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The Dream Stela of Thutmosis IV

In ancient Egypt, when pharaohs wanted to record something for eternity and have it be known not only to mortals, but more importantly, to the gods, they wrote in stone. The hieroglyphs carved into the Dream Stela of Thutmosis IV, an enormous upright slab at the base of the Sphinx, tell a portentous story of a young king's bargain with the sun god. In this interview, Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska deciphers the stela for Gary Glassman, producer of NOVA's "Riddles of the Sphinx."


Kasia Szpakowska

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As Kasia Szpakowska explains, dreams like the one recorded on the stone slab at the base of the Sphinx had the power to solidify a pharaoh's reign and change the course of history.
© Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures


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NOVA: Who was Thutmosis IV, and why would he come here, to the area of the Sphinx?

Kasia Szpakowska: Thutmosis IV was the eighth king of the 18th dynasty, which is during Egypt's New Kingdom, a period when Egypt was really at its height. This area, at that time, was like a recreation area for the pharaohs. They would come here to hunt, ride their chariots, do target practice.

What is the story written on Thutmosis IV's stela?

The Dream Stela describes a time when he was just newly king. [Scholars put his reign at 1401–1391 B.C.] According to the stela, Thutmosis IV was strolling here one day, all alone. Around midday, he got very hot and decided to rest in the shadow of the Great Sphinx. And at the moment when the sun hit the zenith—was at the top of the sky—the god Horem-Akhet-Khepri-Re-Atum came to him in a dream and basically told him that if he cleared away the sands that had been building up around [the Sphinx], the god would make sure that Thutmosis IV was the ruler of upper and lower Egypt, unified.

So the Sphinx was buried in sand at the time. Do we know how deeply?

It probably was deeply buried. We're not sure how much. I imagine that the outline of the body would have been visible, but there wouldn't have been the details of the paws, of the body at all. The head would have been visible.

Sphinx painted in vivid colors
Thutmosis IV's restoration project likely included painting the Sphinx in vivid colors that accentuated the human quality of the head upon the lion's body.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

What else would have been visible on the Giza Plateau at that time?

Most obviously the Pyramids, which were already a thousand years old. There was also a temple that had just been built by Thutmosis IV's predecessor [Amenhotep II] that would have been painted and beautiful-looking. There were probably also rest areas erected so that the kings could rest their horses in the shade, get food and water while they were running around, hunting, and chariot-riding. But otherwise it would have been much like it is today, very sunny in the middle of the day.

Why would Thutmosis IV want to erect this monument and tell this story?

Number one, it was to emphasize that he was indeed the legitimate ruler. We don't actually know very much about how he came to the throne. He may have needed to legitimize his right to the throne by emphasizing that the god spoke to him directly, in a dream, and told him that he would have the kingship.

In addition, a monument such as the Sphinx was very, very important. The fact that he restored it emphasized that he was doing one of the main tasks that a king had to do, which was to maintain all the sacred monuments to the gods. In doing that, he was maintaining ma'at, which is the Egyptian idea of truth, order, justice—maintaining things the way they should be.

Thutmosis IV bust
During his reign in the 14th century B.C., Thutmosis IV commissioned other great stone works to legitimize his kingship.
© WGBH Educational Foundation


Tell us about the god with whom Thutmosis IV supposedly had this bargain.

[The stela] describes him as Horem-Akhet, which means Horus in the horizon—that is, the aspect of Horus as a sun god. He also describes him as Khepri-Re-Atum, which is all the aspects of the sun god rolled into one—the sun god in the morning, the sun god in the day, and the sun god at night. The god Horus could have many aspects. Sort of like I can be Kasia the teacher, or I can be Kasia the writer, or I can be Kasia the one who doesn't cook very well. And [the stela says that] the god appeared to Thutmosis IV in the form of the Sphinx itself.

"The Sphinx was considered an icon of kingship merged with the solar god."

Is it significant that the Sphinx, that Horem-Akhet in the form of the Sphinx, speaks to Thutmosis IV at the zenith?

