Singing Colossi of Memnon in Luxor
The Colossi of Memnon are two huge statues 18 meters high and weighing over 700 tons each. This is the first sight tourists see on the west bank of the Nile near the city of Luxor (in ancient Thebes). This area is called the “city of the dead”, during the New Kingdom in the history of Egypt there were tombs and memorial temples of the pharaohs.
Warning. As of mid-September 2021 the Colossi of Memnon are open to visitors. However, there is a possibility that they will soon be closed. The fact is that in early April 2021 archaeologists discovered a settlement behind the colossi, which they are now actively digging. If the excavations “reach” the Colossus, they will be temporarily closed to tourists. But we hope that this will not happen.
Already after the colossi of Memnon tourists see the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the Valley of the Kings and Queens and the famous tomb of Tutankhamun. The colossi seem to greet visitors and let them know that the tour is sure to be interesting.
Once upon a time there was a grandiose memorial temple to Pharaoh Amenhotep III of the 18th dynasty. Supposedly, the statues depict him himself, but the faces are too badly damaged for sure identification.
The temple is believed to have been of record size – 35 hectares, roughly equivalent to a square with sides of 600 meters. Amenhotep III built it as the largest, planning an area even larger than that of the Karnak temple.
It is now difficult to determine the veracity of these figures. The temple was not very well located, and after its construction it was flooded with water during the floods of the Nile. Very quickly the temple ceased to function and fell into disrepair. The riverbed of the Nile in this place often changes, back in 1840, the famous lithographer David Roberts photographed the Colossi of Memnon, and in his picture the statues are surrounded by water.
The pharaohs of the next XIX dynasty armed with the principle “do not waste the good” and organized from the temple of Amenhotep III great stone quarry. The greatest contribution to the stripping of the temple made Ramses II, and “finished off” the temple Pharaoh Mernaptah.
But the Colossi were not touched. Do not think that subsequent pharaohs left the statues because of deep respect for the predecessor, the reason is different – the Colossi were made of solid blocks of limestone, they had to be sawed to pieces.
Who is Memnon?
The name “Colossi of Memnon” is Greek and has nothing to do with the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians themselves called the southern statue as “King of Kings”, apparently the Colossi made a lasting impression. The Arabs who conquered Egypt in the 7th century called these statues “Shammi and Tammi”. Modern Arabs call them “el-Colossat.”
It is no secret that the sights of Egypt have been the object of excursion tourism since ancient times. Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed coming to see the Great Pyramids, temples and other monuments of ancient Egypt.
Colossi became famous in the ancient world after the earthquake of 27 BC, when the northern statue was severely damaged – all the upper part fell off. And after that, the lower part that was left in place began to make sounds. Because the sound was heard at dawn, the Greeks called the statues “Colossi of Memnon.”
Memnon is the king of the Ethiopians who came with an army to help defend Troy. In the battle he killed the Greek warrior Antilochus (do not laugh), but he himself fell at the hands of Achilles. Memnon was the son of Eos (Aurora in the Roman pantheon), the goddess of dawn. According to Greek legend, the morning dew is the tears of Eos for her dead son. And the sounds from the Colossi in the morning were thought by the Greeks to be the lament of the goddess Eos for her lost son.
History of the Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon stood at the entrance to the funerary temple of Amenhotep III. Their construction was a true engineering marvel for their era. They were carved from solid blocks of limestone, which is clearly visible in the photo below). Each statue weighed about 720 tons, and the block must have weighed about 1,000 tons.
Studies of the structure of the stone have shown that the blocks were mined at either Giza or El Gabal el-Ahmar. Both of these sites are near modern Cairo – 700 kilometers from Luxor. How could the ancient Egyptians transport them over such a distance? A big mystery.
There are two hypotheses about it. The first says that the Egyptians built wooden barges around the blocks. Then they waited for the tide of the Nile, the barges were afloat and floated to the city of Thebes (modern Luxor). This hypothesis is quite plausible, it takes a barge with a displacement of 1000 tons to lift a load of 1000 tons. A barge with such a displacement is now considered small (see photo), and the Egyptians were able to build something like that.
