What is the Smiling Sphinx?

Smiling Sphinx

In early March of 2023, a team of archeologists in southern Egypt made a startling discovery of a miniature sphinx statue, which they named the Smiling Sphinx. The statue, which was discovered near the temple of the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, shows a smiling face with two dimples. The theory coming out of from the field is that the statue represents Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor who ruled from 41 to 54 AD. It is a known fact that ancient Egyptians rarely depicted their works with a smiling face. As a result, this makes the Smiling Sphinx a very rare kind of ancient Egyptian art.

The question that begs to be answered is: why was the sphinx given a smiling face? Furthermore, what other artifacts were discovered with the sphinx?

In the article below, World History Edu explores the story and meaning of the Smiling Sphinx statue.

What is a sphinx?

Ancient Egyptians were known for depicting their pharaohs as sphinxes, a mythological animal with the body of a lion and a human head. The sphinx represented the pharaoh’s power and might. The sphinx also featured in ancient Greek art. As a matter of fact, the word ‘sphinx’ is of Greek origin. It comes from the word ‘sphingein’, which means ‘to compress’ or ‘to bind’. It is generally accepted that the famous ancient Greek poet Hesiod was the first-known person to make mention of the mythological animal; he called it Phix.

One account of the myths tells of the interaction between the Theban Sphinx and Oedipus, the king of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. It is said that when Oedipus first arrived at Thebes, the population were terrorized by a very cunning sphinx who destroyed anyone that failed to give the correct answer to her riddles. Oedipus took pity on the people and solved the Sphinx’s riddle. Thereafter, the Sphinx killed herself. To show their appreciation to Oedipus, the people of Thebes made him their king.

Oedipus and the Sphinx. Painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Who does the face of the Smiling Sphinx belong to?

The Smiling Sphinx statue was found in the temple of Dendera in Qena Province, 450km (280 miles) south of the capital of Cairo.

Archeologists that unearthed the Smiling Sphinx also discovered a Roman stele that contains some demotic and hieroglyphic scripts. The researchers are yet to properly decode the scripts, which would give insightful details about the person who sculpted the statue as well as the person who is depicted in the statue.

A Roman stele was found near the Smiling Sphinx.

Already some experts claim that the most likely person that is depicted on the Smiling Sphinx is Roman Emperor Claudius. Ruling from 41 to 54 AD, Claudius was member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. A largely inexperienced politician, Claudius’ rise to the throne came as a huge surprise as he succeeded his nephew, Emperor Caligula, who was brutally assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in 41 AD. Unlike the chaotic and brutal reign of Caligula, Claudius was praised for being a capable administrator and financially disciplined ruler. Most importantly, it was during Claudius’ reign that Rome successfully conquered Britain in 43. Also the Roman Empire expanded its boundaries to include many places in North Africa.

Emperor Claudius and the Smiling Sphinx

Archeologists unearthed the statue near the Temple of Dendera in southern Egypt. Some scholars opine that the Smiling Sphinx was produced during Claudius’ reign. It is thought that the statue represents Roman Emperor Claudius. Image: Roman Emperor Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD)

The Smiling Sphinx compared to the Great Sphinx at Giza

To put into perspective how small the Smiling Sphinx is compared to the Sphinx at the Giza pyramid complex. The latter, which dates to around the third millennium BC, measures over 70 meters long and is about 20 meters high. It is thought that the Great Sphinx at Giza depicts the face of Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2575- c. 2465 BC), the 4th ruler of the 4th dynasty.

The Great Sphinx of Giza is limestone statue that stands at around 20 meters tall.

Did you know?

Due to its sheer size, the Great Sphinx at Giza was known to the Arabs as “Father of Terror” (i.e. Abū al-Hawl).

Where was the statue discovered?

The dimpled and smiley face statue was discovered east of the Dendera Temple in Qena Governorate. The statue was unearthed near the Hathor Temple, which located in the Dendera Temple Complex, which is about 450km (280 miles) south of the capital, Cairo.

Interestingly, just above the layer where the Smiling Sphinx was discovered, researchers found two layers that most likely date back to the Byzantine era.

