The Colossi of Memnon
New Kingdom: 18th Dynasty; Amenophis III's reign: 1391-1353 BCE
These two colossal statues (about 20 meters high) of the deified Amenophis III once flanked the entrance of the first pylon at the pharaoh's mortuary temple. The temple is now completely destroyed, ruined first by flood waters and later cannibalized for its stone. Both statues are damaged as well, lacking their faces and tall royal crowns.
Left statue has Amenophis' wife, Queen Tiy, and mother (Mutememuia) on opposite sides of the base.
The thrones of both statues depict two Nile gods winding the papyrus and lotus, symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt, around the hieroglyph for "unite." This is a common motif; see, for example, the thrones for the figures at the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel.
Technically only the right (northern) statue should be called the colossus of Memnon. After an earthquake damaged it, this statue emitted strange sounds in the morning, perhaps due to the heat of the sun, or the humidity of the night. "The ancient Greeks looked for an explanation in the legendary story by Homer about Memnon, the son of Eos (Aurora) and Titon, who was killed by Achilles and reappeared in Thebes as a statue, and every morning lamented at the sight of his mother rising in the skies"
The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned during Dynasty XVIII. For the past 3,400 years (since 1350 BC) they have stood in the Theban necropolis, west of the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor.
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The original function of the Colossi was to stand guard at the entrance to Amenhotep's memorial temple (or mortuary temple): a massive cult centre built during the pharaoh's lifetime, where he was worshipped as a god-on-earth both before and after his departure from this world.
In its day, this temple complex was the largest and most opulent in Egypt. Covering a total of 35 ha, even later rivals such as Ramesses II's Ramesseum or Ramesses III's Medinet Habu were unable to match it in area; even the Temple of Karnak, as it stood in Amenhotep's time, was smaller.
With the exception of the Colossi, however, very little remains today of Amenhotep's temple. Standing on the edge of the Nile floodplain, successive annual floods gnawed away at the foundations (a famous 1840s lithograph by David Roberts shows the Colossi surrounded by water) and it was not unknown for later rulers to dismantle and reuse portions of their predecessors' monuments.
The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the early years of the 1st century, tells of an earthquake (in 27 BC) that shattered the northern colossus, collapsing it from the waist up. Following its rupture, this statue was then reputed to "sing" every morning at dawn: a light moaning or whistling, probably caused by rising temperatures and the evaporation of dew inside the porous rock.
The legend of the "Vocal Memnon", the luck that hearing it was reputed to bring, and the reputation of the statue's oracular powers, travelled the length of the known world, and a constant stream of visitors, including several Roman Emperors, came to marvel at the statues.
The mysterious vocalisations of the broken colossus ceased in 199 AD, when Emperor Septimius Severus, in an attempt to curry favour with the oracle, reassembled the two shattered halves.
Memnon was a hero of the Trojan War, a King of Ethiopia who led his armies from Africa into Asia Minor to help defend the beleaguered city but was ultimately slain by Achilles. Whether associating the Colossi with his name was just whimsy or wishful thinking on the part of the Greeks – they generally referred to the entire Theban Necropolis as the "Memnonium" – the name has remained in common use for the past 2000 years.
What to See at the Colossi of Memnon
The twin statues depict Amenhotep III (fl. 14th century BC) in a seated position. his hands resting on his knees and his gaze turned eastward toward the river and the rising sun.
Two shorter figures are carved into the front throne alongside his legs: these are his wife Tiy and mother Mutemwia. The side panels depict the Nile god Hapy.
The statues are made from blocks of quartzite sandstone which was quarried at either Giza (near modern-day Cairo) or Gebel el-Silsileh (60 km north of Aswan). Including the stone platforms on which they stand, they reach a towering 18 meters (approx. 60 ft) in height.
The English-language names for many places in Egypt are actually Greek, an oddity which requires some explanation. Classical Egyptian culture hasn’t left much of a mark on our own, but the Ancient Greeks were fascinated by them and our own culture has a foundation laid down by Aristotle, Plato, and their ilk. If a Greek writer needed to add some heft and history to his work, he’d often use Egypt as a screen—for example, the whole story of Atlantis comes to us from Plato, who wanted to outline his idea of a perfect society but felt it necessary to attribute the idea to to his uncle Critias, who supposedly got it from Solon the Lawgiver, who in turn heard it from an Egyptian priest.
This whole crossing of cultures got deeper after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and it came under the rule of his general Ptolemy I Soter. The last three hundred years of Egyptian Pharaohs were actually Greek, including the last, Cleopatra. Even the name Egypt itself is of Greek origin, though no-one knows exactly what it means; the Ancient Greeks had a folk etymology that it was a short form of Aigaiou hupti?s, “under the Aegean”, but this is almost certainly wrong. The Egyptians called their country Kemet.
A double barrel of Greco-Egyptian fusion can be found at Thebes and the Colossi of Memnon. “Thebes” is a pure borrowing from Greek—Egyptians called it Waset—taken from the city of Thebes on the Gulf of Corinth, but naming the statues for Memnon is a much more complicated story.
