Located west of the modern city of Luxor and facing east toward the River Nile, standing at 60 ft high and weighing 720 tons each, these two monumental and imposing sandstone statues are known as the Colossi of Memnon. They represent Amenhotep III (1385-1353 BCE) of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt in all his glory. Here, the king is depicted as sitting on a throne engraved with imagery of his wife and mother, both symbolising rebirth.
The engravings, as previously mentioned, had more than just a decorative purpose. It was a form of art, like art today that had a purpose of instructing, warning, or advertising. These guardians were not only meant to protect the complex but through their symbolic engravings of the god Hapy a belief presided that this would allow the king to inhabit these statues through which he would receive strength and sustenance.
The engravings of running water, Papyrus and Lotus represent the celebrated god Hapi – these symbols signify fertility as the ancient Egyptians associated him with the annual flooding of the Nile – believing him to control the water during these floods meant that the Egyptians believed him to be responsible for the deposits of rich and fertile soil on the river’s bank which ensured the growth of crops – providing for the locals and sustaining their wealth. Due to this, he was entitled the ‘father of the gods’ as his caring nature maintained the balance of the cosmos. It is clear then why Amenhotep III would want to associate himself with this – it is a clever form of social propaganda as he is essentially calling himself the ‘father of the people’ by associating himself as Hapi’s representative on earth.
Amenhotep III reigned during the New Kingdom period (c.1570-1069 BCE), a period in which Egypt became a country of international power and wealth. He was only twelve years old when he came to the throne and married Tiye (an eleven year old who came from a respected family) – thankfully he inherited a prosperous and stable empire of substantial wealth and riches. His wife, Tiye was given the title of Great Royal Wife, one that Amenhotep III’s own mother had not gained, reflecting, as does these two statues, their power as a royal couple.
In ancient Egyptian history these statues were constructed to act as guardians of Amenhotep III’s mortuary complex that once stood behind them. It is said that Amenhotep’s mortuary complex was larger and grander than anything ever seen in Egypt. It covered 86 acres, including several rooms, halls, plateaus and porticos which apparently mirrored that of the Egyptian paradise, the Field of Reeds. Despite being rather unrecognisable the statues give only a glimpse of the complexes pervious magnificence – one can only imagine how awe inspiring it once was with its height and once clearly detailed engravings.
Sadly, little of the mortuary’s original foundation is left because it was destroyed by earthquakes, flooding from the River Nile, and the ancient Egyptian practice of using older monuments, buildings and materials to construct new structures. However, we are privileged that even these statues remain as it marks a period of wealth, success and substantial power that would otherwise have been forgotten from history.
Much like the engravings, religious beliefs and its height/width, the name of the statues is also significant. To name it after the Ethiopian King Memnon, is to associate Amenhotep III with historical legends, their authority and power that by definition remain in the memory of all generations. The Ethiopian King, Memnon, joined the battle at Troy on the side of the Trojans against the Greeks. Sadly, he was killed in battle by the Greek champion Achilles but his skill and courage elevated him to the status of a hero amongst the Greeks. The endurance of this tale in conjunction with the gravity of its grandeur implies a kind of visual form of propaganda, saying ‘here is your king who has the wealth, appearance and power of a god’ – no one could mistake from looking at this that everyone, both literate and illiterate, were meant to believe that Amenhotep III was Egypt’s powerful saviour.
How did these status come to be named so? Well according to some historians it was due to the power of Alexander the Great (332 BCE) who took over everything, including Egypt. As a result, the Greeks and Romans started to visit sites such as this and began to associate or believe that a place like this represented the characteristics or imagery of the Greek figure Memnon.
These stones were not only considered symbolic or representative but they were believed to possess magical powers because at dawn one statue sounded as if it was singing. The sound was high-pitched that came into existence after an earthquake destroyed part of it in 27 BCE. The Greek and Romans believed that this paralleled the story of Memnon in Homer’s Illiad – which recounts the time after his death when it is said his mother Eos, the goddess of dawn, lamented his death by shedding tears every morning. However, scientists have attributed this sound to a rise in heat and humidity in the cracks. This was proven to be true when a Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, repaired the damage in the second century and the sound disappeared.
It is only a quick stop on the River Nile but one worth making. It is too easy to think there is no point going as they are only two large statues but if you listen to your tour guide you will be welcomed by a wealth of history that can only enrich your understanding of and love for Egypt!
Thanks for reading 🙂