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Nubia's Black Pharaohs

Will a lost coronation temple reveal how the ancient Nubians rose up and seized the throne of the mighty Egyptians?

By Michael McRae
Dec 1, 2005 6:00 AMJul 10, 2023 3:47 PM


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On a cloudless morning in northern Sudan, the first rays of the sun cast a glow on Jebel Barkal, a small tabletop mountain perched near the Nile River. Jebel Barkal rises barely 320 feet above the surrounding desert but is distinguished by one prominent feature: a pinnacle jutting out from its southwestern cliff face. If your imagination is keen enough, the isolated butte might resemble a crown or an altar, and the pinnacle an unfinished colossal statue—perhaps a rearing serpent, its body poised to strike.

Striding toward an excavation near the base of the pinnacle, archaeologist Tim Kendall pauses momentarily to admire what he calls the "little mountain with big secrets." Thousands of years ago, Jebel Barkal and Napata, the town that grew up around it, served as the spiritual center of ancient Nubia, one of Africa's earliest civilizations. The mountain was also considered a holy site by neighboring Egypt, whose pharaohs plundered and tyrannized Nubia for 400 years.

But in the eighth century B.C., Nubia turned the tables on its former colonizers. Its armies marched 700 miles north from Jebel Barkal to Thebes, the spiritual capital of Egypt. There the Nubian king Piye became the first of a succession of five "black pharaohs" who ruled Egypt for six decades with the blessing of the Egyptian priesthood. What happened? asks Kendall. How did the Nubians, overrun by Egypt for centuries, crush their colonizers? And why did the priests of Thebes decide the black pharaohs had a mandate from heaven? Kendall has been searching for those answers for 20 years. They can be revealed, he believes, by cracking a code of geomorphological symbols at Jebel Barkal and by parsing hieroglyphic texts that refer to the mountain as Dju-wa'ab, or "Pure Mountain." "I feel as if I'm deciphering a mythological puzzle," Kendall says. "It's a real mystery story."

Kendall is convinced that the physical form of Jebel Barkal is a clue. His research suggests that when Egypt's warrior-pharaoh Thutmose I set out to conquer the far reaches of Nubia in 1500 B.C., priests accompanying the armies took one look at Jebel Barkal and its pinnacle and believed they had come upon the birthplace and primeval abode of Egypt's supreme deity, Amun. "Amun is god of the sun and of fertility, father of all the gods and goddesses," says Kendall. "He's male; he's female. He's the father of fathers and mother of mothers. He is the father of the king, who is his living manifestation on Earth."

The ruins of a great temple built to Amun stretch for nearly two football fields in the shadow of Jebel Barkal's cliff. It's the largest and best studied of the site's numerous temples, but not the most interesting to a researcher probing Jebel Barkal's origins as a cultic site. Rather, Kendall's focus lately has been on uncovering the original Egyptian coronation temple here. He believes a long-lost chamber was once chiseled into solid sandstone at the base of the pinnacle and that it has remained sealed off for centuries by tons of earthquake debris. For a decade, Kendall has been methodically searching for the chamber, where, he suspects, Egyptian pharaohs dating back to Thutmose III and Ramses the Great symbolically entered the mountain to be crowned by Amun. Their coronations may have been magical charades of ceremonies held simultaneously at the royal temple of Luxor in Thebes, Kendall says, but he suspects the pharaohs actually came here too.

Some scholars doubt the Egyptians would have ascribed so much significance to Jebel Barkal based simply on shapes they saw in the rock. "The more meaning I find here, the more my colleagues think I've gone off the deep end," Kendall says. But if he turns out to be wrong, he will still have collected substantial evidence to bolster his argument that Nubia deserves more respect in the annals of archaeology.

"Basically, he's moving the center of Egyptian royal ideology outside of Egypt," says Krzysztof Grzymski, curator of the Royal Ontario Museum's Egyptian and Nubian collections. Grzymski has followed Kendall's work since they both worked in Sudan during the mid-1980s. "Not everyone agrees with him, but he makes a good case. He's stirring up the world of established Egyptology."