The Colossi are roughly eighteen meters tall (it’s hard to say exactly, as they’ve suffered some damage, and are partly buried around the base), and in the neighbourhood of 700 tons apiece. The gigantic sculptures are actually of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who lived most of a thousand years before the heyday of the Ancient Greeks. Memnon, on the other hand. was a figure in Greek mythology, half-human and half-god. His human side was his father’s, the Ethiopian Tithonus; his divine side was his mother Eos‘. How did the identification of the statue get transfered from pharaoh to demi-god? Eos was the Titan of dawn and, after Memnon was killed by Achilles during the Trojan War, Zeus returned him to life with one proviso: he would only truly be alive at the the moment the sun rose, so that he could greet his mother. For the rest of the day he would lapse into unconsciousness and wait for the next morning. So when the northernmost of the two statues of Amenhotep started making strange sounds when the sun’s rays struck it in the morning, the Greeks mapped it onto their own mythology and Amenhotep was forgotten.
The truly remarkable thing about this is that the cry of the statue is not a legend. The historical record is quite clear that the statue did, during 1st and 2nd century and not since, sometimes make an inexplicable noise at dawn.
It helps that the Vocal Memnon (the name used to distinguish it from its silent partner just to the south) was actually quite famous during Roman times. There are no less than 63 pieces of Roman-era Greek graffiti and 45 pieces of Latin carved into it, stating that the carver either did or didn’t hear the voice. Even though the preservation of Ancient books is quite spotty, between the graffiti and Latin literature one can follow the whole history of the “voice” through some two centuries, as the statue became a mystical tourist attraction and was remarked upon by Roman writers from Strabo to Pausanias to Pliny.
The statue became famous shortly after a major earthquake in 27 BC. Both the colossi were damaged, the northern one particularly so: its entire top half fell off, and the bottom part was cracked from top to bottom. Shortly thereafter (Strabo visited it just a few years later), the truncated pharaoh started making a loud noise several times a month, generally described as being like someone striking metal, or breaking a lyre string. Most times it would sound off once, but occasionally it would be heard twice or even three times.
The obvious skeptical explanation is that the sounds were man-made, by local priests who wanted something to draw tourists and their business. The circumstantial evidence for this is there—that time period was rife with oracles and mystic goings-on that look awfully suspicious to the modern mind (and even some of the more-generally accepting Romans at the time). Musicologist Susi Jeans theorized that the statue was used to conceal a water organ, a hydraulically driven musical instrument commonly used to duplicate birdsong in Ancient times. On the other hand, if there were charlatans behind it they weren’t very good at their job. As pointed out by multiple authors since the 19th century, several important Roman figures, most notably the Emperor Septimius Severus, visited the Vocal Memnon only to have it sit there mutely when the sun rose. Being human, and so ever-rationalizing, the Romans simply decided that the gods had reserved hearing Memnon for those they viewed with particular favour. This makes it even more unlikely that a human agency for the sound would have snubbed an emperor; in fact, one of the pieces of Roman graffiti describes how the Empress Sabina (wife of Hadrian) was vibratingly angry at not hearing the voice on her first visit.
A better explanation for the Vocal Memnon’s performance is that the crack in the bottom half of the statue was trapping cold air at night and then expelling it audibly when the sun’s warmth expanded the stone in the morning. Similar sounds have been reported down to the modern age at other decrepit sites throughout Egypt and around the world.
The most compelling evidence for this is what happened after Septimius Severus left without hearing the voice. Sometime afterwards, the Romans repaired the statue—sufficiently difficult and expensive work that the best theory for it is the emperor himself trying to curry favour with the gods who’d stayed silent on him. The collapsed upper portion was cleared from the area and is now lost, and five levels of stone blocks were piled up on top of the remaining lower half and then carved into a replacement torso and head.
There are several inscriptions on the base of the statue (one of which is quoted at the top of this article) which claim that before it was cracked the Vocal Memnon could actually speak instead of just making noise, and that it would speak again if restored. Instead, Severus’ reconstruction made it stop speaking altogether. The Romans were convinced of their mystical explanation for the metallic sounds and so never connected the reconstruction to Memnon’s retirement (or if they did, the suspicion didn’t survive to the present-day), but it seems too much of a coincidence to be otherwise: the extra weight of the replacement stone and repairs to the crack had changed the mechanics of the statue. There have been occasional reports of Memnon vocalizing again, but few and far between and generally only after the story had become famous and fashionable again in the 19th century—which suggests that this time listeners were engaging in some wishful thinking. Most, including the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, went away unimpressed.
What remains of the statue’s voice is its influence on the arts. Among many others, Tennyson worked the statue’s “song” into “The Palace of Art”, Franz Schubert wrote a lied called “Memnon” that focused on the hero’s death and strange half-afterlife, there’s a quick reference to Memnon’s music early in Thoreau’s Walden, Oscar Wilde specifically uses the statue for one stanza of “The Sphinx”, and Thomas Pynchon’s V mentions “the vocal Memnon of Thebes”. A little further afield, the successors of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in Egypt, the invading Arabs of the seventh century, picked up the idea of speaking monuments from their new conquest: in their stories you can find a singing pillar in what is now Ashkelon, Israel, and the Palace of Ghamdan in Sana’a, Yemen has lion statues that legendarily roared in the wind.
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