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Did Napoleon's troops shoot the nose off the Sphinx?

By Tom Holmberg

Although popular legend blames Napoleon and his troops during the French campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) for having shot the nose off the Great Sphinx, in fact this story just isn't true. I have yet to locate an original source for this myth. The idea that Napoleon was to blame for the Sphinx's missing nose dates at least to the beginning of the twentieth century.

One traveler to Egypt around the time of World War One wrote the following: "To take our photos sitting in front of the Sphinx on a camel was the aim of another. ...And so, repulsing the hordes of robbers on all sides, we came to the wonderful, inscrutable, worth-millions-of-pounds-to-authors Sphinx. The great riddle of the mysterious East. How many reams of rubbish have been written about this misshapen block of stone. Napoleon, a practical man, fired a few cannon balls at its face. High explosive shells were not invented in those days." [From: Sommers, Cecil. Temporary Crusaders. (London: John Lane, 1919) Chapter VI. "19th April."] Another book from about the same time (In the Footsteps of Napoleon (1915) by James Morgan, p 85) states "There is a tradition among the Arabs of the Pyramids that all the scars of time and the wounds of a hundred wars, which the Sphinx carries, were inflicted by Napoleon's soldiers, who used its mystifying and majestic countenance as a target. That, however, is only a legend for the tourist. Long before the discovery of gunpowder, the Arabs had laid iconoclastic hands on the beard of this god of the desert..." Though the Arab guides may have spread this tale, this myth has been perpetuated over the years by countless teachers the world over who have passed this bit of "history" on to their students.

A poll conducted on the Internet found that fully 21% of respondents believed Napoleon was responsible for the Sphinx's missing nose. One of the most recent examples of the persistence of this falsehood was Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March" speech where he said: "White supremacy caused Napoleon to blow the nose off the Sphinx because it reminded you [sic] too much of the Black man's majesty." And the perpetuation of this myth in "Afrocentric" circles was even the subject of a segment of the U.S. television investigative journalism program "60 Minutes."

This error has persisted in spite of the fact that the truth can be readily found in such common reference sources as the Encyclopedia Americana> (Danbury, CT: Grolier, 1995). vol.25, p.492-3 under "Sphinx", which states: "Over the centuries the Great Sphinx has suffered severely from weathering...Man has been responsible for additional mutilation. In 1380 A.D. the Sphinx fell victim to the iconoclastic ardor of a fanatical Muslim ruler, who caused deplorable injuries to the head. Then the figure was used as a target for the guns of the Mamluks." In the book The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990), p.301, the author, J.P. Lepre, adds the fact that, in addition to the 14th century damage, "The face was further disfigured by the eighteenth century A.D. ruler of Egypt, the Marmalukes [Mamluks]."

European visitors to Egypt prior to Napoleon's expedition had already discovered the vandalism to the Sphinx. In 1546, for example, when Dr. Pierre Belon explored Egypt, he visited "the great colossus." "The Sphinx," writes Leslie Greener in The Discovery Of Egypt (London : Cassell, 1966), p.38, by this time "no longer [had] the stamp of grace and beauty so admired by Abdel Latif in 1200." Greener goes on to say: "this exonerates the artillerymen of Napoleon Bonaparte, who have the popular reputation of having used the nose of the Sphinx as a target." The charge against Napoleon is particularly unjust because the French general brought with him a large group of "savants" to conduct the first scientific study of Egypt and its antiquities.

Finally, an article by Ulrich Haarmann, "Regional Sentiment in Medieval Islamic Egypt," published in the University of London's Bulletin Of The School Of Oriental And African Studies (BSOAS), vol.43 (1980) p.55-66, states that according to Makrizi, Rashidi and other medieval Arab scholars, the face of the Sphinx was vandalized in 1378 A.D. by Mohammed Sa'im al-Dahr, a "fanatical sufi of the oldest and most highly respected sufi convent of Cairo." The nose and ears are mentioned specifically as having been damaged at this time. According to one account, Haarmann states, the residents in the neighborhood of the Sphinx were so upset by the destruction that they lynched him and buried him near the great monument he ruined. (Thanks to Ann Macy Roth's article in the online Ancient Near East Digest (University of Chicago, Oriental Institute) for the information on Haarmann's article).