Beyond Memnon

The towering Colossi of Memnon are among the most impressive of the ancient monuments that dot the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor. Yet few visitors are aware that these magnificent sculptures are but two of countless statues that once graced the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III—in its day, the largest and most lavishly appointed mortuary temple in the whole of Thebes, then capital of New Kingdom Egypt. Erected in the fourteenth century b.c., the Colossi of Memnon, portraits of the Dynasty XVIII pharaoh Amenhotep III (1391–1353 b.c.), mark the entrance to what was once a vast temple precinct. Today, traces of the temple can still be discerned in a swath of discolored earth that stretches some 700 meters along a modern road that traverses a patchwork of cultivated fields at the edge of the desert plateau. Considered among the largest sculptural programs ever carried out in Egypt, the temple complex was composed of three enormous mud-brick pylons, the innermost linked to a Great Peristyle Court by a long processional way that in antiquity was likely lined with sphinxes. Colossal statues carved in quartzite and alabaster stood in front of each of the pylons. The entire precinct was enclosed by a mud-brick wall. Until recently, however, it was thought that beyond the Colossi of Memnon, a few scattered architectural fragments, and faint soil stains, little survived of the temple at Kom el-Hettan, thought to have been toppled by an earthquake sometime in the thirteenth century b.c. Not long after the collapse, temple remains began to be harvested for a host of new Theban building projects, including the Mortuary Temple of Dynasty XIX pharaoh, Merenptah (r. 1212–1202 b.c.). Statues, stelae, and religious paraphernalia were readily appropriated for reuse in other West Bank temples.

Following an earthquake in 27 b.c. the northernmost of the colossi collapsed, and, at sunrise, began to produce an eerie musical sound that early Greek travelers interpreted as the mythical half-mortal Memnon calling out to his mother Etos, goddess of the dawn. Visitors came from far and wide to hear the song, including the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Empress Sabine, who had to wait several days before the statue called out to them in a.d. 130. he bust was restored in the Roman period and mounted on huge sandstone blocks. According to legend, Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 a.d.), seeking to repair the colossus, inadvertently silenced it forever. It was from this strange phenomenon—thought to have been caused by a daily rise in heat and humidity—that the statue took its name, which now applies to both of the first pylon figures. Over the millennia, Kom el-Hettan continued to be pillaged, most recently in the early nineteenth century when collectors and agents working on behalf of French and British consuls “discovered the site” seeing it as a rich source of museum-grade antiquities. Among the finds recovered during this period were two superb quartzite heads of Amenhotep and two dark granite seated royal statues that were sold to the British Museum. Another huge head of pink granite was acquired by the Louvre along with a pair of colossal royal feet resting on a statue base and figures representing Egyptian deities such as Sekhmet, goddess of pestilence and healing.

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