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II. A. Egyptian History: 1500-1100 BCE
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When Thutmose I (ca. 1506-1493 BCE) passed by Jebel Barkal with his army during his conquest of Kush about 1504-03 BCE, his priestly entourage evidently identified the mountain as the residence of a primeval form of the Egyptian state god Amun of Karnak (Kendall 2007). The Egyptians named it “Pure Mountain” (Dju-Wa’ab) and “Thrones of the Two Lands” (Nesut-Tawy) (the latter identifying it as the source of Amun’s most ancient epithet:  “Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands” [Neb Nesut-Tawy]).2 There is some evidence to suggest that they may also have called it “Southern Sanctuary” (Ipet-resyt), which was also the name of Luxor Temple, with which it had extensive cultic links (See below:  III, H).  It is also once called “Mansion of the Benben in Heliopolis (Hut Benben em Iunu)” (Reisner and Reisner 1933b, 73-78, ll. B-3), which linked the site mythologically not only with the ancient northern cult center of Re, supposed birthplace of the Sun (now an eastern suburb of Cairo), but again also with Karnak, which at about this same time had come to be called “Southern Heliopolis.”

During or soon after Thutmose’s campaign, the Egyptians constructed a fort and stationed a military garrison there.  Thutmose III (ca. 1479-1425 BCE), who left the earliest account of the site on his Jebel Barkal Stela (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), recorded that the fort was named “Slaughter-of- the-Foreigners” (Sma Khasetyiu) and that the site included a neighboring native town (Reisner and Reisner 1933a, 26, 35).  By the reign of Amenhotep II (1427-1401 BCE), if not earlier, this town was named Napata (Manuelian 1987, 94).  Although the Egyptians under Thutmose I and III, and possibly also Ramses II, penetrated the Nile some 260 km further upstream, as far as Kurgus (Hagar el Merwa) just below the fifth cataract (Davies 1998, 2001), Napata and its “Pure Mountain,” during the New Kingdom, marked the official southern border of Egyptian-administered territory in Africa.  The town and its Amun sanctuary lay approximately 1250 km upstream from Thebes by the winding Nile and about 750 km “as the crow flies” via the Nubian Desert shortcut.

The earliest archaeological traces of an Amun temple at Jebel Barkal can be attributed to Thutmose III or  Thutmose IV (1401-1391 BCE),3 although this structure may have replaced an earlier temple (of mud brick?), built under Thutmose I, Thutmose II (1492-1479 BCE) and/or Hatshepsut (1472-1457 BCE).  As stated by Thutmose III in his stela, an Amun temple stood within the walls of the fort – which itself may have encompassed a pre-existing Nubian sanctuary (although this remains to be proven archaeologically).

The Jebel Barkal stela of Thutmose III reveals that the Amun of Jebel Barkal was a “ka” (i.e. alter-ego/twin aspect) and primeval form of the Amun of Karnak (Reisner and Reisner 1933a, 26, 37).  These two Amuns, occupying the polar opposite points of the king’s Upper Egyptian domain, were separately deified reflections of the same god, but they had different aspects.  The Amun of Karnak was fully anthropomorphic; the Amun of Jebel Barkal was normally ram-headed, and both were usually crowned with a pair of tall plumes and a sun disk (fig. 8).  The Egyptians recognized the latter as a unique southern form of Amun in his role as god of Creation, sponsor of the Nile inundation, and progenitor of kingship, and there is much evidence supporting the theory that they installed him at Luxor Temple, 3 km south of Karnak, in order to honor him locally as a Theban god (See below, Parts III, H, I).  

If the Egyptians saw the Amuns of Karnak and Jebel Barkal/Luxor as aspects of the same deity – one Maintainer of the Universe and the other Creator of the Universe - they also saw their temples as manifestations of the very same place.  They thus called the Jebel Barkal temple Ipet-Sut (“Sanctuary of the Thrones”[?]), which was also the name of Karnak.4 (Luxor, was called Ipet-resyt [“Southern Sanctuary”] probably because it was considered to be a “southern Karnak,” which was also the role of Jebel Barkal).  Henceforth, the “Karnak” of Thebes and the “Karnak” of Napata were considered to be northern and southern bases of a vast, newly recognized (“rediscovered”) domain of Amun, which joined all of Nubia to Upper Egypt and gave the Theban Amun priesthood religious dominance over the whole territory.

Fig. 8:  The dual forms of Amun appearing at Jebel Barkal:  at left, the god in his northern/Egyptian form as human-headed, and at right, the god in his southern/Nubian form as ram-headed. Detail from the stela of the Napatan king Harsiotef, mid-fourth century BCE, from Jebel Barkal. Cairo, Egyptian Museum.


In Jebel Barkal the Egyptians believed they had found Amun’s birthplace, his “Mound of Creation” and his “southern Heliopolis.” The gigantic pinnacle on its south corner seemed to be a “statue,” made by non-human hands; it was many times higher and more massive than any made by man.  This “figure,” however, represented not one thing but many at once, all confirming the presence and nature of the mysterious god, believed to dwell “hidden” (=amun) within the mountain.  The most obvious shape visible within the pinnacle was that of a rearing royal uraeus, wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt.  This apparently revealed to them immediately that the hill was an original source of their kingship, that the god of Jebel Barkal was a primeval form of Amun (divine father of Egyptian kingship), and “proved” to them that the pharaohs had a divine right to rule the farthest limits of Kush as a part of Upper Egypt.   

