B 350 - The Monument of Taharqo on the Jebel Barkal Pinnacle
PDF Print E-mail

Timothy Kendall

(Note: this article was first published in Steffen Wenig, ed. Neueste Feldforschungen im Sudan und in Eritrea:  Akten des Symposiums vom 13. bis 14. Oktober 1999 in Berlin (Meroitica 21).  Berlin:  Harrasowitz, 2004.  1-45, under the title “The Monument of Taharqa on Gebel Barkal.”  It is reprinted here with slight revisions and additional figures).


I.  Legends of Colossal Statues on Jebel Barkal and the Discovery of an Inscription on the Pinnacle Apex.

The most unusual feature of Jebel Barkal is its pinnacle, which projects from the southern corner of the mountain and rises vertically 74.67 m from ground level (measured from the level of the ancient pavement at the entrance of the Great Amun Temple [B 500]) (fig. 1).  For approximately two thirds its height it is joined to the cliff behind.  Higher up it stands free, at first swelling, then narrowing in a steep cone to a small cylindrical apex.  From far upstream the monolith looks like the spire of a cathedral.  At close range, it has an unsettling, lifelike presence and towers over the temples like a giant sentinel.  Throughout the day an ever-changing play of light and shadow animates its surface and challenges the imagination to translate it into some comprehensible form. To one familiar with Egyptian art, the feeling that it is an Egyptian royal statue is irrepressible, for its uppermost part has the unmistakable profile of the White Crown.

Fig. 1: The pinnacle on Jebel Barkal as it appears from the northeast.

The first Western visitors to Jebel Barkal puzzled over this rock and occasionally wrote down their impressions.  George Waddington and Barnard Hanbury, viewing the mountain by river on the moonlit evening of Dec. 13, 1820, remarked in their journal that “we approached near enough to see some of its fragments and projections, which by uncertain light we mistook for columns and colossi” (Waddington and Hanbury 1822, 125).  By the time Frédéric Cailliaud arrived on the scene the following April, the two resident Englishmen had become temporary adherents to the belief of the local people that the pinnacle was the remains of a gigantic royal statue.  In his own journal Cailliaud wrote that the rock did have “some resemblance to an Egyptian head” and that some of the people believed it had been carved, but he said he couldn’t pardon the two Englishmen for embracing “this popular illusion.”  He then stated unequivocally that the “form of this rock is purely accidental and a simple trick of nature.” (Cailliaud 1826, 200)[1]

While sketched by some of the other visitors to Jebel Barkal in the nineteenth century, the pinnacle was not further described until the visit of E.A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum, who arrived at Karima on the heels of Kitchener’s army in 1897 to hunt for monuments.  Wrote Budge:

“The whole form of the mountain is very picturesque and imposing, especially when seen from a distance.  At the southwest corner, a large perpendicular mass of sandstone has become separated by a deep fissure from the body of the mountain, and when looked at from a distance of a mile upstream, it has all the appearance of a colossal statue.  The Arabs declare that it is a statue of one of the kings who reigned in the ‘Time of Ignorance,’ (i.e. before the time of Mohammed the Prophet), and in its profile some Englishmen have seen representations of the features of certain prominent English statesmen.  As Cailliaud says, however, the form of the rock is due to a freak of Nature and is purely accidental” (Budge 1907, v. I, 130-131). [2]

After such decisive statements, the legend of a statue on Jebel Barkal might have passed comfortably into history.  But in 1939 the issue was raised again in earnest by Major G. W. Titherington, then District Commissioner for Merowe, who pointed out to Anthony J. Arkell, the Sudan’s Commissioner for Archaeology, that the pinnacle was only the most prominent of four large, equally-sized, evenly-spaced projections on the face of the cliff behind the temples.  He then proposed that perhaps there had been not one but four huge standing statues there.  If this were so, he reasoned, there might be found between the two middle “colossi” - and beneath the tons of fallen rocks and rubble that had accumulated there over the centuries - the entrance to a rock-cut temple, just as at Abu Simbel.  Arkell investigated and at once embraced this theory with great enthusiasm.

Although the cliff wall behind the temples is rough and somewhat sinuous – not at all like the carefully dressed rock face from which the Abu Simbel statues emerge - three other massive projections in the rock wall can clearly be seen to the right of the pinnacle (fig. 2). They are regularly spaced; each is of nearly the same width, and each rises bastion-like from the base to the top of the cliff.  The two middle forms are hardly more than scars left by ancient collapses of the projecting rock, but the form on the far right, destroyed in its upper half, seems at close range almost to suggest a pair of enormous legs emerging from a kilt.  The proposal that these formations were not coincidental and that they were the remains of four ancient standing royal statues became a most seductive theory.  In his annual report for 1939, Arkell speculated that Ramses II, on the completion of his grandiose temples at Abu Simbel, had sent his sculptors south to Jebel Barkal to attempt an even more ambitious expression of his divinity at the limit of his empire.  To explain the fact that no finished surface remained evident on any of the “statues,” he observed that, being carved of such soft sandstone and fully exposed to the blasting effects of the northeast wind after the passage of three millennia, they had been scoured to near oblivion (Arkell 1940, 7-8).

Fig. 2:The façade of the Jebel Barkal cliff, showing the evenly-spaced projections that some observers once believed were remains of four weathered or collapsed colossi.  Photo by Enrico Ferorelli.

The theory was a bold one, which, if proven true, would have astonished the world.  The colossi would have been nearly four times as high as the seated statues at Abu Simbel, which were 20 m high.  Even if such a vast sculptural project could be verified as having been started and abandoned in an early stage, it could still be counted as the most ambitious ever dreamed by man, even to our own time.[3]

Intrigued by this potential world wonder, two British officials, G.H. Barter and J.W. Kenrick, visited Jebel Barkal in 1941 in order to observe the “colossi” for themselves.  Having binoculars and scanning the battered rock to seek evidence of traces of human workmanship, they saw what none had seen before.  This was a small, smoothed elongated area of dressed stone just beneath the peak of the pinnacle.  It was just below and on the front face of the apex of the “knob” of the “White Crown” - on the south face of the rock overlooking the temples - and it bore traces of an inscription with the unmistakable ovals of a pair of cartouches.  Arkell, reduplicating the observation in various lights of the day, thought he could see within the cartouches faint traces of hieroglyphs suggesting the names of Taharqo.  This unexpected discovery only compounded the mystery, for while the reality of the colossal statues still had not yet been proven, it was obvious now that an inscription, which could not be seen from the ground with the naked eye, had been carved at the very top of the “southern colossus” and that ancient man had indeed worked this stone - in a place that seemed utterly inaccessible (fig. 3) (Arkell 1944, 7-8).

Fig. 3:The front façade of the pinnacle, showing the location of the inscribed panel.

Arkell formally announced the theory of the four colossi and the discovery of the inscription in the Illustrated London News for Feb. 15, 1947 (214-15, and Arkell 1955, 130-131).   Now convinced that the cartouches he had seen were those of Taharqo, he modified his original hypothesis and attributed the “statues” to the Kushite king, suggesting that they had been cut into the face of the Barkal cliff by Taharqo to emulate the achievement of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.  He then again repeated his belief that a rock cut temple would be found between the middle two statues if only one were to excavate the steep mound of debris and fallen rock that had piled up there since antiquity.  He further pointed out that the axis of the Great Temple of Amun (B 500) almost precisely intersected the same point on the cliff.

While no scholars published rebuttals of Arkell’s proposal, the theory of the colossi and hidden temple was treated with skeptical reserve.  Since few Egyptologists, or anyone else, in those days ventured as far south as Jebel Barkal, few could form definite opinions.  In any case, no one hurried to excavate.[4]

In 1957 the statue theory was given new impetus by H. N. Chittick when the results of his own observations at Barkal were published in The Journal of Egyptian  Archaeology (Chittick 1957, 42-44).   Chittick, then an inspector for the Sudan Antiquities Service, had visited the site and made observations of the cliff in September, 1953, and, like Arkell, had come away convinced that the four projections were indeed the remnants of huge statues.  But only the southernmost, the pinnacle, he explained, retained anything of its original form owing to the fact that it was on the most sheltered side of the hill.  “Without the exercise of too much imagination,” he wrote, “[it is possible] to see this is the remains of a standing figure, and the upper part has some resemblance to the Egyptian White Crown.”  At this point, though, Chittick (1957, 42) entered into the record a new and surprising piece of “evidence”:

“Moreover, lying in the ruins of the small temple below and a little to the south is a fragment of a head (about a quarter of the whole, including an eye and part of an ear) about seven times life size.  Although much too small to have come from a statue nearly the height of the hill, it would be about the size one would expect for an attendant figure standing by the leg of the chief statue.”

Although Chittick did not publish a photograph of this object, his description seemed to render the statue theory more viable than ever.  Nearly all the colossi of Ramses had tiny figures of queens or princes standing beside the king’s lower legs, and even one of the Meroitic colossi from Tabo displayed such a figure (Hinkel 1978, 82 and plates). Unfortunately, without realizing it, he had merely described the sole surviving remnant of one of the colossal Bes caryatids that had supported the roof of the ruined court of the Mut temple (B 300) - an object that had nothing to do with any carving on the cliff.[5]

Despite that error, Chittick was able to make the first careful examination of the pinnacle inscription. He first viewed it with the telescope of a surveyor’s level in September, and again with a more powerful instrument in December, 1953.  At that time, he spent one whole day examining the rock face in the different lights and discovered that the text was a severely weathered inscription divided into “at least five panels,” in which he discerned four cartouches and imagined a fifth.  A simple drawing of the inscribed area accompanied his report.  The second panel from the left contained a pair of cartouches in which he correctly read the throne name and birth name of Nastasen.  The third contained a cartouche too damaged to read, and the fourth contained one with the throne name of Taharqa.  Although he could see traces of hieroglyphic text, he could decipher no more.

Clearly there had been a monument here, but how and why was it created?  Even disregarding the statue theory, one had to wonder how any human being could have reached this isolated aerie to carve the observed texts, which were poised vertically almost 75 m. over the temples.  The pinnacle itself is separated from the cliff edge by a gorge some 11 m. wide at its widest point. At a depth of 22 m., the pinnacle shaft joins the main mass of the mountain, but this point is yet another 23 m. above the highest level one can climb without the aid of special climbing apparatus, and that point is already 30 m above ground level.  To scale the pinnacle from below, one would have to ascend nearly 45 m of vertical rock wall that even a modern rock-climber would find extremely challenging.  What could have been the purpose of such texts?  The inscribed panel was so high as to be hardly visible from the ground, and the words or names could never have been read by any mortal.  Chittick, failing to see more with his telescope, concluded in frustration:

“I doubt whether much more can be made out from the ground, and it is quite impossible to scale the pinnacle or to gain access to it from the top of the main mass of the rock.  Useful results perhaps might be obtained by photographing from a close flying aeroplane; observation from a helicopter would be best. The reasons which prompted the placing of an inscription in such a curious position, presumably in expectation that it could never again be read, will no doubt always remain a mystery.”

Page 1 of 8 All Pages