They located the Colossi of Memnon west of the modern city of Luxor and facing east toward the River Nile. These imposing sandstones stand at 60 ft high and weigh 720 tons each. 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 his wife and mother symbolise rebirth.
The Egyptian Engravings at The Colossi of Memnon
The engravings, as previously mentioned, had more than just a decorative purpose. It was a form of art, and like art today its purpose was to instruct, warn, and advertise. The symbolic engravings of the god Hapi are believed to allow the king to inhabit these statues. They also allow the king to protect the complex with Hapi’s strength and sustenance. This is made even more prominent by the engravings of running water, Papyrus and Lotus, representing the celebrated god Hapi.
These symbols signify fertility. This is significant as ancient Egyptians associated Hapi with the annual flooding of the Nile. They believed this god could control the water during these floods. Additionally, the Egyptians considered him to be responsible for the deposits of rich and fertile soil on the river’s bank. This, they believed, would ensure the growth of crops, providing for the locals and sustaining their wealth. Because of this, Hapi was entitled the ‘father of the gods’ as his caring nature maintained the balance of the cosmos. It is clear why Amenhotep III would want to associate himself with this powerful god. He would be able to support the welfare of his people and maintain the hierarchical order. This is a clever form of social propaganda, the Pharaoh is 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). This period saw in Egypt become a country of international power and wealth. Amenhotep III was only twelve years old when he came to the throne. He immediately 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. While his wife, Tiye was given the title of Great Royal Wife, one that Amenhotep III’s own mother had not gained. This again reflects, as do these two statues, their power as a royal couple.
The Colossi of Memnon, an Ancient Mortuary Complex
The Egyptians constructed these statues to act as guardians of Amenhotep III’s mortuary complex that once stood behind them. It is said that this 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 previous magnificence. I can only imagine how awe-inspiring it once was with its height and once 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.
The Importance of a Name
Much like the engravings, religious beliefs and the height/width of the statue, the name is also significant. To name it after the Ethiopian King Memnon is to associate Amenhotep III with historical legends. It aligns the Pharaoh with the legends’ 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 the statues, 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, believed that Amenhotep III was Egypt’s powerful saviour.
How did these statues come to be named so? Well, according to some historians it was because of 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.
The Magical Statues at the Colossi of Memnon
These were symbolic or representative. They were also believed to possess magical powers because at dawn one statue sounded as if it was singing. The sound was high-pitched and it came into existence after an earthquake destroyed part of the statue in 27 BCE. The Greek and Romans believed that this paralleled the story of Memnon in Homer’s Iliad.
This story 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.
Is it worth visiting the Colossi of Memnon?
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!
If you enjoyed reading, check out my other post about Luxor and Karnak Temples, Abu Simbel, or Valley of the Kings! And be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out on another inspiring travel article!