The statue, which was discovered near the temple of the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, shows a smiling face with two dimples.

Hathor Temple in the Dendera Temple Complex

In ancient Egypt, the goddess Hathor was revered as the goddess of beauty, fertility, love and music. Her equivalent in the ancient Roman pantheon would be the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite in Greek mythology). As a fertility goddess, Hathor was also known for her association to issues of childbirth and motherhood. In some accounts, she was seen as a sky deity.

The Hathor Temple is situated within the Dendera Temple Complex in Qena province. The temple is about 450 kilometers south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Scholars consider the temple complex as one of the best preserved structures from ancient Egypt.

Experts maintain that the Dendera Temple Complex is one of the best-preserved temple complexes of ancient Egypt. The complex, which is about 40,000 square meters, is surrounded by a mudbrick wall.

The Hathor Temple is undoubtedly the most dominant building in the Dendera Complex. The temple that stands today was built during the Ptolemaic era (305 BC – 30 BC). Some scholars state that it dates specifically to the Late Ptolemaic period – perhaps during the reign of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VII. On the temple walls is a huge relief of Cleopatra VII and her son (by Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar) Ptolemy XV (also known as Caesarion).

The Hathor Temple was one of the busiest religious sites of the era, as ancient Egyptians trooped to the place to offer prayers to the goddess Hathor.

The Dendera Zodiac, a bas-relief sketch of the heavens, was discovered by French archeologist and diplomat Vivant Denon during the Napoleonic expedition in Egypt (1798-1801). In 1821, circular artifact was removed by French antique dealer Sébastien Louis Saulnier and sent to France. It has remained on display at the Louvre Museum since 1922.

Also contained in the Hathor Temple is the Dendera Zodiac, a map of the heavens as perceived by the ancient Egyptians. The bas-relief was found on the ceiling of one of the chapels in the temple. It shows 12 zodiac signs, a number of planets and constellations of Sirius and Orion. This makes it one of the oldest known horoscopes in world history.

Read More: Greatest Accomplishments of Cleopatra VII, the last active Egyptian ruler

The Dendera Zodiac depicts the heavens being held up by four pillars of the sky – i.e. four female figures. Those figures are in turn assisted by eight falcon-headed figures. There are 36 spirits displayed in the circumference of the disc. With each of the spirit representing 10 days, the 360-day ancient Egyptian calendar is complete.

The sketch also has images of a bull, a scorpion, a pair of scales, and a ram. Those images represent Taurus, Scorpio, Libra, and Aries respectively.

Bas relief of Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion at the Dendera Temple Complex

In 1821, then-Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha ‘allowed’ the Dendera zodiac to be removed and sent to France. To this day, it remains unclear whether the French scholars sought permission from the pasha or not. Since then, the Dendera Zodiac has remained at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

We know the Dendera Zodiac was made during the Greco-Roman period because of one of the cartouches of the Zodiac contains the Greek word ‘autocrator’ in hieroglyphs.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Goddesses

Did you know…?

The Dendera Temple Complex is located south of Abydos. The Temple of Hathor is the main temple in the complex. And within the Temple of Hathor are a number of chapels and shrines.

  • The Dendera Temple Complex is located about 1.6 miles south-east of the city of Dendera, which is on the west bank of the Nile, about 60 km to the north of Luxor.
  • Long before the Ptolemaic Era, the site of the Dendera Temple Complex was a holy place. This explains why there are remnants of a temple that dates to the Old Kingdom (C. 2686 – 2181 BC) and New Kingdom (c. 1570-1077 BC).
  • The Dendera Temple Complex covers an area of about 40,000 square meters. In addition to housing the Temple of Hathor, the complex contains the Temple of the Birth of Isis, a sanatorium, a Roman Mammisi, and a sacred lake.
  • Also, Roman Emperors Trajan and Domitian appear on the propylon of the Temple of Hathor. The Roman rulers are depicted making offerings to the Egyptian gods.
  • It’s been stated that a Christian basilica was built in the temple complex around the 5th century AD; however, it was later abandoned.

Gateways of Domitian and Trajan – northern entrance of the Temple of Hathor

Read More: List of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *