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II. B. Dynasty 25 and Napatan History: 850-250 BCE
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By the mid-ninth century BCE, if not earlier, the site of el-Kurru, 13 km downstream from Jebel Barkal, had become a walled town and the seat of the most important Nubian chiefdom in the environs of Napata (Kendall 1999a).  Although the town site of el-Kurru is poorly known and little explored, it was found to have a cemetery containing a series of 26 royal graves (Ibid; Dunham 1950).  Discounting the two latest tombs, which belonged to a king and queen of the late Napatan Period (late fourth century BCE), the remainder apparently belonged to a succession of eleven male rulers and their wives, probably dating from the early or mid-ninth century1 and ending in the mid-seventh century BCE. The last kings buried there (with eighteen of their queens) were five of the six rulers of the Kushite 25th Dynasty of Egypt:  Kashta (ca. 760-750 BCE), Piankhy (formerly read “Piye”2) (ca. 750-712 BCE), Shabaqo (712-698 BCE), Shebitqo/Shabataka (698-690 BCE), and Tanwetamani (ca. 664-653 BCE).  (The sixth ruler, Taharqo [690-664 BCE] chose to build his tomb and pyramid at Nuri, 23 km upstream).

The earliest tombs at el-Kurru were round tumuli of purely Nubian type, in which the dead were laid in pits, lying on wooden beds.  Successive tombs, however, increasingly incorporated Egyptian features.  Why and how this rapid process of Egyptianization occurred within this Nubian elite family remains unclear, but external influences – perhaps the appearance on the scene of émigré Egyptian Amun priests or missionaries from Karnak, fleeing the civil unrest at Thebes during the reign of Takelot II (ca. 860-835 BCE) - should be suspected (Kendall 1999a, 56-58).  By the early eighth century BCE, the el-Kurru chiefs had clearly adopted Amun as their dynastic god and commenced restoration of the old temples both at Jebel Barkal and at sites further downstream in Upper Nubia (especially at Sanam, Tabo, Kawa [Gem-pa-aten] and Kerma/ Doukki Gel [Pnubs]).3 By mid-century, they had also begun to use Egyptian writing and language for their formal inscriptions.  Proclaiming themselves sons of Amun and heirs of the New Kingdom pharaohs, they began to assume Egyptian royal titles, which they now claimed were granted them by Amun “of Karnak” at Jebel Barkal (Reisner 1931, 89-100, pls; FHN 1994 [I], 55-62). 

From about 780 to 712 BCE, the nascent Kushite dynasty of Napata extended its political reach northward, first uniting all of Kush (from the sixth to first cataracts), and next, incorporating Upper Egypt, thereby reuniting Thebes and Theban Karnak with Napata and Napatan “Karnak,” as had last been accomplished by the New Kingdom pharaohs.  Initially the Kushites made their northern border at el-Hiba, traditional northern boundary of the Thebaid.  By 712, after carrying their conquests northward and establishing firm military control now also over Memphis, Heliopolis, and most of Lower Egypt, they again united the traditional “Two Lands” of Egypt, which established their place in Egyptian history as Dynasty 25.4 It was during this period that the name of Jebel Barkal was commonly modified from Nesut-Tawy (“Thrones of the Two Lands”) to Neset-Tawy (“Throne of the Two Lands”), possibly to distinguish it from Theban Karnak.

Characteristically, the Kushite kings wore a unique type of skull-cap crown, fronted by two uraei rather than the usual single uraeus worn by Egyptian kings.5 As will be shown below (III, C), the shape of this crown was inspired by the profile of Jebel Barkal.  The kings also commonly wore a cord necklace hung with ram-heads, which signified their allegiance to the Amun of Jebel Barkal (fig. 9).

Fig. 9:  Bronze statuette of King Shabaqo (ca. 712-698 BCE), Twenty-fifth Dynasty.  National Archaeological Museum, Athens.  (Photo:  B. V. Bothmer)

Fig. 10:  Faience statuette showing the god Amun holding on his lap, in loving embrace, his “wife,” the Kushite princess Amenirdis. (Photo: Leclant 1965, pl. 66).

