The Colossi of Memnon? When are graffiti not graffiti?
I have wanted to see the Colossi of Memnon for ages. These are two huge statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III which have stood since the fourteenth century BC outside the remains of his "mortuary temple" not far from Luxor in Southern Egypt. It isn't their Egyptological history that interests me particularly (in fact even after a few days in Egypt, I'm just as bad as I ever was at telling my Nefertaris from my Nefertitis . . . or my Amenhoteps from my Akhenatens; and indeed I have been known to glaze over when having them explained).
For me these statues are important because they were a Roman tourist attraction -- and it is fun to be gawping at monuments that Germanicus or Hadrian gawped at a couple of thousand years ago. Not exactly for the same reasons, it must be allowed. One of the colossi was especially renowned in the early Roman empire because, thanks to some damage (possibly in an earthquake in the first century BC), the effect of the stone warming up in the morning made the statue emit a strange sound like singing. It the Romans said that it was not Amenhotep at all, but an image of the hero Memnon, son of Dawn...who miraculously sang to greet his mother each morning. Or, he sang most mornings; there were some unlucky visitors who didn,t hear the singing.
The Romans loved the sound and also finished it off. The statue was repaired in the second century and never sang again.
Predictably perhaps, the tourist guides here (who have never heard of Memnon) tell a brave new version of the story... that they were believed to be statues of AGAmemnon who wept at dawn. In such ways new myths are born.
Anyway, I had long known that the upmarket Roman visitors did not just admire the sound, they scratched their appreciation in the stone of the figure's huge leg. There are some notable verses, for example, by a lady in Hadrian's party (Julia Balbilla) recording her appreciation in several lines of vaguely Sapphic verses. (These are all published in a full publication by A and E Bernand.)
I have always called these 'graffiti' before. But a visit has shown that that is quite the wrong way of looking at them. For a start, Julia Balbilla could hardly have improvised her careful Sapphic lines when she arrived and heard the statue perform. She almost certainly came with them already up her sleeve (nothing spontaneous here). But just looking at the texts all over the statue's leg suggested that these texts were a very professional operation. They were mostly very neat (not an amateur scrawl at all, and must have taken a good day to complete even for a trained inscriber); and several of them, even allowing for the changing ground level, were so high up that you would require more than a chair to stand on.. something more like a mini-scaffolding.
This was not graffiti in the usual sense of the term at all. It was public display writing commissioned by a set of high ranking Romans, writing themselves onto a famous, semi-mythical Egyptian monument (or alternatively an attempt by the locals to commemorate visits by famous foreign dignitories).
It was funny that we then went onto the temple at Luxor (much of which was also built by Amenhotep III) and saw graffiti of a different sort there... also of a "more than meets the eye" kind. The guide book was very keen on the signature of (Arthur) Rimbaud, the poet and gun-runner, very high up on the wall of one of the furthest chambers ... indicating how much higher the ground level was in the 1880s at the time of Rimbaud's visit.
What the guide book didn't say was that there was another Rimbaud signature on another column a few feet away. This aroused a bit of suspicion. Did Rimbaud ever actually go to Luxor? Well so far as I can tell from web-research, he was certainly in Egypt, but only known in the north. Enid Starkie (who appears to have believed that Luxor is near Alexandria) knew of no other evidence than his 'signature' on the temple.
We have ended up with the distinct impression that once Byron had started the tradition of poets carving their signatures into ancient temples, that was not only an encouragement for any old poet to do the same -- it was an encouragement for any fan to FORGE the name of their favourite poet onto an appropriately grand antiquity.
Or does someone have some clear, independent evidence that Rimbaud did make it as far as Luxor?