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Egypt: A Song to the Sunrise

November 3, 2009

In the 14th century BC two statues were constructed south of Thebes in Egypt. The monumentally-sculptured quartzite sandstone figures depicted Amenhotep III and guarded his mortuary temple, at least that is what the archeologists say.  The statues were later called the Colossi of Memnon, after the Greek Trojan War hero whose name means, “Ruler of the Dawn.”

This is where the story becomes interesting.  In the old days the statues themselves greeted the daily sunrise with song.  These harmonies were recorded by many visitors, including Pliny, Juvenal, and Strabo.   A current theory holds that fissures in the rock held air that heated in the early morning sun and then escaped, creating a whistling sound.  No one knows for sure, as is the case with so much of our knowledge of pre-modern technology.

Egyptians today say that a Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus or perhaps Hadrian, members of a long list of dignitaries who visited the site to bear witness to the sunrise greetings, took a dislike to the statues.  As befitting a dismal tendency of Europeans to destroy what they don’t understand, a Roman contingent of architects or wreckers  messed with the statues until they ceased forever their calls to the dawn.  The loss of this astounding acoustic masterpiece rivals the burning of the Libraries in Alexandria and the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem as an act of unthinking malice.

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The Colossi of Memnon still stand, but Amenhotep’s memorial temple has gone the way of most such vain and grandiose constuctions.

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