Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Riddle of the Sphinx

Greek sphinx.
Photo: Jeanhousen
In Greek mythology the sphinx was a malevolent creature with the face of a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the tail of a serpent.  It was said that a sphinx guarded the approach to the city of Thebes and asked each passer-by a riddle.  She strangled and devoured all those who did not know the answer.  There are different versions of the riddle of the sphinx.  Here is one.
“What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon and on three legs in the evening?”
The answer is man who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright in his prime and uses a stick to walk in old age.
The Great Sphinx at Giza
Photo: Marek Kokjan
The sphinx did not originate in Greece but in Egypt.  There the sphinx had the body of a lion and the face of a man – no wings or tail.  In Egypt the sphinx was seen as benevolent – a guardian of temples and holy places.  The largest and most famous of all is the Great Sphinx of Giza which sits on the bank of the Nile by the Great Pyramids.  We don’t know exactly when this sphinx was built.  Its face is thought to represent Pharaoh Khafra who reigned in about 2,570 BCE.  He built the second largest pyramid in Giza.
Pharaoh Menkaure
Photo: Iry-Hor
Last week it was announced that a team from the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology had discovered the front legs of a sphinx from ancient Egypt in Tel Hazor in Upper Galilee.  Between the feet was a hieroglyphic inscription bearing the name of Pharaoh Menkaure (in Greek: Mycerinus) a son of Khafra whom he succeeded to the throne in about 2,530 BCE.  Menkaure built the smallest of the three Great Pyramids of Giza.  This is the only sphinx of Menkaure discovered anywhere in the world and the only royal sphinx discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.
Now here is another riddle of the sphinx.  We know of no connection between Egypt and Canaan during the reign of Menkaure.  It would be another 800 years before Egypt ruled Canaan.  How did the statue get to Hazor? 
Photo: Prof. Amnon Ben Tor
and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman
There are some clues to help us solve this riddle.  The fragment of the statue was found at the entrance to the city palace in a destruction layer dated to 13th century BCE.  At that time Hazor was the largest and most important city in the region.  The text of the inscription describes Menkaure as “Beloved by the divine manifestation… that gave him eternal life”.  The inscription, say Professor Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr Sharon Zuckerman who lead the excavation at Hazor, suggests that the sphinx originated in ancient Heliopolis a few miles north of the modern city of Cairo.  It seems that centuries later it may have been a gift from a King of Egypt to the King of Hazor during the 15th to 13th centuries BCE when Canaan was under Egyptian rule.
By any standards this is a major archaeological discovery but perhaps this photo will explain why it especially interests me.  It shows my parents in 1950 standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza with the pyramid of Khufu, Menkaure's grandfather, in the background.  The little boy my father is holding is me.