Kendall is fair skinned, and to protect himself from the sun he wears an embroidered white shawl wrapped turban style around his head. His team—a Greek and two Sudanese archaeologists, a pair of conservators from Italy and Austria, and an American archaeological surveyor—are at the dig site today, trying to accomplish as much as they can before the sun rises higher in the sky and the desert temperatures soar beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Kendall has offered to give me a firsthand look at some of Jebel Barkal's coded rock features.

It's a five-minute walk from his rented guesthouse to the site, across an undulating expanse of sand strewn with pastel-colored gravel and, in one section, thousands of shards of coarse, funnel-shaped pottery that make a crunching sound underfoot. "They're bread molds," Kendall says. "The priests baked the gods' daily offering in them and smashed the molds to remove the bread."

The sheer number of cast-off molds underscores how long Napata functioned as the cultic heart of Nubia. This was the Nubians' primary religious and coronation site in the eighth century B.C., more than 300 years after Egypt abandoned its colony (for still uncertain reasons). It remained as such for at least a millennium, until the second or third century A.D. Even after the Nubian kings shifted their political and administrative center several hundred miles farther up the Nile to the city of Meroë for better security, they journeyed north across the forbidding Bayuda Desert to be crowned at Napata.

Following a trail through the smashed crockery, Kendall and I crest a small rise, round a bend, and find ourselves surrounded by a lost world. Before us stand the ruins of the Amun temple. Now roofless and largely filled with sand, the shrine was started by the Egyptians and later expanded by the Nubians. Over the centuries, it evolved into a complex of courtyards, chapels, and covered halls extending 500 feet from the sanctuary at the rear, near the mountain's majestic bluff, to an avenue of sphinxes beyond the entry pylon. The sphinxes, of which only six remain, are giant recumbent rams that represent Amun.

The Amun temple was probably the Nubians' chief repository of ancient knowledge and religious literature, Kendall says, as well as a national museum. It would have been filled with statues and monuments that celebrated the kingdom's rulers and linked them to earlier Egyptian pharaohs, whom the Nubian kings counted as their ancestors. In every detail, the temple carefully mimics Egyptian religious architectural styles, right down to the pair of enormous gray granite blocks that supported a model of Amun's ship, a bark in which he sailed the heavens. Both blocks are inscribed with hieroglyphs and oval-shaped royal symbols called cartouches, and decorated by repeated images of the king standing in profile, with his torso turned outward and arms upraised to support a band of stars. Several bearded deities are depicted with pendulous breasts and rounded stomachs, symbolizing "the fertility of the Nile," Kendall says. On public occasions, Nubian priests would hoist the ship onto their shoulders and carry it into the temple's forecourt, where oracles performed divinations and other sacred rituals.

Aerial photographs indicate that as many as 16 temples were built at Jebel Barkal. Seven have been excavated, along with three palaces and many secular buildings. Spread out on a gravel plain of about 20 acres, the temples were situated so that the axis of each pointed toward the mountain. Two of the palaces, on the other hand, were oriented at right angles to the entryway of the Amun temple and on the right side. Egyptian tradition called for the pharaoh's residence to be placed on the starboard (right) side of Amun's bark.

From where Kendall and I stand, the pinnacle is about a hundred yards away, at the far end of the cliff. Its obvious phallic shape would have immediately struck Egyptian priests as a sign of Amun's presence, Kendall says. But because Jebel Barkal is a lone mountain, isolated from other buttes in the area and sometimes nearly engulfed by the Nile's floodwaters, the priests may also have seen it as the perfect metaphor for the primeval mound: the island where Amun pulled himself out of the waters of the Abyss and created the first gods by masturbating. Kendall draws attention to the shaft's bulging head, which he says resembles "a human figure wearing the white crown," a tall, conical headdress (shaped a little like a bowling pin) that pharaohs wore to signify their dominion over the empire's southern territories.

The lower half of the pinnacle is partially obscured, so we walk out to the forecourt of the Amun temple, past teetering columns and tumbledown walls, for a full-length view. Seen from top to bottom, Kendall suggests that the pinnacle looks like a rearing cobra wearing the white crown. The cobra, or uraeus, represented a fire-spitting goddess who could decimate enemies with death-ray precision. It was a powerful symbol of divine authority, and each pharaoh wore one on his brow as an amulet. Kendall and I continue walking to the west and look back at the pinnacle. Seen from that angle, it morphs yet again into a uraeus that's crowned by a sun disk. In Egyptian mythology, the golden sun disk symbolized the Eye of Re, a potent female deity who embodied all of Amun's daughters and chief protector goddesses.

