Modern visitors to the Giza plateau gaze on a Sphinx free of sand, following clearance work carried out in the 1930s. Behind rises the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of Giza’s structures, topping out at 450 feet.

Who built the Sphinx? Who broke its nose? 4,500 years later, a fresh look

The popularity of Egypt’s iconic ancient wonder has shifted with the sands over the centuries. Here’s what we know about it, from years of archaeological detective work.

Free and clear

Modern visitors to the Giza plateau gaze on a Sphinx free of sand, following clearance work carried out in the 1930s. Behind rises the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of Giza’s structures, topping out at 450 feet.
Anton Aleksenko/Getty Images

With the body of a lion and the face of a king, the Great Sphinx has become an instantly recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt, inspiring grand replicas all over world, from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Lanzhou, China. For thousands of years, this massive monument has lain at the feet of the pyramids of Giza, guarding the necropolis. The Sphinx’s popularity rose and fell, much like the desert sands that engulfed it during periods of neglect. When the Sphinx would reemerge, it aroused curiosity and wonder in those who gazed upon its colossal form.

Desert colossus

Archaeologists believe that the Great Sphinx was built during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (circa 2575–2150 B.C.) by the fourth-dynasty pharaoh Khafre. It is one of the world’s oldest works of monumental sculpture and one of the largest. It measures more than 65 feet tall, from the base to the top of its head, and 240 feet long, from forepaws to tail. Much of the Sphinx was carved directly from the limestone rock of Giza and then supplemented with more limestone blocks.

(Who was Egypt's first pharaoh?)

The Sphinx’s head has a royal look and bears some traditional symbols of ancient Egypt’s monarchy. It wears the nemes, a cloth headdress worn by Egyptian pharaohs. The remains of a carved royal cobra, or uraeus, can be seen on the Sphinx’s forehead. The human facial features are masculine. Time has robbed the Sphinx of its nose and kingly beard, but the rest of its features remain well-defined despite erosion.

Two massive paws stretch out before the Sphinx’s leonine body. A tail wraps around it. Much of the body was once faced with high-quality limestone blocks from the quarry at Tura. This surface layer has deteriorated over time. Some has been entirely lost in places despite restoration projects over the centuries.

Archaeologists have found traces of blue, yellow, and red pigments on parts of the Sphinx, making it likely that it was once colorfully decorated. Writing in the first century A.D., Roman author Pliny the Elder described the Sphinx’s vivid appearance: “The face of the monster is colored red.”

(Pliny wrote this miracle plant was eaten into extinction 2,000 years ago—or was it?)

Riddles of the Sphinx

In ancient Greece, a sphinx was a monster with a woman’s head, a lion’s body, and a bird’s wings; she was dangerous and would kill any person who couldn’t answer her riddles, most famously in the myth of Oedipus. Her Egyptian cousin, however, was a benevolent, protective being who guarded kings and country. The word “sphinx” is of uncertain origin. It may be derived from the Egyptian term shesep-ankh, which means “living image” and was used to refer to depictions of a god or pharaoh.

Unlike the Greek monster, the Great Sphinx has a man’s head and lacks wings. Other depictions of sphinxes appear in different eras of ancient Egypt, and while the lion’s body remains consistent, the heads change. In addition to human heads, there are also animal ones, including rams, jackals, falcons, and crocodiles.

These kinds of statues were often found as part of Egypt’s sacred spaces. A pair of 13th-century B.C. falcon-headed sphinxes were found at Ramses II’s temple at Abu Simbel. Another example is Luxor’s avenue of sphinxes, built in the fourth century B.C. They still stand guard along a nearly 1.5-mile road that connected the temples of Karnak and Luxor.

While the Sphinx has spent 4,500 years watching the centuries pass, attitudes toward the giant wonder have greatly changed over the years. In the Old Kingdom, the Sphinx was worshipped and was regarded as part of the sacred landscape of the Giza necropolis. When new regimes took over, it was abandoned. Desert sands blew in and covered it up until only its head was visible. Over time, visitors to Giza would rediscover the Sphinx as it sat patiently waiting to be noticed. The colossus would be reborn as it emerged from the sand, and new visitors would flock to marvel at its size, mystery, and endurance.

