The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most recognisable relics of ancient Egypt. One of the world’s largest monuments at 20 metres high and 73 metres long, it is a staggering 4,500 years old.
However, the history and origins of the mighty structure are still debated. A focal point of debate amongst historians and archaeologists centres on the sphinx’s nose – or the lack of it. It is unclear when it disappeared, who removed it and why. A now disproven myth pointed blame at Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, while some theorists credit Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr with the removal of the sphinx’s nose.
So, who broke the Great Spinx’s nose, and why?
Sphinxes are prominent in Egyptian mythology
A sphinx (also spelled sphynx) is a prominent mythological figure in Asian, Greek and Egyptian mythology which normally has the body of a lion and head of a human.
In ancient Egypt, the sphinx was regarded as a spiritual guardian and was most commonly depicted as male and wearing a pharaoh headdress, as is the case with the Great Sphinx.
The creature was thus often included in temple and tomb complexes, such as Sphinx Alley in Upper Egypt, a two-mile avenue lined with sphinx statues that connects the Luxor and Karnak temples.
It was created by Pharaoh Khafre
Historians generally agree that the Great Sphinx was built for the Pharaoh Khafre sometime between 2603-2578 BC. Hieroglyphic texts tell us that Khafre’s father, Pharaoh Khufu, built the Great Pyramid. Khafre went on to construct his own slightly smaller pyramid along with an elaborate complex that includes the Great Sphinx.
Residue of red, yellow and blue pigments suggests that the Sphinx was once brightly painted. Originally cut from the bedrock, today the Sphinx’s original shape has been restored with layers of limestone.
The nose was removed deliberately
Upon examination, the Sphinx’s face shows that rods or chisels were hammered into the nose area which were then used to pry it off. The 1-metre wide nose has still never been found.
There are a number of folk tales that account for what happened to the Sphinx’s nose. The most popular myth regarding the Sphinx’s nose is that it was broken by cannonballs fired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, who were in Giza during one of the military battles of the French campaign in Egypt in 1798.
However, a mid-18th century drawing of the Sphinx by Danish Naval Captain and explorer Frederic Louis Norden depicts the statue without a nose. Since this predates Napoleon’s army, it disproves the folk tale.
The 15th-century Arab historian al-Maqrīzī described the loss of the nose to Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim from the khanqah of Sa’id al-Su’ada. The story goes that in 1378, Sa’im al-Dahr found the local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx for a good harvest, so defaced it as an act of iconoclasm.
The same historian also said that local people believed that the increased sand covering the Giza Plateau was celestial revenge for the act of defacement. It was also later believed by some that the Alexandrian Crusade of 1365 was punishment for the nose being broken off.
In spite of the conjecture surrounding the Sphinx’s nose, one fact is certain. Archaeologist Mark Lehner performed an archaeological study on the Sphinx and concluded that its nose was intentionally broken with instruments sometime between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD.
The nose isn’t the only missing part of the Sphinx
It is thought that a ceremonial pharaonic beard was attached to the Sphinx sometime after it was originally constructed. It is thought to have been added later because it didn’t damage the core infrastructure of the Sphinx when it fell off.
There are also a number of holes in the Sphinx, including at the top of its head, and many New Kingdom stelae depict the Sphinx wearing a crown. As a result, it has been theorised that the hole could have been the anchoring point for it.