Ancient Egypt (Rawlinson)/Amen-Hotep III and his Great Works

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The fame of Amen-hotep the Third, the grandson of the great Thothmes, rests especially upon his Twin Colossi, the grandest, if not actually the largest, that the world has ever beheld. Imagine sitting figures, formed of a single solid block of sandstone, which have sat on for above three thousand years, mouldering gradually away under the influence of time and weather changes, yet which are still more than sixty feet high, and must originally, when they wore the tall crown of an Egyptian king, have reached very nearly the height of seventy feet! We think a statue vast, colossal, of magnificent dimensions, if it be as much as ten or twenty feet high--as Chantrey's statue of Pitt, or Phidias's chryselephantine statue of Jupiter. What, then, must these be, which are of a size so vastly greater? Let us hear how they impress an eye-witness of world-wide experience. "There they sit," says Harriet Martineau, "together, yet apart, in the midst of the plain, serene and vigilant, still keeping their untired watch over the lapse of ages and the eclipse of Europe. I can never believe that anything else so majestic as this pair has been conceived of by the imagination of art. Nothing certainly, even in nature, ever affected me so unspeakably; no thunderstorms in my childhood, nor any aspect of Niagara, or the great lakes of America, or the Alps, or the Desert, in my later years.... The pair, sitting alone amid the expanse of verdure, with islands of ruins behind them, grew more striking to us every day. To-day, for the first time, we looked up to them from their base. The impression of sublime tranquillity which they convey when seen from distant points, is confirmed by a nearer approach. There they sit, keeping watch--hands on knees, gazing straight forward; seeming, though so much of the face is gone, to be looking over to the monumental piles on the other side of the river, which became gorgeous temples, after these throne-seats were placed here--the most immovable thrones that have ever been established on this earth!"[1]

The design of erecting two such colossi must be attributed to the monarch himself, and we must estimate, from the magnificence of the design, the grandeur of his thoughts and the wonderful depth of his artistic imagination; but the skill to execute, the genius to express in stone such dignity, majesty, and repose as the statues possess, belongs to the first-rate sculptor, who turned the rough blocks of stone, hewn by the masons in a distant quarry, into the glorious statues that have looked down upon the plain for so many ages. The sculptors of Egyptian works are, in general, unknown; but, by good fortune, in this particular case, the name of the artist has remained on record, and he has himself given us an account of the feelings with which he saw them set up in the places where they still remain. The sculptor, who bore the same name as his royal master, i.e. Amenhotep or Amen-hept, declares in the exultation of his heart: "I immortalized the name of the king, and no one has done the like of me in my works. I executed two portrait-statues of the king, astonishing for their breadth and height; their completed form dwarfed the temple tower--forty cubits was their measure; they were cut in the splendid sandstone mountain on either side, the eastern and the western. I caused to be built eight ships, whereon the statues were carried up the river; they were emplaced in their sublime temple; they will last as long as heaven. A joyful event was it when they were landed at Thebes and raised up in their place."

