Colossi of Memnon: the huge statues that sang at dawn
Standing on the west bank of the Nile, opposite today’s Luxor, two huge stone statues with a few disquieting appearance have been observing for millennia the slow flow of the river, with its gaze turned towards the rising sun: they are the Colossi of Memnon.
The twin statues depict the pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Egypt during the Dynasty XVIII, about 3,400 years ago.
The sovereign is depicted in a seated position, his hands resting on his knees and his gaze facing eastwards towards the river sacred to the Egyptians. Two shorter figures are carved into the front throne alongside his legs: these are his wife Tiye and mother Mutemwiya. The side panels depict the Nile god Hapy.
Including the stone platforms on which they stand, themselves about 4 meters, the colossi reach a high 18 m in height and weigh an estimated 720 tons each.
The statues, at the time of their construction, were placed to guard at the entrance to Amenhotep’s memorial temple (or mortuary temple), a massive sacred construct built during the pharaoh’s lifetime, where he was worshipped as a god-on-earth.
In its day, this temple complex was the largest and most opulent in Egypt, covering a total of 35 hectares so much so that not even later sovereigns like Ramesses II and Ramesses III succeeded to match so much opulence.
Today, unfortunately, besides the Colossi, there is practically nothing left of the temple, because it stood right next to the floodplain of the Nile, which with its annual flooding gradually corroded its foundations. The huge complex was already in a state of decay when the pharaohs still reigned in Egypt, who probably used the stone blocks of the temple for other buildings. Only the two great statues were spared, although they were not in a good state of conservation.
There is a legend linked to one of the statues: it seems that in 27 BC. an earthquake caused the partial destruction of one of the Colossi: the upper part collapsed, while the lower part reported cracks. After the breakup, people began to hear a strange music coming from the lower half of the statue, usually at dawn.
Since ancient times, Greek and Roman travelers went to the place to hear the prodigious music. It was the Greeks who baptized the colossi with the name of Memnon, an Ethiopian king who fought bravely to defend Troy, eventually dying by Achilles. The hero was the son of Eos, the goddess of dawn, who, after her death, wept, every morning, tears of dew.
The sound produced by the statue was interpreted as a greeting from the dead king to his mother.
Probably the phenomenon was caused by the increase in temperature which, by evaporating the dew, produced a sound similar to a music.
Of course, the ancient travelers could not know that the statues represented a pharaoh who had been dead for over three thousand years, and they thought that its were dedicated to the mythical hero. The first reference to the statue that sang was made by the Greek historian and geographer Strabo, who claimed to have heard the music during a trip in 20 BC. Other travelers, such as the Greek Pausanias and the Romans Tacitus and Juvenal, described the phenomenon, so much so that the statue attributed oracular powers.
The fame achieved by the Colossus brought a steady stream of visitors, including several Roman emperors. Even today there are about 90 inscriptions of people who in ancient times had heard the sound emitted by the statue.
The last mention of the song dates back to 196 AD. A short time later, probably around 199, the statue was restored, apparently by order of the emperor Septimius Severus, who wanted to ingratiate himself with the oracle, but the music ceased forever.
Today, a modern road runs along the ruins of the ancient temple, just steps from the statues of Amenhotep III, now only a popular tourist attraction.