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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:3, Summer 2020

Strata: Sphinxes on the Move?

Controversy has recently arisen about moving four sphinxes from their find spot in Luxor (ancient Thebes) to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Archaeologists and heritage experts argue that using the statues to decorate a traffic circle in the congested heart of the Egyptian capital is unlawful and may inadvertently damage the monuments. Not only is Tahrir Square one of the busiest places in the country—it was the epicenter of the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and is the location of the Egyptian Museum—but Cairo also suffers from extreme air pollution and high humidity.

The sandstone statues are currently in the first courtyard of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak. They have the body of a lion and the head of a horned ram, the sacred animal of the Theban principal deity—Amun-Re, who symbolically protects the pharaoh by holding a small pharaoh figure between his paws. The sphinxes were erected by Pharaoh Ramesses II (13th century B.C.E.) as part of the original processional avenue leading up to the Karnak temple.

At the wake of much resentment, Egyptian President El-Sisi weighed in to say that other iconic Egyptian monuments were installed in Western cities during the colonial era (e.g., the obelisks in Paris and New York City). The critics reject this anachronistic argument and warn that the move would violate the World Heritage Convention, which prohibits moving monuments except where the safeguarding of that monument demands it or where it is justified by national or international interest of paramount importance.

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