In the reign of the Black Pharaohs
Which country has the largest collection of pyramids? Think again, for it is not Egypt, but Sudan. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he visits north Sudan in search of answers
Our great grandfathers called it Ta-Seti, Land of the Bow. They were referring to the area south of the First Cataract at Aswan, and the reason behind the name was the unparalleled skill its inhabitants demonstrated when using the bow as a method of arm. Those excellent bowmen were actually the Kushites.
At first, Egyptians, as back as the First Dynasty, would send expeditions to the area in pursuit of slaves as well as the exploration of new sites where copper and gold could be mined. Egyptian influence grew and by the Middle Kingdom, a series of strongholds and fortresses controlled the Nile at the Second Cataract. Their influence over the area grew further through the New Kingdom; Pharaoh Tuthmoses III marched as far south as the Fifth Cataract. But change is a question of time, and by the end of the New Kingdom, Kush began to rise.
Historians have universally agreed that King Alara unified Upper Nubia around 780 BC, declaring Napata (near Jabal Barrkal, Karima, North Sudan) the capital. The job was completed by his successor King Kashata when Lower Nubia joined the crown. Nubia had been united and Kashata claimed for himself the title Pharaoh. But that was not the end of it; following suit was Pharaoh Piye, better known in history as Pharaoh Piankhy, conqueror of Thebes and founder of Egypt's 25th Dynasty, the dynasty of the Black Pharaohs.
Lasting for a little less than 100 years, the 25th Dynasty had five Pharaohs claiming the throne, the most famous being Pharaoh Taharqa. Leaving numerous monuments both in Egypt and Sudan, one of his most famous deeds was the restoration and building efforts in Karnak Temple, notes the First Court of Amun. Being the heroic war veteran he was, the Kushite Kingdom expanded as far as the borders of Libya and Palestine. Unfortunately for him, the Assyrians were rising exponentially and in no time they stormed Egypt, forcing Taharqa to flee Thebes and seek shelter in Napata.
The period that followed was draped in a shroud of mystery, up until the third century BC when King Arkamani moved the capital from Napata further south to Meroe (midway between Khartoum and Atbara). History has taught us that behind each move there is a story and this one is no different. Kushite holy priests used to hold unlimited power, to the extent that they were authoritative enough to declare, through claimed divine intervention, that the king's reign should come to an end and he would have to take his own life, a practice better known as Ritual Death. When they approached King Arkamani with such a story, the king simply killed them, banned the ritual and moved the capital. The transfer of the Kushite Kingdom's capital indicates a move from the dependency on Egypt as a base for culture and a step towards being a more indigenous civilisation. It also paved the way for the introduction of worshipping local deities as opposed to adapting Egyptian ones. Later in history, local god Apedemak was moved up the scale to an equal level with Amun and the use of hieroglyphics as a functional language was abandoned, to be replaced with Meroitic script. Whether the move to Meroe could be seen as the birth of the new Kingdom of Meroe or rather an extension under the flag "Meroitic Period of the Kushite Kingdom" is widely debated.
Flourishing for six centuries to follow, the third century AD marked the beginning of the decline. The Romans, who were in control of Egypt at the time, were also declining and that automatically translated in downsized trade between the two kingdoms, an element that backboned the Kushite economy. On the other side, southeast of Meroe, the Kingdom of Aksum, modern-day Ethiopia, was growing in power. In 350 AD, Auxmite King Ezna dealt the final blow to his neighbours, capturing Meroe. The Kushite Civilisation will eternally rest in peace.
A number of major sites dot the Sudanese map of great Kushite and Meroitic archaeological sites. Following the tarmac road that connects Khartoum to Atbara, one drives for no more than two or three hours before reaching Musawwarat Es Sufra. Musawwarat is an Arabic word that translates to depictions. Es Sufra begs two theories behind the naming. One school of thought believes it is an adaptation of Es Safra The Yellow as most of the remaining ruins are actually yellowish in colour. Alternatively, Es Sufra means The Dinning Table, an association to a table-like mountain located at a short distance. Regardless of the naming and its origin, Musawwarat Es Sufra is the largest temple complex dating back to the Meroitic Period. It consists of two main parts -- the Great Enclosure and the Lion Temple. The Great Enclosure is a vast structure consisting of low walls, a colonnade, two reservoirs and two inclined long ramps. The purpose this enclosure had served is vague, with a handful of theories on the table. One proposes that it had been an elephant training camp. In addition to the two ramps that might have been used for the big animals to go up and down, and also in addition to the elephants' statues that can be found in the vicinity, the greatest collection of elephant carvings I have seen in Sudan is in the Great Complex. On the other hand, the nearby Lion Temple might have been a place of pilgrimage and pilgrims used to be housed in the Great Complex. This is backed by ancient graffiti and carvings depicting Apedemak. A human body with a lion head, Apedemak was the most widely worshipped local deity throughout the entire Kushite Kingdom. Built by King Arnekhamani around 230 BC, the Lion Temple in Musawwarat Es Sufra is one of the most well preserved sites in Sudan. It was elegantly restored by the Humboldt University in Berlin in the 1960s.
