August 9, 2013

The Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon
In the immense plain around Thebes between the Nile and the Valley of the Kings, one can still admire what remains of the monumental avenue which used to lead to the temple of Amon-Ofis III. The temple has unfortunately disappeared and what remains are commonly referred to as the «colossi of Memnon». These two gigantic statues, 20 metres high with feet 2 metres long and 1 metre thick, were cut out of single blocks of sandstone and represent Pharaoh seated on his throne with his hands on his knees. The more southerly colossus, although appreciably damaged, has suffered less than the other one. Certain legends have become attached to the latter. It would seem that in the year 27 B.C. an earthquake which shook all the monuments at Thebes split open this enormous block of stone and the upper half, down to the waist, fell to the ground. However some historians attribute this damage to the vandalism of Cambyses, which seems more likely as Egypt has never been a country prone to earthquakes.

The Colossi of Memnon
It was observed that every morning at sunrise the remains of the statue gave out an indefinite and prolonged sound and some travellers believed that they heard a sad but harmonious song. The Greek poets quickly grafted a legend, not lacking in charm, into this strange story which was attested to by the great historians such as Strabonius, Pausanias, Tacitus, Lucianus and Philostrates. The «singing stone» they said represented Memnon, the mythical son of Aurora and Tithon, and king of Egypt and Ethiopia. Sent by his father to the aid of Troy besieged by the Greeks he covered himself in glory by killing An- tiloques, son of Nestor, but in his turn be succombed to the vengeful hand of Achilles. The tearful Aurora beseeched the powerful Jupiter to resuscitate her son at least once a day. Thus it is that each morning while Aurora caressed her son with her rays, he replied to his unconsolable mother by emitting a long plaintive cry...

The Colossi of Memnon
In spite of the poetic charm of this legend the phenomenon had thoroughly natural causes. The sounds emitted were due to the vibrations produced at the broken surface by the sudden transition from the cold of the night resulting from the heat generated by the first rays of the sun. History seems moreover to justify this scientific explanation. In fact no author before Strabonius mentions the «singing» of the Memnon colossus, while those who do lived between the date when the statue was broken and its restoration by Septimus Severus (193-221 A.D.). Engraved on the legs of the colossus are to be found numerous and in some cases very odd inscriptions added over the course of the centuries. One of them is conceived in these terms: «Take note, Oh Theis, thou who reignest over the waters, that Memnon still lives and, warmed by the maternal flame, he lifts up his sonorous voice at the foot of the Libyan mountains in Egypt at the point where the Nile divides Thebes of the beautiful gates in two; while, thou Achilles, formerly so insatiable for battle, art now silent both on the fields of Troy and on the mountains of Thessaly ».

The Colossi of Memnon

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