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When The Evening Sun Washed Over The Sphinx, It Shed New Light On The Mystery Of Its Construction

May 25, 2021

Image: The Sphinx - commons.wikimedia.org
 
It was a peaceful March evening and experts were watching a very special sunset over the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt according to this article from magellantimes.com. Obviously, it was an event that had happened many times before, but this occasion was different. This time the falling light did not just illuminate the great statue, but also revealed something that had gone unnoticed for years.
 
The date was March 19 and it was special because it was the spring equinox. This is one of the two times a year that day and night last an equal length of time because of the Earth’s position in relation to the sun. It’s an occasion loaded with symbolic significance and in this case, it seems the Ancient Egyptians may have been considering it when they built their Sphinx.
 
Every year the spring equinox recurs on or about March 20, while its opposite, the fall equinox, appears towards the end of September. They stand in contrast to the solstices in June and December, which are the longest day and longest night respectively. All around the world you can find festivals and monuments that are built around these dates.
 
The Egyptians were some of the greatest builders in the ancient world and the Sphinx is just one example of their lasting influence. They were also responsible for the equally iconic pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. This mighty monument is 481 feet tall and has stood for over 4,000 years.
 
Egyptian society was full of innovations that allowed it to overshadow other societies of the time period and ensure its influence lasted until the present day. Farming and medicine were also areas where Egyptians led the way, but the pyramids and the Sphinx are probably the most recognizable of their impressive feats.
 
It’s hard to ignore the scale of Egypt’s ancient monuments, especially considering the limited tools available at the time. It was 3,000 years before anything man-made stood higher than the Great Pyramid. There is another part to the monuments’ enduring appeal, however, and that’s the mystery behind them.
 
How were they built? Why? It’s generally accepted that the pyramids were primarily intended as tombs for kings, but the Sphinx is less easy to explain. What’s the significance of a statue with a lion’s body but a human’s head and pharaoh’s headdress? It’s massive, unmistakable and after 4,500 years, we still don’t know much more about it than we did when it was dug out of the sand.
 
The plain facts are straightforward enough. The Great Sphinx of Giza is 66 feet tall, 240 feet long and made out of limestone. Traces of pigment suggest it was once painted. It’s found at Giza, just feet away from the Great Pyramid and other ancient structures and it has become one of the most iconic statues in the world. There are other sphinxes, but none are as famous.
 
If you walk the two miles between the temples of Karnak and Luxor you will find yourself in an avenue known as “Sphinx Alley”. The temples and tombs that line this route are often decorated with sphinx carvings. Other sphinx statues have been found wearing the faces of various pharaohs, and it seems likely they were considered spiritual guardians.
 
Sphinx imagery also spread out from Egypt into other parts of the ancient world. It was in Greek mythology that the name sphinx first came into use, which means we don’t actually know what the Egyptians called their statue. In Ancient Greece the sphinx was a winged creature with a serpent’s tail.
 
According to Greek mythology there was one Sphinx and she was a monster. She guarded the city of Thebes and wouldn’t let anyone pass unless they could solve a riddle. Oedipus was the first man to answer correctly, which led to the Sphinx throwing herself off the city’s fortifications in despair. If Oedipus had answered wrongly then the Sphinx would have devoured him like she did every previous failed challenger.
 
Another creature similar to the sphinx can be found through south and southeast Asia. It’s generally portrayed as female and tends to sit on its back legs whilst holding a paw in the air. It has wings like the Greek Sphinx and its role is usually as a protector. This kind of sphinx still appears in temples and religious ceremonies today.
 
Some smaller sphinx statues from Ancient Egypt have been transported around the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a granite model of Hatshepsut that’s of particular interest because it depicts a rare female pharaoh. There’s another sphinx with Hatshepsut’s face at a temple in Memphis, Egypt, but it’s not as famous as the Great Sphinx.
 
There are a lot of theories about the origins of the Great Sphinx, but one of the most popular is based on the resemblance between the Sphinx’s face and a statue of the Pharaoh Khafre. This statue was found in the mid-1800s in the Valley Temple, which is next to the Sphinx. Khafre ruled between approximately 2603 and 2578 B.C.
 