A peculiar and curious interest attaches to one--the more eastern--of the two statues. It was known to the Romans of the early empire as "The Vocal Memnon," and formed one of the chief attractions which drew travellers to Egypt, from the fact, which is quite indisputable, that at that time, for two centuries or perhaps more, it emitted in the early morning a musical sound, which was regarded as a sort of standing miracle. The fact is mentioned by Strabo, Pliny the elder, Pausanias, Tacitus, Juvenal, Lucian, Philostratus, and others, and is recorded by a number of ear-witnesses on the lower part of the colossus itself in inscriptions which may be seen at the present day. Amenhotep, identified by the idle fancy of some Greek or Roman scholar with the Memnon of Homer, son of Tithonus and The Dawn, who led an army of Ethiopians to the assistance of Priam of Troy against the Greeks, was regarded as a god, and to hear the sound was not only to witness a miracle, but to receive an assurance of the god's favourable regard. For the statue did not emit a sound--the god did not speak--every day. Sometimes travellers had to depart disappointed altogether, sometimes they had to make a second, a third, or a fourth visit before hearing the desired voice. But still it was a frequent phenomenon; and a common soldier has recorded the fact on the base of the statue, that he heard it no fewer than thirteen times. The origin of the sound, the time when it began to be heard, and the circumstances under which it ceased, are all more or less doubtful. Some of those exceedingly clever persons who find priest-craft everywhere, think that the musical sound was the effect of human contrivance, and explain the whole matter to their entire satisfaction by "the jugglery of the priests." The priests either found a naturally vocal piece of rock, and intentionally made the statue out of it; or they cunningly introduced a pipe into the interior of the figure, by which they could make musical notes issue from the mouth at their pleasure. It is against this view that in the palmy days of the Egyptian hierarchy, the vocal character of the statue was entirely unknown; we have no evidence of the sound having been heard earlier than the time of Strabo (B.C. 25-10), when Egypt was in the possession of the Romans, and the priests had little influence. Moreover, the theory is disproved by the fact that, during the two centuries of the continuance of the marvel, there were occasions when Memnon was obstinately silent, though the priests must have been most anxious that he should speak, while there were others when he spoke freely, though they must have been perfectly indifferent. The wife of a prefect of Egypt made two visits to the spot to no purpose; and the Empress Sabina, wife of the Emperor Hadrian, was, on her first visit, also disappointed, so that "her venerable features were inflamed with anger." On the other hand, as already mentioned, a common Roman soldier heard the sound thirteen times.

With respect to the time when, and the circumstances under which, the phenomenon first showed itself, all that can be said is, that the earliest literary witness to the fact is Strabo (about B.C. 25); that the earliest of the inscriptions on the base that can be dated belongs to the reign of Nero, and that it is at least questionable whether the sound ever issued from the stone before B.C. 27. In that year there was an earthquake which wrought great havoc at Thebes; and it is an acute suggestion, that it was this earthquake which at once shattered the upper part of the colossus, and so affected the remainder of the block of stone that it became vocal then for the first time. For centuries the figure remained a torso, and it was while a torso that it emitted the musical tone--

"Dimidio magicæ resonabant Memnone chordæ."

After a long interval of years, probably about A.D. 174, that restoration of the monument took place which is to be seen to the present day. Five blocks of stone, rudely shaped into a form like that of the unharmed colossus, were emplaced upon the torso, which was thus reconstructed. The intention was to do Memnon honour; but the effect was to strike him dumb. The peculiar condition of the stone, which the earthquake had superinduced, and which made it vocal, being changed by the new arrangement, the sound ceased, and has been heard no more.

It is a fact well known to scientific persons at the present day, that musical sounds are often given forth both by natural rocks and by quarried masses of stone, in consequence of a sudden change of temperature. Baron Humboldt, writing on the banks of the Oronooko, says: "The granite rock on which we lay is one of those where travellers have heard from time to time, towards sunrise, subterraneous sounds, resembling those of the organ. The missionaries call these stones loxas de musica. 'It is witchcraft,' said our young Indian pilot.... But the existence of a phenomenon that seems to depend on a certain state of the atmosphere cannot be denied. The shelves of rock are full of very narrow and deep crevices. They are heated during the day to about 50°. I often found their temperature during the night at 39°. It may easily be conceived that the difference of temperature between the subterraneous and the external air would attain its maximum about sunrise." Analogous phenomena occur among the sandstone rocks of El Nakous, in Arabia Petræa, near Mount Maladetta in the Pyrenees, and (perhaps) in the desert between Palestine and Egypt. "On the fifth day of my journey," says the accomplished author of 'Eothen.' "the sun growing fiercer and fiercer, ... as I drooped my head under his fire, and closed my eyes against the glare that surrounded me, I slowly fell asleep--for how many minutes or moments I cannot tell--but after a while I was gently awakened by a peal of church bells--my native bells--the innocent bells of Marlen that never before sent forth their music beyond the Blagdon hills! My first idea naturally was that I still remained fast under the power of a dream. I roused myself, and drew aside the silk that covered my eyes, and plunged my bare face into the light. Then at least I was well enough awakened, but still those old Marlen bells rang on, not ringing for joy, but properly, prosily, steadily, merrily ringing 'for church.' After a while the sound died away slowly; it happened that neither I nor any of my party had a watch to measure the exact time of its lasting; but it seemed to me that about ten minutes had passed before the bells ceased."[2] The gifted writer proceeds to give a metaphysical explanation of the phenomena; but it may be questioned whether he did not hear actual musical sounds, emitted by the rocks that lay beneath the sands over which he was moving.

