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is hard to keep up with the neighbours, especially if your neighbour
is Egypt. Hence, whereas Egypt typifies pyramids, the Nubian pyramids,
south of Egypt’s border, are often seen as the Nubians trying
to keep up with the Egyptians, but utterly failing to do so. Still,
there are 223 pyramids in ancient Nubia, roughly double the amount
of pyramids in Egypt. However, they are small in size; sceptics
could argue it is quantity, rather than quality. Nevertheless,
the 20th century British writer Basil Davidson described Meroë,
one location in which a huge concentration of Nubian pyramids
is located, as one of the largest archaeological sites in the
world. Unfortunately, all the tombs at Meroë have been plundered,
most infamously by Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini (1800-1870)
who smashed the tops off 40 pyramids in a quest for treasure in
1834. Ferlini tried to sell the treasure of Queen Amanishakheto’s
pyramid (involving exquisite gold amulets, signet rings and necklaces)
when he returned to Europe. Collectors did not believe that such
a treasure could come from black Africa; they thought he was trying
to pass off fakes. Indeed, they were jewels of great quality and
beauty and often influenced by Greek art; customers didn't expect
to find deep in the heart of Africa depictions resembling those
of Egyptian or classical Greek art. Still, Ferlini found only
one cache of gold and it is unsurprising that he is not too fondly
remembered in Sudan today.
were three Kushite kingdoms: the first had Kerma as capital and
existed from 2400 to 1500 BC; the second centred on Napata (1000–300
BC) and the third was that of Meroë (300 BC–300 AD).Originally
influenced by their northern neighbours, eventually, the Nubians
were even able to invade, conquer and unify Egypt, when the king
of Napata ruled as a Pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, a rule that
ended with the Assyrian conquest in 656 BC.
Though the Nubian kingdoms must have been aware of the pyramids
that lined the Nile valley further north, it was only during their
domination of Egypt that the royal sites of Napata and its successor
Meroë became associated with any pyramidal activity in Nubia
itself. That the Nubian kings definitely saw the Egyptian monuments
is known from an account of Pharaoh Piye. After taking control
of most of Egypt, Piye set out for Heliopolis to worship the sun
god and celebrate his coronation as king of Egypt, before returning
first series of Nubian pyramids were built at the site of el-Kurru
and included the tombs of King Kashta and his son Piye (Piankhi),
together with Piye’s successors Shabaka, Shabataka and Tanwetamani,
and 14 queens’ pyramids. The Napatan pyramids were sited
at Nuri, on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Nubia. This necropolis
was the burial place of 21 kings and 52 queens and princes. The
oldest and largest pyramid at Nuri is that of the Napatan king
and 25th Dynasty Pharaoh Taharqa.
But the most extensive and best known Nubian pyramid site is at
Meroë, which is located between the fifth and sixth cataracts
of the Nile, approximately 100 kilometres north of Khartoum, the
modern capital of Sudan. During the Meroitic period, over forty
kings and queens were buried in that pyramid field.
The Nubian pyramids differ from
the Egyptian edifices: they are built of stepped courses of horizontally
positioned stone blocks and range from approximately six to thirty
metres in height; they are, to all intents and purposes, rather
unimpressive. What makes them impressive is the sheer quantity
of them that was cramped in a small area. What makes them a sad
archaeological site is that all were plundered in ancient times,
but wall reliefs preserved in the tomb chapels reveal that their
royal occupants were mummified, covered with jewellery and laid
to rest in wooden mummy cases, revealing that these Nubian pyramids
definitely seem to have been tombs.
about 13 km south from Gebel Barkal, was excavated by G. Reisner
in 1918-19. The site includes, as mentioned, the pyramid of Piankhi,
which has a base length of about eight metres and a slope of probably
about 68 degrees – much steeper than the 51 degrees of the
Great Pyramid – though eight metres is, of course, miniscule
compared to the floor plan of the Great Pyramid. It was the largest
pyramid ever built at Nuri, and is unique among the Nubian pyramids
in having been built in two stages. The first pyramid was encased
in smooth sandstone. Drawings and written reports of the early
19th century reveal the truncated top of the inner pyramid projecting
from the top of the decaying outer pyramid. The outer pyramid
was the first of a type with stepped courses and planed corners.
It had a sloped angle of about 69 degrees. An enclosure wall tightly
encircled the pyramid, but Reisner was not able to unearth any
traces of a chapel.
Inside, Reisner found a stairway of 19 steps that opened to the
east and that led to the burial chamber. Piankhi’s body
had been placed on a bed that rested in the middle of the chamber
on a stone bench. The bench’s four corners had been cut
away to receive the legs of the bed, so that the bed platform
lay directly on the bench.
is conclusive proof that these pyramids were tombs, but it is
in the pyramid of Nuri that is the most elaborate structure. King
Taharqa was the first to build in this location and his pyramid
is, by Nubian standards, impressive: 51.75 metres square and between
40 to 50 metres high. The entrance was by an eastern stairway
trench, north of the pyramid’s central axis, reflecting
the alignment of the original smaller pyramid. Three steps led
to a doorway, with a moulded frame, which opened to a tunnel,
widened and heightened into an antechamber that had a barrel-vaulted
ceiling. Six massive pillars carved from the natural rock divided
the burial chamber into two side aisles and a central nave, each
with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The entire chamber was surrounded
by a moat-like corridor, with steps leading down from in front
of the antechamber doorway.
