The tunnels and chambers of the Great Sphinx of Giza Part 1 - ORIGINS

In the last couple of years, there has been an intensification of interest in the possibility of undiscovered tunnels and chambers in or under the Great Sphinx of Giza.*

An internet search for "tunnels and chambers of the Sphinx" will usually result in finding an image something like the one shown here, showing the conjectured location of tunnels and rooms within the head and body of the Great Sphinx. For now, at least, elaborate chambers and tunnels such as these have to remain in the realm of fantasy. But that is not to say that there are no chambers and tunnels associated with the Great Sphinx of Giza - because there are.

A speculative reconstruction of chambers and tunnels found within the Great Sphinx of Giza based on a photograph by Francis Frith from 1858 held in the Getty Museum.

Stories about tunnels and chambers within and under the Sphinx have a long pedigree.

An account of the Great Sphinx of Giza dating from the 17th century CE reveals some bizarre details of how the Great Sphinx was understood before modern excavation. In his book published in 1674, Georg Christoff Von Neitzschitz reported that:

"In this huge head would have lived, not many years before, an oracle, or divine diabolical spirit, who would reside apparently inside the a deep and dark hole through which one would have to pass with much care during the ascent and descent. Then it would return underground into that head, from where would be given counsel and instructions to the pagans on the subjects of which they enquired....** (Sieben-jährige und gefährliche neu-verbesserte Europae, Asiatica und Africanische welt beschreibung (1674)).

As incredible as this account may seem to many of us now, it is possible in retrospect to reconstruct the process by which various strands of apparent evidence were gradually woven into this fantastic tale. We can trace how fragmented details about the Great Sphinx were drip-fed into the popular imagination of early-modern European readers, far removed from the monument and its historical and geographical context. And how, over time, these little tantalising snippets of information from various sources and reports were connected to form a logical, yet ultimately distorted and exaggerated, understanding of the monument and its original function.

But to fully grasp the origins of this wondrous tale, we need to go back to the very beginning.

A Subterranean Structure?

There are no direct references to tunnels or chambers within or under the Sphinx in the Egyptian hieroglyphic texts that have been discovered and translated so far. The Dream Stela of Thutmose IV, found by Giovanni Battista Caviglia at the base of the Great Sphinx's chest in 1817, makes no references to tunnels or chambers.

However, the stela does show the Sphinx sitting on a hieroglyphic representation of a structure with a doorway. This style of depiction of the Great Sphinx was prevalent during the 18th dynasty of Egypt around 1500BCE.

The Dream Stela of Thutmose IV illustrated by Karl Richard Lepsius.

Image Details: General Research Division, The New York Public Library.. Neues Reich. Dynastie XVIII. Pyramiden von Giseh [Jîzah]. (1849 - 1856) Stele vor dem grossen Sphinx.

Detail from the dream stela of Thutmose IV depicted by Karl Richard Lepsius showing the Sphinx resting on a structure with a doorway.

Image Details: General Research Division, The New York Public Library.. Neues Reich. Dynastie XVIII. Pyramiden von Giseh [Jîzah]. (1849 - 1856) Stele vor dem grossen Sphinx.

The Hieroglyphs O33 (on the left) representing a palace or tomb facade and the hieroglyph 021 (on the right) signifying a temple or shrine

It is tempting to interpret the hieroglyphic depiction of the Sphinx on the Dream Stela literally, suggesting the possibility that the Sphinx sits directly on top of an underground structure.

The structure illustrated on the stela integrates aspects of the hieroglyph O33 representing a palace or tomb facade, and O21 meaning a shrine or temple to form a combined hieroglyph upon which the Sphinx rests.

The connection with a tomb facade resonates with two other interesting historical and archaeological facts.

First, the granite sarcophagus of Menkaure found inside Giza's 3rd and smallest pyramid replicates this style of representation of a palace or tomb facade.

The Granite Sarcophagus found within the 3rd pyramid attributed to Menkaure illustrated in Operations carried on at the pyramids of Gizeh in 1837: with an account of a voyage into Upper Egypt, and an appendix (1840) by Howard Vyse

Second, Pliny the Elder's account of the Great Sphinx dating to the 1st century CE states:

"[the inhabitants of the region] are of the opinion that a King Harmais is buried inside it...." (Pliny Natural History Book 36, Chapter 17. )

Combined, the evidence suggests the alluring possibility that the Sphinx contained a burial below it in a secret underground chamber.

However, subsequent accounts of the Great Sphinx dating to more than a millennium later make no reference to a tomb within or under the Sphinx as suggested by Pliny. Arabic historians such as Abd Al-Latif writing in the early 13th century, Al Maqrizi writing in the early 15th century, and the earliest European visitors, who started publishing their observations in travelogues at the end of the 15th century, simply do not refer to it.

The Idol of Isis

As strange as it may seem to us now, the earliest European visitors do not seem to have connected the statue of the Great Sphinx, of which the head and neck only were visible above the sand, with Pliny's account of the Great Sphinx. Instead, they often refer to the solitary colossal head they observed at Giza as the Idol of Isis.

