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The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. For the past 3400 years they have stood in the Theban necropolis, across the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor.

The twin statues depict Amenhotep III (fl. 14th century BC) in a seated position, his hands resting on his knees and his gaze turned eastward toward the river and the rising sun. Two shorter figures are carved into the front throne alongside his legs: these are his wife Tiy and mother Mutemwiya. The side panels depict the Nile god Hapi.

The statues are made from blocks of quartzite sandstone which was stone quarried at either el-Gabal el-Ahmar (near modern-day Cairo) and near Edfu (north of Aswan) when reconstructed. Including the stone platforms on which they stand, they reach a towering 18 metres (approx. 60 ft) in height.

The original function of the Colossi was to stand guard at the entrance to Amenhotep's memorial temple (or mortuary temple): a massive cult centre built during the pharaoh's lifetime, where he was worshipped as a god-on-earth both before and after his departure from this world. In its day, this temple complex was the largest and most opulent in Egypt. Covering a total of 35 ha, even later rivals such as Ramesses II's Ramesseum or Ramesses III's Medinet Habu were unable to match it in area; even the Temple of Karnak, as it stood in Amenhotep's time, was smaller.

With the exception of the Colossi, however, very little remains today of Amenhotep's temple. Standing on the edge of the Nile floodplain, successive annual inundations gnawed away at the foundations – a famous 1840s lithograph by David Roberts shows the Colossi surrounded by water – and it was not unknown for later rulers to dismantle, purloin, and reuse portions of their predecessors' monuments.

The Greek historian and geographer Strabo, writing in the early years of the 1st century, tells of an earthquake (in 27 BC) that shattered the northern colossus, collapsing it from the waist up.

Following its rupture, this statue was then reputed to "sing" every morning at dawn: a light moaning or whistling, probably caused by rising temperatures and the evaporation of dew inside the porous rock. The legend of the "Vocal Memnon", the luck that hearing it was reputed to bring, and the reputation of the statue's oracular powers, travelled the length of the known world, and a constant stream of visitors, including several Roman Emperors, came to marvel at the statues. The mysterious vocalisations of the broken colossus ceased in 199, however, when Emperor Septimius Severus, in an attempt to curry favour with the oracle, reassembled the two shattered halves.

Memnon was a hero of the Trojan War, a King of Ethiopia who led his armies from Africa into Asia Minor to help defend the beleaguered city but was ultimately slain by Achilles. Whether associating the Colossi with his name was whimsy or wishful thinking on the part of the Greeks — they generally referred to the entire Theban Necropolis as the Memnonium — the name has remained in common use for the past 2000 years. The name Memnon means "Ruler Of The Dawn."

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September 2001

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