Dreams of Empire:
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 that I learned there (I also remember that one day a year, the day when the federal inspectors came to check out the lunchroom, the fried chicken was actual meat and not a reprocessed pink goo made of animal parts and molded into chicken-like shapes). I was deeply
impressed that Napoleon had gone to Egypt, even moreso than on Real Fried Chicken Day, 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’
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
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.