The Sphinx represented as an Idol of Isis from Kurtzer und warhafftiger Bericht von der Reiss aus Venedig nach Hierusalem (1582) by Johannes Helfrich, Johannes

The Sphinx represented as a feminine head from Les voyages et obseruations du Sieur de La Boullaye-Le-Gouz, gentil-homme angeuin (1653) by François La Boullaye-Le-Gouz

Pierre Belon Du Mans writing in the 1550s, following his visit to Giza in 1547, seems to be the first European visitor to connect the monolithic head emerging from the sands of the Giza plateau with Pliny's account. He identified it as the Sphinx or Androsphinx mentioned in classical literature. Yet still, he did not refer to the burial mentioned by Pliny. André Thevet, visiting a few years later in 1552, seems to be the first to repeat Pliny's speculation of a tomb within the Great Sphinx.

Yet, many 16th-century writers continued to be unaware that the colossal head had a body buried beneath the sand. Thevet reported, "There are no wings, no body...that I know of..."** This confusion is reflected in the many illustrations of the Great Sphinx that continued to represent it simply as a colossal head.

The head of the Great Sphinx depicted as a male Greco-Roman bust in André Thevet's Cosmographie de Levant, (1556)

The Great Sphinx as an Oracle

In addition to the misconception that the Sphinx was merely a monumental carving of a head much like a Greco-Roman bust, the earliest European visitors also recorded a tradition that the monument was an oracle that uttered prophecies. Joos Van Ghistelle, who visited the monument c. 1482-8, reported, "In the vicinity people recount that this head had the habit of speaking..."**

These details became generally accepted as facts about the Great Sphinx and were blended, collated and dramatically expanded when a new element was added to the narrative after 1565.

In that year, two European visitors would make some new but similar observations. Johann Helfricch, whose account of his travels was published 14 years later in 1579, noted:

"The image is entirely hollow on the inside, and one can enter it underground from a distance by means of a narrow passage made of stone, through which one can pass secretly. By means of this passage, the heathen priests entered the head and spoke to the people, making announcements by the babbling of the head, or else the effigy did this by its own means..."**

Christopher Fuerer Von Haimendorff, whose travelogue was published posthumously in 1646 (although relating to a voyage he also made in 1565), recorded:

"It has on its right side in its flank a quadrangular hole through which, as we were informed, in olden days one could go inside and could ascend into the head. Inside there the priests spoke, which the Egyptians took for oracles. Nowadays, this hole is mostly collapsed and filled with sand by the wind..."**

In retrospect, it would appear that both of these travellers were indirectly reporting the discovery of the natural limestone fissure located towards the rear of the Sphinx. Whether or not there had been unrecorded explorations of the Sphinx in the years preceding 1565 is unknown. A portion of the back was possibly exposed by the shifting sands of the desert, revealing the weathered limestone joint.

The natural limestone fissure that cuts across the Great Sphinx from North to South was photographed during excavations of the Great Sphinx by Emile Baraize in the 1920-30s.

Image Details: Archives Lacau, Centre Golenischeff, EPHE, PSL. "Black and White Photo 02496 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

The hole towards the rear of the Great Sphinx can be seen in this photograph from c.1925. The post in the sandbank in the foreground marks the location of the fissure.

Image Details: Archives Lacau, Centre Golenischeff, EPHE, PSL. "Black and White Photo 02437 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

In a wonderful example of circular logic, both Helfrich and Haimendorff interpreted this wide vertical fissure as a tunnel entrance that allowed ancient priests to enter the monument to utter oracles - which meant in turn that the head had to be hollow.

And, if the head was hollow, it also meant that it could accommodate the burial of King Harmais. So Christopher Harant, at the end of the 16th century, concluded: "According to Pliny, this head had been the tomb of King Amasis [Harmais], whose body was found in the interior..." **(1598)

Tunnels joining the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx

In the late 16th and 17th centuries, new discoveries lead to even further embellishments to the evolving mythology of the Great Sphinx.

Prosper Alpin, in his Historia Aegypti Naturalis (Natural History of Egypt, Vol 1 Chapter VI p28-34), related his exploration inside the Great Pyramid in the 1580s :

"we found two square leading to the stone Sphinx and the other to the second pyramid, the one which has no way of entering. We would have got through to these monuments if we had not found the passages obstructed by stones that had fallen and if we had not believed that there were similar subsidences ahead."**

Why Prosper Alpin thought the unexplored passages would terminate outside the pyramid is unclear. Perhaps he was conflating the existence of the internal passageways in the Great Pyramid, the recent reports of tunnels at the Great Sphinx, and a vague understanding of the causeways that really did run from the pyramids to the lower valley temples, one of which (that of Khafre's pyramid) was immediately adjacent to the Great Sphinx.

