One of the mysteries of ancient Egypt is the voice of the Colossus. This statue, one of a pair which, as was usual in Egyptian temples, stood either side of the entrance to a temple, in this case a temple built by Amenhotep III. The massive size of the temple is shown by a stele, now standing several hundred feet away in a thorn-bush studded field, but which was originally placed in the rear wall of the sanctuary.
By Greek times the temple had vanished, its stones plundered by later kings to build their own memorials, and all that remained were the two huge statues. Unlike the enormous statue constructed out of a single stone by the megalomaniac Rameses II and which now lies broken in the ruins of the Ramesseum, the statues of Amenhotep III were built of individual blocks of stone and it has long been thought that this was responsible for the most famous feature of the statues.
Greek travellers to Upper Egypt decided that the statues must represent the Hellenic hero Memnon and, because of their size, christened them “the colossii of Memnon”. Late in the Greek period someone noticed that the southern-most statue emitted a curious sound at dawn, a sound which has been variously described as chirping, whistling and singing. Tourists congregated beneath the statue at dawn to hear it (though they were not always rewarded) and the Roman Emperor Hadrian was delighted when the god spoke to him three times in the one morning, a boon recorded in a long poem composed by Balba, the court poetess and scratched into the statue’s knees where it can still be seen.
This phenomenon continued until 196 AD when both statues were damaged in an earthquake. Workmen hastened to repair such a valuable asset for the tourist trade but something they did caused the statue to stop speaking and it has been mute from that day to this.
It has long been believed that the whistling sound was caused by air, heated by the rising sun, escaping through some fortuitously narrow aperature in the blocks of stone from which the statue is composed. It is thought that the repairers somehow either blocked this aperature with cement or plaster, or widened it by moving some of the stones (or, of course, the earthquake may have been responsible for whatever alteration silenced the voice of the Colossus.)
At the eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, held in Cairo at the end of March this year, Italian archaeologists Massimo Pettorino and Antonella Gianninini put forward an entirely different theory. They noted that the voice of the Colossus was first heard at about the time that Hero, the Greek philosopher and inventor, was active in Alexandria. Hero is widely credited with inventing the first steam engine, a hollow ball filled with water. Two angled pipes came out of the ball, which was mounted on an axle. When a fire was kindled beneath the ball the water turned to steam which, coming out of the pipes, caused the ball to rotate.
It is not known whether this primitive jet engine was ever harnessed to do useful work, but Hero was responsible for another heat-operated machine which did do something – though whether it was useful or not may be debated. A hollow stone altar was connected by lead pipes and leather gaskets to a simple underground mechanism that opened the doors of a shrine. When a fire was lit on top of the altar the air within it was heated, expanded and forced open the doors, exposing the image of the deity within to the gaze of the astonished and delighted worshipper who beheld his god coming out to savour the sacrifice! Only when the last wisps of the pleasing savour had disappeared did the doors to the shrine slowly close, as if the god were reluctant to bid farewell to his devotee.
There is, apparently, a small cavity in the left knee of the Colossus and Pettorino and Gianninini claim that Hero may have fitted a thin metal pipe filled with water into this cavity. As the statue warmed up the water expanded, forcing a thin stream of air out of the pipe. Depending on how much water was put into the pipe, this could cause the hissing, whistling or even chirping sound reported by visitors to the site.
Of course, the water in the pipe would require regular replenishment and the two Italians suggest that Hero fashioned his contrivance in conjunction with local priests. We today would recoil at the thought of such deception but in that pre-mechanical age there was a different attitude. Magic was firmly believed in and accepted as part of the world; machinery – particularly something which operated without human intervention, such as the door-opening altar – was regarded with only little less awe. We would not consider it sacrilege if the priests had given the statue a voice by means of charms, spells or enchantments – we might be astonished, but we would regard such means as compatible with religion. A simple pipe which whistled at dawn was, to them, just as magical as a spell and even if Hero had an understanding of how it worked, the priests did not and no doubt did not see any conflict between Hero’s science and their religion.
Two hundred years later the workmen repairing the statue, may have found the ancient metal tube and pinched it as scrap metal or somehow damaged it so that the magic no longer worked. Hero was no longer around and no one else understood the secret of the mechanism he had created, so the Colossus lost its voice for ever.
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