The Great Sphinx IV

Great Sphinx in Situ

The Sphinx temple is very ruined now, with little of its granite facing left and little of its alabaster floor. Any inscriptions it may once have carried, which might have told us much about its purpose, are long gone. Only the eroded limestone core of the structure remains, in part: enough to show that this temple once boasted a central court, about 46 m by 23 m, open to the sky and affording a good view of the Sphinx, and there was an interior colonnade of rectangular pillars. Large recesses in the inside eastern and western walls suggest the original presence of cult statues, very possibly to do with the rising and setting sun, but of decorative detail there is no trace.

There was no immediate access to the Sphinx from inside the temple, whose west wall up to the height of 2.5 m was cut into the living rock, thereafter topped with limestone blocks. It was necessary to go by passages to the north and south of the temple to reach the Sphinx. There is evidence that this temple of the Sphinx was never finished; perhaps it was never even used.

The interior of the other temple, to the south of the Sphinx temple, is quite different in layout, though the same granite casing of the limestone core blocks, the same rectangular style of pillar, the same presence of statue niches, the same overall size and method of construction mark both buildings as contemporary Old Kingdom temples.

In the southerly temple, the remains of nine more or less complete statues of a king named on them as Khafre were found. Further fragments show that twenty-three statues of Khafre once stood in this temple, which Egyptologists identify as the valley temple of Khafre's pyramid complex: the temple on the edge of the Giza escarpment to which his body was brought by a canal from the river at the start of the process that would end with his being sealed within his pyramid Up on the plateau above. Even in this century, the river in flood has occasionally come very close to the terrace of the temples by the Sphinx - and the water-table is not far below ground.

The valley temple of Khafre lies at the end of a limestone causeway that leads up the slope to a further temple at the foot of his pyramid. The Greek writer Herodotus, who never mentions the Sphinx as a feature of his visit to the pyramids (perhaps it was all but obscured by sand in the fifth century BC), thought the causeway of the Great Pyramid was as wonderful in its way as the pyramids themselves. To judge by the causeways of slightly later pyramids, these long ramps were covered over, with slits in the roof to let in light, and possibly their walls even in the time of Khufu and Khafre carried sculpted and painted scenes on them, in contrast to the lack of decoration in the Giza pyramids themselves.

The Great Sphinx in modern times

The Khafre causeway was equipped with drainage channels which are interesting to us now because they indicate that rainwater run-off was an essential provision of the pyramid complex. We are accustomed to think of Egypt as a very dry place but even today, in times that are drier still than were the days of the Old Kingdom, rains can sometimes come and cause considerable damage in a context where they are not routinely expected. Evidently the monuments of the Giza necropolis needed precautions against rain. On the north side of the Khafre causeway, there is a ditch (2 m wide and 1.5 m deep) that forms a demarcation line between the pyramid complexes of Khufu and Khafre. This rock-cut ditch was large enough to channel a great deal
of rainwater when heavy rains occurred. It is cut into by the corner of the Sphinx enclosure, and - were it not blocked at this point with pieces of granite - would allow water to pour in quantity into the basin out of which the Sphinx body was carved. These circumstances strongly suggest that the Sphinx enclosure and the Sphinx itself were created after the demarcation of the complexes of Khufu and Khafre and after the construction of Khafre's causeway.

There are some tombs cut into the south-facing edge of the wider Sphinx enclosure to the north that belong to the same Dyn. IV as Khufu and Khafre, showing that the enclosure was not made after their time. Between them, the blocked ditch and the tombs indicate a narrow hand of time in which the Sphinx enclosure, and by strong implication the Sphinx itself, could have been carved. It means that the Sphinx most likely dates to a time no later than a couple of reigns after Khafre and no earlier than his reign.

