Sphinx of Ramses II
Ramses II was the third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty in the new kingdom era. He ruled ancient Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE. While Ramses launched war against the Hittites and the Libyans, what he is most known for today is his extensive building programs and the many statues of him in and around Egypt. One of these is the Sphinx of Ramses II.
The Sphinx of Ramses II was carved on a single block of red granite. It was made to look like the body of a lion and the head of a man. The sphinx was an important symbol in ancient Egypt: it signified unity between the royal and the divine, and it suggested that the pharaoh had divine powers to protect. The sphinx represents the combination of human intelligence (the human head) and positive strength and power (the lions body) (Penn Museum, The Granite Sphinx of Ramses II). The combination of the human and lion in the sphinx was a sign by Ramses that his intellect and attributes were superior to the rest of mankinds, but also that he was there to protect his people from harm. This was an important message since he was also at the same time starting wars with other civilizations. Thus, the sphinx could be said to be a sort of ancient Egyptian propaganda meant to comfort the Egyptian people during wartime (Simpson 1982: 266). In the Sphinx of Ramses II, the Egyptians were meant to see the power of their pharaoh.
The granite sphinx was approximately 362cm in length and 145cm in widthor 14 feet long and 6 feet wide and highand it is estimated to weigh about 13 tons. The transportation for this massive piece was very challenging, but it was moved to the Philadelphia Museum in 1916, three years following its excavation from the site near Ptah Temple by W. M. Flinders Petrie (Penn Museum The Great Sphinx of Ramses II). Penn Museum states that it is the 4th largest sphinx outside of Egypt and largest in the western hemisphere (Land of the Pharaohs).
We know it is the Sphinx of Ramses II because his name is carved into the base of the sculpture, and the base was preserved from the effects of time because for centuries the majority of the sculpture was buried in sand. Only some of the face of the sphinx was exposed to the elements. Thus, the reason behind the details of the Sphinx fading in the face is simply this: time and weather touched there the most; the rest was found buried to its shoulders. The facial features eroded due to the windblow of the sand, but as for the writing on the Sphinx, it was safe buried underneath the sand. However, as Wegner points out in his book on the Sphinx, it was most likely sculpted for a different pharaoh hundreds of years prior and simply adopted by Ramses II, who had his name inscribed upon it (Leong 2016). Ramses II probably had the old sphinx touched up and recarved and dedicated to his kingship for political purposes.
Egyptian Time Period
Why would Ramses II do that? At the time the Sphinx of Ramses II was born again, Egypt was at waralternately with Syrians, Hittites, Nubians, and Libyans (Rice 1999: 166). Ramses II was constantly at war, in other words, and it likely helped give his people a sense of confidence to see the Sphinx of Ramses. It would be like today when our government shows clips of the American flag or the White House in a patriotic or glorified setting. It inspires people and gives them hope and comfort. It was probably much the same for the Egyptians thousands of years ago. Wars can be hard to fight and they can take a toll on the psychology of any people. Thus, the pharaoh probably saw a need to recycle the old sphinx, adopt it for himself, brush it up a bit, and set it near the temple where the Egyptians went…to the people of Egypt. And this was likely more important than ever, since the Egyptians had lost their Hebrew slaves and needed some comfort.
Art is Timeless
So while the art of the Sphinx of Ramses II is certainly rooted in a specific time and place, art itself is rather timeless and exists outside the passing of days, weeks, months, and years. It is perhaps the immortality that Ramses II referred to when he inscribed on the sphinx that he had been given the gift of immortality. For a time that immortality had been lost in the sands of Egyptbut in the 20th century it was found anew and brought to America where it is now seen again.
The Sphinx of Ramses II is interesting to me because it is so peculiar and represents a union of man and animal in a way that is meant to impress and comfort rather than horrify. If in ancient Greece, half-man half-animals were like monsters, in Egypt they were protectors. The Sphinx is a work of art that uses the lion to convey a symbol of strength and power, a symbol that plays upon human emotions. The art has been tarnished in spots over time, but it has held up on the whole, and the fact that it has managed to weather the centuries and the sands of time shows that there is character and strength in that art. It is more than a passing trend: it is a work so powerful it had to be etched in stonebecause the person who wanted it had a powerful message to capture outside of time.
The sphinx represented the power of Ramses the Egyptian king at the time. His main responsibility was to protect his people and to defeat his enemies. Since he had his Egyptians engaged in multiple wars, it was important to convey this message. The carving on the chest of the sphinx made it clear, if the powerful symbol of the man-lion did not: Ramses was there to protect them. He…
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