The Roman Remains at the Great Sphinx of Giza

There are relatively few sources that detail the Roman remains at the Great Sphinx because the majority of excavations that revealed Roman remains close to the Great Sphinx have never been properly and fully published. Not only that, many of the Roman remains that have been uncovered have now disappeared - the Sphinx and its surroundings as we see it today has largely been stripped of the millennia of history and archaeology surrounding it, leaving mainly the Old Kingdom remains considered to be contemporary with its creation. Yet, despite these limitations it is still possible to understand the nature of the Roman era structures to some extent.

The first discovery of Roman remains around the Sphinx belongs to Caviglia who excavated the front of the Great Sphinx in 1817. During the course of his excavations he uncovered a wide Roman stairway descending from the east to a section of Roman paving leading to the feet of the Great Sphinx. While no detailed archaeological report was made of the excavations, fortunately Henry Salt made basic plans and illustrations of the excavations along with providing a basic narrative of the excavations discoveries.

The plan by Henry Salt of the Roman era staircase leading from the east down to the feet of the Great Sphinx. It illustrates two flights of stairs with a platform between them.

There also exists a simple plan of the excavations attributed to a Dr. Ricci and first published many years later in 1860 (see The museum of classical antiquities : being a series of essays on ancient art (1860) by Falkener, Edward, Wood, J. E; Davies, Benjamin Rees).

Image Details: The museum of classical antiquities : being a series of essays on ancient art (1860) by Falkener, Edward, Wood, J. E; Davies, Benjamin Rees

The plan by Dr. Ricci illustrating the extent of Caviglia's excavations in 1817. It shows the general layout of the Roman staircase to the east of the Sphinx (which is shown above the Sphinx in the illustration)

Vyse's record of Caviglia's excavations published in 1842 (based on Henry Salt's notes) has this to say about the Roman remains:

"by extending the operations in front of the statue...the steps were discovered. They were bounded on each side by walls formed of sunburnt brick, like those, which enclosed the ancient cities, and temples of Egypt. The inner sides of the walls, nearest the steps, were lined with stone, and were coated with plaster; the stonework, however, appeared comparatively modern, for upon several of the blocks were the remains of Greek inscriptions, which alluded to other buildings and another of the inscriptions, recorded repairs, which were performed by the orders of Antoninus, and of Verus. The walls appeared to branch off towards the north, and also towards the south, and to form a large enclosure around the Sphinx; but their direction was not ascertained. The steps, about a foot in breadth, and eight inches in height, were thirty in number. They ended abruptly on the northern side, so as to leave a passage between them and the wall. This passage was not examined.

On a stone platform, at the top of the steps, was a small building which, from its construction, and from various inscriptions found near it, seemed to have been a Station whence the emperors, and other persons of distinction, who visited the Pyramids, could witness the religious ceremonies performed at the altar below. An inscription on the front of it was much worn.

Another inscription on a stele was was erected in the time of the Emperor Nero and bestows on him the epithet agathos daimon, which is also found on his coins, with the figure of a crowned serpent, the true symbol of that title. Dr. Young has indeed stated that agathos daimon was often represented in Egyptian mythology by a winged globe; but wings were the emblems of Ptha, and a globe of Phrw, and together with the crowned snake, they formed the symbol of the great god.

The platform above the steps was of narrower dimensions, and the abutments had a theatrical appearance. In a few days another flight of thirteen steps was discovered, and another small building which resembled that [previously discovered]; it appeared, by the inscription, to have been erected under the Emperor Septimius Severus ; and the name of Geta is erased from the inscription, in the same manner, as it has been taken from the inscription upon the triumphal arch at Rome. At this place another inscription on a stele, erected in the reigns of Marcus Antoninus, and of Lucius Verus, was found ; it was sent to the British Museum, and it recorded that the walls were restored on the 15th of Pachon (the 10th of May), in the sixth year of the reign of the Emperors Antoninus, and Verus. At the top of the second flight of steps a platform is carried on with a gradual ascent to the length of 135 feet, bounded by a wall on the southern side till it arrives nearly at the level of the ground, when the rock rapidly descends towards the Nile, whether, or not, in the form of steps was not discovered. It is difficult to convey, even by drawings, a distinct idea of this approach to the Sphinx. It was impossible, however, to conceive any thing more imposing than the general effect ; or better calculated to set off to advantage the grandeur of the enormous monument, particularly in the evening, when the sun was setting behind It. Mr. Salt observes, "That the spectator advanced on a level with the breast, and thereby witnessed the full effect of that admirable expression of countenance, which characterises the features, whilst, as he descended the successive flights of stairs, the stupendous image rose before him, whilst his view was confined, by the walls on either side, to the interesting object, for the contemplation of which, even when he had reached the bottom of the steps, a sufficient space was allowed for him to comprehend the whole at a single glance.""

