Legends and superstitions abound about the Sphinx, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance. On seeing it for the first time, many visitors agree with English playwright Alan Bennett, who noted in his diary that seeing the Sphinx is like meeting a TV personality in the flesh: he’s smaller than one had imagined.
Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the feline man was dubbed the Sphinx by the ancient Greeks because it resembled the mythical winged monster with a woman’s head and lion’s body who set riddles and killed anyone unable to answer them. (It even has a little tail, daintily curled over its back right paw.)
The Sphinx was carved from the bedrock at the bottom of the causeway to the Pyramid of Khafre; geological survey has shown that it was most likely carved during this pharaoh’s reign, so it probably portrays his features, framed by the nemes (striped headcloth worn by royalty).
As is clear from the accounts of early Arab travellers, the nose was hammered off sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries, although some still like to blame Napoleon for the deed. Part of the fallen beard was carted off by 19th-century adventurers and is now on display in the British Museum in London. These days the Sphinx has potentially greater problems: pollution and rising groundwater are causing internal fractures, and it is under a constant state of repair.