Colossi of Memnon, guarding the passage to Theban Necropolis; west-bank's section of Luxor, Egypt.

Memnon’s Musical Statues: The Long-Standing Guardians of Amenhotep III’s Temple That Found a Voice

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The most important statues in Egypt, after the Giza Sphinx, are the two Colossi of Memnon in Western Luxor. The two gigantic statues, about 3500 years old, are also known as the musical statues.

These massive twins of stone belonged to Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who is known as being King Solomon of Egypt, with a peaceful empire and many wives. The king ordered the statues to be erected in front of his memorial temple on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor, ancient Thebes in Upper Egypt, to represent the two natures of Man in ancient Egyptian belief; physical and spiritual. They depict Amenhotep III in a seated position, his hands resting on his knees and his gaze facing eastwards towards the Nile. Two shorter figures are also carved into the front of the throne alongside his legs: these are of his wife Tiye and his mother Mutemwiya, while the sides depict the Nile god Hapy.

Side panel detail showing two flanked relief images of the deity Hapy and, to the right, a sculpture of the royal wife Tiy

Side panel detail showing two flanked relief images of the deity Hapy and, to the right, a sculpture of the royal wife Tiy ( CC BY-SA 1.0 )

These Memnon statues are made from blocks of quartzite sandstone, which was quarried at el-Gabal el-Ahmar (near modern-day Cairo) and transported 675km (420mi) overland to Thebes in the south. Including the stone platforms on which they stand – themselves about 4m (13ft) – the colossi reach a towering 18m (60ft) in height and weigh an estimated 720 tons each, while the two figures are about 15m (50ft) apart.

Egyptologists disagree on the location where the Memnon statues were carved; while some believe that the statues were sculpted in the quarry and brought by boat to their present position, others suggest that the stone was brought to the location and the statues were made there. In any case, it is believed that Amenophis, Son of Habu, the great Egyptian architect, was responsible for the building operation of both the king’s memorial temple and his statues.

The two statues of Memnon

The two statues of Memnon ( Public Domain )

Originally the two statues were identical to each other, although inscriptions and minor art may have varied. But now they are quite damaged, with the features unrecognizable, the upper levels consist of a different type of sandstone, and are the result of a later reconstruction attempt by the Romans.

The function of the Memnon Colossi was to guard the entrance to Amenhotep III’s memorial temple: a massive construct built during the pharaoh’s lifetime, where he was worshipped as a god-on-earth both before and after his departure from this world. When it was built, this temple complex was the largest and most opulent in Egypt. Covering a total of 35 hectares (86 acres); even the Temple of Karnak, as it stood in Amenhotep’s time, was smaller.

Aerial view of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III

Aerial view of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III ( Public Domain )

The Israel Stele

It was here at the site of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple that Flinders Petrie, the British archaeologist, found the stele of Merneptah, son of Ramses II, which is now in the Cairo Museum, and is known as the Israel stele. Merneptah used a stele of Amenhotep III’s temple, to record on its other side the account of his victory over some Libyan invaders who came from the west, and included the Israelite among the Canaanite nations under his control. This is the only mention of “Israel” in any Egyptian text. However, while all other Canaanite nations mentioned in the Merneptah stele have a determined location, Israel has only a man and woman determinative – drawings show only a couple rather than a map – indicating that at that time they had not yet established a political entity, and were still semi-nomadic people.    

The Merneptah Stele, known as the Israel stela, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

The Merneptah Stele, known as the Israel stela, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Amenhotep III

Amenhotep III sat on the throne at the start of the 14th century BC, when he was just 12 years old. Although he married his infant sister Sitamun to gain the right to the throne according to Egyptian customs, Amenhotep married the girl he loved in his second year of reign, Tiye, the daughter of his minister Yuya, and insisted on making her his Great Royal Wife (Queen). To commemorate his marriage with Tiye, the king issued a large scarab and sent copies of it to foreign kings and princes. What shows how much the king loved Tiye is the fact that her name, unlike that of any other queen before, was placed in a royal cartouche, a distinction previously limited to the ruling Monarch. Furthermore, she is represented in art as being of equivalent stature to the king.

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