The Icon: Egypt’s Great Sphinx

In Arabic, it’s called “the father of terror.” To us, it’s a riddle.

Who built the Great Sphinx of Giza? No one can say for sure (though several of the more crazy theories point fingers at space aliens). The huge limestone statue, as tall as the White House in Washington, D.C., with paws bigger than city buses, was erected in the time of the Old Kingdom, probably during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre, between the years 2558 and 2532 B.C.

The crouching lion with a man’s head was ancient when Cleopatra gazed upon it in 47 B.C. It retains its allure to the powerful, as world leaders from Napoleon to Barack Obama have trekked to Giza to contemplate the same view that captivated the queen of the Nile.

Name game: The Sphinx is an alias, created by the ancient Greeks when the statue was already centuries old. The early name was Hor-em-akhet, meaning “Horus in the horizon.” Horus is the Egyptian god of the sky.

Test of time: Out of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx are still standing.

Color me mysterious: The Sphinx was originally painted in garish comic-book colors like red. Traces of the pigment can be seen by its ear.

Copycat: In Las Vegas, the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel‘s foam and plaster version is 35 feet taller than the original Sphinx, which rises 66 feet.

Close shave: The Sphinx originally sported a beard, which eventually crumbled. A piece of its “stubble” is displayed in the British Museum in London.

Secrets and lies: Legend says the library of the sunken island of Atlantis is stowed beneath the Sphinx, with an entrance near its right paw. Nothing has been found, according to bemused archaeologists.

Nose job: Contrary to popular history, Napoleon’s cannonballs did not shoot off the Sphinx’s nose. The evidence suggests the nose was intentionally cleaved off at least 300 years before the Little Corporal invaded Egypt in 1798.

Pyramid scheme: If you don’t like the Saharan sun, try booking a seat for the sound-and-light show at night when desert temperatures are cooler. The program bathes the Sphinx and pyramids in vivid colors as a narrator relays their history.

Andrew Nelson is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewNelson.