Wonderment on the Giza Plateau (Great Sphinx)


The view was a bizarre juxtaposition.

Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre, easily 4,500 years old. In between was the hotel swimming pool, traffic roaring on the highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. It was enough to do a double-take if I didn’t know where I was. Khafre was a mile away, as the crow flies. What was a beeline millennia ago is now a circuitous obstacle course of tangled streets. In the thousands of years since, over 25 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monument like the sands of the Sahara.

View from my hotel room, Le Meridien Pyramids

This is modern Egypt. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time to experience its ancient treasures. Only a few months ago, I wondered if I ever would.

Then my wife and I were here. If that sounds sudden, it was. Only in November, the chance came up to go on a tour, sponsored by Ancient Origins and booked through Travel the Unknown. Having enough reward miles for airfare made the decision easier. The holidays of November, December and January kept my wife and me busy and little time to think about pyramids, temples and the Nile. We only had the rest of January to get ready, physically and mentally. In early February, we’d be off and running. Never before have we made a decision to go far away so quickly. It would be our second trip to Africa in two years.

Our plane landed in Cairo Airport at almost midnight. We were grateful the local tour company (Lady Egypt) representative whisked us through the airport and got us to the Giza hotel in an hour, much faster than if we arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.

We would have almost a full day to recover from jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts, Alicia McDermott from Ancient Origins; special guest, writer and researcher Andrew Collins; and our extraordinary tour guide Waleed Kamouna. All of us who signed up had our own reasons for going on this tour but enrollment through Ancient Origins tied us together by our high interest in the ancient world.

On the tour’s first official day, we had two thrilling experiences, which I’ll never forget. They were privately allotted times at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. You read that right, our group was the only one at these sites. These visits had to be done ‘off hours,’ the Sphinx before dawn, Khufu’s pyramid after official closing time (5pm). But what special opportunities they were!

The Great Sphinx

Hopping groggily on the tour bus at 4am, we got to the Sphinx while still dark outside. We needed warm jackets to keep out the chill in the air. In front of the Sphinx’s paws, we listened to talks by Andrew and Waleed, and walked around the monument with mobile flashlights in hand. The limestone enclosure surrounding the Sphinx made it seem like a vast sunken room. It was exciting to realize that not many get this close to the Sphinx.

We waited two hours before the sun rose to light up the Sphinx. I couldn’t help but notice what others have pointed out. The Sphinx’s head is grossly undersized in relation to its body. It’s probable that it was re-carved from the head of an animal that would appear more proportional to the rest of its body. The popular candidate has been a lion.

Facing the Facts

At dawn, the strong, square features of the face was silhouetted in shadow. If the face is Khafre’s, it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.

Khafre’s face?
Statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum

Whose might it be? Robert Temple makes a convincing case for its being that of Amenemhet II of the 12th dynasty, which would imply the head was re-carved during the Middle Kingdom. Amenemhet could not have seen what else was lying buried underneath. The Sphinx’s body had been buried in sand until it was uncovered by Thutmosis IV five hundred years later.

Amenemhet II sphinx, Louvre Museum (image from wikipedia)
Thutmosis IV affirms unearthing the Sphinx on the Dream Stela, erected between the Sphinx’s paws

An Age-Old Dilemma

Even in the light of day, the Sphinx looks to be very old. Dating the Sphinx has been controversial. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2570 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. But, the severe water erosion patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx indicate to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced for 12,000 years, did the damage and dates the monument’s construction to well before the beginnings of Egyptian civilization.

Severe water erosion on the Sphinx and its enclosure

Other researchers point to a earth-sky connection between a leonine Sphinx and the constellation Leo around 10,500 BCE when the Sphinx would have been gazing directly at Leo on the night sky horizon on the spring equinox due to an astronomical phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox. (Many ancient societies were aware of precessional cycles.)

But 10,500 BCE seems like an impossibly long time ago—antediluvian, in fact. I’m more convinced by Robert Temple’s theory that the recumbent figure, instead of being a lion, was the god Anubis in the form of a jackal. At least, the timeline is more in line with dynastic, or even pre-dynastic, Egypt. The Sphinx’s body seems more dog-like than leonine. Its large paws are a Roman ‘restoration,’ hiding original ones that must have been heavily damaged, likely from water erosion. Interestingly, Anubis has always been regarded as the guardian of necropolises.

Water, Water, Everywhere

If not heavy rains 12,000 years ago, then what caused the erosion? Temple also makes a case for the Sphinx enclosure having been a moat during the Old Kingdom when inundation of the Nile brought water to its doorstep. He proposes that the moat was called Jackal Lake in many ancient texts. The Sphinx thus became an ‘island’ during these seasonal times. Regulated by a sluice gate, water was admitted into the moat by way of the channel between the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple. The channel itself shows horizontal erosion lines, which along with those of the Sphinx and its enclosure resulted from centuries of standing water. The vertical fissures along the enclosure walls, Temple suggests, were the result of countless dredging operations to remove the moat’s constant threat: desert sand.

The Sphinx Temple lies in front of the Sphinx to the east. The Valley Temple is south of it, to the right.

Final Notes

Just before leaving the Sphinx, we got a surprise arrival of Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He seemed to know Andrew.

Judging from the images above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were true. By turning around to face east, you’d see the edge of the city of Nazlet el-Samman. Cell phone towers, building silhouettes and Cairo’s infamous haze poke up above the horizon. It was a depressing sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but in 1982 city officials established buffer zones on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.

Nazlet el-Samman on the horizon east of the Sphinx

The group left the Sphinx as the sun was rising. I felt the same sense of wonder and mystery as anyone who’s been fortunate enough to get close to it. Afterward, we were treated to a stunning view of all three pyramids from an observation area a short bus ride away, the Sphinx nowhere in sight. Though still early in the morning, the air was already thick with pollution and the parking lot full of hawkers who were setting up shop.

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