The Vocal Memnon

Man’s constructs will never outlast nature’s.

This post combines my love of archeology, history, and an intriguing mystery. That definitely ticks all the boxes for me, so I hope you will enjoy it too.

According to Wikipedia, the Colossi of Memnon, 60 feet in height and each weighing 720 tons, have stood in the Theban Necropolis, just across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor, Egypt, since 1350 BCE. Originally the two statues looked nearly identical, but with a few minor variations. They are statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.

The statues are made of quartzite sandstone which was somehow moved 420 miles from its original location. The carved Memnon originally stood guard over the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. The temple no longer exists, but these colossi still stand, more or less. (Well, okay, they’re actually seated, but you get the idea.)

Needless to say, after centuries of floods, unrelenting heat and earthquakes, along with a badly done repair job which I’ll discuss in more detail below, these two statues definitely don’t look like twins anymore. In fact, much of the upper parts kind of look like ice cream that has melted in the sun, which adds to their creepy vibe, in my opinion.

I find it amusing that these are all that’s left of a temple that was supposed to inspire awe and reverence in anyone who laid eyes on it. Look at how powerful I am! Look at how impressive I am! And yet it all melts away over the centuries, doesn’t it? Man’s constructs will never outlast nature’s. 

But even long after Amenhotep’s body had been mummified (It’s now in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization), these two statues, sans temple, inspired awe and drew tourists from around the world. The reason for that is the fact that after a massive earthquake in 27 BCE, in which the top half of the more northerly statue collapsed and the bottom half cracked, that partial statue began to “sing”.

The sounds the statue emitted always occurred within two hours of dawn, which leads modern scientists to believe that the moisture within the cracks would heat up and expand, sending sound waves through the sandstone. The sound has been described as the sound of a lyre string breaking, the striking of brass, or whistling. Famous historians such as Strabo, Tacitus, and Juvenal were said to have heard these sounds. Many Roman emperors were known to travel to the site in hopes of hearing the sound, which was supposed to bring good luck. The statue kept making the sound until the year 196.

And that’s when the statues once again presided over the humbling of a powerful man. It seems that the Emperor Septimius Severus visited the statues in hopes of hearing the sound, but the statue remained silent. He attempted to curry favor with the statue by having its top half repaired, and you can see evidence of the horrible job that was done to this day. (It’s the one on the right in the picture below.) That horrible job also added weight to the statue and sealed the cracks, and so it never sang again. That will teach you, Septimius. Nobody likes a brown nose.

Even if the Vocal Memnon is no longer vocal, I’d love to visit one day and think of the mighty who have fallen under the sands of time. In the end, none of us are more powerful than flood and quake and the persistent rays of the sun. Not even Trump. I take a great deal of comfort in that.

Enjoying my view? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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