An illustration by Henry Salt showing the excavation of the Roman staircase in 1817. The view is from roughly the southern shoulder of the Great Sphinx.

The Roman period inscriptions and graffiti uncovered by Caviglia were almost exclusively written in Greek. Many of these inscriptions are now lost, however some fairly detailed records of these inscriptions were made at the time (see in particular Recueil des inscriptions grecques et latines de l'Égypte (1842) by Antoine Jean Letronne , also Observations relating to some of the Antiquities of Egypt, from the Papers of the late Mr. Davison. Published in Walpole's Memoirs. 1817. from the London Quarterly Review (1818) Vol. XIX, as well as Henry Salt's illustrations in Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837 With an Account of a Voyage Into Upper Egypt and an Appendix Vol.3 (1842) by Richard William Howard Vyse).

Illustrations of some of the inscriptions and their English translations are included in an appendix.

Some of the graffiti recorded during Caviglia's excavations of the Great Sphinx in 1817.

Following Caviglia's excavations, the Roman stairway and much of the Sphinx was re-submerged in sand. It was not until the 1920s that the staircase was re-excavated during excavation and restoration work by Émile Baraize between 1925 -1936. Once again, no detailed archaeological report of his findings was made, however an archive of photographs was created now referred to as the Archives Lacau. The archive is maintained by the Centre Wladimir Golenischeff in Paris, France. Parts of the photographic record have only recently become accessible online via the online records of the ARCE Sphinx Project. I have sifted through the photographs to find those that specifically record the Roman remains around the Great Sphinx as they were revealed at that time and presented them in an appendix along with other related images.

One of the great tragedies of Baraize's works was that the Roman staircase and its related structures were almost completely removed when it was discovered that New Kingdom period buildings and an Old Kingdom temple (the so-called "Sphinx Temple") lay beneath them (see Appendix 2). Consequently the photographic record made in the 1920-30s, and the reports related to Caviglia's excavations, are the two primary sources extant of the Greek and Roman remains at the Great Sphinx.

Selim Hassan re-excavated the area around the Great Sphinx in 1936-37 (see Excavations at Gîza VIII. 1936–1937. The Great Sphinx and its Secrets. Historical Studies in the Light of Recent Excavations. (1953) Hassan, Selim. )

He summarised his view on the Roman activity at the Sphinx in this way:

"In Greco-Roman times the Sphinx and its neighbouring monument had become a veritable tourist centre, very similar to what it is to-day. with only a very thin veneer of religious sentiment as the motive for making the visit. These monuments had truly come to be regarded as antiquities, and indeed, there is a greater number of years separating the age of the Pyramid Builders from the Greco-Roman Period, than there are between the Greco-Roman Period and our present day.

Under Roman domination, the Sphinx enjoyed a wide popularity, being visited by some of the Roman Emperors, who made these visits partly out of curiosity, and partly from their desire to present themselves to the Egyptians as carrying on the Pharaonic traditions (for political reasons). The Roman Emperors who were represented on the monuments in the traditional attitudes, wearing the traditional garb of the Pharaohs, and addressed by the traditional titulary, must also pay their homage to the Sphinx in the traditional manner.

...Many of the visitors of this period, royal or otherwise, left records of their presence at the Sphinx, in the form of either monuments, stelae, or graffiti, and also dedicated many votive figures, lions again coming into prominence, for this purpose, though sphinxes and hawks also appear.

