The Colossi of Memnon: Why Did the Giant Statue Sing at Dawn?

The Colossi of Memnon: Why Did the Giant Statue Sing at Dawn?

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The Colossi of Memnon are a pair of giant statues made of stone that are located in the Theban Necropolis in Luxor, Upper Egypt. The statues were made during the 14th century BC, during the period in ancient Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. The best-known legend about the Colossi of Memnon is that of the ‘ Vocal Memnon ,’ in which one of the statues was reputed to ‘sing’ every morning at dawn.

The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Who Created the Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon were built during the reign of Amenhotep III , a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who ruled Egypt during the 14th century BC. The statues, which are each about 20 meters (65.62 ft.) in height, are made of quartzite sandstone. The stone is thought to have been quarried either from El-Gabal el-Ahmar (near Cairo) or from Gebel el-Silsileh (near Aswan), and then transported by land to Luxor. The statues depict Amenhotep III in a seated position, with their hands resting on their knees, and their faces facing the Nile in the east.

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Amenhotep III's Sitting Colossi of Memnon, Theban Necropolis, Luxor, Egypt. (merydolla /Adobe Stock)

The Name and Purpose of the Egyptian Colossi of Memnon

The original function of the colossi was to serve as guardians at the entrance of the pharaoh’s mortuary temple. When it was completed, this temple complex was one of the largest and most luxurious in the land. Today, however, little is left of the mortuary temple, and its foundations were gradually damaged by the annual flooding of the Nile , which led to the temple being demolished, and its stone blocks re-used for other structures. The colossi were spared this fate, though they also suffered extensive damage over the millennia.

The Colossi of Memnon in front of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III's mortuary temple. ( Ancient Egypt )

The colossi were named ‘Memnon’ towards the end of the 1st century BC. Memnon was a hero who lived during the time of the Trojan War . As the King of Ethiopia, Memnon led his soldiers to Troy, where they fought against the Greeks on the side of the Trojans. He was eventually slain by Achilles.

According to legend, Memnon was the son of Eos, the goddess of dawn. On learning of her son’s death, Eos wept, which is said to form the morning dew.

‘Statues of Memnon at Thebes during the flood,’ David Roberts. (1848) The statues in Luxor, Egypt have been impacted by the annual flooding of the Nile.

The Ancient Egyptian Statue Sings at Dawn

Eos’ weeping was associated with the sound said to have been produced by one of the colossi at dawn. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, in 27 BC, a strong earthquake caused the top half of the northern colossus to collapse, and its lower portion to crack. As a consequence of this, the statue began to ‘sing,’ i.e. emitted a light moaning or whistling sound each morning as the Sun rose.

In order to explain this phenomenon, the ancient Greek and Roman travelers to the site began to associate the colossi with the legendary Memnon. The ‘singing’ of the colossus, therefore, was said to have been made by Eos mourning for her dead son. Alternatively, it was believed that the sounds were the cries of Memnon greeting his mother.

Ahmed Osman notes that “Whether associating the Colossi with his name was just 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.”

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Antonio Beato, Colossi of Memnon, Egypt, 19th century. Brooklyn Museum.

A natural explanation for the signing or wailing phenomenon has been put forward. It has been suggested that due to the increase in temperature at dawn, the dew inside the porous rock evaporates, thus causing the statue to ‘sing.’

Silencing ‘Memnon’

Some believed that it was good luck to hear the statue ‘sing,’ while others were of the opinion that the statue was an oracle. With this in mind, the Colossi of Memnon was a popular tourist attraction and many ancient travelers visited it, including several Roman emperors. One of these was Septimius Severus, who reigned between the end of the 2nd century AD and the beginning of the 3rd century AD.

Drawing of the ancient Egyptian Colossi of Memnon. (Wellcome images/ CC BY 4.0 )

According to local tradition, the emperor visited the Colossi of Memnon in 199 AD. During his visit, Septimius Severus decided to repair the broken statue by having the two halves re-connected. This caused the statue to stop ‘singing’ forever. Nevertheless, the Colossi of Memnon still remain a tourist attraction even today.

The Magnificent Colossi of Memnon: The most imposing ancient Egyptian statues still standing

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The Colossi of Memnon, aka El-Colossat, es-Salamat, are two MASSIVE stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned during Dynasty XVIII. The statues are made of blocks of quartzite sandstone which were quarried at El-Gabal el-Ahmar and transported –incredibly— 675 km to their current position, in the Theban necropolis.

The statues, however, have nothing to do with Memnon, technically. Memnon, who was a hero of the Trojan War, the King of Ethiopia was eventually slain by Achilles. Memnon was only associated with the colossi because of the reported cry at dawn of the northern statue which became known as the Colossus of Memnon.

