The Sphinx – An Accidental Innovation

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt — The End of the Old Kingdom

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The Old Kingdom of Egypt was a part of history that saw the rise and fall of several rulers, a number of whom left their marks in such a strong manner that their works are admired to date. Surprisingly, one of these works, The Sphinx was not intended at first, and only came to be as the result of an accidental discovery!

The Sphinx along with the Great Pyramids on the Giza Plateau, Egypt.
The Sphinx is believed to have been commissioned by Khufre, the fourth dynasty pharaoh of the Old Egyptian Kingdom.
(Image: Merydolla/Shutterstock)

The Rulers of the Fourth Dynasty

While the first of the Egyptian Pyramids, the Step Pyramid, was constructed during the Third Dynasty, it was during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt that rulers began to build the first true pyramids. First, the pharaoh Sneferu built three pyramids, including the first true one. He was followed by Khufu, also known as Cheops, who built the great pyramid.

Learn more about The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Then, Khufu was succeeded by Djedefre, who, for some reason, moved to a place called Abu Roash, which was several miles away from Giza. He started to build a strange kind of pyramid by building a deep trench into the ground, but never finished it. 

Djedefre was succeeded by Khufre, who the Greeks called Chephren. Chephren returned to Giza and built a pyramid that stood at just about the same size as the Great Pyramid, only 20 feet smaller, perhaps out of deference to his father, Khufu. It was Khufre who built the Sphinx. 

Learn more about Sneferu, the Pyramid Builder.

The Sphinx: A Beautiful Accident

In the fourth dynasty, merely building a pyramid wasn’t enough. One had to build a complex surrounding it, and a mortuary temple next to it. There also had to be a valley temple where the pharaoh could perhaps be mummified, and a causeway connecting the valley temple to the pyramid. 

Alabaster Statue of Khafre, the Pharaoh who built the Sphinx
Khafre, the pharaoh who built the Sphinx, was also called Chephren.
(Image: Juan R. Lazaro / CC BY (

Now, in the case of Chephren’s pyramid, the causeway from the pyramid to the valley temple is not a straight line. While excavating the causeway, digging through the sandstone, the builders hit a huge rock, a sandstone rock. Instead of removing it, they carved the sphinx out of it.

 The Sphinx is the head of a man, which Egyptologists are pretty certain represents that of Chephren and the body of a lion. It is thought to symbolize the intelligence of the man and the power of the lion. A lion is, in fact, purported to be a kind of pharaonic talisman, a totem animal.

The Enigma of the Sphinx

To this day, the sphinx is shrouded in enigma, as a result of which, there are a lot of rumors that surround it.

An extremely common controversy arises from the fact that people think the Sphinx is much older than it is believed to be. Since it is virtually a fact that it was Chephren who built The Sphinx, its construction can be placed to be roughly 4,500 years ago. This puts the time of its construction around 2500 B.C. However, a few geologists believe to have noticed signs of water erosion on the Sphinx. Given that there wasn’t much water there in 2500 B.C. near the Sphinx, they push the date of the Sphinx back to 10,000 B.C.

Other archaeologists, however, strongly differ, on the premise that there was no significant Egyptian Civilization in 10,000 B.C. that could have carved the Sphinx. In fact, that was so far back an age, that even farming was a newly discovered concept. 

Yet another common myth about the Sphinx is that when Napoleon brought his expedition to Egypt in 1798, he shot off the nose of the Sphinx, which he was using for target practice. There are two primary reasons for which this is considered to be false. First, Napoleon revered the ancient monuments to such an extent that he had with him a team of 150 scientists to study the monuments of Egypt; a fact which brings this claim into serious question. Secondly, and conclusively, there exist drawings made in the 18th century that depict the Sphinx without a nose. Since this was a time before Napoleon’s, archaeologists have been led to the conclusion that the nose had been missing for close to 1000 years by then. It was probably wind erosion that caused the nose to be gone. 

That’s not all though: a lot of Freudian psychology is based on the notion that the Sphinx is a woman. This misconception arises because of the cloth headdress called nemes that the Sphinx is adorned with, much in line with the common practice of pharaohs wearing the nemes. In fact, while some aspects of popular culture often portray slaves and servants wearing this embellishment, they were, in reality, reserved for the royalty. 

Section of the beard of the sphinx, displayed in the British Museum.
A section of the Beard of the Sphinx is displayed in the British Museum. The other portion is displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. (Image: British Museum/Copyrighted free use)

Myths and misconceptions are not the only manners in which the Sphinx continues to baffle its suitors, however. Most people are astonished to hear that the Sphinx originally had a beard as well! Since it was a sign of authority to have a beard in a time when almost all Egyptians were clean-shaven, Pharaohs, who themselves were clean-shaven as well, used to have false beards, which they would tie on for official occasions. A close inspection of the Sphinx reveals indentations meant for chin straps as well. Today, the beard of the Sphinx is present in two places – apiece, about three or four feet in length, is in the library of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while the rest of it lies in storage in the British Museum. Although the Egyptian museum wants the piece back for restoration, and the British Museum has no real use for it, the latter does not return it for fear of setting a precedent.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Pharaohs Succeeding the Sphinx

The valley temple built by Chephren, incidentally also the pharaoh’s mummification site is unique in a number of ways, including the bent causeway which, as described, gave way to the creation of the Sphinx. It is the only large Egyptian temple found from this period, and it shows us how they were built out of monoliths. Its alabaster floor points to the sheer wealth possessed by pharaohs at the time, and the statues found in the temple show Chephren’s attempts to stick to the existing traditions. 

Most importantly, however, the temple marks a paradigm shift that starts to show inklings of the decline of the empire. 

Chephren was succeeded by Menkaure, who the Greeks called Mycerinus. While Menkaure also built on the Giza Plateau, the size of his pyramid was about a fifth of that of the Great Pyramid, pointing towards a probable economic decline. Although he made compensations, such as the use of lavish, pink Aswan marble instead of limestone, the adornments were never completed, and the last of the pyramids was left unfinished. 

Menkaure’s successor was the last of the fourth dynasty, and he chose to move back to Saqqara, the land of the step pyramid, and build a mastaba, instead of a pyramid.

 With the ushering in of the fifth dynasty, which was remarkable in its own manner, the old kingdom began to count its last years, and the Egyptian empire never rose back to its former extravagance.

Learn more about The End of the Old Kingdom.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Sphinx

Q: Who broke the nose of the Sphinx?

While some archaeologists think it was the wind that weathered off the nose, some feel that local peasants defaced the Sphinx while making offerings to it.

Q: Who built the Sphinx?

Most archaeologists agree that the Sphinx was commissioned by Khufu, also known as Chephren.

Q: Where is the beard of the Sphinx kept today?

Today, part of the Sphinx‘s beard is kept in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while another part is stored in the British Museum.

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