During their Egyptian hegemony (ca. 712-661 BCE), the Kushite kings followed the practice of their Tanite and Libyan predecessors and established select princesses from their family to be “God’s Wives” at Thebes – that is, women who were literally married to the god Amun at Karnak (and thus held the rank of high priestesses as well as “goddesses” in mortal form) 6 (fig. 10).  At the same time they treated Jebel Barkal (the “Karnak” of Kush) as their primary cult center, and deferred to its oracle, which continued to send them advisories in Egypt which they were bound to obey.7 By the 660’s BCE, repeated invasions of Egypt by Assyria and a series of ensuing disastrous military reverses with the Assyrians forced the Kushite kings to remove their court from Memphis to Napata –  possibly even to Meroë - where they continued to present and to promote themselves as the true kings of Egypt.

The Kushite belief in the primacy of their “Egyptian” kingship as granted by Amun of Jebel Barkal was probably a root cause of the war in 593 BCE between Psamtik II (ca. 595-589 BCE), Saite king of Dynasty 26 in Egypt (fig. 12), and his Kushite contemporary Aspelta (fig. 11). The extensive evidence at this time for the deliberate destruction of Kushite royal statues at (fig. 13) and the burning of temples B 500,  B 800 and the palace B 1200 at Jebel Barkal and other Kushite cultic sites downstream (Sanam and Kerma/Doukki Gel [ancient Pnubs]), suggests that Jebel Barkal with its Amun oracle may have been the main objective of Psamtik’s campaign.8 One suspects that the Saite king’s intention was to put an end, once and for all, to Kushite pretensions to his throne and to eradicate the Jebel Barkal Amun cult, which was believed (at least by its Kushite adherents) to confer it (fig. 14).

Fig. 11:  Head of Aspelta (ca. 600-580 BCE), likely ruler of Kush at the time of Psamtik’s invasion. Detail of his statue from Jebel Barkal, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA 23.730).


Fig. 12: Portrait of Psamtik II (595-589 BCE), whose armies invaded Kush in 593 BC.  Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris (Bonnet and Valbelle 2006, 164).



Fig. 13:  Cache of large Kushite royal statues, deliberately broken, found by Reisner in 1916, buried in a pit with burned debris just outside the entrance to the Great Amun Temple at Jebel Barkal (B 500).  A similar cache of broken statues was found in 2003 outside the Amun temple at Kerma/Doukki Gel (ancient Pnubs) (Photo: Reisner files, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).


Fig. 14:  Relief block from a dismantled 25th Dynasty temple of Horus at Edfu, showing the defacement of a Kushite king.  The damage dates from the reign of Psamtik II and would have been authorized shortly after his army’s victorious return from Kush.  (Photo: Gay Robins).

Although Psamtik’s campaign was destructive, the Kushite kingship and royal mythology surrounding Jebel Barkal continued unabated.  The monarchs ultimately restored the Barkal sanctuary while extending the Amun cult southward, far up the Nile to Meroë and beyond. 

The four century epoch following the expulsion of the kings of Kush from Egypt is known as the Napatan Period.  Even though, following Psamtik’s campaign, the Kushite kings seem to have made Meroë – some 275 km southeast of Napata - their primary residence, they nevertheless, during this period, continued to prefer burial in the vicinity of Napata, now in large pyramids at the site of Nuri, 9.7 km NE of Jebel Barkal on the opposite bank of the Nile and 23 km up the river from the old ancestral burial ground at el-Kurru (Reisner 1918b; Dunham 1955) (fig. 15).

Fig. 15:  View of the Nuri pyramids. (Photo: T. Kendall).


The founder of the Nuri cemetery was Taharqo (fig. 16), the greatest of the Kushite rulers of Egypt.  His pyramid, now much ruined, once stood approximately 52.5 m sq. and 63 m high.  It was the largest ever built in the Sudan (fig. 17).  The site was subsequently used for their pyramids by nineteen of his twenty successors in Kush and fifty-three queens, down to the early third century BCE.  Most of Taharqo’s followers are shadowy figures.  Only seven are known by historical texts; the rest are known only by the names actually found in their tombs (FHN 1994 [I], 210 ff; 1996 [II], 393-501).  The pyramids of the followers were almost uniformly half the size of Taharqo’s pyramid; those of the queens were generally about one quarter that size.

