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III. E. Jebel Barkal as Nubian “Heliopolis:” “Mansion of the Benben


As Thebes achieved supremacy over all Egypt, Amun, as god of Thebes, achieved supremacy over all the other Egyptian gods.  He did not displace them; he simply absorbed them as aspects of himself.  As part of his elevation to the rank of “king of the gods,” he first had to be merged with the ancient sun god Re-Atum of Heliopolis.  This allowed him to become not only the Sun God (Re), but also the primeval sun god and Creator (Atum) of the Heliopolitan creation myth, which was the earliest and most popular of ancient Egypt.  

According to this tradition, Atum, at the beginning of time, pulled himself out of the primordial waters (Nun), which covered the earth, and climbed up onto a mound – the so-called “Primeval Mound” - which was the first dry land to appear as the waters receded.  There he took his phallus in his hand and masturbated.  (At Jebel Barkal the combination of isolated mountain and phallic-shaped pinnacle would, for the Egyptians, immediately have identified the hill as the site of this “seminal” event.)  After ejaculating and swallowing his semen, he gave birth to the first gods by spitting them out.  They were the twins Shu and Tefnut, the brother-sister pair who figure so prominently not only in the tale of the “Eye of Re” but also at Jebel Barkal.  These two became the parents of the gods Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky), who in turn became the parents of Osiris (the first king) and Isis (his sister-consort), as well as Seth (personified Chaos) and Nephthys (his sister-consort).  In the familiar myth of kingship, Seth murdered Osiris and usurped his throne.  It was then regained after a bitter struggle by Osiris’ posthumous son Horus.  Henceforth, every dead king assumed the identity of Osiris (and merged daily as a “ba” with Re in heaven), and every living king assumed the identity of Horus and his solar form Re-Horakhty.  

Since Atum self-engendered his children, he was, like Amun-Kamutef, dual-sexed.  Atum and Re-Horakhty were thought to be merged with Amun in a ram-headed form (fig. 58), but when Amun appeared human-headed, he was thought to be differentiated from them (fig. 59).  The explanation for this is that the ram hieroglyph, with the phoetic reading "ba" (simulating the sound the animal makes) was probably thought to be the best form in which to represent the aspect of the great god in whom all of his forms (ba's) could be united. 

Fig. 58:  Relief fragments from Jebel Barkal, showing the local Amun as a ram-headed deity with sun disk crown (cf. fig. 5).  In this form he was thought to embody all forms of the Sun God, as revealed by his name:  “Amun-Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of Ipet-Sut, Great God, Lord of Heaven”  (Morkot 2000, 147).

Fig. 59:  Stela of Panakht from Temple A at Kawa, Sudan, reign of Tutankhamun; now in Jebel Barkal Museum.  The upper register shows Amun (at left), human-headed, differentiated from the falcon-headed Re-Horakhty and Atum (wearing the Double Crown) (at right). Here Amun is named “Lord of Nesut-Tawy (“Thrones of the Two Lands," probably referring both to Karnak and Kawa), Lion over the Southlands, who is in Gem-pa-aten (=Kawa).  (Macadam 1949, pl. 3)

During the reign of Hatshepsut, Karnak had been named “Southern Heliopolis” (Iunu Shemau) (Roth 2005, 151, n. 19) so that the sanctuaries of Amun and Re-Atum in Egypt could be conceptually merged and become manifestations of each other.  Jebel Barkal, which was visited by the Egyptians at about the same time and was also named ”Karnak,” now, too, was called “Heliopolis” and was conceived as a Nubian manifestation of both sites (See below, and Dunham 1970, 55, col. I, B).

Re-Atum’s most ancient sacred symbol at Heliopolis was an upright phallic monolith called the benben, which was a symbol of the god’s creative act (Baines 1970; Kemp 1989, 85-88).  The obelisks erected by the kings of Dynasty 18 at Karnak and Luxor were all manifestations of the benben. (A text from Luxor, for example, has Amun telling the king:  “You are my son, of my living creation, whom I…begot in the Mansion of the benben, you appearing as king of Upper and Lower Egypt.” [Bell 1985, 272, n. 100].)  Jebel Barkal, rising out of the desert at the southern end of the empire, would not only have seemed an ideal manifestation of the Mound of Heliopolis but its phallic pinnacle would have seemed the ultimate benben, confirming it as the place of creation.  In the Jebel Barkal stela of Seti I, there is reference to a “Mansion of the Benben in Heliopolis,” as if it were located at Jebel Barkal (Reisner 1933b, 74 [frag. C, line 4]).  Recent excavations at Jebel Barkal have also revealed a talatat structure of Akhenaten, built to house a large stone – which  may well have been a “Mansion of the Benben” (See B 700 sub-2; Kendall 2009, 10-11, 13-16).  Inscribed Napatan blocks recently recovered in B 1200 also speak of “Atum of Heliopolis” as a local god.

That Atum was a primary aspect of Amun at Jebel Barkal is revealed by a relief in the chapel of Pyramid Beg. N. 7 at Meroë.  Here the tomb owner, King Arqamani, is depicted standing before a mountain, on whose summit four gods are seated (figs. 60a, b).  Judging by the arrangement and identities of the deities, the mountain can be identified only as Jebel Barkal.  Its “bent-box” profile is the same as in fig. 54. The god at left is a rearing uraeus serpent, suggestive of the pinnacle.  Beside him are two squatting goddesses.  The first, wearing a Hathoric crown, personifies the goddesses of the “Eye of Re” in temples B 200 and B 300 (cf. fig. 28).  The second, crowned as Weret-Hekau, personifies the goddesses of the “Eye of Horus” (the presumed occupants of temples B 1100 and 1150) (cf. figs. 32, 34b, 43b).  The god at the right, identified as “Atum,” has the hawk head of Re, suggesting the amalgamated Amun-Re-Atum (Kendall 2008, 129-30).  One wonders whether these four deities were identified with the four evenly-spaced promontories on the cliff front (fig. 62), or whether they were all thought to be simultaneously manifested in the pinnacle.  Possibly both concepts were operative.  In any case, the resemblance of the pinnacle, in late afternoon light, to the form of a squatting god is extraordinary (fig. 61).

Fig. 60a, b: Image of Jebel Barkal carved on the north wall of the chapel of royal tomb Beg. N. 7, North Cemetery, Meroë, in which King Arqamani (mid-third century BCE) makes offerings to four gods seated on its summit. (Drawing below: Lepsius 1842-45, V, Bl. 36; photo at right: T. Kendall).



Fig. 61 (at right):  In the afternoon light, the pinnacle assumes the shape of a squatting god, almost identical to those pictured in figs. 60a, b).  (Photo:  T. Kendall)

Fig. 62:  Apart from the pinnacle, at left, the cliff face of Jebel Barkal displays three other evenly-spaced, statue-like projections.  This view, looking through the axis of the ruined Amun Temple (B 500), shows that the temple sanctuary lay approximately between the two middle projections.  (Photo:  Enrico Ferorelli).

Fig. 62:  In the afternoon light, the pinnacle assumes the shape of a squatting god (cf. figs. 60a, b).  (Photo:  T. Kendall)Fig. 62:  In the afternoon light, the pinnacle assumes the shape of a squatting god (cf. figs. 60a, b).  (Photo:  T. Kendall)