Sphinx of Taharqa

Taharqa, also spelled Taharka or Taharqo (Egyptian: 饟嚳饟墧饟儹饟垘 t隃rwq, Akkadian: Tar-qu-煤, Hebrew: 转执旨专职讛指拽指讛, Modern: T墨rhaqa, Tiberian: T墨rh膩q膩, Manetho’s Tarakos, Strabo’s Tearco), was a Nubian king of the 25th Egyptian Dynasty rulers of the Kingdom of Kush, c.747鈥656 B.C.

The Sphinx of Taharqa is a granite gneiss statue of a sphinx with the face of Taharqa. He was a Nubian king, who was one of the 25th Egyptian Dynasty (about 747鈥656 BC) rulers of the Kingdom of Kush. It is now in the British Museum in London.

Sphinx of Taharqa
This granite sphinx of Taharqa, the Kushite ruler of Egypt, measures at 40.6cm in height and 73cm long.
British Museum. EA1770

While the Sphinx of Taharqa is significantly smaller (73 centimeters long) than the Great Sphinx of Giza (73 meters long), it is notable for its prominent Egyptian and Kushite elements. The lion portrayed in the sphinx is done in classic Egyptian style, while the face of the Sphinx is clearly that of Taharqa. The hieroglyphs on the statue explain that it is a portrait of the great King Taharqo, the fourth pharaoh to rule over the combined kingdoms of Kush and Ancient Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period. The sphinx is made of sandy grey granite.

Sphinx of Taharqa
British Museum. EA1770

The statue was excavated at Temple T, in the area east of the south-eastern part of the Temple of Amun at Kawa (now Gematon), in Nubia (now Sudan), during excavations there by the Archaeological Mission of the University of Oxford during the 1930s. Construction of the stone temple was started in 683 BC by Taharqa.

A curator at the British Museum, where this sphinx now resides, writes: Following the Egyptian withdrawal from Nubia at the end of the New Kingdom, a number of small political entities rapidly established themselves in the ensuing power vacuum. In the course of the three centuries after the Egyptians withdrew, these various small entities were gradually united into the second kingdom of Kush.
The second kingdom of Kush was very Egyptianized, acknowledging Amun as their principal deity, and using Egyptian modes of art and writing. In the eighth century BC they turned the tables on Egypt and acquired control of Upper Egypt, extending full control over the whole of the land at the beginning of the reign of Shabaka (c. 716-702 BC).

Kawa in Upper Nubia (Sudan), 100 km south of the third Nile Cataract, was the home of a local form of Amun, and was one of the sites at which the kings of the Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty constructed temples. One of their aims was apparently to ensure the prominence of this deity. This statue was found to the south of the central shrine of Temple T at Kawa, in a room at the western end of which was a raised dais, presumably for a throne, on which might have been placed a seated statue of Amun. No such statue survived, though this sphinx and parts of several others did.

Sphinxes represent the immense power of the Egyptian and Kushite king. While the body of this example is conventional, the head in particular looks back to the earlier sculptural forms of the Middle Kingdom, particularly noticeable in the careful depiction of the raised ruff of hair around the animal’s neck, which resembles those of the well-known sphinxes of king Amenemhat III from Tanis (Cairo, CG 393, 394). Compare also the now-modified mane of the sphinx of Amenemhat IV (registration no. 1928,0114.1). The features are characteristic of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, and might be a stylized portrait of king Taharqa (690-664 BC), whose name is incised between the forepaws. The double uraeus cobra on the brow is characteristic of the royal insignia of the kings of Kush. Also highly distinctive of the art of this period are the pronounced furrows flanking the nose.

Kawa was originally founded in the New Kingdom, perhaps even by Akhenaten, which may explain the source of the word aten in its Egyptian name, Gematen; the earliest buildings yet discovered date from Tutankhamun’s reign. The site rose to prominence during the Kushite period in the eighth century BC, and excavations have revealed the town and temples there. Temple T was constructed of sandstone blocks by Taharqa, starting in the sixth year of his reign; the building work took four years, and was undertaken by architects and builders brought all the way from Memphis in Egypt.


Granite (probably granite gneiss) sphinx of Taharqa, wearing a cap crown and double uraeus
Third Intermediate Period, 25th Dynasty, c. 680 B.C.
Excavated by: Prof Francis Llewellyn Griffith at Northern Dongola Reach, Kawa, modern Sudan.
Now at the British Museum. EA1770