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Why is there a Sphinx in Turramurra?

By ALEC SMART


As lovers of ancient history are no doubt aware, a Sphinx is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of either a bird of prey or a human, although cats and sheep heads were often featured. Sphinx statues were primarily deployed as guardians of temples and tombs.

Egyptian versions, of which the Great Sphinx of Giza (carved 2500 BCE) and the smaller Sphinx of Memphis are the most famous examples, usually featured male heads.

Ancient Greek versions also had eagle wings and were typically female. The word ‘Sphinx’ is possibly derived from the Greek Σφίξιμο – Sfíximo, meaning ‘squeeze’, or σφίγγω – sfíngo, meaning ‘tighten’, both of which refer to how lions kill their prey: by suffocation.


Surprisingly, Sydney has its own Sphinx statue.

Carved between 1926-1928, it is considerably younger than its source of inspiration – the Great Sphinx of Giza - by some 4,400 years, and only one eighth the size of the 73m long, 20m high original.


Located here in 2074 postcode, Sydney’s own Sphinx is the centrepiece of a secluded war memorial near the southern entrance to Bobbin Head, at the edge of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in North Turramurra.


Although debate surrounds the origins and inspiration for the celebrated Great Sphinx of Giza (probably the little-known Pharoah Khafre) the North Turramurra Sphinx was chipped out of the surrounding sandstone by former stonemason and retired WWI soldier Private William Shirley.


Private Shirley was convalescing at nearby Lady Davidson Private Hospital on Bobbin Head Rd. The hospital, according to its website, was “built in 1920 by the Department of Defence to treat ex-servicemen who had contracted tuberculosis during World War 1.”


Private Shirley was indeed afflicted with tuberculosis. His lungs were also weakened by gas attacks on the First World War battlefields of the Western Front across France and Germany, the meandering line of fortified trenches that brutally extinguished the lives of so many young men.

Shirley trained in Egypt prior to his military deployment in Europe, so he may have seen the original Sphinx that inspired his life’s legacy. However, there is speculation the medical superintendent at Lady Davidson Hospital suggested the Sphinx project to the former stonemason, to utilise his talents and focus his thoughts away from his rapidly declining health.


Private Shirley’s lung damage inhibited his ability to work longer than two hours a day, so it took a year and a half to complete his mission. He died the following year, in 1929, never seeing his stonework unveiled as the centrepiece of a war memorial in 1931, that also includes two tiny pyramids. It is now known as the Sphinx Memorial.


Time has eroded the soft sandstone of the Turramurra Sphinx, and part of its headdress has detached. Like the Great Sphinx of Giza, it too is missing a nose, although the Egyptian monolith had his chiselled off, possibly by a Moslem leader to deter Egyptian peasants from worshipping it (the Sphinx was linked to the sun god, Horus).


Address: The Sphinx Memorial is located next to the southern entrance of Ku-ring-gai National Park on Bobbin Head Road. Turn right onto Sphinx Road and follow it approx. 400metres to the memorial.

Park entry fees: $12 per vehicle per day.

The Sphinx carpark closes 5.30pm Monday to Sunday

Bobbin Head gates are closed 8pm - 6am (summer time), 5.30pm - 6am the rest of the year.

Email: bobbin.head@environment.nsw.gov.au

Phone: 02 9472 8949


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Photos: Alec Smart


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