At the top of the Khafre causeway, 400 m in length, there was another temple, larger than the one at the valley end and immediately in front of Khafre's pyramid. This was the feature of a pyramid complex that Egyptologists call a mortuary temple. It is now a badly eroded ruin, but once measured over 110 m by nearly 50 m. It was again part-faced with granite from Aswan, but also with fine limestone from across the Nile at Tura. It featured an entrance hall, an open court, statue niches, storage magazines and a sanctuary close to the base of the pyramid, with an altar for offerings. The pyramid itself was surrounded by a high wall, and the area between the wall and the pyramid was paved.

Khafre's pyramid was accompanied by one smaller pyramid to the south, but the slightly searlier pyramid of Khufu has three to the east, while the smaller Giza pyramid of their successor Menkaure has three to the south. All three main pyramids were equipped with mortuary and valley temples and causeways between these temples, though most of the causeway and the valley temple of Khufu is now invisible. The pyramids of Khufu and Khafre (and probably Menkaure too) were additionally accompanied by several boat pits in which wooden boats of some religious significance were buried.

Around the Great Pyramid of Khufu there are numerous contemporary tombs of relatives, courtiers and officials, laid out in ordered lines. Subsequently, there was infilling with tombs of later reigns, and more tombs were built to the south-east of Khafre's pyramid.

To the south of Khafre's tomb field there is a priests' town, where the priests who maintained the religious duties of the necropolis were housed, and nearby there is another large tomb, of an Old Kingdom queen. Rock-cut tombs occur along the various natural and quarried edges of the escarpment including, as we have seen, the northern side of the Sphinx enclosure. To the west of Khafre's pyramid there is a line of ancient storehouses.

The whole Giza site was, you might say, a living necropolis for three millennia: living because, with varying degrees of dedication from time to time, the cults of the royal dead and their followers were kept up by the priestly administration of the place. There were periods of neglect, extreme at times, but also periods of renewal. We have described the complex of monuments that belonged together in Old Kingdom times, but Giza went on being an important place till practically the end of ancient Egyptian history.

New Kingdom pharaohs, ruling a thousand years after Khufu and Khafre, built new temples close to the Sphinx, who had become in their time (whatever his original significance may have been) a god in his own right. In the latter days of ancient Egypt, two thousand years after Khufu and Khafre, an atavistic passion for an idealized and (not surprisingly) misremembered past led to more rebuilding on the Giza site and fresh interpretations of the origin and meaning of the Sphinx. The Giza complex lies at an elevation of about 100 m above sea-level on a latitude 30 north of the equator, towards the northern end of a vast cemetery of the ancient Egyptians associated with their Old Kingdom capital city of Memphis. Both city and cemetery lay on the west hank of the Nile.

About 10 km north of Giza is the northernmost station of the cemetery, where the very ruined pyramid of Khufu's successor Djedefre (sometimes rendered Radjedef) lies at Abu Rawash. About 7 km south of Giza, another pyramid was left unfinished at Zawyet el-Aryan: to what king it belonged is now unknown. There is also evidence of an unfinished Dyn. III structure.

About the same distance south again is Saqqara, with more than a dozen royal monuments ranging from Dyn. III to Dyn. XIII, though none of them from Dyn. IV like the Giza pyramids. There are more Dyn. IV pyramids at Dahshur, about 10 km south of Saqqara, where the father of Khufu (his name was Snofru) built two pyramids, one with a noticeably gentler slope than those of any of his successors and the other with a change of angle like a mansard roof that has earned it the modern name of the Bent Pyramid.

Down in the river valley east of Saqqara lies all that remains of the great city of ancient Egypt that the Greeks called Memphis. Picturesquely forlorn and shrunken today, Memphis was really the capital city of Egypt in Old Kingdom times, reputedly founded by the first king and unifier of the ancient state, Menes as he is named by the Greek writers. In a long history, until rivaled by the southern city of Thebes in New Kingdom times (and totally superseded the Arab foundation of Cairo, on the east hank of the Nile) Memphis probably stretched at various times up and down the west hank of the river for many kilometres. Its no doubt abundant archaeological remains are buried now under successive inundations of silt and modern settlement. It got its Greek name under curious circumstances, after the whole town had come to be known by the name of one of the pyramids at Saqqara (that of Pepi I) called Mennufer. In Old Kingdom times, the town was commonly called The White Wall, probably because the king's residence was fortified with such a wall. Much later there was a temple there of the god Ptah, who was always closely associated with Memphis, called Hikuptah, and from this word it seems the Greeks derived their name for the entire land of Egypt, Aiguptos. (Why the Greeks called the southern city Thebes, after their own city of the same name, is a mystery.)