The Great Pyramid at Giza belonged to Khafre’s father, Khufu, but Khafre himself also has a pyramid on the plateau. There is a mortuary next to Khafre’s pyramid with a road that connects it to the Valley Temple and there’s another temple of similar design right in front of the Sphinx. It could all be connected to the one pharaoh.
 
Not everyone agrees that the Sphinx’s face resembles Khafre’s and that’s one of the reasons for debate. Some people think it looks more like Khufu, and some think that Khafre’s brother had the statue built in honor of their father. A smaller contingent think it may have been a later pharaoh named Amenemhat II, just because he had a similar stripy headdress.
 
Another theory that has been mostly discredited is that the Sphinx is actually much older than originally thought. This idea is based on the pattern of erosion displayed on the statue’s body, but this can easily be explained by the relative softness of limestone. The head is carved in harder rock, which explains its better condition.
 
For many years the head was the only part of the Sphinx visible whilst the rest was buried in sand. It was in the early 1800s that Captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia began excavating the statue, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that an archaeologist called Selim Hassan finished the process. That was despite several other partial attempts during the years in between.
 
We know more about the statue than we used to do, even if we’re still uncertain about the details. Only one piece of limestone was shaped into the Sphinx, but that stone has different layers. The lower part (up to about 12 feet) is more brittle, whilst the bulk alternates layers of hard and soft rock. The neck is also quite soft before reaching the solid parts of the head.
 
Research suggests that a construction the size of the Sphinx would have taken three years to carve even with 100 laborers. They would have used hammers made of stone and copper chisels for their gigantic task. Some of these tools were left behind at the construction site, as were the remains of a worker’s lunch, which suggested the project wasn’t completely finished.
 
Other evidence that work was still ongoing comes from stone that had only partially been quarried. Some of the rock that fell from the Sphinx whilst it was being carved appears to have been used in the construction of the Sphinx Temple, but blocks of limestone have also been found abandoned nearby. It seems that Khafre’s great monument was meant to have been even bigger.
 
The importance of the Sphinx has varied through time, with it experiencing periods of neglect and eras of veneration. It spent hundreds of years of its early history being ignored, until the future Thutmose IV fell asleep at its feet. Thutmose was still a prince at the time; his father, Amenhotep II, was pharaoh. At this point it was over 1,000 years since the Sphinx had been built.
 
According to legend, Thutmose had a dream in which the Sphinx promised to help him ascend to his father’s throne. In return he would have to clear the sand that half-buried the statue and help return it to its former glory. When Thutmose was eventually crowned he kept his promise and encouraged his people to worship the Sphinx.
 
One of the most important deities in Ancient Egypt was Ra, god of the sun, and the Sphinx became associated with the sun. Khafre was also particularly devoted to the sky god Horus, which may have led to the Sphinx being known as “Harmakhet.” This means “Horus of the Horizon” and is also the name used in Thutmose’s dream.
 
Thutmose’s devotion to the Sphinx is recorded on a piece of pink granite known as the Dream Stele. This can be found in front of the statue and may have helped inspire the Sphinx-cult in their worship. Time continued to pass, however, and with the arrival of new religions the statue lost its holy status. It may even have been damaged because it was seen as a false idol.
 
Erosion over time is one of the greatest threats to the Sphinx and it doesn’t seem to be going away. The Ancient Egyptians started trying to repair it thousands of years ago and experts today are still working hard to preserve it. Wind and weather regularly break off pieces of limestone, with restoration efforts having mixed results.
 
To figure out the full story of the Sphinx we may also need to consider the pyramids standing close to it. These are the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre, all of which are situated on the Giza Plateau near Cairo. It’s possible that the mass of limestone used to carve the Sphinx was discovered whilst quarrying building materials for one of these pyramids.
 