The second version is that the blocks were too heavy to be transported by river, and they were pulled by land. This version is not very plausible, although very popular. As an example, consider a large marble stone in the Forbidden City. Weight of this stone is 250 tons, and it really could be transported on the ground at a distance of more than 100 kilometers. This process has been documented, and we know for a fact that it was pulled by 10,000 mules and 20,000 workers. And then how many draught animals and people had to pull a block weighing 1,000 tons? And you also have to consider that the Chinese were pulling their 250-ton block on ice, which made the task a lot easier. In Egypt they would have had to pull the block on the ground or sand, which is much more difficult. Given the factors above, the hypothesis of transportation by land seems absurd.
The blocks were delivered to the site, the figures of Pharaoh Amenhotep III were carved from them, and the Colossi stood at the entrance to the temple. Then the temple was damaged by the Nile River flood, and the following pharaohs stripped it for building materials. The Colossi of Memnon remained standing until 27 BC, when they were damaged by an earthquake.
After the earthquake, the Colossi of Memnon began to make sounds and became famous throughout the ancient world. Even the emperors of Rome came here. In 130 Emperor Hadrian, and in 199 Emperor Septimius Severus visited here. The colossi did not make a sound every day, and to hear their song was considered a good sign, and not to hear it was a bad omen.
Emperor Septimius Sever heard no sound and decided to do something good for the Colossi. He ordered the northern statue to be restored. The upper part of the northern Colossus was reassembled from five tiers of limestone blocks (pictured above), which had already been brought from Edfu. After this restoration, the Colossi of Memnon were silenced forever.
Why did the Colossi of Memnon sing?
Scientists can only guess at the causes of the sounds. And there is not even an exact description of them, there are several records of travelers. The ancient Greek historian Strabo visited Colossae in 20 BC, he described the sounds “as thumps”. And the Greek geographer Pausanias wrote, “sounds like the string of a lyre,” but he was visiting Egypt almost 200 years after Strabo. These facts hint to us that the sound from the Colossi of Memnon may have changed over time.
There are two main theories about the cause of the sounds. The first is that the statues absorbed water at night, and with the first rays of sunlight the moisture evaporated, hence the sounds. The second is that the sound is caused by the wind rubbing against the surface of the statue. The second version is not at all plausible, as it does not explain why the sounds were only heard at dawn.
How to get there
99% of tourists visit the sights of Luxor as part of tour groups. However, you can also come here on your own. To get to Luxor in a reasonable time is only possible from Hurghada. Read our detailed article “From Hurghada to Luxor and back”.
From the city of Luxor there are ferries crossing the Nile River and the pier is located near the Museum of Mummification. The ticket price is 5 Egyptian pounds. Once you get to the west bank, move in the direction of the Nile River and you will get to the Colossi.
The Colossi of Memnon – the ancient guardians of the temple of Amenhotep III
The Colossi of Memnon are all that remains of the ancient temple of Amenhotep III. For almost 3500 years they have steadfastly guarded the long-destroyed temple.
Two giant stone sculptures stand 15 meters from each other at the entrance of the nonexistent burial temple. They keep silent the ancient secrets and … attract a mass of tourists from all over the world.
Where are they
The Colossi of Memnon are located near the city of Luxor in eastern Egypt. They are built 3 kilometers from the famous Nile. Both statues face this river.
What do the Colossi of Memnon look like
These are two imposing stone statues from the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. He was the head of Egypt in the years 1388-1351 BC. e. This time belongs to the 18th dynasty of pharaohs.
An interesting fact – the reign of Amenhotep III was a time of prosperity and peace for Egypt. Historians claim that at this time there were no major wars, and the country prospered in art and construction.
Both statues resemble each other. The height together with the pedestal reaches up to 18 meters. Each colossus weighs about 720 tons.
They are built of sandstone. Interestingly, there is no such material in the area, so they had to bring it from the quarry of El Gabal el-Ahmar. The area is now within the boundaries of modern Cairo and translates as “Red Hill”. It is located 675 kilometers north of the colossus of Memnon.
So how did they get the giant stone blocks here? They were very heavy. It was impossible to transport them upstream on the Nile. Eventually the stones were dragged overland to Thebes (modern Luxor).
