The Sphinxes of St. Petersburg
03 March, 2017
As I was walking home last week, two large stone sphinxes on the banks of the Neva caught my eye. They exuded a sense of mystery and antiquity and I wanted to find out more about these mysterious creatures, as Ancient Egyptian sculptures were not what I expected to see in St. Petersburg! So, could I crack the riddle of the Sphinx?
How did they end up here?
The Sphinxes on Universitetskaya Embankment (Сфинксы на Университетской набережной) were originally carved to protect the temple of Amenhotep III, who ruled Ancient Egypt 3,500 years ago. Amenhotep ruled both the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, and therefore the sphinxes wear a double crown. They silently guarded his temple for thousands of years, gradually being covered in sand before they were uncovered in the early 19th century.
Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt had revealed to the world the wonders of this ancient culture, and by the 1830s Europe and Russia were in the midst of Egyptomania. In 1832, Andrei Muryayov, a pilgrim and historian of the Orthodox Church, travelled to Alexandria and bought the sphinxes for the Russian Empire.
The sphinxes were then shipped to St. Petersburg. Moving the two 23-tonne sculptures was no easy task, and they spent a year at sea before arriving in Russia. Since 1834, they have watched over the city from the banks of the Neva, and crowds of tourists have replaced the ancient processions of Egyptian kings.
Rumours have swirled that the sphinxes have a malevolent influence on the inhabitants of St. Petersburg and apparently looking into their eyes causes temporary madness and mania. The sculptures have been blamed on everything from a Komsomol uprising to the deaths of drowned men. Although the sphinxes do possess a certain magnetism, I’m sure this has more to do with the mysteries of Ancient Egypt than a curse!
Where can I see them?
The sphinxes are located on Universitetskaya Embankment, directly opposite the Imperial Academy of the Arts, and they enjoy a picturesque view overlooking the river. Their quay was designed by the renowned architect Konstantin Thon, the official architect of the Russian Empire who also designed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The quay took two years to complete, and in the meantime the sphinxes were housed in the courtyard of the Russian Academy of Arts.
The sphinxes are popular with tourists and lots of people pose for photos in front of these giant stone creatures. Somehow, in a city as historic and mysterious as St. Petersburg, they don’t feel out of place. The sphinxes are quite bewitching and the slight smile that plays on their lips makes them almost seem alive – a somewhat strange experience! You cannot fail to be awed by their age and beauty, and I can only imagine what their stony eyes have seen over the years. It is well worth a visit to see these amazing sphinxes for yourself, and please take a look at the Liden & Denz blog to find out more about St. Petersburg!
This post was brought to you by Tilly Hicklin, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, St. Petersburg.