Egyptian texts found at Jebel Barkal support Kendall's belief that the ancients saw the pinnacle as an effigy for Amun as well as a uraeus. But the most dramatic evidence of his pinnacle-as-uraeus thesis—his window into the minds of the ancients—is not textual but graphic. At Abu Simbel, the famed Egyptian rock-cut temple 300 miles south of Aswân whose entrance is adorned with four colossal statues of Ramses II, a wall relief shows the pharaoh making an offering to Amun, who appears as a man. Amun is seated inside what appears to be a pavilion guarded by a uraeus wearing the white crown. In fact, Kendall says, the pavilion is Jebel Barkal, and the uraeus is the pinnacle.

A similar scene appears in the only rock-cut temple that has been found intact at Jebel Barkal: the temple to Mut, Amun's consort and protector. Like Abu Simbel, the Mut temple is hewn out of solid sandstone, carved right into the base of the pinnacle. It's a beautifully decorated, five-chambered shrine commissioned by Piye's son, Taharqa, the most prolific monument builder of all the black pharaohs. One of its smudgy, graffiti-scarred frescoes shows Taharqa bearing an offering to Mut and Amun. In the scene, Amun is depicted as a man with a ram's head, his Nubian form. The divine couple is situated in a flat-topped pavilion with a sloping face, but the cobra emerging from it is crowned by a sun disk—just like the pinnacle as seen from the west, outside the temple doorway.

A seminal moment in Kendall's research occurred when his colleague Lynn Holden first made a connection between the pinnacle and the fresco's uraeus, providing a vital link between the mythical and the real worlds. "It changed our whole understanding of the mountain," Kendall says. "That the mountain had a uraeus would have had tremendous meaning to Egyptians. Afterward, we started to see that the pinnacle had other meanings—that it was a serpent and a phallus, that it was wearing a crown. You see that it was viewed as the center of creation, the home of the creator god, the source of kingship. When you start reading texts, you say, 'My God! This is why the Nubians thought they were entitled to the crown of Egypt.' "

Ancient Nubian texts also mention a repository for crowns, scepters, and other regalia among the Barkal temples, but it has never been located. Kendall is convinced that the references are to the missing rock-cut coronation chamber and that he'll find it just to the right of the Mut temple, buried under the heap of earthquake debris at the base of the pinnacle. Provocatively, he proposes that the earthquake that brought the face of the mountain down on top of the chamber may have occurred in the 11th century B.C., prompting the Egyptians to retreat from Nubia. "It is difficult to imagine the priesthood interpreting this event in any other way than as a sign that Amun was angry and that he wished to revoke indefinitely the reigning king's authority to rule Amun's southern domains," Kendall says.

It's a hypothetical scenario, but tempting because Kendall's chronology meshes neatly with a poorly understood period when Egypt lost control of Nubia's gold mines and lucrative trade routes to sub-Saharan Africa and plunged into a dark age of economic and political turmoil that lasted 350 years. Kendall contends that Egypt's political crisis prompted the embattled priests of Thebes to send missionaries to Napata to convert the Nubian chiefs to the Amun cult and recruit them as allies. That could explain how the Napatan royals and elite became Egyptianized so rapidly. In the short space of several generations, they adopted the written language of hieroglyphics and revived the tradition of pyramid building long after the Egyptians abandoned it. Ultimately, the Nubian king Piye marched north to restore order in the name of Amun and returned to Napata as a pharaoh.

Anthropologist William Y. Adams, a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and a respected world figure in Nubiology, thinks Kendall has yet to collect enough empirical evidence to fully support his "interpretation of the mountain and its symbolism." But he credits Kendall with helping to give renewed respectability to the study of ancient Nubia, which European and American scholars once treated as little more than a footnote to the study of ancient Egypt.

The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that Nubia was the original home of the Egyptians and the fountainhead of civilization. He called them Aethiopies, "the burned-face ones," because they were said to be Earth's firstborn and thus stood closest to the sun. "The Greeks and Romans romanticized the Nubians as a people living in a pure state," Kendall says. Egyptian conquest texts, on the other hand, seldom refer to Nubia without describing it as "wretched," and when Nubians appear in tomb reliefs they are usually being led in shackles or bearing tribute to the pharaohs. Tutankhamen symbolized his hold on the detestable hinterlands by carrying ceremonial staffs and canes whose handles were fashioned in the form of Nubians, their arms bound behind their backs. He ordered that Nubian figures be embroidered on the soles of his slippers and carved on the legs of his footstools so that he could perpetually trample them.