The monuments of the Giza Plateau were built during the period known as the Fourth Dynasty, which began in 2613 B.C. and lasted over 100 years. The Great Pyramid was built first and is largest. Its current 451-foot height is actually significantly smaller than the original 481 feet, but theft and vandalism have worn it down. It’s still the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that remains standing.
 
Pyramids in Ancient Egypt were used as tombs and memorials for pharaohs. There are over 70 in total and all were built close to the Nile. When Khufu came to power there were already impressive structures at Saqqara and Dahshur. He didn’t want his tomb to be overshadowed by these others, so he picked a new site at Giza to construct the greatest monument yet.
 
There are a lot of ideas about how the Ancient Egyptians managed to construct such a large structure with the tools and knowledge of the time. Ramps and hydraulics have both been suggested, though there’s no conclusive evidence. Some people have even suggested the somewhat outlandish theory that it must have been aliens.
 
It may have taken as long as 20 years to build the Great Pyramid and we still don’t really know how it was achieved. The scale of the construction and skill that would have been required seem almost inconceivable. When Khafre came to the throne he had his own monument built and at 471 feet, it’s not much smaller than his father’s.
 
The other pyramid that needs to be considered in relation to the Sphinx is the Red Pyramid at Dahshur. The Great Pyramid, Khafre’s pyramid and the Red Pyramid share one baffling characteristic. All have the four corners of their base situated just a 15th of a degree off a perfect north/south/east/west alignment.
 
Experts have long been baffled at how the Egyptians managed to be so precise and it’s a question that sits right with all the other unanswered mysteries of the pyramids. It was not until recently that an engineer conducted an experiment to finally reveal one way that the alignment could have been achieved.
 
The engineer’s name was Glen Dash and he actually conducted his experiment in Connecticut. He used what’s sometimes called a gnomon, which is a type of rod, and placed it on a wooden platform. All he had to do was mark the progress of the gnomon’s shadow as the day passed by.
 
He found that the straight line of the shadow had a tiny degree of error just like the one found in the pyramids. Dash’s experiment took place on the date of the fall equinox, so it seems that the special alignment of the sun on that day was what allowed his angle to be calculated. The Egyptians may have used a similar technique for the pyramids, but how is that relevant to the Sphinx?
 
When officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities watched the sun set over the Sphinx on the spring equinox they saw something that couldn’t have happened at any other time of year. The light touched the statue’s right shoulder as it slowly descended towards the horizon. It gave the Sphinx a distinctive aura that could only appear when day and night were equal.
 
This suggests that the Ancient Egyptians were considering the sun and the equinox when they situated the Sphinx, just like they did when building the pyramids. It’s not surprising when you consider how many monuments around the world have been influenced by the equinox or the solstice; Stonehenge in southern England is one famous example.
 
The discovery of the Sphinx’s connection to the equinox also shows it aligned with Khafre’s pyramid. When the light hit pyramid, statue and temple all together then the Egyptians may have thought it gave power to the deceased pharaoh. Some have speculated that the alignment could have been a way to help Khafre’s soul achieve resurrection.
 
This latest revelation still doesn’t entirely answer every question about the Sphinx. We know the Egyptians worshipped the sun but they didn’t leave us any blueprints for their great monuments. We don’t know what the architects and engineers were thinking so we have to make educated guesses. Dash’s rod method is just one of several possible ways to align the pyramids, and the Sphinx.
 
Researchers have experimented with different techniques that the Egyptians could have used but the rod is one of the simplest. Without any solid records or evidence it may be the best theory we can form, but that doesn’t prove it’s true. What we do know is that the Sphinx is still eroding and that makes it important to learn as much as we can as soon as possible.
 
Of course, it’s practically impossible to know everything that the Egyptians had in mind when they constructed the Sphinx – and the pyramids for that matter. But one of the region’s more puzzling mysteries has left experts scratching their heads for a good few centuries now. Yes, when French archaeologist Auguste Mariette stumbled across a set of ginormous stones below the dusty desert, he opened the door to a series of rather outlandish theories.
 
