Sphinx, the Panagia of Egypt
Few historical monuments in the world have been celebrated like the Egyptian Great Sphinx. For over four millennia, it has been towering imperiously above the Giza desert, contemplating the passage of time and listening to the wishes, promises and desires of the people.
The monument’s history begins shortly after the death of the great Pharaoh Khufu, when Khafra ascended the throne. The building of a pyramid was a lifetime achievement, which started as soon as the new Pharaoh undertook his duties.
Khafra decided to build his funerary monument on the site where his predecessor had erected his own, and the reason was that there was a leftover lump of rock on the site, about two hundred metres long and over twenty metres tall. The palace architects advised the new Pharaoh that it was much more cost-effective to work the stone there than to move it elsewhere. As a result, adding limestone where necessary, the stone was carved into a crouching lion with a human head, whose face bore Khafra’s features. The Great Sphinx’s dimensions are still impressive: 57 metres long, 20.10 metres tall, a face 4.10 metres wide. Its nose is 1.37 metres long and its ears, 1.70 metres. Contrary to the Greek Sphinx, the Egyptian one is male and symbolises the implacable way a Pharaoh deals with his enemies, trampling them underfoot and rending them with its claws. What is unique about this wonder of Egyptian architecture is that, over time, the monument itself was deified.
A thousand years after its construction, during the 18th Dynasty, it had Sun God properties attributed to it. The Sphinx had lost its connection to Khafra and was considered an avatar of Hor-em-akhet. A few decades later, it was linked to the war god Maahes, who was of foreign origin. It had become a new deity, upholding its own values. At the time, apart from few royal favourites, the common people could not enter temples. The Sphinx, unlike other monuments, was not hidden in a temple’s sanctuary but visible to all. Consequently, the faithful pilgrims could gather at the monument and deposit against the walls of the enclosure the little stone stelae on which they had etched their prayers and requests.
The common people of Egypt invested the monument with the property of protector of the weak and defenceless. Several stelae salvaged by archaeologists depict men and women standing, kneeling or lying prone in worship, offering gifts, flowers and ex-votos to the Sphinx. The pilgrims asked for nothing more than what common people ask for today: strength, health, wisdom, longevity, a peaceful old age and a good burial…
“Grant me a good burial at the end of my old age, help me reach the necropolis of the chosen, like all the righteous… Grant me wisdom, grace and love… Grant me sight in the darkness you create, light my eyes…”, such are the wishes that archaeologists decipher today.
The Sphinx, whose age by now is over 4,660 years, had managed to rise, from a symbol of strength and simple guardian of Khafra’s remains, to member of the Egyptian pantheon. It had become a deity with its own cultural tradition, its own myths and legends, embodying values similar to those represented by other well-known gods who had been worshipped for centuries before.
© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved