I. Jebel Barkal History and Archaeology
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Jebel Barkal (“Mt. Barkal”) (var. Gebel Barkal, Gebel el-Barkal, and in some early sources Gebel Berkel/Birkel) is the modern Arabic name of a lone sandstone butte on the western edge of Karima, Sudan, about 365 km NNW of Khartoum and 23 km downstream from the Merowe Dam at the fourth cataract of the Nile; its coordinates are 18º 32’ N, 31º 49’ E).1 Situated about 1 1/2 km from the right bank, it rises to a height of 104 m above ground level and confronts the river with a sheer cliff 80 to 90 m high and approximately 200 m long (fig. 1). The mountain’s unusual appearance – its isolation, sharp profile, and spire-like pinnacle, 75 m high – made it a natural wonder in ancient times and excited intense theological speculation.

Fig. 1:  Jebel Barkal from the air, looking north across the Nile (which here flows from NE to SW).  The Barkal pyramids are visible at left. (Photo: Enrico Ferorelli)

Fig. 2: View of Jebel Barkal from a low-flying helicopter, showing the ruins of the Amun sanctuary beneath its cliff, with the Meroitic royal pyramids of the first century BCE appearing behind. The modern building at right is the Jebel Barkal Museum. (Photo: Enrico Ferorelli)

When the Egyptians conquered northern Sudan (Kush/”Upper Nubia”) in the early Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1504 BCE), they identified Jebel Barkal as the birthplace and chief southern residence of their state god Amun. As part of their program of conquest, they established the cult of Amun in many places in Nubia, but Jebel Barkal seems to have had a unique importance for them as a creation site and home of a primeval aspect of Amun who renewed life each year with the Nile inundation. Beneath the Jebel Barkal cliff the Egyptians constructed a major religious center and gave it the same name as Karnak (Ipet-Sut), Amun’s great sanctuary at Thebes, some 1250 km downriver (fig. 2). The Egyptians called the hill variously Dju-Wa’ab (“Pure Mountain”) and Nesut-Tawy (“Thrones of the Two Lands.”) (which in Dynasty 25 and the Napatan Period sometimes became Neset-Tawy [“Throne of the Two Lands”]). The settlement which grew up around it they called Napata, which became the southernmost town in their African empire.

Jebel Barkal's most distinctive feature is the colossal free-standing pinnacle on the south corner of its cliff (fig. 3). This towering monolith, unparalleled in the Nile Valley, was anciently perceived as a gigantic natural statue with many overlapping identities: a rearing uraeus serpent, a phallus, a squatting god (or several), and, depending on the direction from which it was seen, a vague human form crowned with a sun disk or a White Crown – or perhaps even a Red Crown or Double Crown. Most conspicuously in public art it was interpreted as a uraeus, wearing the tall, knobbed White Crown (fig. 4). Because the uraeus, worn on the front of the the king’s crown, was the primary symbol of Egyptian kingship, and because the White Crown was the symbol of royal hegemony over Upper Egypt (or “the South”), the pinnacle on Jebel Barkal apparently “proved” to the Egyptians that the mountain was an original source of their “Upper Egyptian” kingship and that this kingship, granted by Amun of Jebel Barkal, included all of Kush.

Fig. 3:  The pinnacle on the south corner of Jebel Barkal, nearly 75 m high from ground level.  The ancient Egyptians and Kushites imagined this natural formation, among other things, as a giant statue of a uraeus, and thus, from Dynasty 18, identified the mountain as an important source of kingship. (Photo: T. Kendall)

Fig. 4:  Jebel Barkal conceptualized in Egyptian art:  Here Ramses II is shown making offerings to the god “Amun of Karnak,” seated inside the mountain; the pinnacle is rendered as a giant uraeus springing from the god’s throne.  (Drawing by Peter D. Manuelian)

Shortly after 1100 BCE the Egyptians were forced to withdraw from Kush, leaving Jebel Barkal and Napata politically adrift. Although at present there is no specific evidence linking the two events, it seems difficult not to suspect that the Egyptian loss of Jebel Barkal contributed in some way to the unprecedented political situation that developed in Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period, in which the Amun priesthood at Thebes effectively denied most of the reigning pharaohs of Dynasties 21-23 their Upper Egyptian royal authority.

By the eighth century BCE a family of local Nubian chiefs restored the Jebel Barkal Amun cult and sanctuary and established Napata as the center of an independent kingdom of Kush. Reviving and promoting the New Kingdom royal myths, rituals and propaganda, which were apparently still widely remembered, they claimed Amun of Jebel Barkal as their divine father; they claimed the New Kingdom pharaohs as their “ancestors;” and they declared themselves heirs of the revived kingship of Upper Egypt and Kush, which had not existed since the New Kingdom. By about 750 BCE, with the support of the Amun priesthood in Thebes, the new kings of Napata assumed the “Upper Egyptian” throne in a bloodless coup through the combined oracular authority of Amun of Jebel Barkal and Amun of Karnak (fig. 5). By 712 BCE they had conquered and reunited all of Egypt so that their rule was now counted as Egypt’s 25th Dynasty. Five Napatan kings then ruled Egypt and Kush until about 661 BCE, when repeated invasions of Egypt by Assyria finally forced the retreat of the ruling family from Egypt back to Napata and their Sudanese homeland.

Fig. 5:  Detail from the early stela of Piankhy from Jebel Barkal (ca. 740 BCE), showing the god Amun of Jebel Barkal in ram-headed guise, handing the crowns of Kush/Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt to the king.  The text bears Amun’s declaration that he and his counterpart at Karnak have awarded Piankhy the kingship of Egypt. Khartoum: Sudan National Museum. (Photo: Reisner 1931, pl. VI).

Fig. 6: The Meroitic pyramids of Jebel Barkal, first century BCE (Photo: T. Kendall).

Unable to reconquer Egypt, subsequent Kushite kings consolidated their hold over northern Sudan and established a kingdom there, centered at Meroë, which survived for another millennium, until the fourth century CE. Throughout much of this time, Napata and its Amun sanctuary remained the kingdom’s chief religious center and the premier site of all royal coronations. Well into the Common era, Jebel Barkal was thought to be the main Nubian seat of the god Amun, who conferred kingship upon the rulers of Kush – a kingship believed by its possessors to have descended, in that place, directly from the sun god Re at the beginning of time.

Jebel Barkal, the chief landmark of the city and district of ancient Napata, is one of the largest archaeological sites in Sudan. The sanctuary in front of the mountain contains perhaps 24 important buildings (temples, chapels and palaces), of which 11 have thus far been excavated. On the mountain’s west side, it contains a field of royal pyramids, which are among the best preserved in Sudan (fig. 6). Within a 20 km radius of the mountain, there are many other important archaeological sites: among them Sanam, known as “Contra-Napata,” an ancient town and temple site 5 km downstream on the opposite (left) bank of the Nile, within the bounds of the modern town of Merowe; Duweim Wad Hajj, an unexcavated ancient temple(?) site on the left bank, directly opposite Jebel Barkal and overbuilt by a very old mosque; el-Kurru, the cemetery of most of the kings and queens of the 25th Dynasty and their ancestors (ca. 900-650 BCE); Nuri, the site of the pyramid of Taharqo (ca. 690-664 BCE) and those of his successors and queens during the Napatan Period (ca. 650-270 BCE); Hillat el-Arab, the site of a series of Egyptian or elite early Kushite rock-cut tombs (ca. 1000-750 BCE); Tangasi and Zuma, sites of monumental post-Meroitic tumulus graves (ca. 350-500 CE); el-Ghazali, an early Christian monastery (ca. 700-1000 CE), and Merowe Sheriq, a massive medieval Christian fortress (ca. 1000-1400 CE), whose walls incorporate blocks from much earlier Egyptian and Kushite buildings.

1The origin and meaning of the mountain’s name “Barkal” is unknown to the modern Sudanese, although there are folkloric derivations (See Part XI). Most likely the name derives from an old colloquial Arabic word “birkel” (ﺑﺭﻜﻝ), which designated the “land between the desert and the cultivation” (reference needed). The mountain stands at the edge of the cultivated land and certainly fits this definition. Among the local people, the mountain is also known as Jebel Wad el-Karsani, so named after a venerated Muslim saint of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, whose small rectangular tomb lies 90 m west of the mountain and has become the center of a large Muslim cemetery (fig. 7). The English spelling “Jebel Barkal,” used here, is now to be preferred over the more traditional “Gebel …” because it reflects Sudanese (rather than Egyptian) pronunciation and brings the name into conformity with the English rendering of all other mountain names in Sudan, which are prefaced “Jebel …”

Fig. 7:  Jebel Barkal as it appears from the southwest, with the tomb of the Muslim saint Ahmed el-Karsani in foreground.  The tomb (late nineteenth or early twentieth century) was built with blocks taken from the temple ruins; several bear the cartouches of Ramses II. (Photo: T. Kendall)