Story of the Sphinx

In October 1913 a colossal granite sphinx arrived in Philadelphia to great excitement. Weighing close to 15 tons, the sphinx was the second largest ancient Egyptian monument ever to come to America (after New York's Central Park obelisk that had arrived in 1881). The sphinx, over 3,000 years old, has inscriptions of the famous pharaoh Ramses II (Ramses the Great) who reigned ca. 1200 BCE. To reach Philadelphia the sphinx had made a long journey: over 6,000 miles from the ruins of Memphis, ancient capital city of Egypt. The Penn Museum at that time was a supporter of excavations of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. With the agreement of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the director of the British School, Flinders Petrie, had offered the sphinx to the Museum in return for its support.

Moved first to the Suez Canal the sphinx languished dockside for several months. Finally, it was loaded aboard a German freighter, the Schildturm that was passing through Suez from India with a cargo of goat skins and dye fruits headed to a Philadelphia leather tannery. The ship's captain, Captain Kloppenburg, considered the sphinx to be "undesirable cargo" because of its huge weight but he agreed to take it on. The sphinx steamed up the Delaware River on October 7.

Although it docked first in South Philadelphia, the sphinx was so hefty that the Schildturm had to move up the Delaware to Port Richmond in order to unload the statue. There a huge crane at the Philadelphia and Reading Railway cargo terminal lifted the sphinx onto a rail car. With a bit of delay caused by unforeseen events (not least of which was the ongoing 1913 World Series between the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Giants) the sphinx finally reached the Museum on October 18 where it caused a sizeable distraction from the Penn-Brown football game.

With dozens of newspaper stories covering the excitement of the sphinx's arrival, thousands of Philadelphians and visitors from out of town came to see the sphinx. For three years the sphinx resided outside in the Museum's courtyard. In 1916, due to concern over the long-term effects of the weather, the sphinx moved inside the Museum. In 1926 it made its final move into the Coxe Egyptian wing of the Museum where it sits today amongst other magnificent monuments also from ancient Memphis. These include architectural elements such as columns, doorways and windows from the palace of pharaoh Merenptah, son of Ramses II, which the Museum's Coxe Expedition to Egypt excavated at Memphis in 1915-1919.

The Penn Museum sphinx is in many ways the quintessential sphinx. Although its body is perfectly preserved, the head and face was weathered over thousands of years. Its timeworn countenance embodies the mystique of ancient Egypt. Ever since the sphinx first arrived in Philadelphia people have liked to envision what "old Ramses the Great" might have to say about our modern world. In 1913 people wrote articles and even poetry giving the sphinx a voice on matters of the day. A century later in 2013, school children have sleepovers, "40 Winks with Sphinx," under the watchful eyes of the big human-headed lion. The sphinx of Ramses II is a treasured icon of Philadelphia and the Penn Museum. The sphinx is the largest Egyptian sphinx in the Western hemisphere and fourth largest sphinx outside of Egypt (other colossal sphinxes can be found in Paris, France and St. Petersburg, Russia). It has charmed generations of visitors to the Museum and now has spent a full a century as a citizen of Philadelphia. Certainly a milestone, although a blink of the eye in the lifetime of an Egyptian sphinx!