There is clearly significance to the time of day. The zenith, when the sun is right at the highest point, is a time when the sun seems to stand still. For the Egyptians, of course, the sun god was of primary importance, and that's when he was overhead. In addition, a lot of magical texts mention noontime as a time when the barriers between this world and the divine world are lowered. And in that way, the gods could more easily communicate with people like the king. It was a time when scary things could happen, but also wondrous things.

tail end of Sphinx
Traces of Thutmosis IV's restoration efforts are evident in the casing stones at the tail end of the Sphinx.
© Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures

Was it unusual, in Egyptian lore, for a god to speak to a mortal?

It was very unusual for a god to speak to a mortal. The kings, however, throughout Egyptian history would be spoken to by gods. They received communications from gods through revelations and oracles. But seeing a god in a dream was an extremely rare phenomenon.

So that's also part of the reason that Thutmosis IV erected the stela—to emphasize that he was the person whom the god chose to speak to in this very, very intimate encounter during a dream.

How did the Egyptians think about dreams?

Dreams were considered an external phenomenon. A dream was something that was outside of you. Egyptians never said, "I was dreaming," or "I'm dreaming right now," or "I'd love to be dreaming." You saw things in a dream, as if it were something external to you, over which you had no control. And, in fact, most of the references we have to dreams in ancient Egypt treat them as things to be avoided and feared. So we have many spells to keep away bad dreams. In part, it's because dreams seem to be somewhere, again, between the land of the living and the land beyond.

The inhabitants of the beyond included not only the gods, not only the dead, but also the damned, those Egyptians who had not made it successfully to the afterlife or were thought of as enemies of the king or the gods. And those beings, through a dream, could also access a vulnerable individual while he or she was asleep, as a nightmare.

stela etchings
Etched in the stela are images of Thutmosis IV offering incense to the god, here depicted as a sphinx resting on top of a shrine.
© Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures


How did the kings in the New Kingdom regard the kings of the Old Kingdom? Were they aware of who built the Sphinx?

In the New Kingdom, the pharaohs looked back to the kings of the Old Kingdom with great reverence, because that was a time when the king was all-powerful, a time they tried to emulate. We know for certain that they knew that Khufu and Khafre built the Great Pyramids. It's unclear whether they associated one pharaoh or another specifically with the Sphinx. The Sphinx was considered an icon of kingship merged with the solar god. So it didn't necessarily matter which specific ruler he represented.

"When you stand in front of the Sphinx, you can't help but be awed."

Was it likely that a pharaoh of the New Kingdom would want to resurrect the Sphinx?

Yes. In part, it's because the capital [of the New Kingdom] moved to Memphis, which was close by. It's also a hearkening back to the past, when the pharaoh was all-powerful.

The New Kingdom came out of a time when Egypt had been divided and ruled by foreigners, and that had a great impact on the psyche of the rulers and of the people. So the pharaohs of the New Kingdom really wanted to establish that they were like the ones of the Old Kingdom—infallible, all-powerful, and more importantly, that they were divine. And the Sphinx is a brilliant embodiment of that.

Sphinx and Dream stela
While weathering and more deliberate damage have erased much of Thutmosis IV's work on the Sphinx, the Dream Stela continues to tell his story.
© Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures

Why put a human head on the body of a lion?

The human head would represent the identity of the king, and the lion would represent the attributes that the king was attempting to portray. So it would be saying that the king was the embodiment of the lion—the majesty, the power, the ferociousness. It emphasizes that they are one.

Why do you think the Sphinx has captured the imagination of people for so long?

When you stand in front of the Sphinx, you can't help but be awed. It is an amazing monument. It's wondrously large. It's spectacularly placed, in the middle of the desert. The sun strikes upon it. The ancient Egyptians themselves were awestruck by all the monuments here. They left graffiti saying, "Wow, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." When the Greeks came, they felt the same way, and brought back all sorts of legends about them. And that got imbued into all of Western civilization, really. So the Sphinx became an icon.

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