Fig. 16:  Portrait of Taharqo from his colossal statue found at Jebel Barkal in 1916.  Sudan National Museum, Khartoum.  (Photo:  Enrico Ferorelli)

Fig. 17:  Restored view of the Nuri pyramids, showing the oversized pyramid of Taharqo among the smaller pyramids of his Napatan successors and the even smaller pyramids of their many queens.  (Model by William Riseman).

During the third century BCE one king built his pyramid (Bar. 11) at Jebel Barkal, just west of the mountain (fig. 18); another, joining the more remote ancestors, built his pyramid at el-Kurru (Ku. I) (fig. 19); while most of the rulers, after the mid-third century BCE, built their pyramids at Meroë, which had by then become the most important city of the realm (Dunham 1957; Chapman and Dunham 1952) (fig. 20). For a brief period in the first century BCE, however, several rulers again built their pyramids at Jebel Barkal (Dunham 1957) (fig. 21).

Fig. 18: View of Pyramid Bar. 11 (late fourth-early third century BCE), with the mid-morning shadow of the Jebel Barkal pinnacle pointing to it (March 9, 2007).  (Photo: T. Kendall).


Fig. 19: Pyramid Ku. I at el-Kurru (late fourth-early third century BCE), showing the staircase (which originally would have been filled in) leading down to its subterranean tomb.  (Photo:  T. Kendall).



Fig. 20: Meroitic royal pyramids in the north cemetery (“Beg. N”) at Meroe (third to first centuries BCE).  (Photo: T. Kendall).



Fig. 21:  Meroitic royal pyramids at Jebel Barkal (first century BCE). (Photo: T. Kendall)



The outward effect of the temples and pyramids of Kush was the re-creation within the Sudanese kingdom of a kind of mythological facsimile of Egypt, with Amun “of Karnak” at Jebel Barkal as the state god, conferring the kingship of Re and Horus upon his Kushite “sons” just as he had once conferred it upon the imperial pharaohs, whom the Kushite kings continued to claim as their “ancestors.”  Since Amun of Jebel Barkal (as bringer of life via the Nile inundation) had been identified by the Egyptians as the god of Creation and Primeval Times, the Kushites, embracing the same traditions, could boast in Hellensitic times that their kingship, granted by this most ancient god, was older (and hence more legitimate) than that conferred by his alter-ego in Egypt, and that it was from their own southern land that Egyptian civilization had first sprung and spread to Egypt (FHN 1996 [II], 638 ff.).

1 The chronology of the el-Kurru tombs and the identification of their owners has been a subject of considerable scholarly debate.  For a review of the arguments and literature, see Kendall 1999b, 164-176.
2 For a discussion of this king’s name, and the evolution of its proposed readings from “Piankhy” to “Py,” to “Pi(‘ankh)y,” to “Pi(ankhi),” and back to “Piankhy,” with all literature cited, see Kahn 2005-06, 103, n. 1.
3 Reisner 1920a, 247-254; Török 1997, 299-326; Kendall 1999a, 64 ff; Bonnet and Valbelle 2006, p. 64 ff.
4 Bonnet and Valbelle 2006, 142-163; Morkot 2000, 167-304; Török 1997, 131-188; FHN 1994 (I); Kitchen 1973, 362-398;
5 Russmann 1974; Davies 1982; Török 1987; Leahy 1992, Myśliwiec 2000, 91-92. 
6 See Leclant 1965; Robins 1993; Ayad 2004 and cited literature. 
7 Török 1997, 241-246; FHN 1994 (I), 308; Herodotus II: 139.
8 For the most recent analysis of Psamtik’s campaign - and the newly found cache of broken  statues from Kerma/Pnubs - see Bonnet and Valbelle 2006, 70-109, 164-171, 174-182.  On the evidence from Jebel Barkal and its cache of broken statues, see Kendall 1996, 468-476.  Török 1997, 271-374, expresses doubt that the army of Psamtik ever reached Napata, but note the burned palace of Aspelta at Jebel Barkal (B 1200) (Kendall and Wolf 2007), the destruction of which seems to have been recorded by Psamtik II in his Tanis Stela (Manuelian 1984, 365-371).