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Museum piece #3 – A23

Louvre A23 Great Sphinx of Tanis

Upon entering the Egyptian Antiquities department at the Louvre Museum in Paris, you cannot fail to be stunned by the magnificent Great Sphinx of Tanis. Housed within its very own ‘crypt’, the Crypt of the Sphinx, this huge granite sculpture is a breathtaking sight. It is one of the largest sphinxes to be found outside of Egypt, and was discovered in 1825 among the ruins of the Temple of Amun at Tanis. Tanis was the seat of the kings of the 21st and 22nd Dynasty, located in the Nile Delta.

This sphinx has been inscribed by three different kings successively: Amenemhat II (12th Dynasty), Merneptah (19th Dynasty), and Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty). However, some scholars believe that the sphinx may date to an even earlier period, perhaps to the Old Kingdom. The usurpation, or re-use, of monuments was a common practice in ancient Egypt.

The term ‘sphinx’ is Greek in origin, and refers to a dangerous mythical creature. In Greek mythology, the sphinx would pose a riddle to anyone who wished to cross her path. If the person failed to answer the riddle, the sphinx would kill and eat them.

The Egyptian term for a sphinx was shesep-ankh, or ‘living image’, to reflect the purpose of the statues – they represented the close association of the king and the sun-god, Ra. The leonine body represented the sun-god, often depicted as a cat, and the human face represented the pharaoh. The recumbent, or laying, sphinxes acted as protectors and guardians of sacred places such as temples.

Further reading:

Kitchen, K. A. 1996. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100–650 BC). 3rd ed. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Limited.

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