Memnon’s Musical Statues: The Long-Standing Guardians of Amenhotep III’s Temple That Found a Voice
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 ( 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.
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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 ( 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 ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
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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A marriage scarab of Amenhotep III ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Leaving the royal residence at Memphis, Amenhotep built a royal palace, Malkata, across the Nile at Thebes, close to his funerary temple, and a summer palace within the border city of Zarw in northern Sinai.
Amenhotep III’s rule, which extended for about 38 years at the start of the 14 th century BC, marked the zenith of ancient Egyptian civilization, both in terms of political power and cultural achievement. His reign was a period of unprecedented prosperity and artistic splendor, when Egypt reached the peak of its artistic and international power. His reign was one of peace and prosperity due to more international trade and strong gold supply, not conquest and expansion. In order to keep the empire he inherited between the northern River Euphrates and southern Nubia safe, the king also married some royal princesses from Mitanni, Babylonia and Anatolia, and had a large Harem of more than 300 women.
Before the end of his life, however, Amenhotep III suffered from some painful teeth problems, which his priests could not cure, so he brought the image of the Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar hoping that it could relieve his pain. The goddess, however, failed to cure Amenhotep III, who died at the age of 50.
Amenhotep III was followed on the throne by Amenhotep IV, his son from Queen Tiye whom he loved. The young king, who later changed his name to Akhenaten, abandoned the traditional Egyptian polytheism, introducing the worship of one God, Aten, who is not represented in an image.
As well as religion, Akhenaten also introduced a new kind of art that completely differed from the traditional Pharaonic art of his predecessors. Colossi and wall-reliefs from the Aten Temple are highly exaggerated in relation to the formality and restraint which characterized ancient Egyptian art.
Statue of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
The Musical Statues
With the exception of the damaged Memnon’s two Colossi, however, today very little remains of Amenhotep’s memorial temple in Western Thebes. As it stands on the edge of the Nile floodplain, successive inundations gnawed away at its foundations, and the Colossi were completely surrounded by water.
The Colossi of Memnon by Hubert Sattler ( Public Domain )
The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the early years of the first century AD, tells of an earthquake that took place in 27 BC, which shattered the northern colossus, collapsing it from the waist up. Following its rupture, the 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.
This was supposed to be the voice of mythological Memnon responding to the greeting of his mother, Eos, and they were equated by the early Greek travellers with the figure of Memnon, the son of Aurora whose mother, Eos, was the goddess of dawn. 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.
This curious phenomenon was attributed to the passage of air through the pores of the stone, caused chiefly by the change of temperature at sunrise. Nevertheless, following the restoration of the statue by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus before the end of the second century AD, the sounds ceased.
Memnon was said to be the son of Aurora; the goddess of the morning. Memnon was also a hero of the Trojan War, a King of Ethiopia who led his armies from Africa into Aria 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.
Memnon in an engraving by Bernard Picart (1673–1733) ( Public Domain )
In 2014 archaeologists discovered some missing parts of the Memnon Colossi statues, buried at the entrance of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. A European/Egyptian archaeological mission discovered a collection of quartzite blocks that belong to the northern colossus, including a part of the statue’s arm, a painted belt and a man’s wrap skirt, which helped archaeologists in reconstructing both colossi so it can be returned to their original glory.
The quartzite blocks from the colossi have been missing since an earthquake destroyed the mortuary temple in antiquity. Little remains now on the site, besides the statues, and various pieces of the statues are still lying on the site, threatened by constant irrigation of the privately-owned agricultural fields they stand on.
Top image: Colossi of Memnon, guarding the passage to Theban Necropolis; west-bank's section of Luxor, Egypt. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Copyright © 2015 Ahmed Osman
About the Author
Ahmed Osman is an Egyptian-born author who has been trying to find the link between the stories of the Bible and ancient Egyptian history. Born in Cairo in 1934, he studied law in the university before working as a journalist. He moved to London in 1965, where he joined the Egypt Exploration Society, and studied the history and language of ancient Egypt. He also taught himself biblical Hebrew, and researched the history of both the Bible and the Koran, before trying to look for origin of the biblical stories in Egyptian sources.
By Ahmed Osman