As 19th-century archaeologists came to rely more and more on Egypt's propagandistic texts, they turned away from classical histories. "The ancient Egyptian attitude towards Nubia took root in their minds, until by the end of the century it had entirely supplanted the old notion of Nubia as the well-spring of civilization," Adams writes in Nubia: Corridor to Africa. "Something of the same attitude is conveyed in the nineteenth-century term 'Darkest Africa.' African darkness, as the Victorians conceived it, was more than a matter of skin colour; it was a darkness of the mind as well."

Kendall first visited Napata in 1982, during a tour of Nubian archaeological sites sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he worked as an assistant curator. The museum boasts one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Nubian artifacts and antiquities outside of Khartoum, Sudan's capital. Most of it came to Boston via rail and sea during the post–World War I years, when the godfather of Nubian archaeology, Harvard University Egyptologist George Reisner, excavated at Napata and other sites in Sudan. Working with his trusted excavators from Egypt and a crew of 300 local men, Reisner had laid tracks around Jebel Barkal for dump carts and moved tons of earth before turning to the more delicate work of exposing the temple ruins. For all of his discoveries, however, Reisner missed plenty.

A British expeditionary group subsequently scanned the pinnacle's summit through binoculars and made out traces of hieroglyphic inscriptions but didn't hazard a guess about how the inscriptions got there. The spot is nearly 250 feet above the desert floor, straight up. Kendall discovered how in 1987, when he enlisted a mountaineer from Boston to help him scale the monolith. On the way up, he found sockets chiseled into the back side of the spire and, directly opposite on the cliff face, a series of corresponding holes. He realized then that ancient stonemasons had erected a scaffold of wooden beams in the gap between the cliff and the pinnacle, probably hoisted into place by means of a pair of shadufs, long, counterbalanced poles that some farmers along the Nile still use to lift water to their fields. At the summit Kendall found cartouches of the black pharaoh Taharqa, as well as six panels of hieroglyphs etched in a place where no one—except the gods—could read them. Long ago, he believes, the panels were covered with gold leaf, which would have reflected the sun, creating a dazzling landmark for approaching caravans.

Kendall, now a visiting research professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has maintained Reisner's old excavating concession through two civil wars: the recently settled 20-year-long conflict in the south between Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist government and the rebels, and the ongoing genocide in the western Darfur region. Fortunately, Jebel Barkal, located some 200 miles north of Khartoum, is far from those hot spots. But the area is under a siege of a different type. "When I first came here, there were no paved roads and no telephone service," Kendall says. "Now there's an Internet café, and everybody has a cell phone."

Within a year or two, continuous pavement will extend from Khartoum to a section of the Nile just 25 miles east of Napata, where a consortium of Arab nations, Sudan, and China is building a hydroelectric dam that will approximately double Sudan's power supply and irrigate now-parched lands. The dam is not likely to directly affect the ruins at Jebel Barkal, but its reservoir will submerge ancient settlements, unexcavated graves, rock-art sites, and fortresses for a hundred miles upstream. Sudan's antiquities department has urgently enlisted teams of archaeologists from around the world to document those sites before the dam's expected completion in 2008, after which the ruins will be lost forever.

In the meantime, Kendall hopes that he's on the verge of completing his decade-long quest to uncover the lost coronation temple, perhaps as early as next spring. In 1997 he realized that he'd barely scratched the surface at Jebel Barkal when his men dug up 30 blocks inscribed with sacred vultures flying against a starry sky—part of a vaulted passage into a freestanding coronation temple built around the time of Christ to replace the rock-cut original. Then, five years ago, his search gained momentum after six sandstone building blocks of Egyptian design turned up beneath the overburden of earthquake rubble. The blocks were cemented together in a row that extended back toward the mountain's towering cliff face and pinnacle. His local diggers have since been using hand tools to crack apart massive boulders and nibble away at the debris beneath them, removing it bucketful by bucketful, a tedious process. This year they succeeded in breaking apart several car-size boulders on top of the earthquake debris—only to find more boulders below.