Who built the Sphinx?

Two of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Sphinx of Giza are when it was built and by whom. Scholarly consensus is that it was constructed some 4,500 years ago, during the Old Kingdom while the great pyramids were being built. The Sphinx and these massive tombs are definitely connected; the giant guardian appears to sit right between two of them, each erected by a different fourth-dynasty pharaoh. Khufu, who reigned around 2500 B.C., built the Great Pyramid, and his son Khafre built his own slightly smaller yet still impressive tomb.

(How cosmic rays helped find a tunnel in Egypt's Great Pyramid.)

As grand as the pyramids of these early Old Kingdom rulers are, records of these pharaohs are scant. Archaeologists have had to resort to detective work when trying to solve the mystery of who built the Sphinx. To date, no smoking gun has been found, or inscriptions that credit either Khufu or Khafre.

The most popular hypothesis, held by Egyptologists like Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass, is that Khafre commissioned the Sphinx as part of his monumental building projects, including his resting place and the surrounding temple complex. These scholars have studied the remains of the necropolis and the various structures each king commissioned there. The Sphinx’s positioning within Khafre’s scheme for his pyramid and mortuary temples is a better fit, suggesting careful planning and logic. They believe that the Sphinx itself was carved from a massive piece of limestone, which was likely exposed as workers were quarrying big pieces of rock for the construction of nearby temples.

(This Egyptian queen's tomb lay untouched for more than 4,000 years.)

Some have proposed a much earlier dating based on the Inventory Stela, a text from circa 670 B.C., millennia after the events it describes. It suggests that the Sphinx was restored in the time of Khufu, implying that the monument existed before these early pharaohs. This stela, however, is full of anachronisms, leading many experts to treat the text with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Temple of the Sphinx

Opposite the Great Sphinx are the remains of a temple that was likely begun at the same time as the gigantic sculpture. Although the building was never completed, it is believed to have been consecrated. Archaeologists have found representations of different aspects of the solar divinity Re. The Sphinx, located behind the sanctuary, would have formed part of this sacred complex.

Excavations in the early 20th century revealed the ruins of the temple’s megalithic limestone blocks. It was likely that these would have been faced with granite. The floor was made of alabaster. According to German Egyptologists Herbert Ricke and Siegfried Schott, the 24 columns within the temple’s central courtyard may represent the 24 hours of the day. Statues of the pharaoh could have been placed against them. An altar stood in the center.

The temple had two sanctuaries, an eastern one and a western one. The first may have been dedicated to the morning sun god, Khepri, and the second to the evening sun god, Atum. It’s likely that both sanctuaries were enclosed, while the central area would have been open to the sky. At midday, it would have let the light of the mighty sun god Re shine in at the zenith of its daily course.

During the equinoxes, an astronomical solar alignment can be observed among the Temple of the Sphinx, the Sphinx itself, and Khafre’s pyramid. An observer standing on the east-west axis of the temple and looking toward the setting sun in the west would see the equinoctial sun set on the south side of the Sphinx and Khafre’s pyramid. (Scholars point to this phenomenon to support the theory that Khafre built the Sphinx.)

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About a thousand years later, Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the 18th dynasty built another small temple near the ruins of Khafre’s complex. The New Kingdom structure is made from adobe bricks and sits next to the northeast corner of the Sphinx’s temple. It was dedicated to the god Har-em-akhet, “Horus on the Horizon,” who was then associated with the Sphinx.

The prince's dream

Following the decline of the old kingdom, the Sphinx and the structures around it were abandoned and fell into ruin. They lay dormant for centuries as the desert sands piled up around them. The Sphinx would be reborn during the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 B.C.), when a young pharaoh used the Sphinx to tie his reign to the kings of old.

