Essential Architecture-  Egypt

Colossi of Memnon






14th century BC


Ancient Egyptian




The Colossi of Memnon
New Kingdom: 18th Dynasty; Amenophis III's reign: 1391-1353 BCE

These two colossal statues (about 20 meters high) of the deified Amenophis III once flanked the entrance of the first pylon at the pharaoh's mortuary temple. The temple is now completely destroyed, ruined first by flood waters and later cannibalized for its stone. Both statues are damaged as well, lacking their faces and tall royal crowns.
These colossal statues illustrate the gigantism of much of Egyptian art. See also the colossal statue of Ramses in the Memphis Museum and the statues at the entrance of the Temple of Luxor.

The left (or Southern colossus)
This statue has Amenophis' wife, Queen Tiy, and mother (Mutememuia) on opposite sides of the base.

Details of the base of the left (South) Colossus
The thrones of both statues depict two Nile gods winding the papyrus and lotus, symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt, around the hieroglyph for "unite." This is a common motif; see, for example, the thrones for the figures at the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel.

Technically only the right (northern) statue should be called the colossus of Memnon. After an earthquake damaged it, this statue emitted strange sounds in the morning, perhaps due to the heat of the sun, or the humidity of the night. "The ancient Greeks looked for an explanation in the legendary story by Homer about Memnon, the son of Eos (Aurora) and Titon, who was killed by Achilles and reappeared in Thebes as a statue, and every morning lamented at the sight of his mother rising in the skies" (Siliotti 122).

The right (northern) statue
This statue was repaired in 199 CE; it sang no more.

Details of the right (north) statue

Work Cited: Alberto Siliotti. Guide to the Valley of the Kings. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.

With special thanks to the Digital Imaging Project
Images copyright Mary Ann Sullivan.

Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon (known to locals as el-Colossat, or es-Salamat) 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 Hapy.

The statues are made from blocks of quartzite sandstone which was quarried at either Giza (near modern-day Cairo) or Gebel el-Silsila (60 km north of Aswan). 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.