In time. The Theban Necropolis became generally referred to as the Memnonium.

These imposing ancient Egyptian statues have remained in the Theban necropolis, west of the River Nile for the past 3400 years, since 1350 B.C.

Two gigantic 18-meter-tall twin statues depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III in a sedentary position facing East, the Nile and the sunrise.

The statues were made of blocks of quartzite sandstone which were quarried at El-Gabal el-Ahmar and transported –incredibly— 675 km overland to Thebes. The blocks were apparently too heavy to be transported upstream on the River Nile.

The purpose of the statues was to guard the entrance to Amenhotep’s memorial temple (or mortuary temple): a massive cult center built during the pharaoh’s lifetime, where he was worshiped as a god-on-earth both before and after his departure from this world.

Antonio Beato, Colosses de Memnon, 19th century. Brooklyn Museum Source

It seems that in origin both were exactly alike, but today they are not, as a result of a restoration undertaken in Roman times.

In 27 BC. An earthquake toppled much of the northern colossus.

From then on, the bottom that remained standing began to ‘sing’ every morning at sunrise. That curious fact was recorded by historians Strabo and Pausanias.

The first stated that the sound was very much like a blow, while the second compares it to that of the string of a lyre when it breaks.

Strabo is the one who gives us the first mention of the fact in historical literature, also assuring to have been witness to the phenomenon during his visit in around 20BC.

As it turns out, the legend spread virally that even several Roman emperors wanted to see and hear it for themselves.

The last reliable mention of the sounds dates from the year 196 A.D. The Roman reconstruction that took place around 199 AD seems to have ‘fixed’ the phenomenon after which the sounds were no longer present.

Emperor Septimius Severus, who visited the Colossi of Memnon, was not able to hear the sounds.

Two types of explanations for the ‘sounds of the statue have been pointed out.

Strabo suggested that he had not been able to determine its origin, whether it came from the pedestal or was produced by people walking at the base.

These two theories, the natural and the one saying it was produced by man, have never been proven.

If it was a natural phenomenon, it was probably produced by changes in temperature and the evaporation of water which, when passing through the fissures, produced the sound.

And if it was produced by man, it is not explained why the sounds ceased after the Roman reconstruction. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there have been some reports of travelers who claimed to have heard the sound, but none of the reports were fully convincing.

The Colossi of Memnon were built during the reign of Amenhotep III, a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (the New Kingdom), during the 14th century BC.

Although they look as if they are standing randomly in the middle of nowhere, they actually used to guard the entrance of the first pylon of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III.

The Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III was one of the largest temples built in Egypt.

The Construction of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III

Amenhotep III built on a grand scale.

The mortuary temple, constructed not far from his tomb, was the grandest of all mortuary temple complexes built in Egypt. It originally included three massive mud-brick pylons, or gates, aligned on a single axis, and a long connecting corridor leading to an immense, open solar courtyard, a roofed hall, a sanctuary, and sacred altars.

The temple contained hundreds of freestanding statues, sphinxes, and massive steles—tombstone-like slabs of stone, once carved with descriptions of Amenhotep III’s building achievements.

The temple complex was enormous. It measured 328 feet (100 meters) wide by 1,968 feet (600 meters) in length, longer than five American football fields placed end to end.

By the way, this picture is from the sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor. For me, it was one of the best experiences I ever had! Do not miss it! Make sure to check out my post: Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Luxor – A Bucket List Experience.

READ: Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Luxor – A Bucket List Experience

Now, going back to the construction of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III.

Unfortunately, the location of the temple was too close to the River Nile. Each year, when the Nile flooded it would fill the temple. Needless to say, the repeated flooding caused an extensive water damage to the architecture and statuary. It is estimated that by the 19th Dynasty, the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III was in ruins. An earthquake in 27 BC further contributed to the damage. Lastly, the pillaging of stone and statuary for reuse in other projects left the temple in a complete ruin.

The only two items remaining, also, in relatively poor condition and barely recognizable, are the two statues, called the Colossi of Memnon.

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

There’s not much left to see, but that doesn’t stop most visitors to Luxor from making a quick pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon.

Ravaged by earthquakes, looters and time itself, the crumbling statues you see today are nothing compared to their past glory. When they were first built, they were painted with bright white, red, brown, blue and even some golden gilding to set off key areas.

Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

Amenhotep III (who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, from 1386-1353 BCE) sits on his throne, while smaller statues of his chief wife, Tiye, and his mother stand between his legs. Carved from single pieces of sandstone, the statues rise 60 feet into the air and weigh 720 tons. Situated on the West Bank of the Nile, they guarded the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple.