At all events, Memphis was the greatest and most important city of Old Kingdom Egypt, the seat of Menes and his successors. It is because of Memphis that the pyramids of Giza (et al.) are where they are - they and their associated tomb fields are the cemeteries of the top people of the Old Kingdom.

City and cemeteries were on the west hank of the Nile. On the east hank at the time, south of modern Cairo, were the quarries at Tura from which the hard high-quality limestone used to case the pyramids at Giza was extracted, to be rafted across the river on the annual flood to the foot of the plateau on which the pyramids were built, with cores of softer stone quarried on site.

About 20 km north of Memphis the river fans out in the branches that form the Delta of the Nile as it runs to the Mediterranean Sea, which the Egyptians called The Great Green. Formerly there were more streams than there are today and the whole area of the Delta constituted quite a different world, with its manifold creeks and brooks running among swamps and patches of dry ground, from the situation south of Memphis where the single stream in its fertile flood plain was soon bounded on both sides by desert and rock.

These two different worlds, Lower Egypt in the north and Upper Egypt in the south, were throughout Egyptian history culturally rather distinct, and more so prehistoric times before the unification of the state. The eastern part of the Delta was probably the readiest way by which influences from the other civilizations of the ancient world might come into Egypt from the peoples at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and beyond. Egypt was unusual among the early civilizations in the degree of its isolation from the outside world, as a result of geography. The route to Palestine up the eastern Mediterranean coast was not the only avenue to the wider world 'but it was probably always the likeliest.

It was also possible to go east from Memphis across the desert to the top of the Gulf of Suez and on to Sinai, in search of turquoise and copper for example; to go south down that arm of the Red Sea into the Sea itself and so reach the coasts of modern-day Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia; and to cross the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula. The Eastern Desert along the whole length of the Nile in Egypt was never as barren as the desert to the west. Probably nomad pastoralists tending their flocks were often to be found there, and there was the attraction of minerals and precious metals to draw the ancient Egyptians on expeditions away from their river valley home. Granite and greywacke, tin, copper and gold were to 'be found there, and more routes to the Red Sea. In the Western Desert, stretching away from Memphis to the Libyan Plateau, there was less to lure the ancient Egyptians away, even in the wetter days of old before the far Sahara became completely desiccated, though there were substantial oases of considerable importance to the Egyptians in later times.

South of Memphis, into Upper Egypt, the valley of the Nile reached for about a thousand kilometers towards the African interior out still within the land of Egypt itself before, above Aswan, the border of the state was crossed into Nub and tropical Africa. The first cataract of the Nile marked the frontier in Old Kingdom times, the place where the river first becomes seriously difficult to navigate as the waters tumble over rocks. The Old Kingdom Egyptians of Dyn. IV exercised some kind of influence over the region between the first and second cataracts - and this was, of course, the place where imports from the African interior made their way into Egypt: ivory, spices, ostrich feathers among them. There were probably many middlemen along the route these goods traveled into Egypt and few if any Egyptians are likely to have traveled far into the African interior.

But the sources of the great river which made the civilization of ancient Egypt possible were deep inside the continent. Above the fifth cataract first the Atbara, and then above the sixth the Blue Nile flow down from the Ethiopian Highlands into the waters of the White Nile, which rises in central Africa. It is the seasonal flooding of the Nile in Egypt as a result of the mingling of the rivers in the Sudan that supplies Egypt with the means to sustain life. Without this happy state of affairs, there would have been no settlement of the Nile Valley, no unification of the state, no great kings - and no Great Sphinx.

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