Standing between the paws of the Sphinx is the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV. Discovered in 1817, the stela was a late addition to the Sphinx complex, installed sometime during the 18th dynasty. The Dream Stela is a massive piece of solid granite, weighing some 15 tons and standing about 12 feet tall. Its ornately carved inscriptions relate an episode from the life of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, the eighth king of the 18th dynasty, when he was a young prince and the Sphinx was buried up to its shoulders in sand. 

According to the stela, Thutmose took a noonday nap in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, and the sun god Horemakhet-Khepri-Re-Atum appeared in the form of the Sphinx. The god told the prince that if he cleared the sands from the statue, then he would make Thutmose king. The end of the story has been lost to time, as the inscription has been worn away.

Thutmose IV used the account of the dream to legitimize himself as king. He had not been first in line to succeed his father, Amenhotep II. 

The dream, whether real or not, helped serve as propaganda to link the new pharaoh to the divine and his ancient royal heritage. The pharaoh then began a restoration project of the Sphinx, helping it reemerge from the sand. As part of this restoration, scholars believe that Thutmose IV had a stone braided beard attached to the Sphinx’s chin. The facial hair fell off, but fragments of it were discovered in 1817.      

(He was the first pharaoh found intact in his tomb—but he wasn't alone.)            

Wear and tear

Following a great revival of interest during the New Kingdom, the Sphinx fell into another long period of neglect. The sands built up until only its head could be seen. Despite its semi-burial, the Sphinx still exuded power. In the 12th and 13th centuries, locals were recorded making offerings to the Sphinx to flood the Nile and boost harvests. In the 11th century, the North African geographer Al-Idrisi reported that those who wished to obtain positions in the Fatimid caliphate, based in Egypt, presented themselves to the Sphinx.

The monument exerted a major fascination over European visitors. The French explorer André Thévet described the Sphinx in his Cosmography of the Levant, published in 1556, as “the head of a colossus.” Two centuries later, in the late 1790s, when Napoleon’s forces fought the British in Egypt, the French became fascinated with ancient Egyptian history and its sites, including the Sphinx. When he saw it and the pyramids, Napoleon allegedly exclaimed, “Thousands of years of history are looking down upon us!” Ancient Egypt so inspired Napoleon’s followers that when they returned to France, they embarked on the creation of an extensive multivolume history of ancient Egypt with detailed renderings of all they had encountered.

(Napoleon's defeat in Egypt gave birth to Egyptology.)

A fanciful story arose out of Napoleon’s time in Egypt regarding the Sphinx’s nose, or lack thereof. Tradition claims that French troops shot off the nose, leaving the Sphinx disfigured. Despite the story’s staying power, it is not true. Danish explorer Frederic Louis Norden visited France in 1737, well before Napoleon’s excursion, and extensively documented his trip. His 1755 book, Voyage to Egypt and Nubia, features a sketch of the noseless Great Sphinx, indicating that the appendage had gone missing before the late 1790s.

An Islamic source reported that the Sphinx’s nose was removed in the late 14th century. The medieval Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi wrote that a Sufi Muslim, Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, offended by local people worshipping the Sphinx, chiseled the nose off. Unlike the Sphinx’s beard, fragments of the statue’s broken nose have never been found, but Egyptologist and Sphinx expert Mark Lehner believes the existing evidence supports an intentional break as the account describes, rather than a gradual decline and fall.


Attempts to dig out the Sphinx met with little success at first. In 1817, Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Caviglia managed to clear the front end. At the end of the 19th century, the Sphinx’s broad chest and massive paws could be seen. More progress followed in the subsequent decades, until finally, in the late 1930s, all the sand was swept away and the full Sphinx was on display. Since then, archaeologists have gone beyond the surface to find deeper secrets. Led by Egyptologist Mark Lehner, the American Research Center in Egypt conducted an intensive mapping project of the entire Sphinx complex. It revealed new insights into the monument’s construction, which will help conservationists preserve it.

(New reasons to visit Egypt now.)

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