Walking into the Egyptian art galleries at the Brooklyn Museum is an opportunity to view objects and artifacts that are thousands of years old. Among them are ancient sculptures with an unmistakable style. On closer inspection, however, you may realize there’s something strange about these statues. Many of them have at some point lost their noses.
It may seem a minor detail, but the lack of noses is in fact a typical feature across Egyptian statues. While they weren’t created to be nose-less, they had them broken off at some point in their long histories. Edward Bleiberg, curator at the Brooklyn Museum, told CNN in March 2019 that he thinks that the most frequent question he’s ever asked is “what happened to the noses?”
You might think that the damage is just natural wear and tear following so many years of existence. After all, these statues have survived wars and bad weather and long journeys across the world to different museums. Bleiberg, however, has done research that suggests the reasons for the de-nosing are much more complex.
The research might never have been done if so many people hadn’t wanted to know about the noses. As experts such as Bleiberg have studied the art of the time period, they’ve also been taught to visualize how statues may have appeared when they were first built. It may seem strange, but he’d reached the point where he didn’t even notice such a prominent omission.
It’s possible that some of the statues were damaged accidentally, of course. This applies especially to those with particularly large noses that stuck out from the face and were therefore easily hit. An expert eye is required to tell the difference between these and the statues that were deliberately disfigured for a variety of other reasons. In addition, this also doesn’t explain why some flat Egyptian paintings have also had the noses removed.
Ancient Egypt was one of humanity’s first great civilizations, and many of its monuments are still standing. Egyptian society was responsible for major innovations in everything from farming to medicine. Among its most iconic symbols are great construction projects such as the pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza, which is one of the most famous nose-less statues of all.
In fact, the sphinx makes appearances in Greek and Asian lore as well as that of Ancient Egypt. According to legend, it had the head of a human being but the torso of a lion. For the Egyptians it was a symbol of protection that often wore a headdress, just like a pharaoh would. There’s even a two-mile road between temples in Karnak and Luxor that’s known as “Sphinx Alley” because it has so many sphinx statues.
Indeed, there are several Egyptian sphinxes that have become particularly famous. One is made of alabaster and was found in the Egyptian city of Memphis, where there’s a temple from the Ramessid period. Another is made of granite and has been transported to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s unusual because it wears the face of Hatshepsut, who was a female Egyptian ruler.
The most famous sphinx of all, though, is probably the giant statue found next to the equally iconic Great Pyramid of Giza. This sphinx is an impressive 66 feet in height and 240 feet in length, which makes it one of the largest statues in the world. Not bad for something built more than four millennia ago.
However, we still know very little for certain about the how and the why of the Sphinx at Giza. We are confident, though, that Pharaoh Khufu was responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid. And it’s thought his son, Pharaoh Khafre, was behind the building of the Sphinx. Khafre did have his own pyramid, but his father’s is 10 feet taller.
Khafre appears to have made up for the smaller pyramid by circling his own monument with a series of statues, one of which is the Sphinx. It’s a limestone sculpture that bears Khafre’s own face, with traces of red that suggest it could have been colored at one point. Some experts think the complex of pyramids and statues was meant to encourage the gods to resurrect Khafre after he died.
You may be wondering why we believe the Sphinx is Khafre’s – well, there’s plenty of material to confirm this. Some of it comes from a dig in the 19th century in which an archaeologist from France named Auguste Mariette explored the Valley Temple near to the Sphinx. There he found a life-sized statue that appeared to be Khafre himself. And its face looked like that of the Sphinx.
It was Mariette who found the road that runs from the mortuary that sits beside the pyramid of Khafre to the Valley Temple, which suggests that they were connected. Another French expert named Emile Baraize continued the work at the start of the 20th century. He uncovered a ruin that looked a lot like the Valley Temple, which he called the Sphinx Temple. The Sphinx itself sits directly behind this ruin.
Yet another set of investigations were carried out in the 1980s, as archaeologists continued to try to solve the mysteries of the Sphinx. They found that limestone used in the Sphinx Temple may have been hewn from the leftovers when the Sphinx itself was built. The stone was gathered from channels dug around the legendary sculpture.
It would have been hard work building the Sphinx, and experts think that not all the workers stayed until the end of the project. Unfinished quarrying as well as leftover tools and an abandoned lunchbox suggest a swift departure. Researchers calculate that it would have required several years’ labor to build the Sphinx even with a workforce 100 strong.
Another big question about the Sphinx is what name the Egyptians would have given to the statue. The word “sphinx” is in fact Greek and wouldn’t have been used until a couple of millennia later. One theory is it was called Harmakhet, which means “Horus on the Horizon,” because Horus was the god most commonly identified with Khafre.
What is known, though, is that the importance of the Sphinx faded with time. There’s a story about an Egyptian prince named Thutmose, who once dozed off by the statue while it was covered in sand. He had a dream during which Harmakhet asked him to restore the Sphinx in return for assistance in being the country’s next ruler.
Thutmose did indeed go on to be pharaoh, and his reign was marked by the rise of a cult that centered on the Sphinx. As a result, more sphinx imagery spread through the nation in the form of paintings and reliefs, in addition to more statues. The sculpture also came to be seen as a representation of the Sun’s potency during this period.
This era wouldn’t last forever, however, and worship of the Sphinx would again cease. Its limestone would consequently be corroded and parts of its beard and headdress would be broken. It was once more submerged in sand and wouldn’t be excavated until the beginning of the 19th century. Only the head was visible when the dig began, in fact, by which point it was clear the Sphinx’s nose was mysteriously absent.
