The Colossi of Memnon are a pair of giant statues made of stone that are located in the Theban Necropolis in Luxor, Upper Egypt. The statues were made during the 14th century BC, during the period in ancient Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. The best-known legend about the Colossi of Memnon is that of the ‘Vocal Memnon’, in which one of the statues was reputed to ‘sing’ every morning at dawn.
The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Who Created the Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon were built during the reign of Amenhotep III, a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who ruled Egypt during the 14th century BC. The statues, which are each about 20 meters (65.62 ft.) in height, are made of quartzite sandstone. The stone is thought to have been quarried either from El-Gabal el-Ahmar (near Cairo) or from Gebel el-Silsileh (near Aswan), and then transported by land to Luxor. The statues depict Amenhotep III in a seated position, with their hands resting on their knees, and their faces facing the Nile in the east.
Amenhotep III's Sitting Colossi of Memnon, Theban Necropolis, Luxor, Egypt. (CC BY 3.0)
The Name and Purpose of the Egyptian Colossi of Memnon
The original function of the colossi was to serve as guardians at the entrance of the pharaoh’s mortuary temple. When it was completed, this temple complex was one of the largest and most luxurious in the land. Today, however, little is left of the mortuary temple, and its foundations were gradually damaged by the annual flooding of the Nile, which led to the temple being demolished, and its stone blocks re-used for other structures. The colossi were spared this fate, though they too suffered much damage over the millennia.
The Colossi of Memnon in front of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III's mortuary temple. (Ancient Egypt)
The colossi were named ‘Memnon’ towards the end of the 1st century BC. Memnon was a hero who lived during the time of the Trojan War. As the King of Ethiopia, Memnon led his soldiers to Troy, where they fought against the Greeks on the side of the Trojans. He was eventually slain by Achilles. According to legend, Memnon was the son of Eos, the goddess of dawn. On learning of her son’s death, Eos wept, which is said to form the morning dew.
‘Statues of Memnon at Thebes during the flood,’ David Roberts. (1848) (Public Domain) The statues in Luxor, Egypt have been impacted by the annual flooding of the Nile.
The Ancient Egyptian Statue Sings at Dawn
Eos’ weeping was associated with the sound said to have been produced by one of the colossi at dawn. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, in 27 BC, a strong earthquake caused the top half of the northern colossus to collapse, and its lower to crack. As a consequence of this, the statue began to ‘sing’, i.e. emitted a light moaning or whistling sound each morning as the Sun rose. In order to explain this phenomenon, the ancient Greek and Roman travelers to the site began to associate the colossi with the legendary Memnon. The ‘singing’ of the colossus, therefore, was said to have been made by Eos mourning for her dead son. Alternatively, it was believed that the sounds were the cries of Memnon greeting his mother.
Antonio Beato, Colossi of Memnon, Egypt, 19th century. Brooklyn Museum. (Public Domain)
A natural explanation for this phenomenon has been put forward. It has been suggested that due to the increase in temperature at dawn, the dew inside the porous rock evaporates, thus causing the statue to ‘sing’. Some believed that it was good luck to hear the statue ‘sing’, whilst others were of the opinion that the statue was an oracle. With this in mind, the Colossi of Memnon was a popular tourist attraction, and many ancient travelers visited it, including several Roman emperors. One of these was Septimius Severus, who reigned between the end of the 2nd century AD and the beginning of the 3rd century AD.
Drawing of the ancient Egyptian Colossi of Memnon. (Wellcome images/CC BY 4.0)
According to local tradition, the emperor visited the Colossi of Memnon in 199 AD. During his visit, Septimius Severus decided to repair the broken statue by having the two halves re-connected. This caused the statue to stop ‘singing’ forever. Nevertheless, the Colossi of Memnon still remain a tourist attraction even today.
The Colossi of Memnon in the Theban Necropolis, Luxor, Egypt, 2015. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Top image: The statues of the Memnons.’ Watercolor by Charles Vacher depicting the Colossi of Memnon in Luxor, Egypt. Source: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0
By Wu Mingren
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