Which king is represented in this sphinx at Memphis? Ask five Egyptologists and you’ll get six different answers.
Many kings chose to have themselves represented as a sphinx. The majesty of the king’s head combined with the lion’s muscular body was a potent symbol of royal power.
The Alabaster Sphinx was discovered at the ancient site of Memphis, some 35 kilometres south of Cairo, in 1912 by Flinders Petrie, not far from its present location. The July 22, 1912 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper covered the discovery: “The monster measures some 14 feet in height and 26 feet in length ... The figure bears no inscription, but is considered by Professor Flinders Petrie, the director of the British School in Egypt, to have been carved about 1,300 B.C.”
The sphinx was probably was placed before the great Temple of Ptah at Memphis by a ruler wanted to demonstrate his piety. But which ruler was it?
The statue spent many years lying on its side in waterlogged soil and is badly corroded on one side. There is also a lot of damage to the base, and if there ever was an inscription identifying the owner, it has now disappeared. The Memphis Sphinx is anonymous.
On stylistic grounds, however, it is likely to be either Hatshepsut, the powerful 18th Dynasty female pharaoh, or her stepson, Thutmose III. Both were keen sphinx-builders. Trouble is, during the 20 year period of co-regency, when Hatshepsut adopted the role of senior ruler, statues of the two are remarkably similar. It seems the same artists used the same artistic conventions for both rulers.
The current swing seems to be towards Hatshepsut. Or Thutmose.
One tantalising thought is that sphinxes were usually arranged in pairs, either side of a doorway or gateway, so there may be a matching sphinx, waiting to be unearthed. It or its base may bear an inscription that settles the debate once and for all.
Photo: Tono Labra.