In support of this latter possibility, there is a later account by Jean de Thevenot in his book "The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant" (1687) in which he states:

"there is a hole at the end of the pretended Temple of the second Pyramide, by which (some think) there was a way down within the temple to go to the Idol....they entered it by the Hole, which (as I said) is in the pretended Temple of the second Pyramide, or rather by another which is at the side of that Idol and very near it. These two Holes are very narrow, and almost choaked up with sand, wherefore we entred not into them, not knowing besides, but that we might meet with Vipers, or other Venemous Beasts in them."

Thevenot's account is confusing, but it seems likely that both Thevenot and Prosper Alpin had a general awareness of the causeways linking the pyramids and valley temples. They then conflated this new evidence with the notion, established around 1565, that there were tunnels leading into the Great Sphinx.

Whatever the specific explanation is, by the end of the 17th century, it had been established in the popular imagination that tunnels lead to the hollow head of the Great Sphinx and that these tunnels originated in the Great Pyramid.

A plan of the Giza plateau by Frederik Louis Norden. It is possibly the first illustration of the causeways running from the pyramid temples to the valley temples at Giza.

Published in The Antiquities, Natural History, Ruins and other Curiosities of Egypt, Nubia and Thebes (1780). The original image can be seen in the digital collections of the New York Public Library at this link. The picture was prepared by Norden during his travels in 1737–38 and initially published posthumously in 1755.

Thevenot also recounts another new element of the tale that was added in the 17th century - a hole in the head of the Great Sphinx:

"It may be said, perhaps, that the Voice [of the oracle in the Sphinx] was uttered by the Crown of the Head, where there is a Hole, into which we endeavoured to have cast some Hooks fastened to Ropes, that I had brought purposely with me, that we might get up, but we could not compass that, because of the height of it; only when we threw up Stones, they rested there. And a Venetian assured me, that he and some others, having got up by means of little Hooks and a Pole, which they brought with them; they found a Hole in the Crown of the Head of it, and having entered therein perceived that it drew narrower and narrower proportionably, as it approached the Breast where it ended. The voice of him that entred then, by the abovementioned Holes, did not come out that way, and therefore it must be concluded, that if any entered it, it must have been by a Ladder in the Nighttime, and that he put himself into the hole that is in the head, out of which the Voice came."

Henry Blunt, who visited the monument a few decades before Thevenot, was also aware of this new discovery but was of another opinion:

"The Egyptians and the Jews who were with us told us that in olden times it had once rendered oracles, and also that it was hollow on top. They had seen several people go in there and come out again at the Pyramid."**

The cavity on top of the head of the Great Sphinx photographed c.1930

Archives Lacau, Centre Golenischeff, EPHE, PSL. "Color Photo 004094 from Egypt/Giza/Unspecified Sphinx Area 2". (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

The cavity on top of the head of the Great Sphinx photographed c.1930

Archives Lacau, Centre Golenischeff, EPHE, PSL. "Black and White Photo 02472 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

So by the late 17th century, the consensus understanding of the Great Sphinx was that tunnels lead from the Great Pyramid to the Great Sphinx to allow priests to secretly enter the hollow head of the Sphinx to utter oracles. Alternatively, they could enter and exit the Great Sphinx via the recently discovered hole on the top of the head. Another visitor, F. Vansleb, was then able to conjecture that the (now redundant) fissure at the back of the Sphinx, rather than being the tunnel entrance presumed by Helfricch and Von Haimendorff, was, in fact, the burial place of Harmais/Amasis as originally recounted by Pliny. In The Present state of Egypt, or a New relation of a late voyage into that kingdom performed in the years 1672 and 1673 by F. Vansleb (English Translation 1678) Vansleb wrote:

We saw next the Sphinx...Pliny saith that it was the Tomb of King Amasis. I imagine that this Sphinx was a Sepulchre but we cannot understand that it belong'd to Amasis; for all the Records and Traditions of the Sphinx are lost.

That it is a Tomb may appear, First by its situation, which is in a place which was in former Ages a Burying-place; and near the Pyramides, and mortuary Caves. Secondly it is to be imagined that it was a Sepulchre from its building. In the hinder part is a Cave under ground, of a bigness answerable to that of the head, into which I have looked by an entrance that leads into it; so that it could serve to no other purpose but to keep a dead Corps [corpse]."

The story, originating in Pliny's account and the speculative reports of early European visitors, had finally crystallised into a seemingly coherent and logical tale that explained all the various pieces of evidence and lore known about the pyramids and the Great Sphinx at that time. And so it remained from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century.


*In 2019, Channel 5 broadcasted a documentary Egypt's Greatest Treasures hosted by Bettany Hughes that discussed the tunnels associated with the Great Sphinx. There have also been several newspaper reports discussing the matter:

as well as several Youtube videos discussing the issue such as:

**Quotes marked with a double asterisk are from the collection of English translations of early visitors accounts of the Great Sphinx provided by Robert and Olivia Temple in their book "The Sphinx Mystery" (2009). If you would like to read fuller English translations of the dozens of early accounts of the Great Sphinx, then I would highly recommend their book as an excellent resource.