stripes are all from his time."

Robert Temple is a great admirer of Borchardt and his calm, reasoned analysis, and credits the German with the identification of the correct dynasty in which the Sphinx had its jackal head carved down into the likeness of a pharaoh.  Temple, however, parts with Borchardt as to the exact identity of the pharaoh responsible.

To be sure, Amenemhet III was an inveterate builder whose many and massive construction projects -- many of which still survive -- were renowned in antiquity.  And this particular 12th Dynasty pharaoh certainly had an affinity for sphinxes -- many such statues survive bearing his unmistakable countenance.  Nevertheless, Temple is convinced that an earlier king of the 12th Dynasty, Amenemhet II, is responsible for the face we see on the Great Sphinx today.

Amenemhet II, who reigned circa 1876-1842 B.C., was the third pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty, and was likely Amenemhet III's great-grandfather.  This Amenemhet, like his later namesake, was fond of sphinxes; in fact, an exquisite sphinx statue bearing the face of Amenemhet II can be found in the Louvre in Paris.

During the course of his research, Temple came across an analysis of this large Louvre statue by one Dr. Biri Fay titled The Louvre Sphinx and Royal Sculpture from the Reign of Amenemhet II.  Dr. Fay's book contains many photos of the statue which show quite clearly that the distinctive striped nemes pattern visible on the Great Sphinx at Giza, and which Borchardt had shown conclusively were in fashion during Amenemhet III's reign, were also in use earlier in the 12th Dynasty.  In fact, the Louvre statue of Amenemhet II bears both the identical headdress and eye makeup of the larger, and supposedly earlier, Giza monument. 

Curiously, Fay herself noticed the astonishing similarities between the two sculptures, right down to facial structure.  She writes:

"Although a stylistic comparison of the Giza and Louvre sphinxes must be restricted to their heads, similarities are profound.  Both faces are broad and full...each nemes is wide across the wings, set low on the forehead....and shallow at the crown....The pleating pattern found on the nemes of the Louvre sphinx - a fine triple-stripe executed in rounded, raised relief, with a wide stripe and a narrow stripe on each side - is rare in the Old Kingdom [when the Great Sphinx is supposed tom have been carved], but the treatment is similar on the Giza Sphinx...The eyes of both sphinxes are strikingly similar, with horizontal lower-eye rims and semi-circular upper rims...."

Fay's explanation for the unmistakable correlation between the two statues?  "Amenemhet II used the Giza sphinx as a model for his own sphinx."

Temple applauds Fay's analysis, but is stunned by the ultimate failure of her imagination.  He thinks it ludicrous to imagine that a Pharaoh -- among the most egomaniacal species of man ever to have existed -- would have gone out of the way to immortalize someone else's face on his own statue.  Much more likely, Temple concludes, was that Amenemhet II commissioned both works (just the head, of course, in the case of the Great Sphinx), and both in his own image.

How Old?

If Temple makes a convincing case for the date of the current head of the Sphinx, what about the body?  Whether originally conceived as a lion or Anubis, who first carved this glorious colossus, and when?

Egyptologists say Chephren, for whom the case is strong, though circumstantial.  Chephren, the fourth king of the 4th Dynasty, is thought to have been the son or brother of Cheops, whom antiquity has credited as the architect of the Great Pyramid of Giza.  Chephren is also thought have constructed a pyramid, which like his predecessor's still stands on the Giza plateau.  A long limestone causeway shoots down the plateau from this pyramid, culminating in a cluster of megaliths which includes the Sphinx and two strange temples, at least one of which - the temple situated directly in front of the Sphinx - was apparently constructed from giant limestone blocks quarried out of the Sphinx enclosure itself, leading archaeologists to believe the two monuments were constructed in tandem.

The problem is that there is no evidence that this temple was actually built by Chephren, as it contains no identifying inscriptions or artifacts of any kind.  The second temple, however, directly to the south of the Sphinx and known as the Valley Temple, was found to contain a magnificent diorite statue of Chephren, and fragments of what may have been hundreds of others.  In addition, the roof of this Valley Temple opens up onto the causeway that proceeds up the plateau to the pyramid attributed to Chephren.

It is the Sphinx's place among this mortuary complex of Chephren that has led archaeologists to assume that it, too, was built by the Old Kingdom Pharaoh.  Another tantalizing clue was found on the so-called "Dream Stella", a commemoration of the New Kingdom restoration of the Sphinx placed between the paws of the Sphinx by Thutmosis IV himself.  This stella, when originally excavated, was found to contain the hieroglyphs representing the syllables 'kf' and 'ra'.

Unfortunately, those hieroglyphs, along with much of the original inscription on the stella, have since flaked off, leading to a fierce debate among scholars - did they actually represent the name of Chephren? If so, in what context?  As builder, or only restorer?  No one knows for sure.

Complicating matters still further, some scientists have in recent decades presented evidence that the body of the Sphinx is far older than the conventionally accepted date for Chephren's reign.  Thousands of years older, in fact.  These notions are vigorously disputed by archaeologists, who cling to the (circumstantial) case for Chephren with a curious fervor.  Egyptologist Peter A. Clayton in Chronicle of the Pharaohs sums up the prevailing view of such heresies:

"Some recent nonsensical theories have suggested that the Sphinx is many thousands of years older than the pyramids, but there is no foundation for such fantasies."