With the accession to the throne of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BCE), for whom the Amun cult was anathema, the king ordered the Thutmosid Amun temple at Jebel Barkal dismantled and the sanctuary rebuilt and rededicated to his new personal sun god, the Aten (“Sun Disk”) – work which paralleled (but on a much smaller scale) his massive building projects on behalf of the Aten at Thebes in East Karnak.  Since early in his reign the king especially honored the cult of Re-Horakhty-Atum at Heliopolis and linked his Aten cult to it, he emphasized Jebel Barkal as a southern manifestation of the Primeval Mound of Heliopolis.  As at Thebes, Akhenaten built his new Aten temple and outlying shrines at Barkal with tens of thousands of talatat blocks, although none has yet been found bearing his distinctive relief style.  Following the king’s death, his Aten temples at Karnak were demolished by his successors Tutankhamun (ca. 1333-1324 BCE), Horemheb (ca. 1319-1307 BCE), Seti I (ca. 1306-1290 BCE) and Ramses II (ca. 1290-1224 BCE), but at Jebel Barkal, oddly, his Aten temple (B 500) was spared by the same kings, remodeled on its interior, and rededicated to Amun, who henceforth absorbed the god Aten into his own persona - just as he absorbed the Heliopolitan gods Re, Horakhty, and Atum (Kendall 2009).

After Ramses’ reign and throughout the remainder of the New Kingdom, the Egyptians seem to have undertaken little or no further construction at Jebel Barkal. During the twelfth century BCE, as the Egyptian central government of Dynasty 20 weakened, and as Lower Egypt was increasingly threatened by invasions of Libyans and Sea Peoples, the pharaohs were forced to draw down their garrisons in Kush, leaving Napata and Jebel Barkal militarily insecure.  Fairly quickly the “Pure Mountain” and all of Nubia fell away from Egyptian control, and the loss of this perceived source of royal power and Upper Egyptian kingship may well have exacerbated the religious and political crises that roiled Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period, in which the kings of Dynasties 21-23 were mainly able to wield power only in northern Egypt, and the High Priests of Amun at Thebes assumed royal prerogatives in the south (Myśliwiec 2000, 1-26). 

In the two to three centuries following the end of the New Kingdom, the Jebel Barkal sanctuary and its cult, severed from Egypt, appear not to have been maintained, although the recently excavated contemporary cemetery of Hillat el-Arab, 3 km south of Jebel Barkal, demonstrates, through pottery, objects and amulets, that the persons buried in these rock tombs belonged to a local native elite that maintained trade links with Egypt during the early Third Intermediate Period and continued to venerate Amun. The period between about 1100 and 850 BCE at Napata, however, still remains enigmatic to both archaeologists and historians.  When the site reappears in history in the early eighth century BCE, however, we see that the old Jebel Barkal sanctuary is undergoing restoration and its Amun cult is being revived, just as it had been in the New Kingdom - only now the oracles of its god are promoting claims of the local Kushite ruling family to the Egyptian throne.


1 The inscription of Thutmose I at Kurgus/Hagar el-Merwa reveals that the king reached this prominent quartzite outcrop, just downstream from the fifth cataract, while on his Nubian campaign in his second regnal year (Davies 1998, 2001).  A number of scholars still cling to the idea that the king traveled directly across the Nubian Desert to reach this point (which would have bypassed Jebel Barkal), rather than following the Nile and passing around the Dongola Reach.  The evidence presented below (Parts III. H, I) will strongly indicate that the king did indeed visit Jebel Barkal on his way to Kurgus and that the experience  had a profound and immediate impact on the Amun cult at Thebes.

2 In his Jebel Barkal stele, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Thutmose III addresses the local people, saying, “O ye people of Dju-Wa’ab (‘Pure Mountain’), which was called Nesut-Tawy (‘Thrones of the Two Lands’) before it was known.”  Reisner and Reisner 1933a, 35 (ll. 33-35); Cumming 1982, 4, 1238; Klug 2002, 201-202.  During the reign of Tutankhamun, Huy, the Viceroy of Kush, wrote in his tomb inscription that his authority extended “from Nekhen to Nesut-Tawy” Davies and Gardiner 1926, 11. Again, in fig. 4 above, Amun-Re “Lord of Nesut-Tawy…” is pictured seated within Jebel Barkal.

3 Kendall 2009, 3; Reisner and Reisner 1933a, 26; Reisner 1931, 77.

4 In fig. 4, the Amun seated within Jebel Barkal is also identified as the god “who is in Ipet-Sut.”  In the fourth century BCE, the Napatan king Harsiotef still refers to the chief temple at Jebel Barkal as Ipet-Sut ("The ‘Karnak’ of Amun of Napata”), while his successor Nastasen refers to it as Ipet-Sut Per-Nebu (“Karnak’ House of Gold”) or simply Ipet Sut Nebu (“’Karnak’ of Gold”), said to be the residence of Amun of Napata.  FHN 1996 (II): 443, 444, 478, 480.