We can only guess what might be inside the rock-cut chamber," Kendall says. "It may contain ritual objects, statues, textiles, wall paintings, and inscriptions." But he has no doubt he is looking for it in the right place—directly beneath Jebel Barkal's pinnacle. After a short walk from the temple of Amun, Kendall and I are standing amid the ruins of a forlorn palace. In Napata's heyday, the palace had been a two-story labyrinth of some 60 rooms, but time and the elements had since reduced its crumbling mud-brick walls virtually to ground level.

In 1919 Reisner dug deep into the palace ruins and identified four or perhaps five occupation levels, one superimposed atop another. On a level dated to around 600 B.C., he encountered quantities of charred plaster and burned timbers. By that point in history, the Nubians had been expelled from Egypt but still had pretensions to the crown. To squelch their ambitions, the pharaoh Psammeticus II marched south in 593 B.C., descended on Napata, and torched the palace and the Amun temple.

Before Reisner left the palace, he took careful note of a doorway from the throne room into a corridor that led to the palace's rear exit. A fragmentary inscription on the doorjambs reads, in part, "One goes out to the Per-wer [Great House]. . . . One enters the Per-nesr [House of Flame]. . . . " He photographed the jambs but otherwise found them unremarkable.

Seven decades later, Reisner's unpublished notes and photos turned up in a storage room at the Boston museum. That turned out to be a great stroke of luck for Kendall because when he re-excavated the palace, he found that the doorjambs had collapsed, and their inscriptions were unreadable. Still, the hieroglyphic characters appeared clearly in Reisner's photographs, and Kendall concluded that they referred to the coronation in 600 B.C. of the Nubian king Aspelta."We know from a 14th-century B.C. Egyptian coronation text that the Great House is where the king received his crown from a goddess called Weret-Hekau, whose name means 'Great of Magic,' " says Kendall. "Once she put the crown on his head, he was ushered into a temple called the House of Flame to receive the approval of the gods."

Kendall guides me down the corridor toward the palace's back door, the same path the crown prince Aspelta might have taken during the ancient and richly choreographed coronation ceremony that Kendall envisions. A priestly stand-in for Amun might have led the procession, while the prince's mother might have played the role of an attendant goddess.

They would have been following long-established Egyptian coronation rituals in which Amun, "Lord of the Thrones of Two Lands," led the prince to the Great House to receive his crown. But since the earthquake had sealed off the Egyptian rock-cut original, the Nubian rulers had rebuilt it as a freestanding temple in front of the mountain. Kendall has found remains of this temple, as well as sketchy evidence of a secret corridor at the rear of the temple that would have allowed the black pharaohs to maintain the Egyptian tradition of entering the mountain.

"In Napatan times and later," he says, "the king first went into the Great House, just as he had done during the Egyptian era, and there received his crown. Then, using a private passage, he would have crossed over to the Mut temple. Once inside the mountain he would have united with his 'mother,' Mut, who symbolically gave birth to him as her child. At this point the king became the newborn god." After receiving the acclamation of the gods assembled in the Mut temple, the newly crowned pharaoh would have stepped outside to greet his subjects.

Many centuries later we follow in their imagined footsteps, walking down a palace corridor that is barely an outline in the sand. When Kendall and I reach the end, we turn toward the mountain and pass through the remains of a door to the outside.

"What do you see straight ahead?" Kendall asks.

The portal is aimed straight at the pinnacle.


In his gut, Kendall knows there is a lost temple at the base of the pinnacle. If he has accomplished anything at Jebel Barkal, it is to think like an Egyptian, to see what they did in the sacred mountain.

"I would find it hard to believe that there won't be an Egyptian temple cut into the uraeus of the mountain," he says. "It would be wonderful visible proof that the Egyptian kings were being crowned at Jebel Barkal and leave less room for doubt."

In the meantime, at 60, Kendall is thinking ahead to his final challenge at Jebel Barkal: proving his theory that the Nubians worshipped the mountain long before the Egyptians even knew the mountain existed. "That's one of the missing links in Nubian archaeology," he says. "I hope to dig in front of the pinnacle and find pre-Egyptian deposits that show there was already a cult here when Thutmose arrived."

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