Napoleon and the nose on the Sphinx

Every week on Twitter, somebody alleges that Napoleon Bonaparte shot the nose off the Sphinx – that enigmatic, ancient sculpture at Giza in Egypt. Some add that he did it to conceal the African roots of the pharaohs. There’s only one problem. It’s simply not true.

In fact, when Napoleon set about invading Egypt in 1798, he took a large team of scientists, engineers, and artists to record every scrap of ancient Egyptian history they encountered. His expedition against the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of the Middle East, resulted in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone – which in turn enabled the deciphering of hieroglyphics. It’s in the British Museum today because Napoleon was eventually defeated by a coalition of European powers led by Britain.

As he set about trying to annex Egypt, French botanists recorded all the flora and fauna. While archaeologists studied the monuments and sculptures. Of course, much of this work was to facilitate the colonisation of Egypt by the French. They needed to map out and understand the territory France was aiming to take.

In August 1798, Napoleon created the Institute of Egypt with himself as vice-president to study the art and culture of Egypt. Its work was published in ten folio volumes that kicked off the modern science of Egyptology. There were 337 engravings and 3,000 illustrations that took four hundred artists a twenty-year period to complete. It was a homage, by colonialists, to the impressive achievements of the ancients.

So, it’s unlikely Napoleon would have trashed the Sphinx or the Pyramids. If it wasn’t him – then who removed the Sphinx’s nose?

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Louis Farrakhan, Napoleon, and the missing nose on the Sphinx

On October 16, 1995, the Million Man March took place in Washington DC – a huge gathering of African-Americans to demonstrate against discrimination, stereotyping, and the need for greater empowerment. It was organised by several civil society organisations but also the Nation of Islam led by the controversial and divisive figure, Louis Farrakhan.

Speaking to the vast crowd, Farrakhan revived the Napoleon conspiracy theory about the Sphinx: “White supremacy caused Napoleon to blow the nose off the Sphinx because it reminded you [sic] too much of the Black man’s majesty.”

There is far more compelling evidence that the nose of the Sphinx was smashed during the Islamic caliphate. Though some Afrocentric historians have an answer to this as well. They argue that ancient Egypt was essentially a sub-Saharan, ‘pure’ African civilisation. And that the lighter-skinned residents of Egypt today are later Persian and Arab arrivals – who did not build nor respect the monuments of the pharaohs (who were black Africans). They compare today’s Egyptians to the Europeans and ‘conquistadores’ who arrived in north America from five hundred years ago onwards.

This is bitterly contested – in Egypt itself, more than anywhere else. Leading Egyptian archaeologists and commentators have argued the reverse. That ancient Egypt was its own civilisation peopled by the ancestors of modern Egyptians and had little to do with the rest of the African continent.

Sadly, these debates are completely intertwined with today’s identity politics around race bearing little relation to the reality of Pharaonic Egypt four thousand years ago.

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An Arab Sufi removed the nose of the Sphinx – and not Napoleon

Three hundred years before Napoleon ever set foot in Egypt, an Arab historian noted that the nose had gone. The American archaeologist Mark Lehner argues that it didn’t just drop off one evening:

“I think there is good evidence that it was snapped off intentionally. There’s a deep wedge down the bridge and there’s another groove down the Sphinx’s left nostril. I think somebody might have pounded in these metal wedges and snapped it off to the south.”

In the 15th century, the Egyptian Arab historian al-Maqrīzī wrote that the nose had already vanished. Like other Islamic scholars from all over the caliphate (stretching from modern Spain to India) he was keen to make sense of the huge and very visible ruins that dotted the landscape in Egypt. What did they mean? Who built them? How did they fit into Islamic belief – if at all?

This historian believed that an Islamic Sufi mystic, Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, had vandalised the nose of the Sphinx in 1378 AD (Christian calendar). Sufism is difficult to define but can be characterised as Islamic mysticism. The devout Sufi Al-Dahr was appalled that local peasants living near the Sphinx were making offerings to the stone lion, already nearly four thousand years old, to ensure the Nile would flood and guarantee good harvests.

This was idolatry. And had to be stamped out.

Early Christians and Muslims had long ‘proved’ to the ignorant pagans that idols were powerless by attacking or destroying them. So it makes perfect sense that in front of the peasantry, Al-Dahr got to work on the sphinx’s face. It’s claimed that once he got back to ground level, the Sufi mystic was lynched or publicly executed. The peasants were still attached to their idol and sought to appease it with the Sufi’s blood.

It just wasn’t Napoleon’s style

The idea that Napoleon let his troops use the Sphinx for target practice runs counter to the French emperor’s interest in Egyptian history. But it also runs counter to that stubborn thing called facts. Back in 1737, two sea captains visited the Sphinx and made sketches. Sure enough, by then, the Sphinx was noseless.

The monument has been a nightmare to preserve for millennia. When it was already a thousand years old, the New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmosis IV removed the build up of sand around the sphinx and erected a stele between its paws telling everybody for eternity that he had done his bit.

The Romans, two thousand years later, dug it out again and staged plays there. Protective stones were applied to its paws and along the sides. The temple sanctuary, never finished by its original builders, was paved by Roman builders. This was undoubtedly the most extensive restoration in its entire history.

The vandalism was perpetrated by the Sufi mystic mentioned earlier and possibly Mamluk soldiers who were originally slaves within the Islamic caliphate but eventually established their own empire centred on Egypt, until the Ottoman Empire conquered them.

Is Mother Nature also the culprit?

The Sphinx once had a beard, which fell off. It also lost part of its rear leg and a chunk from the shoulder in the 1980s. And the reason? A combination of the weather and old age. Even today, archaeologists and the authorities are struggling to protect the Sphinx against the elements. There is constant restoration to stop it falling apart. After all, this is a monument dating back an astonishing 4,500 years. The fact any of it exists is incredible.

In 1886, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme painted Napoleon Before the Sphinx – a work created about 80 years after Napoleon had been in Egypt and it shows the monument with no nose. Of course, the conspiracy theorists would argue that was moments after his soldiers had shot it off!

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