Sphinx of Amenemhat III
The granite sphinx of Amenemhat III was discovered at Tanis (today San al-Haggar). It shows Amenemhat III with a human face and a lion’s body, in other words, a perfect creature, as intelligent as a human being yet as strong as a lion.
Seven sphinxes of Amenemhat III were found in Tanis in the eastern Delta. They were thus called the Tanite sphinxes. They evoke the superhuman power of the king and emphasize his fearful appearance.
The vigorous face of the king is characterized by his prominent cheekbones, protuberant mouth and deeply furrowed cheeks, which create an effect of strength. Instead of the traditional nemes headdress, his face is framed by a massive lion’s mane that increases the sense of his majesty.
This original sculpture from the reign of Amenemhat III represents two male figures making abundant offerings of fish, birds and aquatic plants. The double figure of the king includes two elements that bring to mind primordial deities: the heavy wig divided into large braids and the wide beard marked by parallel lines. Despite being damaged, the two faces are clearly portraits of Amenemhat III who emanates a sense of austere aggressiveness.
The bodies of the two bearers are an extraordinary example of modeling, with their powerful build visible even through their clinging, finely pleated skirts. The attempt at absolute symmetry forms a stylistic novelty never seen in prior sculptures of male figures. The two figures are shown in perfect balance with one of them advancing with the right leg rather than the left as was the custom.
The heavy tribute of gifts brings the balance of the composition forward and makes the two porters bend towards the massive block of granite historiated with elegant representations of river flora and fauna that allow us to identify the two figures with the Nile god, Hapi.
The river of Egypt, the bringer of nourishment and life, is portrayed with the semblances of Amenemhat III in an allegorical composition that associates the king with the concepts of fertility and abundance. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the front and back of the sculpture were added by Psusennes I, a king of the 21 Dynasty whose cartouches are also to be seen, when he had the sculpture taken to Tanis, the new capital and burial place of several kings from his epoch.
The statues rest on a tall and solid base decorated with cartouches of several kings such as the Hyksos king Nehsey, Hatshepsut, Ramesses II, Merneptah and Psusennes I, who all, over the centuries, usurped the group of sphinxes, fascinated by their idea. Egyptologists had mistakenly called them “the Hyksos sphinxes” because of their strange visage and the different names of the usurpers containing a Hyksos ruler too.
Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat III, ca. 1860-1814 BC. Gray granite, from Tanis. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 15210; CG 394 – JE15210b-CG394