The Sphinx's Nose

Sphinx
© Photo copyright Larry Orcutt

The nose of the Great Sphinx at Giza is made conspicuous by its absence. What happened to it? The popular story is that the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte used the nose for target practice in 1798. Drawings done for La Description de L'Egypte depict a noseless Sphinx.

The Sphinx, 1743.
A nose!
By Richard Pococke

In 1737, British traveler Richard Pococke visited Egypt and made a sketch of the Sphinx that was published six years later. The nose is shown intact, but Pococke likely exercised his poetic license by adding it when it was not there (earlier, in 1579, Johannes Helferich had further taken an artist's liberties by depicting the Sphinx with a nose -- and with decidedly female features). Frederick Lewis Norden, an artist and marine architect, also sketched the Sphinx in 1737. His detailed drawings, published in 1755, were more realistic and showed the Sphinx with no nose. It is very unlikely that Norden would omit the nose if it was present. We can conclude that the nose was gone by 1737 at the latest; thus its removal can not be blamed on Napoleon's troops, who visited more than 50 years later.

The Sphinx, 1755.
No nose!
By Frederick Lewis Norden

There exists an interesting account written by historian Muhammad al-Husayni Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (died CE 1442), in a book called al-Mawa`iz wa al-i`tibar fi dhikr al-khitat wa al-athar (G. Wien, ed., 1913). In vol. 2, page 157 of the Wien edition, al-Maqrizi states that the face, specifically the nose and ears, were demolished in 1378 by a Sufi from the khanqah of Sa`id al-Su`ada named Sa'im al-dahr. The reason for the vandalism, according to al-Maqrizi, was to "remedy some religious errors:" at that time some Egyptians were still burning milk-thistle (shuka`a) and safflower (badhaward) at the foot of the Sphinx while murmuring a verse 63 times in hope that their wishes would be fulfilled. "From the time of this disfigurement also," al-Maqrizi wrote, "the sand has invaded the cultivated land of Giza, and the people attribute this to the disfigurement of Abul-Hol [i.e., the Sphinx]."

It is interesting that al-Maqrizi mentions that the ears were demolished. As far as I can see, the Sphinx still has his ears.

The Sphinx, 1579.
A nose and more!
By Johannes Helferich

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