It’s 1851, and French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette strides up to an imposing tower of boulders, ready to blast them with explosives. When the dust clears from the detonation, though, an extraordinary subterranean labyrinth from more than 3,000 years ago finally reveals itself. And the mysterious stone boxes that Mariette finds within the structure are astonishing – even if they present a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
 
Specifically, Mariette had unearthed an ancient burial ground known as the Serapeum of Saqqara. This landmark lies about 15 miles south of Giza, which plays host to Egypt’s best-known pyramid site. And the structure of the underground burial chamber is basically that of a tunnel bored into the rock of a mountain. Positioned off that passageway, meanwhile, are a series of chambers or alcoves.
 
Then, within those chambers, there are the huge stone boxes that make the Serapeum truly special. The receptacles are hewn from granite and are truly massive, with the largest among them weighing in at nearly 90 tons. What’s more, they boast yet another extraordinary feature: an almost faultless symmetry. All the edges and surfaces of the boxes have been carved in painstaking straight lines, in fact.
 
When Mariette discovered these enigmatic containers, though, sadly all but one of the 25 had been previously looted by graverobbers. And owing to this state of affairs, one question still remained: what had these monumental boxes been used for? It would have taken a great deal of effort to make them, after all, and the Egyptians would hardly have gone to all that trouble without a specific purpose in mind. But what was it?
 
We’ll get back to the perplexing items shortly, but first let’s find out a little more about Mariette himself. The Egyptologist came into the world in 1821, and he was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer – a French seaside town in the north of the country that overlooks the English Channel.
 
In 1850, however, the French government commissioned Mariette to travel to Egypt in search of the best examples of historic manuscripts from the Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic traditions. Then, once he had found the texts, he needed to purchase them. You see, the French wanted these artifacts for their museum collections, which were already recognized as among the best in the world.
 
Yet while Mariette set out on his first journey to Egypt in 1850, his mission did not meet with success. For one, he simply could not track down the sort of manuscripts that he’d been told to collect. And, in essence, his lack of experience at performing such a task was at the root of his failure. Still, Mariette could not contemplate the shame of returning to France empty-handed.
 
So, the Frenchman now looked around for an alternative prize – some find that could earn him similar respect in his homeland. Ultimately, then, he became friendly with people from some local Bedouin tribes. And as it turns out, those desert Arabs led Mariette to a fantastic discovery that would ensure his name endured throughout the ages.
 
In particular, the Bedouin directed Mariette to a place called Saqqara, which lies to the south of Cairo. This massive site was once the necropolis, or burial ground, for the city and for Memphis – the one-time capital of ancient Egypt. And Saqqara is where many of Egypt’s best-known buildings from antiquity stand, with the famous Pyramid of Djoser and its distinctive stepped structure among them.
 
But when Mariette was guided to the site by the friendly Bedouins, he was less than impressed. All he saw at first was a bleak desert landscape punctuated only by sand dunes. In time, though, he did spot the head of one sphinx peeking out above ground. And according to legend, this statue had previously been one of a magnificent array of 600 such sculptures.
 
This spectacular row of sphinxes had then led, it’s been said, to the Serapeum of Saqqara. Understandably, Mariette therefore believed that it was worth looking for this ancient structure. And he began his search not far from the Pyramid of Djoser, tracing an envisioned line of statues to what could be the entrance to the Serapeum.
 
It seems, in fact, that Mariette had a fairly clear idea of what he was looking for – and that may all be down to a Greek historian called Strabo. In his 1882 book Le Sérapéum de Memphis, you see, the French adventurer quoted Strabo’s description of the Serapeum of Saqqara and its surroundings.
 
Strabo wrote, “One finds a temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up the sand dunes. Beneath [these], we saw sphinxes – some half-buried, some buried up to the head – from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm.”
 
Then, commenting on Strabo’s text, Mariette opined, “Did it not seem that Strabo had written this sentence to help us rediscover, after over 18 centuries, the famous temple dedicated to Serapis? It was impossible to doubt it. This buried Sphinx – the companion of 15 others I had encountered in Alexandria and Cairo – formed with them, according to the evidence, part of the avenue that led to the Memphis Serapeum.”
 