The giants weren’t alone, though. Just beyond was another pair of colossi, and then another pair through the next pylon. Each pair got smaller than its predecessors, as you moved into the depths of the temple.

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

This colossi were not only there to instill awe in viewers — they were also representations of fertility and the life-giving abundance of the River Nile. During the annual flood, the water would rush past the giants, flowing along the avenue of sphinxes and into the temple itself. Only the innermost sanctuary was protected, having been built on a slight elevation.

After months of being partially submerged, the colossi would re-emerge as symbols of rebirth.

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

While Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is in much better shape today, Amenhotep’s was originally much larger and more impressive. It was even said to rival the massive Karnak complex.

Archaeological evidence shows that there were once hundreds of stone statues within the temple. These depicted not only the pharaoh but various gods that would protect him in the afterlife: Osiris, the lord of the underworld, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess with healing powers, and sphinxes bearing the jackal head of Anubis, who oversaw the mummification process. (Learn how — and why — Ancient Egyptians created mummies.)

The temple would have been filled with priests worshipping the statues and offering food, drink and some of the finer luxury items the king was used to in this life and would want to enjoy in death as well.

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

For a while, the northern giant had been damaged in such a way that when the wind blew through, it made a whistling noise that some mistook for singing. People believed that it happened every morning at dawn and they would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its supposedly prophetic whispering. (Popular thought now is that it was dew drying in the cracks of the porous stone.)

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus visited the site but didn’t hear the singing. In a misguided attempt to curry favor with the oracle, he repaired the colossus in 196 or 199 CE. It’s a total bummer, but after the renovation, the colossus never again sang its quiet soothsaying song.

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

If these colossi depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III, why are they now called Memnon? During the Trojan War, Ethiopia’s King Memnon joined the side of Troy to battle the Greeks. He was killed by the famous demigod hero Achilles but was admired for his courage and fighting prowess. When Greek tourists visited this site, they mistook Amenhotep for Memnon — in part because they thought the singing might be that of Memnon’s mother, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, lamenting the loss of her son. The name stuck.

An illustration from Description de l'Égypte, 1809-1828

Sadly, all that remains of this once-stunning temple are the crumbling, now-silent colossi that stood guard out front. –Wally

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Colossi of Memnon

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In the Footsteps of Pharaohs: Exploring Ancient Egypt

In the Footsteps of Pharaohs: Exploring Ancient Egypt

Since 1350 B.C., these ancient Egyptian statues have loomed over the Theban Necropolis. Though battered by more than 3,400 years of scorching desert sun and sporadic Nile floods, they’ve captivated the imaginations of curious travelers for millennia.

The twin colossi (which no longer resemble twins) depict the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled during the 18th Dynasty. They once flanked the entrance to his lost mortuary temple, which at its height was the most lavish temple in all of Egypt. Their faded side panels depict Hapy, god of the nearby Nile.

Though centuries of floods reduced the temple to no more than looted ruins, these statues have withstood any disaster nature throws their way. In 27 B.C., an earthquake shattered the northern colossus, collapsing its top and cracking its lower half. But strangely, the damaged statue did more than merely survive the catastrophe: After the earthquake, it also found its voice.

At dawn, when the first ray of desert sun spilled over the baked horizon, the shattered statue would sing. Its tune was more powerful than pleasant a fleeting, otherworldly song that evoked mysterious thoughts of the divine. By 20 BC, esteemed tourists from around the Greco-Roman world were trekking across the desert to witness the sunrise acoustic spectacle. Scholars including the likes of Pausanias, Publius, and Strabo recounted tales of the statue’s strange sound ringing through the morning air. Some say it resembled striking brass, while others compared it to the snap of a breaking lyre string.

The unearthly song is how these ancient Egyptian statues wound up with a name borrowed from ancient Greece. According to Greek mythology, Memnon, a mortal son of Eos, the goddess of Dawn, was slain by Achilles. Supposedly, the eerie wail echoing from the cracked colossus’ chasm was him crying to his mother each morning. (Modern scientists believe early morning heat caused dew trapped within the statue’s crack to evaporate, creating a series of vibrations that echoed through the thin desert air.)

Sadly, well-intentioned Romans silenced the song in the third century. After visiting the storied statues and failing to hear their ephemeral sounds, Emperor Septimius Severus, reportedly attempting to gain favor with the oracular monument, had the fractured statue repaired. His reconstructions, in addition to disfiguring the statue so the fixtures no longer looked like identical twins, robbed the colossus of its famous voice and rendered its song a lost acoustic wonder of the ancient world.

Know Before You Go

For the past couple of decades, a full excavation of the temple site has been undertaken, and still continues — note the white fence in the distance beyond the colossi, which serves to keep visitors from accidentally falling into excavation trenches.