Now both statues are badly damaged. It is believed that originally these statues were identical to each other. Only the inscriptions and some bas-reliefs differed.
Where did the name come from?
The Arabic name of this place is Kom el-Khatan, but the name Colossi of Memnon is better known. This name appeared when the first Greeks arrived here. They asked what these statues were, and the locals answered “menna. That was the usual name for statues of sitting pharaohs. But the Greeks, for some reason, began to associate these statues with Memnon, the hero of the Trojan War. His name means Resilient, Determined. He led his army to defend the besieged Troy. In a duel with the legendary Achilles, Memnon died. But the Greeks honor his name to this day.
Gradually, the name Colossi of Memnon became known around the world.
History of the Colossi of Memnon
The statues, like the funerary temple of Amenhotep III itself, were built in the 14th century BC.
What the true size of the entire complex is unknown. But it was definitely very large. According to archaeological data, the entire temple occupied an area of about 35 hectares. At that time, it was the largest temple in Egypt. Even the famous Karnak temple was inferior in size.
This may have been the funerary temple of Amenhotep III.
Unfortunately, after some time, the Nile floods began to undermine the building. It was killed by an earthquake around 1200 BC. This earthquake opened many holes in the ground, and many statues were buried in them.
Excavations have shown that the complex consisted of three pylons. On each stood giant statues, and the entire courtyard was surrounded by columns. About 200 statues and their fragments are preserved in the Luxor Museum.
Many of the stones and fragments of the ruined sanctuary were dismantled by the locals in ancient times.
It is noteworthy that of the entire complex survived only two statues. But they are significantly damaged as well.
It is believed that the southern statue is Amenhotep III himself. He is depicted sitting with his hands on his knees. At his feet two figures are carved. One depicts his wife Tiy and the other his mother Mutemui.
Tii is the wife of Amenhotep III.
On the sides we can see the god of the Nile, Hapi.
The drawings on the sides of the statue throne
The colossi of Memnon once sang.
Or rather, only one of the statues sang.
In 27 BC there was an earthquake. It half destroyed the northern statue. Almost all of its upper part was destroyed, and a crack formed in the lower part. Since then people began to occasionally hear mysterious sounds coming from the statue. Usually it was 1-2 hours after sunrise. Most often the sounds appeared in February and March.
The first relatively reliable accounts of the singing colossus date back to 20 B.C. The reports of Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer, mention a strange sound that came from the statue at sunrise. He described it as a “thump.”
It is interesting that people have heard different sounds. For example, other researchers and scholars have compared the sound to the “bursting of a lyre string,” the thumping of brass, or just a whistling sound.
Why did the colossus sing and become silent?
There is no exact explanation as to where the sound came from. But there are several versions.
Perhaps the sound appeared just at dawn because of the increase in ambient temperature and the natural evaporation of dew in the porous structure of the statue. Most likely, it was the earthquake that created the conditions in which such a confluence of circumstances produced the sound. Or it was the wind that created such unreal sounds.
In favor of this theory is the fact that similar sounds are sometimes made by other Egyptian statues. Although much weaker.
There is speculation that these sounds are of artificial origin. To put it simply, people were reproducing certain noises. However, it is not clear why this was done. Maybe in order to create a halo of mystery to ancient statues, and accordingly to become famous all over the world.
It must be said that this version is highly unlikely. In 199 AD by order of the Roman Emperor Septemius Severus the northern statue was partially reconstructed. Several rows of stone blocks created a semblance of the original statue. Since then, no more sounds have been heard.
Partially restored northern statue
An interesting fact is that the original remains of this statue were never found. Therefore, it had to be restored with other blocks. As a reminder, the locals took away many of the stones for their own needs.
The last appearance of mystical sounds was noted in 196 AD.
Incidentally, Emperor Septemius, having visited the colossi of Memnon, did not hear any sounds. He began the reconstruction of the northern statue in the hope of pleasing the oracle. In those times, the oracles were highly esteemed not only by ordinary people, but also by the rulers.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the appearance of sounds was again reported. But these data are most likely unreliable and created to attract tourists or just as an extra reminder of the former glory of the singing Colossi.