Mariette continued, “It did not seem to me possible to leave to others the credit and profit of exploring this temple whose remains a fortunate chance had allowed me to discover and whose location henceforth would be known. Undoubtedly many precious fragments, many statues [and] many unknown texts were hidden beneath the sand upon which I stood.”
 
But to complete his excavations at the location, Mariette needed a team of workers. Even once he had recruited 30 local men for the task at hand, though, he decided that more than just human labor was needed. You see, after Mariette had identified what he believed was the entrance to the Serapeum, he was met by an impenetrable wall of rock. And, unfortunately, this obstacle could not be removed by hand.
 
Eventually, then, the ingenious Frenchman decided that a good-sized explosion was the answer. That may seem dangerous, and blasting your way into a rare and ancient site would hardly meet the exacting standards of modern archeology, either. But this was the mid-19th century, and archeology in Egypt at the time was fraught with competition.
 
So, in 1851, Mariette finally stood at the entrance of the Serapeum of Saqqara. Then, on November 12, he entered the tunnel that had been bored into the mountain, where he came across an incredible treasure trove of ancient bronze tablets, statues and tombs. Frustratingly for Mariette, though, graverobbers had beaten him to these finds, and only one sarcophagus had been left undamaged.
 
Yet there was also an almost intact tomb – one that belonged to Prince Khaemweset. Born in about 1303 B.C., Khaemweset had reigned as pharaoh from 1279 B.C. until his death at the age of about 90 in 1213 B.C. And his sarcophagus had actually been found under the pile of rock that the blast had created; thankfully for Mariette, though, the item had emerged practically unscathed.
 
Inside the coffin, meanwhile, were the mummified remains of Khaemweset, who had been adorned in a spectacular manner. The face of the pharoah had been covered in a gold mask, for instance, while his body sported opulent jewelry. The tomb contained many lavish grave goods, too. But what of those strange stone boxes?
 
Well, those mysterious objects were of course discovered within the Serapeum of Saqqara, which is separated into two distinct parts. The principal corridor and chambers of the Serapeum are the Greater Vaults, while a second passage complete with alcoves is known as the Lesser Vaults; both areas are hewn from the solid sandstone bedrock. The Greater Vaults hallway, which runs for well over 1,100 feet, also has an adjoining series of chambers, and it’s there that the boxes were found.
 
What’s more, it was Khaemweset himself who ordered the building of the Lesser Vaults. At that time, the pharoah was just a prince, as his father, Ramesses II, was ruling over ancient Egypt. Then, some 600 years later, Pharaoh Psamtik I ordered the construction of the Greater Vaults.
 
And the boxes – complete with removable lids – typically weighed from 60 to 80 tons or more, with each having been hewn from a single slab of granite. The carving is incredibly precise, too, with the lids – which each weigh 30 tons – all fitting virtually perfectly onto the stone below.
 
Since the large sarcophagi that Mariette found were empty, however, it wasn’t immediately apparent what they could once have contained. Ultimately, though, a study of Egyptian religious beliefs and practices at the time when the vaults were built has revealed the true purpose of those huge boxes. In particular, it seems that they served as coffins for the ritual interment of deceased bulls.
 
These were not just any old cattle, though; they were Apis bulls, making them sacred. You see, people at the time believed that bulls were reincarnations of the god Ptah. In death, then, the animals took on the identity of a synthesis of the gods Osiris and Apis and became immortal. This combination of Osiris and Apis was known as Serapis, from which the word “Serapeum” is derived.
 
So, the Serapeum at Saqqara could be a place where not only humans but also animals were buried. And, interestingly, the cult of Serapis was carried over from the ancient Egyptian dynasties into the Hellenic era when the Greeks took control of Egypt. This period is known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
 
Indeed, Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter ordered that both the Egyptians and their Greek conquerors should worship Serapis. This command came in the third century B.C., at a time when the ruler was keen to unite the different peoples. And insisting that the two factions both bow to the same god was one way of doing this. Another serapeum was even built in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to reinforce the power of this cult.
 