And similar sounds have been heard when the stones that sent them forth were quarried blocks, no longer in a state of nature, but shaped by human tools, and employed in architecture. Three members of the French Expedition, MM. Jomard, Jollois, and Devilliers, were together in the granite cell which forms the centre of the palace-temple of Karnak, when, according to their own account, they "heard a sound, resembling that of a chord breaking, issue from the blocks at sunrise." Exactly the same comparison is employed by Pausanias to describe the sound that issued from "the vocal Memnon."

On the whole, we may conclude that the musical qualities of his remarkable colossus were unknown alike to the artist who sculptured the monument and to the king whom it represented. To them, in its purpose and object, it belonged, not to Music, but wholly to the sister art of Architecture. "The Pair" sat at one extremity of an avenue leading to one of the great palace-temples reared by Amenhotep III.--a palace-temple which is now a mere heap of sandstone, "a little roughness in the plain." The design of the king was, that this grand edifice should be approached by a dromos or paved way, eleven hundred feet long, which should be flanked on either side by nine similar statues, placed at regular intervals along the road, and all representing himself. The egotism of the monarch may perhaps be excused on account of the grandeur of his idea, which we nowhere else find repeated, avenues of sphinxes being common in Egypt, and avenues of sitting human life-size figures not unknown to Greece, but the history of art containing no other instance of an avenue of colossi.

Another of Amenhotep's palace-temples has been less unkindly treated by fortune than the one just mentioned. The temple of Luxor, or El-Uksur, on the eastern bank of the river, about a mile and a half to the south of the great temple of Karnak, is a magnificent edifice to this day; and though some portions of it, and some of its most remarkable features, must be assigned to Rameses II., yet still it is, in the main, a construction of Amenhotep's, and must be regarded as being, even if it stood alone, sufficient proof of his eminence as a builder. The length of the entire building is about eight hundred feet, the breadth varying from about one hundred feet to two hundred. Its general arrangement comprised, first, a great court, at a different angle from the rest, being turned so as to face Karnak. In front of this stood two colossal statues of the founder, together with two obelisks, one of which has been removed to France, and now adorns the centre of the Place de la Concorde at Paris. Behind this was a great pillared hall, of which only the two central ranges of columns are now standing. Still further back were smaller halls and numerous apartments, evidently meant for the king's residence, rather than for a temple or place exclusively devoted to worship. The building is remarkable for its marked affectation of irregularity. "Not only is there a considerable angle in the direction of the axis of the building, but the angles of the courtyards are hardly ever right angles; the pillars are variously spaced, and pains seem to have been gratuitously taken to make it as irregular as possible in nearly every respect."[3]

Besides this grand edifice, Amenhotep built two temples at Karnak to Ammon and Maut, embellished the old temple of Ammon there with a new propylon, raised temples to Kneph, or Khnum, at Elephantine and built a shrine to contain his own image at Soleb in Nubia, another shrine at Napata, and a third at Sedinga. He left traces of himself at Semneh, in the island of Konosso, on the rocks between Philæ and Assouan, at El-Kaab, at Toora near Memphis, at Silsilis, and at Sarabit-el-Khadim in the Sinaitic peninsula. He was, as M. Lenormant remarks, "un prince essentiellement batisseur." The scale and number of his works are such as to indicate unremitting attention to sculpture and building during the entire duration of his long reign of thirty-six years.

