Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Snap shots

By Mohamed El-Hebeishy

SOME 1,000-tonne twin statues have been standing firm for more than 3,400 years at the entrance of the Theban Necropolis. Mohamed El-Hebeishy takes off the shroud around the Colossi of Memnon.

Amenhotep III ruled for about 40 years during the 18th Dynasty, his reign forever remembered as one of the most prosperous and stable of Ancient Egypt. With no major military activities save one expedition into Nubia, his was a diplomatic rule. International diplomacy thrived during Amenhotep's era with foreign trade substantially increased, with an augmented number of Egyptian goods being found on the Greek mainland. Speaking of monuments, Amenhotep III undertook a grandiose makeover of Karnak Temple, not to mention the mortuary temple he built for himself on the West Bank at Thebes. Though it was the largest and most lavish among Egypt's temples, it was built too close to the flood plains, so it was already in ruins by the 19th Dynasty. Guarding the temple and the whole of Thebes necropolis is the Colossi of Memnon. A twin statue of the Pharaoh in a seated position with his hands resting on his knees, a subtle gaze in the direction of the sun, and the Nile adds to the solemnity of the posture. Contemplating the details of the grander statues, you see rather smaller figures carved alongside the Pharaoh's legs. One is of his mother Mutemwiya while the other is of his Chief Queen Tiy, mother of Amenhotep's successor, Pharaoh Akhenaten.

As noted by the Greek historian and geographer Strabo in his writings around the first century, an earthquake struck the area in 27 BC causing a rupture to the northern colossus. As a result and with the effect of rising temperature and humidity, especially in the morning, the statue was re-marked for a bell-like sound. The sound evolved into a myth; hence the legend of Vocal Memnon was born. To marvel the miracle, travellers came from miles afar, and the Greeks associated the statue and its sound with Memnon, the son of Aurora whose mother Eos was the goddess of dawn. Royals, too, were intrigued by the legend. Roman Emperor Hadrian paid the Colossi a visit in 130 AD. Another Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, had the good intention of repairing the statue around 199 AD. Unfortunately, by repairing it, the vocalisation ceased and the Colossi of Memnon was forever silenced.

photo: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

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