But these bulls that were buried had to have very particular characteristics. To be worshipped as part of the Serapis cult, the animals needed to both be black and white and to have a particular pattern on their hides. And writing on her website Gigal Research, French explorer Antoine Gigal gives a detailed account of what exactly made an Apis bull.
 
Gigal explains, “The bull had to be black and white with a white belly. It [also] had to have a white triangular mark on its forehead, an eagle with spread wings on its back, a crescent moon on its side, a scarab-shaped mark under its tongue and a tail with long hairs parted in two. So, it was a bull that was predestined for the role.”
 
Only a single sacred bull was worshipped at any one time, though. During that period, priests would also study the animal’s behavior in a bid to determine the will of the gods. Then, after an Apis bull died, it would be ceremonially mummified and taken from its home in the city of Memphis to Saqqara to be entombed.
 
And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these sacred bulls to the Egyptians. When one of them died, you see, there was an obligatory country-wide day of mourning. After that, the hunt for a replacement bull with just the right physical attributes would begin. Priests would be dispatched around the entire country, in fact, in the search for a bull with the correct markings.
 
The ancient Egyptians believed, moreover, that a true Apis bull had to be born from a cow that would be unable to produce any more calves. In time, though, a bolt of lightning would strike the mother to produce a sacred child. And after this revered animal was discovered, it would be carried along the Nile to Memphis resplendent in a golden shelter.
 
But what happened to Mariette after his discovery of the Serapeum of Saqqara? Well, that monumental find marked a decisive turn in his fortunes. The Egyptians created a job especially for him, in fact, making the Frenchman the official conservator of Egyptian monuments. And from then on, Mariette enjoyed a highly successful career as a leading Egyptologist until his death in 1881. He also managed to unearth many more buildings and artifacts from the ancient era of the Pharaohs.
 
But not everyone believes that those giant granite boxes were once sarcophagi for the sacred Apis bulls. And one of those who has doubts is Gigal herself. She has visited the tombs, you see, and there are aspects of both these and the stone boxes that she finds puzzling. For one thing, Gigal thought that the size of the boxes was strange, as they were all much larger than needed to house mummified bulls.
 
Gigal has also pointed out that Mariette only found empty boxes, and she has verified their lack of contents in person. Ultimately, then, this means that no one has actually seen the mummified remains of a bull inside one of those supposed sarcophagi. Gigal therefore contends that there is no conclusive evidence the boxes ever contained any sacred animals.
 
And while Mariette did actually discover mummified bulls at the Saqqara site, they were not in those stone containers. Instead, the 28 cattle that he found were contained in much smaller wooden coffins. It’s interesting to note, too, that as of yet, no written Egyptian records about the boxes have been discovered.
 
Gigal has also pondered how the massive granite receptacles even made it into the Serapeum of Saqqara. She points out on her website, “We know also that these sarcophagi are proof of an incredible technology, and one wonders how they could have been brought here in these narrow underground passageways where cranes cannot go.”
 
But while Gigal doesn’t venture to offer an opinion about an alternative purpose for the granite boxes, others have been happy to do just that. And in January 2018 the British newspaper the Daily Express reported one particularly bizarre theory. It’s said, you see, that as the coffins are so precisely made, they could not have been fashioned by human hand. Instead, it’s claimed, beings from another planet must have left the boxes on Earth for reasons unknown.
 
Yet another off-the-wall explanation has come by way of the website Ancient Origins. In his 2018 article for the site, Konstantin Borisov not only states that the boxes were much bigger than necessary for bulls, but he also asks why no mummified animals had actually been discovered inside. Both of these points are ones that Gigal has also made, of course. But Borisov has gone even further, speculating that the boxes may actually have been giant electrical batteries.
 
So, were these huge stone boxes deposited on Earth by aliens? Were they actually ancient prototypical batteries? Or were they indeed sarcophagi used by the ancient Egyptians to entomb their sacred bulls? It seems most likely that the taurine explanation is the correct one. But it’s undeniable that an air of mystery still surrounds these monumental granite artifacts.
 



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