The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most iconic and ancient monuments in the world, dating back to the 4th dynasty (c. 2575–c. 2465 BCE) and depicting the face of Pharaoh Khafre, who built his own pyramid complex next to his father Khufu’s Great Pyramid. The colossal statue, measuring 20 metres high and 73 metres long, is carved from a single piece of limestone and was once painted with bright colors. However, the Sphinx has also suffered from erosion and decay over time, and various restoration efforts have been undertaken since ancient times, possibly starting with Thutmose IV (1400–1390 BCE).
One of the most noticeable features of the Sphinx is its missing nose, which has been a source of mystery and speculation for centuries. Many people have heard the legend that Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers shot off the nose with a cannonball during their campaign in Egypt in 1798. However, this myth is easily debunked by sketches from 1737 by Frederic Louis Norden, a Danish naval captain and explorer, who depicted the Sphinx without a nose well before Napoleon’s arrival.
So who really broke the Sphinx’s nose, and why? The most likely culprit is Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim who vandalized the statue in 1378 CE to protest the peasants’ worship of the Sphinx as a talisman of the Nile. According to the Egyptian Arab historian al-Maqrīzī, who wrote in the 15th century, Sa’im al-Dahr was outraged by this blatant show of devotion and destroyed the nose with rods or chisels. He was later executed for his crime.
However, this historical account is not without controversy, as some scholars have questioned its accuracy and reliability. Some have suggested that the nose was damaged by natural causes, such as weathering or earthquakes, or by other human agents, such as treasure hunters or vandals. Some have even argued that the Sphinx was never meant to have a nose in the first place, and that it was an artistic convention to leave it blank.
The truth may never be known for sure, as the 1-metre wide nose has never been found. The mystery of the missing nose of the Sphinx may never be solved conclusively. It may have been a result of human intervention or natural processes or both. However, what is certain is that the nose was more than just a physical appendage. It was a symbol of power, faith, and destruction.
The nose was a symbol of power because it represented the authority and legitimacy of the pharaoh who built or commissioned the Sphinx. The Sphinx was not only a guardian of the pyramids but also a manifestation of the pharaoh’s divine status. The human head of the Sphinx was modeled after the pharaoh’s own face or his idealized image. The nose was an essential part of this resemblance and identity. By breaking or defacing the nose, one could challenge or undermine the pharaoh’s rule.
The nose was also a symbol of faith because it reflected the religious beliefs and practices of different groups of people who interacted with the Sphinx over time. The ancient Egyptians revered the Sphinx as a sacred being that embodied aspects of their gods, such as Ra, Horus, and Atum. They performed rituals and ceremonies in front of it to honor their deities and seek their blessings. The later Muslims viewed the Sphinx as an idol that violated their monotheistic creed. They tried to destroy or conceal it to express their devotion to Allah and their rejection of paganism.
Finally, the nose was a symbol of destruction because it demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of human creations and civilizations. The Sphinx has witnessed many changes and conflicts in Egypt’s history, from the rise and fall of dynasties to the invasions and occupations by foreign powers. It has also endured many natural disasters and environmental challenges that threatened its existence and integrity. The loss of its nose is a reminder of how easily things can be damaged or lost forever.
The missing nose of the Sphinx is not just a cosmetic flaw or a historical curiosity. It is a testament to the complexity and diversity of human culture and nature. It invites us to reflect on our own values and actions, and how they affect the world around us. It also challenges us to appreciate and preserve the ancient monuments that have survived and inspired us for millennia.
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