Mystical Stories About the Sphinxes of St. Petersburg

Lori Images, Legion Media
The official time of the White Nights in St. Petersburg is from June 11 to July 2. Indeed, this period is certainly the longest: in the past, street lights were not lit before July 16, leaving St. Petersburg alone with the natural light of dusk. This is not poetry, but the reality of a brief St. Petersburg summer.

Time is unsettling during the White Nights: the absence of darkness is both exciting and exhausting. At dusk, the mystics say, a gap opens between worlds, and thus it is the time of the chimeras. With chimeras in St. Petersburg everything is in order: sphinxes, generating either from the most ancient chimera, or her mother Echidna, are an urban symbol like St. Isaac’s Cathedral or the Spire of the Admiralty. A variety of different sphinxes stand in different parts of the world, but the pair of statues on the waterfront guarding the ramp to the water can be considered a purely St. Petersburg composition. The origin of the sphinxes is shrouded in mystery. The Greeks adopted the Egyptian “living image” of strength and wisdom, turning him into a monster from primeval chaos -- as it is now expressed, “Chthon.” The sphinx in Greek is female. The lion with its human face symbolizes strength and power, dark nature and secret knowledge, and awareness of the abyss of consciousness and such. Sphinxes guard the tomb (the transition from life to death, from light to dark). This twilight creation is just for the city, which warms and comes alive during the White Nights.


Sphinxes on the Universitetskaya Embankment

When they mention the “Petersburg sphinxes,” Russians are referring to the Egyptian sculptures adjacent to the Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation) Bridge. They are first in terms of seniority, artistic value, and simple beauty. They fit perfectly into the landscape, and it does not seem strange to anyone that one of the emblems of this Northern city is the face of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who died three and a half thousand years ago. In the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt the sphinxes guarded his sanctuary in Thebes but gradually sank into the sand, where they were dug up by Greek archeologist Atanasis in the early nineteenth century.

The British Consul moved the statues to Alexandria, where they were almost sold to the French Egyptologist Champollion. However, the deal did not take place, and Andrei Nikolaevich Muravev -- officer, diplomat and spiritual writer of “Pious Youth” about those who make pilgrimages to holy places -- outbid others for the sphinxes on behalf of the Russian treasury. Then the sphinxes were placed in special cells and travelled from Alexandria to St. Petersburg on the ship “Good Hope” for a year. For two years, they stood in the garden of the Academy of Arts. Finally in 1832, they took the place that they have occupied for two hundred years.

It is not surprising that the ancient half-monsters with their emotionless faces are surrounded by numerous legends and mystical speculation. Looking at the sphinx is rumored to drive people crazy, including the politically-motivated: in 1938, the Komsomol from Lengorstroytrest drove members of their team onto the embankment by blasting shots and proceeded to scold Stalin -- the NKVD later explained this extravaganza as the influence of the Egyptian idol.

It is also said that the sphinxes, which since ancient times have been associated with the Nile, softened the character of the Neva. The most plausible of the legends -- that drowned men appear next to the sphinxes -- most likely has a rational hydrological explanation. These sinister tales dispel the irrefutable fact that this segment of the waterfront is exclusively a peaceful and pleasant place in any weather and at any time.

It is easiest to reach these sphinxes from the metro "Vasileostrovskaya" on line 6. If you stand facing the Neva, the facade of the Academy of Arts is located directly behind you, followed by a cozy Rumyantsev garden with a “Turkish” raining. Further along continues a line of palaces and museums until the Strelka. On the right side behind the Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation) Bridge is a statue of Krusenstern, ships, and an exit to the open bay.


Sphinxes on the Egyptian Bridge Over the Fontanka

A spectacular history about the Egyptian bridge -- that it collapsed from resonance that arose after a regiment of soldiers passed through it -- has entered textbooks. However, resonance as the reason for the bridge’s destruction is questionable (the regiment consisted of a cavalry and horses do not walk in step) -- the bridge actually collapsed in the winter of 1905. With reconstruction the bridge has lost its former fancy decorations. There are no high portals with columns and an eagle in the center, no stylized ornaments or hieroglyphs; only four iron sphinx gilt crowns remain, which were created by the sculptor Pavel Sokolov.