The first attempt to unbury the Sphinx wasn’t successful, though, despite the hard work of 160 people laboring under Captain Giovanni Battista of Genoa. Further attempts were made throughout the 1800s and 1900s, until Selim Hassan of Egypt eventually completed the task in the 1930s. Since then, however, the elements have further eroded the statue.
There have been lots of theories about what happened to the Sphinx’s nose over the years. Some people thought it was lost during the Napoleonic invasion thanks to a cannon blast, but there are pictures of a nose-less statue long before Napoleon arrived in Egypt. That means it was destroyed in an earlier time, such as in the 15th century.
Islam has been a dominant force in Egypt since the Arab conquest of the 7th century, and the religion is opposed to idolatry, which means the creation and worship of paintings or statues of sacred figures. That’s a motivation to destroy religious statues, then – and such objects had an important spiritual role for the Ancient Egyptians. Moreover, religion may also explain why some statues were desecrated even before the rise of Islam.
Temples in Ancient Egypt would often be headed by a statue of a deceased ancestor. The family would make it offerings such as food for the afterlife or flowers to embody rebirth and incense to create a sacred smell. Requests would also be made to the dead for help, some of which we can learn about from contemporary letters that have survived through the ages.
The Ancient Egyptians made statues of both gods and men, and these sculptures had a spiritual purpose. In the case of the gods it meant they could inhabit the statue, while an effigy of a person who died could be used to preserve their soul. Artworks would be placed in tombs as well to help the dead to receive offerings from the living.
Egyptian art has its own unique style that sets it apart from later works by the Greeks and the Romans. It has a certain level of abstraction that makes it look not quite natural, though, with the images formal and blocky. Of course, the art made to rest in tombs wasn’t actually meant to be viewed by the wider world.
Instead, they were meant either for the dead or the gods, and were designed accordingly. Statues in Ancient Egypt tended to face forwards so they could view the rites performed in their honor. Some divine cult statues even went through daily performances in which they were dressed and perfumed so they could be taken out on processions.
In many cases these statues were the places where our world was seen to connect with the supernatural realm where the gods lived. Kings needed to provide for deities so they would protect Egypt. One example is in how images of the pharaoh would be depicted making offerings to images of the deities.
In fact, statues were so important that their destruction was more than an act of petty vandalism. It was a way to disrupt the perceived relationship between people and gods and stop deities or human souls taking up residence in an image. Each part of the statue served the same purpose as it would on a living person. So, a god-statue without ears would be unable to listen to prayers.
In the case of noses, this means their removal takes on a sinister edge. A statue without a nose cannot breathe, which means the soul within it is effectively being murdered. This was a way to destroy an enemy, or for a grave robber to protect himself from the angry spirit whose tomb he was raiding.
Other parts of statues could also be destroyed for similar reasons, such as an arm being removed to prevent it giving or accepting offerings. It’s a practice that stretches back to the earliest parts of Egyptian history, in fact, as historians have even seen it in mutilated prehistoric mummies.
The practice wasn’t just reserved for statues of the dead, either. Soldiers were advised, for example, that mutilating a wax model of their foes before combat was the best way to defeat them. This meant creating the figure just to destroy it. In fact, some pharaohs considered the power of statues so dangerous that they made damaging images of themselves illegal.
This didn’t mean pharaohs were immune to the urge to destroy the likenesses of rival rulers, however. On the contrary, removing images of their predecessors was a way to display their own power and alter the historical narrative. One of the most obvious examples is how depictions of two of Egypt’s greatest queens, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, were practically eradicated altogether.
Sexism was just one way in which politics affected the depiction of Egyptian royalty in art. Sometimes erasing references to a previous monarch was a way to remove questions over the right of succession, and other times it eradicated memories of a particularly controversial pharaoh. For instance, Thutmose III wanted future rulers to descend from him rather than his stepmother Hatshepsut.
Meanwhile, Pharaoh Akhenaten’s religious reforms were completely rescinded by his descendants. Akhenaten destroyed images of the god Amun so he could declare the sun god Aten to be the main deity of the Egyptians. His son Tutankhamun restored Amun to prominence, however, and images of Akhenaten, his wife and his god were all eradicated instead.
All of this led to the Egyptians going to great lengths to protect the images that were important to them. Many statues were surrounded by walls on three sides, for example, to guard them from attack. Sometimes a wall would even be placed in front as well. A couple of eye holes would be all that was left when the priests came to make an offering.
So, the destruction of parts of statues by the Egyptians wasn’t just an act of wanton vandalism. It required a certain amount of planning and skill, with precise strokes of the chisel that must have been directed by expert hands. In some cases inscriptions were also damaged, which meant the culprits had to be able to read to know which engravings to deface.
That explains why some statues were disfigured, but others met their fates much later. Not every civilization to follow the Ancient Egyptians had the same reverence for statues. Christians treated them as pagan demons that needed to be destroyed, for instance, while Muslims didn’t think the items had any power at all.
You may be wondering why the Christians didn’t destroy the statues completely, rather than just removing parts. Well, leaving the disfigured sculptures on display was a way to demonstrate their own strength and how the gods of the Egyptians were now powerless. It was a triumphant statement of victory.
Egypt was conquered by an Islamic army in the 7th century and Muslims subsequently used the ancient statues as construction materials. New buildings were erected out of old temples, with ancient iconography still visible in the medieval parts of Cairo. It goes to show how every generation had a different perspective on statues, but each seemingly had a motive to disfigure and destroy them.
Bleiberg has created a new exhibition called “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt” to display the results of his research. It’s a chance to show both disfigured and intact statues side by side to make their purposes clear, with artworks dating from the 25th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, is due to host the exhibition.