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The Colossi of Memnon

Guardians of the approach to the Valley of the Kings, the great statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for thousands of years were all that was known of his ancient New Kingdom temple on the west side of the Nile. The 50 foot tall statues stood alone in the sugar cane fields, silent and powerful. Farmers calmly ploughed around them, paying little heed to their import - except when foreign tourists crushed the crop as they tried see the statues up close.

In 1996 the site received a grant from the World Monuments Fund to protect what remained below the ground from the high water table, the result of irrigation and the Aswan Dam. Excavation at the site showed that the previous belief that it had been stripped in ancient times was incorrect.

The Valley Temple of Amenhotep III is emerging from the mud as one of the most important sites in Egypt. Amenhotep III and his principle wife, Queen Tye, are taking their place as important rulers, builders and patrons of the arts, which reached great heights during their rule.

Amenhotep III's temple is about 2000 feet (600 meters) long and nearly as wide, making it one of the most ambitious ever built. The statues found so far include 72 fine seated images of Sekhmet the lion headed protector, and of course Pharaoh and Queen Tye. In the next twenty years, or so, it is hoped that the 3400 year old Valley Temple of Amenhotep III will again stand in glory alongside the approach to the Valley of the Kings.

The great statues of Amenhotep III, from a distance, seem higher than the hills.
The Great Colossi of Memnon, Medinet-Abu in the distance
by David Roberts, 1838

The Colossi of Memnon


The Spell of Egypt

by Robert Hichens
published 1911, the Century Co., New York.
Etext prepared by Dagny,
and John Bickers,
Adapted for

CHAPTER IX (excerpt) -- The Colossi of Memnon

The peace of the plain of Thebes in the early morning is very rare and very exquisite. It is not the peace of the desert, but rather, perhaps, the peace of the prairie--an atmosphere tender, delicately thrilling, softly bright, hopeful in its gleaming calm. Often and often have I left the boat Loulia very early moored against the long sand islet that faces Luxor when the Nile has not subsided, I have rowed across the quiet water that divided me from the western bank, and, with a happy heart, I have entered into the lovely peace of the great spaces that stretch from the Colossi of Memnon to the Nile, to the mountains, southward toward Armant, northward to Kerekten, to Danfik, to Gueziret-Meteira.

Think of the color of young clover, of young barley, of young wheat; think of the timbre of the reed flute's voice, thin, clear, and frail with the frailty of dewdrops; think of the torrents of spring rushing through the veins of a great, wide land, and growing almost still at last on their journey. Spring, you will say, perhaps, and high Nile not yet subsided! But Egypt is the favored land of a spring that is already alert at the end of November, and in December is pushing forth its green. The Nile has sunk away from the feet of the Colossi that it has bathed through many days. It has freed the plain to the fellaheen, though still it keeps my island in its clasp. And Hapi, or Kam-wra, the "Great Extender," and Ra, have made this wonderful spring to bloom on the dark earth before the Christian's Christmas.

What a pastoral it is, this plain of Thebes, in the dawn of day! Think of the reed flute, I have said, not because you will hear it, as you ride toward the mountains, but because its voice would be utterly in place here, in this arcady of Egypt, playing no tarantella, but one of those songs, half bird-like, and half sadly, mysteriously human, which come from the soul of the East. Instead of it, you may catch distant cries from the bank of the river, where the shadoof-man toils, lifting ever the water and his voice, the one to earth, the other, it seems, to sky; and the creaking lay of the water-wheel, which pervades Upper Egypt like an atmosphere, and which, though perhaps at first it irritates, at last seems to you the sound of the soul of the river, of the sunshine, and the soil.

Much of the land looks painted. So flat is it, so young are the growing crops, that they are like a coating of green paint spread over a mighty canvas. But the doura rises higher than the heads of the naked children who stand among it to watch you canter past. And in the far distance you see dim groups of trees--sycamores and acacias, tamarisks and palms. Beyond them is the very heart of this "land of sand and ruins and gold"; Medinet-Abu, the Ramesseum, Deir-el Medinet, Kurna, Deir-el-Bahari, the tombs of the kings, the tombs of the queens and of the princes. In the strip of bare land at the foot of those hard, and yet poetic mountains, have been dug up treasures the fame of which has gone to the ends of the world.

But this plain, where the fellaheen are stooping to the soil, and the women are carrying the water-jars, and the children are playing in the doura, and the oxen and the camels are working with ploughs that look like relics of far- off days, is the possession of the two great presiding beings whom you see from an enormous distance, the Colossi of Memnon. Amenhotep III (Amunophis III). put them where they are. So we are told. But in this early morning it is not possible to think of them as being brought to any place.

On the approach to the Valley of the Kings two huge sentinels mark the entrance to the hallowed territory - the giant statues of Amenhotep III.
by David Roberts, 1838

Seated, the one beside the other, facing the Nile and the home of the rising sun, their immense aspect of patience suggests will, calmly, steadily exercised, suggests choice; that, for some reason, as yet unknown, they chose to come to this plain, that they choose solemnly to remain there, waiting, while the harvests grow and are gathered about their feet, while the Nile rises and subsides, while the years and the generations come, like the harvests, and are stored away in the granaries of the past. Their calm broods over this plain, gives to it a personal atmosphere which sets it quite apart from every other flat space of the world.

There is no place that I know on the earth which has the peculiar, bright, ineffable calm of the plain of these Colossi. It takes you into its breast, and you lie there in the growing sunshine almost as if you were a child laid in the lap of one of them. That legend of the singing at dawn of the "vocal Memnon," (one colossus would greet the dawn with a high, piercing wail), how could it have arisen? How could such calmness sing, such patience ever find a voice? Unlike the Sphinx, which becomes ever more impressive as you draw near to it, and is most impressive when you sit almost at its feet, the Colossi lose in personality as you approach them and can see how they have been defaced.

Up close the wear of time shows - the great statues of Memnon have no faces and their bodies are cracked and broken from water seepage during the annual Nile flood.
Memnon by Jean Gerome, 1856

From afar one feels their minds, their strange, unearthly temperaments commanding this pastoral. When you are beside them, this feeling disappears. Their features are gone, and though in their attitudes there is power, and there is something that awakens awe, they are more wonderful as a far-off feature of the plain. They gain in grandeur from the night in strangeness from the moonrise, perhaps specially when the Nile comes to their feet.

More than three thousand years old, they look less eternal than the Sphinx. Like them, the Sphinx is waiting, but with a greater purpose. The Sphinx reduces man really to nothingness. The Colossi leave him some remnants of individuality. One can conceive of Strabo and AElius Gallus, of Hadrian and Sabina, of others who came over the sunlit land to hear the unearthly song in the dawn, being of some--not much, but still of some--importance here. Before the Sphinx no one is important.

Roberts imagined the statues during the Nile flood, with tiny men launching their boat.
by David Roberts, 1838

But in the distance of the plain the Colossi shed a real magic of calm and solemn personality, and subtly seem to mingle their spirit with the flat, green world, so wide, so still, so fecund, and so peaceful; with the soft airs that are surely scented with an eternal springtime, and with the light that the morning rains down on wheat and clover, on Indian corn and barley, and on brown men laboring, who, perhaps, from the patience of the Colossi in repose have drawn a patience in labor that has in it something not less sublime.

wings of the Sun.

The Colossi of Memnon
excerpt from: The Spell of Egypt

by Robert Hichens, published 1911

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