Specifically he noted that the Romans had made repairs to the stone cladding of the Great Sphinx and its surroundings saying:

The monuments tell us that much work was carried out around the Sphinx during the Greco-Roman Period, not all of which was in the best of taste. As before mentioned, the ugly outer casing of the statue has been attributed to this period, but in justice it must be said that there does not seem to be any reason to blame the Ptolemaic architects for this, as it is probably Roman work. Under Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) and Septimus Severus (A.D. 193 -211), the pavement of the Sphinx Court was restored; while under Antoninus (A.D. 138-161) and Verus (A.D. 130-169), the retaining walls had been reinforced. These facts are known to us from inscriptions found in the immediate neighbourhood of the Sphinx. During this period the Sphinx enjoyed a vogue as a popular place of pilgrimage, which probably continued until the break-up of the ancient faith. Thereafter, we hear little of the statue, which remained buried up to its neck in the sand until recent times.

He also recorded that the Romans appeared to have cut into the upper level of the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple to facilitate the construction of the Roman stairway:

On the western side of the western wall of the court [of the Sphinx Temple] are some shallow, irregular steps cut in the masonry, and descending into the Sphinx Court, As these steps are very shallow and roughly cut, and have no connection with the interior of the temple, we may suppose that they were the foundations of the staircase which, in the Greco-Roman times, was erected over the buried temple. The architects probably cut these foundations in the wall in the belief that it was the natural rock, such is the enormous size of the blocks used, and never suspected the presence of the huge temple lying buried under their feet...

In addition he recorded the discovery of some Roman period cremation burials close to the wall of the new kingdom temple of Amenhotep II that he excavated to the northeast of the Great Sphinx:

While we were tracing the rear walls of Rooms Nos. 3 and 4 [of the temple of Amenhotep II], we found lying to their west, a number of large jars, covered with mud, and still retaining their original fillings, which proved to be cremated human remains. These jars date from the Roman Period and may represent a family burial. They are eloquent testimony of the sanctity in which the neighbourhood of the Sphinx was held, even by people who did not follow the ancient religion...

Roman period remains have also been uncovered more recently.

In his PhD thesis on the Great Sphinx (Archaeology of an Image (1994)), Mark Lehner mentions that in 1978 Zahi Hawass excavated an area to the northeast of the Great Sphinx beyond the modern road that now cuts through the original quarry of the Great Sphinx. The excavations uncovered Roman remains as well as an Old Kingdom tomb that had been reused in Roman Times. Sadly once again, as far as I am aware, these findings have never been properly published.

Finally, between 1979-83 The ARCE Sphinx Project made detailed records of the Great Sphinx and its surroundings. Among there records are photographs and plans of the few remaining traces of the Roman structures first uncovered by Caviglia and Baraize. These include the Roman period paving that had once led from the paws of the Great Sphinx to the base of the wide Roman stairway and the lower part of a narrow Roman staircase that once adjoined the wider Roman stairway to the north. Lehner also recorded Roman repairs to the stone cladding of the Great Sphinx in a detailed analysis of the many phases of repair to the Sphinx over the millennia.

The Roman period pavement photographed by Mark Lehner in 1979.

Image Details: Mark Lehner. "Black and White Photo 01990 from Egypt/Giza/Sphinx Amphitheater/Sphinx Ditch/Sphinx East/Roman Pavement". (2017) In ARCE Sphinx Project 1979-1983 Archive. Mark Lehner, Megan Flowers, Rebekah Miracle (Eds.) . Released: 2017-12-23. Licensed under CC by 4.0

  • Click here to go to Appendix 1 (Images of the Roman Remains at the Great Sphinx of Giza)

  • Click here to go to Appendix 2 (Images of the New Kingdom and Old Kingdom Remains uncovered by Baraize below the Roman Remains at the Great Sphinx)

  • Click here to go to Appendix 3 (Images and Translations of some of the Greco-Roman Inscriptions uncovered at the Great Sphinx)

Title Image Details: Archives Lacau, Centre Golenischeff, EPHE, PSL. "Black and White Photo 02377 from Egypt/Giza/Unspecified Sphinx Area 7". (2017) In ARCE Sphinx Project 1979-1983 Archive. Mark Lehner, Megan Flowers, Rebekah Miracle (Eds.) . Released: 2017-12-23. Licensed under CC by 4.0