The most famous sculpture in Africa seems to be slowly melting back into the desert out of which it was carved. The Great Sphinx is hewn out of the natural bedrock beneath the sands of Giza in Egypt, where it sits in leonine grandeur by the causeway leading to the pyramid of Khafre, the middle-sized of the site's three pyramids. It was created in about 2500BC, early in ancient Egypt's long artistic triumph; more than two-and-a-half millennia later the Roman emperor Hadrian would build an Egyptian religious garden at his villa in Tivoli, drawing on a style of sculpture that was still very much alive in the early Christian era.
If many people's idea of art is dominated by the European model of a succession of styles and movements from Greek classicism to American minimalism and beyond, the art of ancient Egypt has — alone among non-European cultures — long been accepted into this grand narrative. When the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini placed an Egyptian obelisk on the back of a marble elephant in Rome as a homage to the "wise Egyptian", or Napoleon exorted his army at the Battle of Pyramids, they did not see Egyptians as a lesser people but as the oldest sages and artists, the fount of Europe's culture. But were they right?
In defiance of the reverence for Egypt so visible in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, modern art historians have often found ways to cut the Egyptian influence out of their subject. In his famous book The Story of Art, EH Gombrich pointed out that Egyptian art changed little in its 3,000-year history and that Egyptian artists never progressed from stately profiles and sidelong views of feet to the fully rounded, action-packed art of Greece that, in his view, embodied a European "great awakening". But that is to look through the wrong end of the telescope.
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