The Great Sphinx is one of the world’s largest and oldest statues but basic facts about it are still subject to debate, such as when it was built, by whom, and for what purpose. These questions have resulted in the popular idea of the “Riddle of the Sphinx”, alluding to the original Greek legend of the Riddle of the Sphinx.
Pliny the Elder mentioned the Great Sphinx in his book, Natural History, commenting that the Egyptians looked upon the statue as a “divinity” that has been passed over in silence and “that King Harmais was buried in it”
The Sphinx is a monolith carved down into the bedrock of the plateau which also served as the quarry for the pyramids and other monuments in the area. Because of its geological history, the nummulitic limestone of the area consists of layers of widely differing quality offering unequal resistance to erosion, mostly due to wind and windblown sand, which explains the uneven degradation of the body of the Sphinx. The floor of the Sphinx depression and lowest part of the body including the legs is solid, hard rock. Above this, the body of the lion up to its neck is a heterogeneous zone with friable layers that have suffered considerable disintegration. The layer in which the head was sculpted is also much harder
Though there have been conflicting evidence and viewpoints over the years, the view held by modern Egyptology at large remains that the Great Sphinx was built in approximately 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafra, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza.
Selim Hassan, writing in 1949 on recent excavations of the Sphinx enclosure, summed up the problem:
Taking all things into consideration, it seems that we must give the credit of erecting this, the world’s most wonderful statue, to Khafre, but always with this reservation: that there is not one single contemporary inscription which connects the Sphinx with Khafre; so, sound as it may appear, we must treat the evidence as circumstantial, until such time as a lucky turn of the spade of the excavator will reveal to the world a definite reference to the erection of the Sphinx.
The “circumstantial” evidence mentioned by Hassan includes the Sphinx’s location in the context of the funerary complex surrounding the Second Pyramid, which is traditionally connected with Khafra. Apart from the Causeway, the Pyramid and the Sphinx, the complex also includes the Sphinx Temple and the Valley Temple, both of which display the same architectural style, with 200-tonne stone blocks quarried out of the Sphinx enclosure.
Some of the early Egyptologists and excavators of the Giza pyramid complex believed the Great Sphinx and other structures in the Sphinx enclosure predated the traditional date of construction (the reign of Khafre or Khephren, 2520–2492 BC).
In 1857, Auguste Mariette, founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, unearthed the much later Inventory Stela (estimated Dynasty XXVI, c. 678–525 BC), which tells how Khufu came upon the Sphinx, already buried in sand. Although certain tracts on the Stela are considered good evidence, this passage is widely dismissed as Late Period historical revisionism.
Gaston Maspero, the French Egyptologist and second director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, conducted a survey of the Sphinx in 1886 and concluded:
The Sphinx stela shows, in line thirteen, the cartouche of Khephren. I believe that to indicate an excavation carried out by that prince, following which, the almost certain proof that the Sphinx was already buried in sand by the time of Khafre and his predecessors [i.e. Dynasty IV, c. 2575–2467 BC].
In 1904, English Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge wrote in The Gods of the Egyptians:
This marvelous object [the Great Sphinx] was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren,and it is probable that it is a very great deal older than his reign and that it dates from the end of the archaic period [c. 2686 BC].