Although the latest story of the Penn Museum’s 13-ton Sphinx begins with its move across the museum complex at a cost of $850,000, the real story of this artifact began 30 centuries earlier in the Nile Delta city of Memphis. One of ancient Egypt’s most holy places, Memphis was a sprawl of temples, massive monuments and grand tombs, most of which celebrated the era’s ruler, Pharaoh Ramses II. (See the sphinx now in its new location)
Memphis’ most important religious structure was the temple complex dedicated to the god Ptah, and small wonder. Ramses, a military conquerer and prolific builder, erected more temples, cities and massive stone monuments to himself than any other pharaoh in Egyptian history — and Ptah was the god of craftsmen and architects — the people who accomplished these works.
Red granite from Aswan
Just inside the north gate of the walled Ptah complex, a sphinx sat as a benevolent guardian and symbol of the Pharaoh’s power. Its head was a carved likeness of Ramses, and its 13-ton leonine body was sculpted from a huge block of red granite that came from the same Aswan quarry as the stones of the pyramids.
But for all its glory in the earlier centuries of Egyptian history, Memphis had a fatal geographic flaw. It was located on the flood plain of a river that overran its banks annually. Each century, more silt was deposited on top of the existing ground. Over 3,000 years, more than 15 feet of silt and sand swallowed up Memphis and the city was eventually abandoned. Much of its above-ground stonework was carted away for constructions elsewhere; by the turn of the 20th century, what had once been one of the ancient world’s richest and most powerful cities was a swampy backwater littered with smashed stone rubble, some of which suggested where the wall of the once-great Ptah temple had been.
In 1912, an archaeological expedition team partially funded by Penn was digging near the remains of the north wall and found the buried Ramses II Sphinx. At some point in earlier centuries, the Sphinx had sunk into silt and sand up to its shoulders and remained that way as centuries more of wind-driven sand eroded its face.
The massive statue was shipped by freighter to the Philadelphia waterfront in 1913, traveling from there to the museum on a massive ox cart pulled by horses. In 1926 it was put into final position and the museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery was then constructed around it.
Both survived the ages
It turns out both the Sphinx and its creator are still with us 3,000 years later. The mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II was discovered in 1881, unwrapped and now on display in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. You can still look directly into the incredibly well-preserved face of the man considered Egypt’s greatest, most powerful leader as well as the man who commissioned the Sphinx in his own likeness that is now Penn museum’s most cherished artifact.