My picture of the Colossi of Memnon, 1350 BCE

The Colossi of Memnon originally stood at the front of the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III, which is basically gone. If you visit, you can see how close the statues sit to the Nile — it’s believed that being on the floodplain eroded the foundations, resulting in its collapse.

Of course, these depict Amenhotep III, and not “Memnon,” who is a figure from stories of the Trojan War. The Romans gave these statues their name, as they became quite the tourist attraction in those days.

It’s said that the statue on the right would “sing” in the morning, likely because of cracks in the rock caused by an earthquake. Most famously, the Roman Emperor Hadrian made a visit here — a poet named Julia Balbilla came with his entourage, and inscribed several poems about the statue and Hadrian hearing it sing. The poems are still visible on the rock, along with graffiti from many other ancient tourists who would write about whether or not they heard the singing.

Side note: I believe Hadrian’s visit was part of the same trip where his lover, a young man named Antinous, fell in the Nile and drowned. Hadrian was devastated and deified Antinous. There’s a massive amount of sculptures depicting him.

Restoration work on the Northern Colossus under the later Emperor Septimius Severus sealed the crack. The reconstruction is quite noticeable, as you can see the body of the statue on the right is made up of blocks. These were likely quarried at a location near Edfu.

A series of increasingly smaller pairs of statues stood farther back into the Mortuary Temple. There’s still a lot of work going on at the complex — you can make out a little of it in the bottom right corner of the picture.

These statues remain a big tourist attraction to this day, but it’s usually a very short stop — there isn’t much around them.

The Sound Phenomenon for Colossi of Memnon

Because of the earthquake that causes the damage in the northern part of the statues, there has always been a sound of singing like the sound of a lyre. As a result, every dawn, there is a singing sound comes out of the statues. To repair the damage that happened to Amenhotep’s statues, there had to be some specific procedures to save them from collapsing & vanishing just like Amenhotep’s complex.

FACT: An Ancient Egyptian statue supposedly sung at dawn

The Colossi of Memnon were built near what’s now Luxor around 1350 BCE, and they originally stood guard over the palatial memorial grounds of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Depicting Amenhotep in the style of Osiris, the statues stood 26 feet high and were carved from a single block of quartzite sandstone that came from hundreds of miles away.

The temple and other structures around the complex didn’t last very long: around 1200 BC, an earthquake did away with everything but the Colossi. In 27 BC, another earthquake hit and shattered the northern Colossus, collapsing it from the waist up and cracking the lower half.

But the legacy of the Colossi was actually just getting started. Around the time of the BCE to AD switch, the Greek historian Strabo reported that one of the Colossi was known to sing.

This phenomenon—which occurred only at the break of dawn—sparked a tourist craze, and visitors left ancient Yelp reviews in the form of graffiti on the statue’s base. Julia Balbilla, a Roman noble who visited in 130 A.D., wrote a poem on the statue’s leg comparing the sound to “ringing bronze.” Others described it as sounding like a broken harp or lyre string.

Many of the visitors to the site suspected some kind of supernatural significance to the sound, especially since it always happened at the same time of day—as dawn broke—but wasn’t otherwise consistent. People put a lot of stock in whether the statue sang on the day they visited.

But the best guess for how this “singing” occurred comes from what we know about when the Colossus stopped singing.

In either 196 or 199, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus visited the site and heard nothing. In an attempt to curry favor with whatever power controlled the singing statue, he supposedly paid for a repair job on it. We know that the sound stopped for good around this time. The best theory: cracks in the stone had previously collected dew, creating sonic vibrations as morning temperatures rose and warmed the liquid. Ironically, when Severus had those cracks repaired, he shut the singing up for good.

We’ll never know for certain whether the Colossus really sang, how it managed to carry a tune, or why it stopped. You can find out more about mysterious sounds that science has yet to solve here.

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.

One of the guardians of Amenhotep III’s mortuary complex!

The Ramesseum, Egypt

Wikimedia Commons.

Another ancient site in Egypt that has caused great respect among builders, architects, and engineers.

The memorial temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II is another piece of evidence of ancient Egyptian ingenuity. Today only fragments remain of the base torso of the majestic statue of Ramesses. With a staggering 1000 tons, this incredible ancient statue is another crucial piece of evidence which demonstrates that ancient Egyptians had the ability and knowledge to cut, transport and work extremely heavy and difficult materials.

The stone used for the statue of Ramesses II was transported 170 miles over n LAND from Aswan to its current position, Thebes.

Watch the video: Το φτερό που δεν άντεξε να φορτωθεί η καμήλα Διδακτική ιστορία


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