The Nuri pyramids were generally much larger than those at el-Kurru,
reaching heights of twenty to thirty metres. The last king to
be buried at Nuri died in about 308 BC, before construction began
in Meroë. It remained the royal cemetery for 600 years, until
350 AD. As at Nuri, the pyramids were stepped and built on a plinth,
but now each triangular face was framed by smooth bands of raised
masonry along the wedges, where the sides met.
The Nubian Pyramid Age is far
more recent than the Egyptian exercise. And that is what makes
the endeavour intriguing. But, perhaps unlike Egypt, it was also
directly linked with the Nubian economy. As Roman wealth declined,
there was less demand for Meroë's luxury goods. At the same
time, Meroë's Red Sea trade to the Indian Ocean was lost
to her better placed neighbour, the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.
In about 350 AD, the army of the Aksumite King Ezana invaded the
island of Meroë. By then the capital had already been abandoned
and the region was in the hands of a people whom the Aksumites
referred to as the Noba.
As such, in 350 AD, the Pyramid Age along the Nile truly ended.
The pyramid adventure of the Nubian kings seems to have been a
method to integrate their nation with the Egyptians, who themselves
had, by 600 BC, long abandoned pyramid building.
The Nubian pyramids were clearly
tombs, but is that all they were? The answer is no. The pyramids
were, as in Egypt, just one aspect of a larger whole, in which
the Nubian kings apparently rekindled ancient Egypt’s flame.
The key seems to have been – once again – the involvement
of the Heliopolitan priests, the men that have been commonly identified
as those behind the original Pyramid Age. In a generalised way,
we could state that pyramid building was a particular preoccupation
of the Heliopolitan priesthood; temples were the main bailiwick
of the Amunite priesthood, who had risen to the forefront of Ancient
Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdom, when the capital had
moved to Thebes/Luxor. It seems that with the Nubian invasion
– which had largely only been possible because of the demise
in power of Thebes/Luxor – the Heliopolitan priesthood was
once again on the rise.
at many Napatan sanctuaries, especially at Gebel Barkal, have
revealed that the temples were generally built directly over the
foundations of ruined New Kingdom (read: Amunite) temples. About
1450 BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III had extended his conquests
to Gebel Barkal and established it as the southern border of his
empire. The city he founded there was called Napata. The Egyptians
remained only about 300 years.
The temple at Gebel Barkal was first excavated between February
and April 1916 by George Reisner and his Boston team and again
between March and April 1987 by the new Boston team led by Timothy
Kendall. In 1989 Kendall and his staff resurveyed the monument.
Their conclusion was that the Napatan rulers deliberately restored
religious sites that had been abandoned by the Egyptian pharaohs
when they evacuated Nubia some three centuries before. The Nubian
kings used “Amunite temples”, but converted them to
Heliopolitan sun worship. But they did not totally abandon the
Amunite beliefs; after all, these Nubian temples had been built
according to strict Amunite guidelines, and therefore would include
features specific to that cult.
By restoring the old Egyptian cult places, especially Gebel Barkal,
the Nubian kings were able to present themselves both within Nubia
and especially at Thebes as the true successors of the pharaohs
of the New Kingdom and the direct heirs to their throne.
was not only the one who created the most elaborate pyramid, he
also transformed the Barkal site into the stage for the celebration
of past, present and eternal monarchy, and the perpetual recreation
of the world. Why here? Due to the reverse direction of the Nile
at this location, Taharqa’s tomb, though still on the “west”
bank, paradoxically lay to the east, the place of sunrise and
rebirth. Gebel Barkal, on the “east” bank, lay paradoxically
to the west, the place of sunset and death.
An important question to be posed is why the pyramid field lay
around Gebel Barkal. The first explanation is economic, since
the site was seen as an ideal crossing point for the Nile, as
well as a crossing point for the caravans crossing the desert
from Kawa to Meroë. The second explanation is religious.
The sacred mountain Barkal (Barkal is Arabic, meaning both "holy"
and "pure") measures 74 metres, is made from sandstone
and has a flat top. Seen from the west, it looks like the royal
Egyptian ureaus, topped by the white crown. For the ancient Egyptians,
the site must have been considered as the Creator God himself
having sculpted the mountain, indicating it should become a royal,
sacred location. From the east, it looks like the serpent with
the sun disc on its top.
The interplay of the tomb and the mountain thus symbolised creation,
death and rebirth simultaneously and Gebel Barkal, under Taharqa,
was designed to be the ultimate and permanent centre of kingship
in the Nile Valley. It was to be the eternal link between the
creator god Atum-Ra and Mankind, and between the eternal king
and the living king. We therefore find that in Nubia, the pyramid
and the sites on which they were built contained far more symbolism
than merely a funerary aspect – the sites were directly
linked with kingship. And, as such, they conform to “the