STONY COLOSSUS: ‘Bonaparte before the Sphinx’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
PICTURE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
FRANCESCO M. GALASSI
The French neoclassical painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 - 1904) bequeathed us a beautifully
insightful painting depicting general Napoleon Bonaparte, proud on his horse, in the act of
contemplating the Great Sphinx of Giza. Characterised by a wisely appropriate mixture of cold and
warm colours, a subtly enigmatic game of shadows, an indefinite vagueness of the horizon behind
the stony colossus, as well as an astonishing contrast between the majestic fixity of the statue’s
facial traits and Napoleon’s proud appearance, the scene exhorts us to speculate on what thoughts
crossed the mind of the young warlord.
No doubt he certainly compared his triumphs and thirst for immortal glory to the deeds of the
Pharaohs of antiquity who made their name great by building such monuments. One may well think
that he, like many before and after his expedition, might have been puzzled by the questions:
“Whose face was modelled out of the Sphinx’s limestone?” and “Who does the Sphinx represent?”.
In this article, after briefly summarising the generally accepted hypothesis, particular emphasis will
be put on concisely reviewing two alternative interpretations and expressing our views on them and
providing the readership with a complete overview. In addition, it is essential to specify that the
boundaries of this review are merely those of a pathological and ethno-anthropological analysis.
Located at the Giza Plateau next to the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx is a chimeric monolith
monument of colossal dimensions. In strictly mythological terms a sphinx represents an
androsphinx, that is a monster consisting of the body of a lion and a human head.
While its name is accepted to stem from the Greek verb σφίγγω ( “I strangle” ), it cannot be ruled
out that it comes from the Egyptian shespankh, meaning “living image”. Despite having fewer
malevolent and more masculine attributes than its Greco-Oedipean counterpart, it still conveyed an
idea of untamed vigour, thereby winning the denomination of “The Terrifying One” in modern
After centuries of exposure to sand storms, erosion and human-inflicted mutilations, the statue has
inevitably been deteriorating since the days of its construction. In spite of lacking its nose, beard
and uraeus, its cranio-facial traits are still significantly in place and can be admired by travellers.
The vast majority of eminent scholars and Egyptologists are of the opinion that the face of the
Sphinx represents that of Pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558 – 2532 BC) of the 4th dinasty (Old Kingdom).
Khafra was the son of Khufu and is renowned for having built the second largest pyramid of Giza.
The fact that the leonine monument is situated in close proximity to the Giza pyramids, together
with a certain similarity to his face as it is sculpted in other statues, supports this theory.
Remembering the words of the great Egyptologist Selim Hassan, we have to take the evidence for
such a connection as “circumstancial” – the very location being essential to the identification - and
cannot be absolutely sure that the Sphinx’s face is Khafra’s.
In the absence of new evidence, as it happens in history and science, it is essential to rely on
generally accepted theories and use them as references, milestones in the study of history, avoiding,
as it were, to let oneself venture into fringe, pre-Adamitic or extraterrestrial “explanations”.
What is interesting, however, is to speculate on the physical appearance of the actual human model
the Sphinx’s face was sculpted after, without necessarily questioning the fact that Khafra is who the
ancient Egyptian onlooker should think of when staring at the statue.
We shall examine two theories: the first one is an old one which deals with the ethnicity of the
human model, while the second one suggests that the subject was suffering from leontiasis ossea.
The first theory finds its foundation in the fact that the face of the Sphinx shows an undeniable
mandibular prognathism, that is a protruding lower jaw. As Dr Ashrafian (whose study we shall
discuss later) points out, in medical terms the statue presents “a class III malocclusion”, according
to Edward H. Angle’s classification.
This “symmetrical prognathism”, also known as progenism or Habsburg jaw, has traditionally been
regarded as a typically Sub-Saharan anatomical trait by physical anthropologists, or negroid, if we
were to use old school human classification categories.
This interpretation belongs to what is referred to as “Ancient Egyptian Race Controversy” and the
theorisation of a notion of facial flatness and prognathism of black people originated in Europe with
the studies of the Dutch Anatomist Petrus Camper (1722 - 1789) who coined the term “facial angle”
and stated that black Africans were removed from the classical idea of orthognathic beauty as found
in Greek and Roman statues.
One of the first explorers we know to have noted this was Constantin François de Chassebœuf,
comte de Volney (1757 - 1820) who in his 1787 Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie writes “When I
visited the sphinx … on seeing the head, typically negro in all its features (cette tête caractérisée
nègre dans tous ses traits), I remembered that remarkable passage of Herodotus where he says …
they have black skin and wooly hair (ils ont la peau noire et les cheveux crépus)”.
In addition, as Gustave Flaubert wrote in 1849, it is probably true that “its missing nose increases
the flat, negroid effect”.
The age of slavery and colonial empires being now but a memory, these reports have seduced
scholars who maintain that the Ancient Egyptian popolation was originally purely or predominantly
black thereby proposing an “Afrocentric” perspective.
The idea of a black model for the sculpture may be found interesting and investigated, in particular
if one merely focuses on the actual person whose face inspired the sculptor.
On the contrary, if this theory is to be expanded on either in terms of outdated racial anthropology
or radical Afrocentric views, it must be underlined that the so-called black hypothesis for Ancient
Egypt has not met with much agreement since, as DNA and population studies have shown, the
Egyptian population consisted of various elements, therefore allowing the existence of much
An even more intriguing and relatively recent theory is the one proposed by Dr Hutan Ashrafian
(Imperial College London), who, in a very eruditely written 2005 article, maintains that the Sphinx
might well have represented a case of leontiasis ossea (or facies leonina), a symptom of other
diseases such Paget’s disease, fibrous dysplasia, renal osteodystrophy.
This condition is characterised by hypertrophy (excessive growth) of bony elements of the skull,
especially of the splanchnocranium (facial skeleton). This condition develops as a slow, diffuse and
progressive enlargement of facial bones which can eventually invade the orbits causing
exophthalmos - thus threatening the patient’s sight – and even interfere with nasal respiration and
food intake, as it distorts the face in a fashion that strikingly resembles the traits of a lion’s muzzle.
Furthermore, in the same paper Dr Ashrafian identifies the above-discussed prognathism as part of
McCune-Albright syndrome, a disease involving premature puberty, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia
and café-au-lait spots.
Such a revolutionary interpretation cannot be classified simply as one of those medical diagnoses
performed centuries after the death of the person in question as it adds many scientific and medical
elements to the debate on who (or by what diseases he was affected) the living source of inspiration
The Sphinx represents much more than a leonine human or the face of a pharaoh engraved on a
gigantic zoomorphic statue. In fact, it anatomically shows the spiritual importance of the link
joining humans and lions, which the Egyptians regarded as sacred animals connected with their
gods. It is the representation of a metamorphosis of animal and human natures into a divine being
destined to eternity.
What better and more realistic subject than a person suffering from leontiasis ossea?
In conclusion we are persuaded that Dr Ashrafian’s intuition should deserve to be investigated in
depth. While it might be complicated to find any evidence as to whether Khafra was suffering from
such medical conditions, examining the facts under this perspective is likely to shed more light on
the age-long riddle of the identity of the Sphinx of Giza, thus enabling also art historians and
archaeologists to connect their research with medical data and expanding this fascinating field of
research in a multi-disciplinary way.
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