Prime among these "nonsensical theories" are those proposed by geologist Robert M. Schoch of Boston University.  Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology and geophysics at Yale, has personally conducted a number of extensive geologic surveys of the Sphinx and its enclosure.  To the consternation of Egyptologists, Schoch claims there is evidence of heavy precipitation over prolonged periods of time on the Sphinx.  The problem, as Schoch maintains, is that the Giza plateau has not been subject to these kinds of rains since pre-Dynastic times, a time when the inhabitants of the Nile Valley are thought to thought to have lived the primitive existence of stone age hunter-gatherers.

Robert Temple agrees that the Sphinx displays signs of water erosion, but disputes the notion that this proves an extreme antiquity for the monument.  Temple writes in The Sphinx Mystery:

"I was never convinced by this [ancient rain] argument from the very beginning for the simple reason that there is just no archaeological record at all for any important civilization during approximately seven thousand years of the time of the time postulated  between the 'ancient rain' and the apparent beginnings of high civilization in Egypt."

Rather, Temple is convinced that the pit in which the Sphinx rests "was once a moat filled with water," and that the Sphinx-Anubis statue itself "was once an island."

On its face, this theory seems nearly as far-fetched as Schoch's ancient rain hypothesis, given the arid conditions of the Giza plateau and its distance from the two nearest large bodies of water, the Mediterranean (some 116 miles) and the Nile (about five miles).  But it has long been known that the course of the Nile has moved eastward over the millennia, and that in ancient times the river once ran much closer to the Giza plateau.  In fact, there is documentary evidence that during its annual inundation the Nile came to within 660 feet of the Sphinx as late as the 18th century.  Temple is convinced that in Old Kingdom times the river waters at least occasionally came to lap the foot of the Sphinx precinct, allowing the Egyptians to flood the pit via simple water raising devices.  During his extensive on-site examination of the monument,Temple found evidence of what he believes were once sluice-gates to aid in the flooding of the pit, which he has photographed and made available in his book.

Temple believes the upkeep of such a moat could explain the signs of severe water erosion appearing as vertical fissures scoured into the walls of the Sphinx enclosure, writing:

"Let us think about the problems of maintaining a sphinx moat.  There you are with your huge moat on the edge of the desert, and what are your problems going to be?....Sand! ...So what do you have to do, over and over again?  You have to dredge the moat?  And to do that, you are continually dredging at the sides, hauling up the sand from the bottom of the moat and letting all the excess water pour back into the moat in powerful torrents."

Not only does the moat theory explain the vertical fissures on the walls of the enclosure, but Temple also feels it explains the horizontal erosion marks on the body of the Sphinx itself, " one would expect on a giant statue sitting in the middle of a moat," the level of which was constantly changing (not surprisingly, Schoch vigorously disputes Temple's moat theory on his website).

Why would the Egyptians have gone to the considerable trouble of flooding the Sphinx pit and turning the statue into an island?  Temple surmises that the waters of such a moat could have been used for ceremonial purposes, perhaps to ritually bathe the organs of a dead Pharaoh in preparation for his mummification, or perhaps for use in a celebration of the Nile's annual inundation.

The Battle Over the Past

Robert Temple's book occupies a unique niche in Sphinx literature: based on his own extensive surveys of the monument (the Egyptian authorities granted him access to parts of the Giza necropolis off-limits to tourists and even other scholars for decades), The Sphinx Mystery presents a holistic study of the monument that breaks new theoretical ground without resorting to fanciful explanations regarding aliens, Atlantis, or ancient rain.

Nevertheless, many of Temple's conclusions are at considerable odds with established Egyptological thought.  Conventional Egyptologists are convinced that they know who built the monument (Chephren) and when (4th Dynasty), and they regard any alternative views as absolute heresy.  It is probably why I found Temple 's book in the New Age section at my local bookstore, even though there is absolutely nothing "New Age-y" about it.

During a telephone interview from his home in England, I asked Temple why I found his book in the New Age section, while other tomes detailing outlandish notions that aliens built the pyramids can be found in the "History" section.  He laughed at first, but then let out a long sigh.  "That's publishing these days, I suppose," he said.

It is a terrible shame, because Temple has produced a work of analysis both bold and careful, buttressed by extensive field work and what must have been hundreds of hours of textual examination.  From locating a copy of Borchardt's extremely obscure article from an antique book dealer in Germany, to translating the arcane German text himself, to putting Borchardt's clues together with Fay's highly specialized account of a little-known statue of a little-known king in a French museum, Temple's narrative is one of meticulous scholarship of a kind that is becoming rarer and rarer these days.  The narrative is thrilling, old-fashioned detective work; the complete theory is carefully argued and eminently plausible.

The picture of the Sphinx we were taught is one that had a single origin for a single purpose by a single maker.  The picture that emerges from Temple's work is quite different - a monument that was refined over millennia, fashioned for different purposes at different times, but whose ultimate origins are lost in the mists of deep antiquity.  It is a picture that is both more interesting and, dare we say, more believable.