These sphinxes are not Egyptian, but the classic Greek type, with female and realistic form: its large bestial body contrasts with the typical impassive faces. Before the collapse of the bridge, lights were attached to the crowns of the sphinxes. Today the sphinxes quietly guard the rather modest bridge with decorative obelisks on the edges.

They also have relatives: the sample collection for some reason was discarded during construction and now stands on the embankment of Malaya Neva Kamennoostrovsky Bridge (Metro "Chernaya Rechka").

The maiden lions on the Fontanka look especially exotic, given their location. This is the edge of the historic district of Kolomna, which is gradually turning into a grim industrial zone closer to the Obvodny Canal.

The faces of the maidens face not the water, but Lermontovsky Prospekt: on one side is a plumbing store and on the other is the clumsy building of the hotel Azimut, the former hotel Soviet. It is best to walk to Sennaya Square to get to the sphinxes -- exit the metro station Sadovaya on Moskovsky Prospekt, cross the street on the left until the Fontanka, continue forward along the river across three bridges, watching the facades on the waterfront lose their majestic splendor, without forfeiting their old beauty. From the Egyptian bridge it is easy to reach the Moorish synagogue on Lermontovsky Prospekt or on the other side, the beautiful Holy Trinity Cathedral with its blue domes.


Shi-Tsza on the Petrovsky Embankment

It is a short way from the metro to these Chinese curiosities on the Petrovsky Embankment -- a revealing tour of St. Petersburg eccentricity. The metro station “Gorkovskaya” resembles a landed flying saucer. It is hard to look away from the Peter and Paul fortress and the St. Petersburg Mosque, and behind it is the lovely mansion of Mathilde Kschessinskaya, which was inherited by the world revolution. The floating restaurant “Grace” -- a copy of the eponymous frigate from Peter I -- is moored near the Trinity (Troitsky) Bridge. Next, just opposite Shi-Tsza is the main historical landmark quarter -- a wooden house of Peter the Great is covered by a case and surrounded by a garden, such that it is not noticeable if one does not pay attention to the bronze bust outside the fence. The house once stood at the first pier of the new capital. Since then the Neva and its marina have moved, and behind the cabin rose new Soviet elite skyscrapers. In 1907 Chinese sphinxes were installed at the path descending to the water.

However, these are conditional sphinxes. The word “shi-tsza” translated means “lion,” but the Manchurian idols have little in common with the many St. Petersburg lions. Shi-tsza refer to lions-frogs and lions-dogs. They do not look like the real animals -- rather, they are chimeras with strange faces, polysemy, made with exotic and artistic excellence that rival that of the ancient Egyptians. In addition, the shi-tsza also occupy the traditional position of guards by the river.

Their historic mission is the same as that of classical sphinxes: guard palaces and royal tombs and represent divine authority. The faces of the “shi-tszas,” if you look intently, resemble Chinese Pekingese lapdogs. It’s no coincidence: Pekingese dogs were brought specifically to the feet of the emperor to sit like little lions.

The shi-tsza were installed on the reconstructed Petrovsky embankment in 1907. Priyamursky Governor-General Grodekov gave St. Petersburg the shi-tsza after receiving the Manchurian lions as a gift from the Chinese in Jilin. Unlike the majority of paired statues, the shi-tsza are a male/female pair: the left is female -- there is a cub under her paw -- while the right is male -- he has a pearl, a symbol of divine light and the fulfillment of wishes. The three-meter tall statues on high pedestals look monumental and authentic, such that a hint of China suddenly emerges among the Dutch and laconic style of Peter’s house.

This spot offers perhaps the best view of the Summer Garden and the line of embankments on the opposite bank of the Neva.

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