The Sphinx – the world’s most accomplished witness to history

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Ray Hahn

The Sphinx

the world’s most accomplished witness to history

In the parlance of recorded history, the phrase “Witness Tree” is frequently found in after-battle accounts and descriptions of historic or often extraordinary events that occurred at a given site. A favorite use of the phrase comes from times when the signing of a treaty, pact, or agreement is done under the oldest elm tree in a village square. The “Witness Tree” is often spoken of and or written about as if it had the capability to see and understand what happened in its presence and could remain in place for decades or even centuries to recount such tales.

Trees help paint vivid mind-pictures for history students who learn best by associating people with events. However the dilemma widens when history draws from several eons of events and exceeds the life-span of historic flora, even when they reach ages beyond normal. To what do we turn when we seek “witnesses” to events several hundred or even thousands of years ago?

Let’s consider the Sphinx of ancient Egypt.

Selim Hassan was an Egyptian Egyptologist. He was born in April 1886, studied in his own country to become a teacher and in 1912 he earned his teacher’s certification. In 1921 he left teaching to take an appointment at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as an assistant keeper. He stayed only two years and moved on to further studies in Paris. In 1935 Hassan received a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. The following year he became the first native born Egyptian to receive an appointment as Professor of Egyptology at the University of Cairo.

In the decades that followed Hassan continued his study of ancient Egyptian history through government sponsored projects, endowed excavations, university grants, and commercial endeavors. His primary accomplishment was his authorship of the 16-volume Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt and his supervision of more than twenty ancient tomb excavations under the auspices of the Cairo University.

In 1949 he wrote that if he took everything he knew into consideration, he would give credit of erecting the Sphinx, the world’s most wonderful statue, to Khafre, but always with this reservation: that there is not one single contemporary inscription which connects the Sphinx with Khafre, so sound as it may appear, we must treat the evidence as circumstantial, until such time as a lucky turn of an excavator’s spade will reveal to the world a finite reference to the Sphinx.

I recount the credentials of Professor Hassan, for if a man of his scholastic calibre thinks it was Khafre who was responsible or at least was the inspiration for building the Sphinx, who would dare to argue?

Khafre was none other than a king (pharaoh) of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. Very little is known of Khafre except from the musings that were completed nearly two thousand years after his death by Herodotus. Of the three pyramids at Giza, the second largest is that of Khafre.

So the Sphinx is not a witness tree but it has witnessed events from its home in Egypt near the Nile River for 4,500 years; the kingdom of Egypt itself is only 700 years older.

These undivided back postcards are probably of French manufacture, a conjecture made only because the CARTE POSTALE. Three of the sixteen cards are dated by the sender on the 24th of July 1902, and mailed in Lyon, France.

The stretch of the imagination comes when the artist expects his viewer to think that every memorable event paraded passed the Sphinx on its way to the history books. Some of such would have been the coronation of a pharaoh (if that is the proper term for that era) and the Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Then the Virgin Mary on her way to Bethlehem, and the invading armies of the Romans, those carrying crosses (Crusaders), the French following Napoleon, the English, and finally it must have been expected that when time would end, the sands of the Sahara would blow into dunes along the banks of the Nile. Only then, would the Sphinx be no more.

Five of the cards, with titles translated to English

The Sphinx watching the Exodus
The Sphinx Salutes the Crusaders
The Sphinx Greets Napoleon
The Sphinx Welcomes the English to Giza
After millennia,
the Sphinx ends only when the World Ends

Aside: At a 1959 international conference called to re-examine the research methods being used at Egyptian excavations, Professor Selim Hassan was asked how close he imagined he may be to discovering the “Secret of the Sphinx” now that he had carbon-14 dating available to the research teams he supervised. [The C-14 dating process was first used in Chicago in 1946.]

Throughout the event, Hassan welcomed every scientific advancement made available to him, especially the prospect of on-site carbon dating that would be field tested in the upcoming months. Then he surprised those who gathered for his keynote address by saying, some say with a twinkle in his eye, that the secret of the Sphinx would never be solved. Mankind will be lost to history before the Sphinx can fulfill its destiny, which is to puzzle and bewilder the greatest minds of mankind for all time.

Hassan died less than two years later.

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Ray, I LOVED this post!
Postcards have been important in my life also. I’ve written three books on postcards of Guinea, Indonesia, and El Salvador.

The pyramid of Khefre is smaller than the one honoring Khufu (Cheops), but larger than the one dedicated to Menkaure.

I’m feeling a bit sheltered today. I never heard of the WORM EATING SONG nor the phrase WITNESS TREE. I’ve heard of the Liberty Tree & various old stately oaks being around when historic events took place. I understand the concept, it’s like being a fly on a wall to witness something. This time it’s a scorpion in desert called the Sphinx. 😮🤞🏻😊

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