On the other hand, as a general he gained little distinction. He maintained, indeed, the dominion over Syria and Western Mesopotamia, which had been established by Thothmes III., and his cartouche has been found at Arban on the Khabour; but there is no appearance of his having made any additional conquests in this quarter. The subjected peoples brought their tribute regularly, and the neighbouring nations, whether Hittites, Assyrians, or Babylonians, gave him no trouble. The dominion of Egypt over Western Asia had become "an accomplished fact," and was generally recognized by the old native kingdoms. It did not extend, however, beyond Taurus and Niphates towards the north, or beyond the Khabour eastward or southward, but remained fixed within the limits which it had attained under the Third Thothmes.

The only quarter in which Amenhotep warred was towards Ethiopia. He conducted in person several expeditions up the valley of the Nile, against the negro tribes of the Soudan. But these attacks were not so much wars as raids, or razzias. They were not made with the object of advancing the Egyptian frontier, or even of extending Egyptian influence, but partly for the glorification of the monarch, who thus obtained at a cheap rate the credit of military successes, and partly--probably mainly--for the material gain which resulted from them through the capture of highly valuable slaves. The black races have always been especially sought for this purpose, and were in great demand in the Egyptian slave-market: ladies of rank were pleased to have for their attendants negro boys, whom they dressed in a fanciful manner; and the court probably indulged in a similar taste. Amenhotep's aim was certainly rather to capture than to kill. In one of his most successful raids the slain were only three hundred and twelve, while the captives consisted of two hundred and five men, two hundred and fifty women, and two hundred and eighty-five children, or a total of seven hundred and forty; and the proportion in the others was similar. The trade of slave hunting was so lucrative that even a Great King could not resist the temptation of having a share in its profits.

When Amenhotep was not engaged in hunting men his favourite recreation was to indulge in the chase of the lion. On one of his scarabæi he states that between his first and his tenth year he slew with his own hand one hundred and ten of these ferocious beasts. Later on in his reign he presented to the priests who had the charge of the ancient temple of Karnak a number of live lions, which he had probably caught in traps. The lion was an emblem both of Horus and of Turn, and may, when tamed, have been assigned a part in religious processions. It is uncertain what was Amenhotep's hunting-ground; but the large number of his victims makes it probable that the scene of his exploits was Mesopotamia rather than any tract bordering on Egypt: since lions have always been scarce animals in North-Eastern Africa, but abounded in Mesopotamia even much later than the time of Amenhotep, and are "not uncommon" there even at the present day. We may suppose that he had a hunting pavilion at Arban, where one of his scarabs has been found, and from that centre beat the reed-beds and jungles of the Khabour.

In person, Amenhotep III. was not remarkable. His features were good, except that his nose was somewhat too much rounded at the end; his expression was pensive, but resolute; his forehead high, his upper lip short, his chin a little too prominent. He left behind him a character for affectionateness, kindliness, and generosity. Some historians have reproached him with being too much under female influence; and certainly in the earlier portion of his reign he deferred greatly to his mother, Mutemua, and in the latter portion to his wife, Tii or Taia; but there is no evidence that any evil result followed, or that these princesses did not influence him for good. It is too much taken for granted by many writers that female influence is corrupting. No doubt it is so in some cases; but it should not be forgotten that there are women whom to have known is "a liberal education." Mutemua and Tii may have been of the number.


  1. "Eastern Life," vol. i. pp. 84, 289.
  2. Kinglake, "Eothen," pp. 188, 189.
  3. Fergusson, "Handbook of Architecture," vol. i. p. 234.