The Great Sphinx is located on the Giza plateau, about 10km west of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile River. The monument is the largest surviving sculpture from the ancient world, measuring 73.5m in length and in parts 20m in height.
Part of the uraeus (sacred cobra which protected from evil forces), the nose and the ritual beard are missing; the beard is now displayed in the British Museum. There have been various attempts to restore the Great Sphinx over the millennia, beginning in c1400 BC with the pharaoh Tuthmosis IV.
After falling asleep in the shade of the Sphinx when out hunting, the pharaoh dreamt that the great beast was choking from the sand engulfing it, and that it told him if he cleared the sand he would obtain the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
One of the main oddities about the sculpture is that the head is out of proportion to its body. It could be that the head was re-carved several times by subsequent pharaohs since the first visage was created, though on stylistic grounds this is unlikely to have been done after the Old Kingdom period in Egypt (ending around 2181 BC). Perhaps the original head was that of a ram or hawk and was precut into a human shape later.
In recent times nobody knows its original name. Sphinx is the human-headed lion in ancient Greek mythology; the term likely came into use some 2,000 years after the statue was built. There are hundreds of tombs at Giza with hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back some 4,500 years, but not one mentions the statue.
Recognized today as one of the world’s leading Egyptologists and Sphinx authorities, Lehner has conducted field research at Giza during most of the 37 years since his first visit. (Hawass, his friend and frequent collaborator, is the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and controls access to the Sphinx, the pyramids and other government-owned sites and artifacts.)
Applying his archaeological sleuthing to the surrounding two-square-mile Giza plateau with its pyramids, temples, quarries and thousands of tombs, Lehner helped confirm what others had speculated – that some parts of the Giza complex, the Sphinx included, make up a vast sacred machine designed to harness the power of the sun to sustain the earthly and divine order.
It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asks all passersby the most famous riddle in history: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age.
Sphinxes are a feature of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adam and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the Romantic, and later Symbolism movements in the 19th century.