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Soldier Emperor:
Napoleon and the Sphinx

I’m pretty sure the first time I became aware that Napoleon had gone to Egypt was in elementary school, when we saw a film strip about Egypt. It showed Egyptian temples, and mummies, and the pyramids, and the Sphinx. As was the method of filmstrips of that era, a scratchy soundtrack went along with it, sounding a “beep” every time our bored teacher was supposed to awaken from her stupor and move to the next picture.


The Great Sphinx has no nose.

The Sphinx has no nose, and this is because, the filmstrip’s Voice of God informed us, soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte shot it off during target practice. Now even at age 8 or whatever, that struck me as kind of odd. There weren’t any other cannonball holes in the picture of the Sphinx, so it had to be a hell of a shot. It left an impression, a memorable event in itself as I recall little else I learned there. I was deeply impressed that Napoleon had gone to Egypt and wished to know more. I read all I could about this incident, from authors as diverse as Hibbert and al-Jabarti.

The nose legend continues in this century. In a piece in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from March 2000, reporter Tim Ryan bashes Hollywood for distorting Egyptian culture and history in movies. And then blithely reports, “Napoleon's soldiers once used the Sphinx's nose for target practice.” Some Egyptian government Web sites still repeat the libel. Napoleon Bonaparte certainly committed many crimes, but desecrating the Great Sphinx is not one of them.

Bonaparte’s men studied the great statue, found on the plain of Giza with the famous pyramids. But Bonaparte brought with him a whole gaggle of French savants, who studied all things Egyptian as part of Europe’s dawning fascination with Orientalism. Harming a cultural treasure did not match French practice in Egypt; that, they left to later British occupiers who merrily fed their fires with mummified humans and sacred cats.


Frederick Norton’s 1737 drawing
(published 1755) shows the Sphinx sans nose.

By the time the French arrived in 1798, the grand statue’s nose had been missing for some time. Drawings published in 1755 show the nose missing.

It appears to have been the work of Sufi Muslim fanatic Mohammed Sa'im al-Dahr in 1378. Sa’im al-Dahr attacked the Sphinx with a crowbar, apparently in a solo effort. He became upset when the Egyptian peasantry were found to be praying to the Sphinx as a god, called Abul-Hol. Abul-Hol, they hoped, would improve their crops, threatened by the spreading desert sands, and so they burned offerings before him. Sa’im al-Dahr smashed some of the blocks of its ears and managed to pry loose the nose.

The vandalism enraged Egyptian peasants living near the Great Sphinx, who already were gathering some tourist income from curious visitors and did not want their crops to whither from disrespect to this potent image. They lynched the deranged holy man and buried him in front of the statue, apparently as an offering to Abul-Hol. Nevertheless, chroniclers report that the attack was followed by several years of crop failures, and that the desert sands indeed continued to invade the Gizans’ fields.


The Great Sphinx today.

The Sphinx was not nearly as impressive in 1798 as it is today; the bulk of the beast had been covered by years of blowing sand and only the head stood clearly above ground level. The sand would not be totally cleared away until 1905, although evidence suggests this cleaning had been performed multiple times in the past.

Unlike the pyramids, most of the Great Sphinx is carved from the living rock; only some parts are of imported stone and it’s unclear today how much of this was original or the result of later repairs. And unlike other sphinx statues — set in pairs as guardians — the Great Sphinx stands alone.

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