The other well preserved lion temple in Sudan is located at Naqa, and it is the most beautiful, eccentric and unique temple I have ever seen in my travels. The distinctively brown in colour temple was built by King Natakamani. Known for his passion for arts, Natakamani left a number of buildings and temples. The front of this Lion Temple depicts the king and his wife Amanitore in separate scenes, holding their enemies by the hair while ready to deal a crushing blow. On the sides there are carvings of the royal couple in front of a group of deities, headed by Apedemak and followed by a number of Egyptian ones. One of the unique attributes of this temple is the depiction on the temple's pylon. It pictures Apedemak in rare form, still a human body with a lion head, yet his lower torso is pictured as a snake emerging from a lotus flower. Indeed the bases for Kushite architecture style have been affected by Egyptian civilisation, but since the sunset of the 25th Dynasty and later the move from Napata to Meroe, Kushite iconography has been significantly influenced by indigenous factors. Take the example of Queen Amanitore, where her African features are very clear -- broad shoulders, round head and apparently chunky body. To the contrary of their northern neighbours, the queen in her victory relief appears to be the same size as King Natakamani, a breakaway from the Egyptian style and speculation that the king and queen might have played equal roles. At the rear wall of the temple there is a relief of Apedemak picturing him in the centre while receiving offerings from the king and queen on either side. He appears triple headed and double armed. When you see it, the Indian goddess Shiva would probably be the first thing that comes to mind. Have the Kushites been influenced by far away India? May be, though history states that commercial ties between the two nations through the Red Sea Port of Adulis (near Massawa in Eritrea) have never been concretely confirmed.
Right next to the Lion Temple is an unidentified edifice known as the Kiosk, reflecting an amalgam of different cultures. Kushite, Egyptian, along with Roman, have all left a distinctive mark on its architecture. A stroll away from the Lion Temple is another temple built by King Natakamani, this time dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun. As you might have noticed, most of the Kushite kings' names end with the syllable "amani" while the majority of the queens' start with it. "Amani" is a linguistic derivative from Amun, an indication of how widely the Egyptian deity was respected and worshipped in Kush. Built in the last century AD, the Temple of Amun in Naqa follows the same overall structure of other Amun temples, mainly Jabal Barrkal in Sudan and Karnak in Egypt. The carving of the rams in Sudan has a distinct style when compared to those in Karnak.
They loom from a distance, a congregation of pyramids on both sides of the road, a living history that bears witness to the greatness of the Kushite Civilisation; these are the Pyramids of Meroe, made up of three groups -- western, southern and northern. The northern is the best preserved, containing more than 30 pyramids. Though inspirationally Egyptian, there are differences. The Pyramids of Meroe are much smaller in size when compared to those in Giza, with the largest being just under 30 metres in height. Another difference is the location of the tomb. Contrary to the Egyptian style, the Kushites had their deceased buried in tombs underneath the pyramid, not inside it, with the majority of the pyramids having a funerary chamber in front and facing eastward. After the first few minutes you spend in Meroe you notice that most of the pyramids have a chopped-off top, and that has a story. An Italian treasure hunter by the name of Guiseppe Ferlini was convinced there was gold. So in 1834 and after concurrence of the ruling Turco-Egyptians, he started the shameful destruction. To the surprise of everybody, including historians, he hit the jackpot, striking gold in his first attempt at Pyramid Six, that of Queen Amanishakheto. That encouraged him to go further with the mayhem. But it yielded no gold; just smashed pyramids and an ugly mark in the book of history.
Another very important site is that of Jabal Barkkal, where Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmoses III built the first Temple of Amun in Sudan around the 15th century BC. It was later expanded by the prominent Ramses II, turning the site into a major centre for the cult of Amun. Right next to it is another monument, the Temple of Mut. Built to the order of Taharqa, and dedicated to Mut, the Egyptian Sky goddess and bride of Amun, the temple is engraved into Jabal Barkkal itself. Very interesting scenery is that of the two temples from the top of the mountain. Make sure to do the easy climb in the morning so you have the light at the right angle for your souvenir photograph. Also on the western side of Jabal Barkkal lies a small royal cemetery of 20 pyramids at the mountain's foot. For a period of time, Kushites would bury their royals at Napata before shifting to Meroe.
Not far from Jabbal Barkkal there are two more sites worth visiting. The Pyramids of Nuri where Taharqa is buried in the largest of its pyramids. When it was excavated in 1917 archaeologist George Reisner uncovered a cache of over 1,000 small statues of the late king. Finally a visit to the Tombs of Al-Kurru is a must-do before wrapping up your visit to the land of the Black Pharaohs. Only two tombs are opened to visitors, that of King Tanwetamani, Taharqa's successor and nephew, and that of Tanwetamani's mother Qalhata. Both include fabulous paintings that enjoy a great level of preservation.
The sites listed are the crème de la crème of what Sudan elusively engulfs. They are the major sites, but with tourism in Sudan still in its infancy, don't be surprised to see a handful of visitors at the Pyramids of Meroe or perhaps you may end up being the only visitor in the Tombs of Al-Kurru. Sudan's tourism potential is also impacted by a lack of infrastructure. To give you an idea, in the entire Northern State, there is only one bridge crossing the Nile, that which was recently constructed in Karima. Alternately, one is left with no option but to cross by ferry. It is virgin, it is amazing, it is rich in history, its people are one of the most hospitable on earth, it is laidback and relaxing, it has a massively huge potential for growth. It is that incredible giant to be discovered... The Sudan.
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