As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon; its head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light it seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like downhanging ears. And then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in profile, shorn of its nose—flat-nosed like a death’s head—but having already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side; already disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious smile. And when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face to face with it—without however encountering its gaze, which passed high above our heads—there came over us at once the sentiment of all the secret thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and make eternal behind this mutilated mask.
But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which no longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it comes to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.
For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of awe-inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought so long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished simply to sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the most profound of our human speculations. . . . It is said that the Sphinx was once of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and colouring animated the face, and it was enthroned at its full height on a kind of esplanade paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then more sovereign than it is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost buried beneath the sand of the Libyan desert, which now quite hides its base, it rises at this hour like a phantom which nothing solid sustains in the air.
It has gone midnight. In little groups the tourists of the evening have disappeared; to regain perhaps the neighbouring hotel, where the orchestra doubtless has not ceased to rage; or may be, remounting their cars, to join, in some club of Cairo, one of those bridge parties, in which the really superior intellects of our time delight; some—the stouthearted ones—departed talking loudly and with cigar in mouth; others, however, daunted in spite of themselves, lowered their voices as people instinctively do in church. And the Bedouin guides, who a moment ago seemed to flutter about the giant monument like so many black moths—they too have gone, made restless by the cold air, which erstwhile they had not known. The show for to-night is over, and everywhere silence reigns.