Nubian Kingdom and Pyramids
The region called Nubia lay in the Nile River valley south of ancient Egypt. Most of what was Nubia is in modern day Sudan, and a small portion lies in modern Egypt.
The earliest inhabitants of the region were nomads, but by the beginning of the Dynastic Period of ancient Egypt (2920 b.c.e.), Nubia was an important trading center that provided Egypt with gold, ebony, ivory, exotic animals, and slaves.
As trade with Egypt increased, the region’s power grew, but during the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 b.c.e.) Egypt expanded into Nubia, which the Egyptians called Kush.
The region remained politically disorganized until the first in a series of three kingdoms was established.
The first, called the kingdom of Kerma, lasted from about 2400 to 1500 b.c.e. Kerma’s kings accumulated enough power to build large walls, tombs, and other structures.
During the New Kingdom, Egypt expanded farther into Nubia and built a new capital at Napata, which lasted from 1000 to 300 b.c.e. and was powerful enough to conquer Egypt, with its kings ruling Egypt as the Twenty Fith Dynasty (770–712 b.c.e.).
After the Egyptians pulled out of Nubia, its capital centered on Meroë, which lasted from about 300 b.c.e. to 300c.e.
In modern times a team of Swiss archaeologists excavated Kerma, the oldest African civilization other than Egypt. They found remains of a temple built of mud brick in about 2000 b.c.e. and funerary temple built in about 1600 b.c.e. The researchers have discovered tombs that were essentially man made hills some 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall. Inside excavators discovered numerous skeletons, suggesting that when a ruler died he took a number of his followers with him into the afterlife. In one royal tomb were found the skulls of 4,500 cattle that analysis showed were brought from throughout the kingdom.
Surrounding the city were monumental walls, with at least a two mile stretch of military fortii cations. It was during the period when Napata was the center of the Nubian region that builders embarked on a program o pyramid building. This program continued into the Meroitic Period, beginning in 590 b.c.e., when the capital was Meroë.
At three sites in the region are some 223 pyramids that functioned as tombs for royalty.
The earliest ones were built at a site called el Kurru, and they include the tombs of King Kashta, his son Piye (who assumed control of most of Egypt), three of his son’s successors (Shebaka, Shebitku, and Tantamani), and 14 queens.
Unlike the practice of the Egyptians, who built much larger pyramids for kings than for queens, the Nubian pyramids for queens are only slightly smaller than those built for kings. h e pyramid of Piye has been removed, but its foundation trench has been found, as well as 19 steps leading to a burial chamber cut into the bedrock below and covered with a corbelled masonry roof. (In a corbelled roof the masonry is set in courses, or layered rows, so that each course overhangs the previous one, forming a false vault or arch.)
The tomb of Piye’s successor, Shebaka, has a vaulted ceiling. Later pyramids were built at Nuri at er Taharqa, one of the last kings of the Twenty Fifth Dynasty, moved there. His pyramid is much larger than the others, measuring about 170 feet square at the base and rising to as much as 160 feet high.
This pyramid has the distinction of having been built in two stages. The first stage was covered with smooth sandstone. Over it was built a second, larger pyramid, but the earlier phase portion projects out above the ruins of the later phase. The whole was surrounded by a nearby wall. The underground chambers of Taharqa’s pyramid are elaborate. The pyramid is entered by an eastern trench, with three steps down to a door with a molded frame and a cavetto cornice (a concave molding shaped like a quarter circle). Through the doorway is a tunnel that opened into a large chamber with six large pillars. The pillars separated the burial chamber into a central nave and two side aisles, and each of these three segments has a vaulted ceiling. In addition to Taharqa, some 21 kings were entombed at Nuri, along with some 52 queens and royal princes.
The pyramids for these rulers were built according to a consistent plan, and they were all larger than the pyramids at el-Kurru.
Each has a chapel on the east side, along with a stela (a decorated stone slab) and relief decorations showing the king before the gods. The largest Nubian pyramid site is at Meroë, located about 60 miles north of Khartoum. At this site, at least 40 kings and queens were buried over a period of about 600 years until 350 c.e. The site at Meroë, sometimes characterized as the largest archaeological site in the world, is divided into the South Cemetery, the North Cemetery, and the West Cemetery; the North Cemetery was built when the South became too crowded, and the West Cemetery was built for less important royal persons. h e pyramids, made of sandstone, range in height from about 30 to 100 feet. Stripes of raised masonry framed each triangular side of the face the pyramids where they came together, and the corners of the upper fourth of the pyramids were rounded. As usual, a chapel was built against the eastern side.
The early Meroitic pyramids were stepped, but those built later in the period were smooth, with wedge shaped casing blocks positioned along each course. The core of these later pyramids tended to be poorly built with rubble.
The Nubian pyramids differ markedly from those of ancient Egypt, though the pyramids of the pharaohs probably inspired Nubian builders. Like the pyramids of Egypt, they are built with stepped stone layers, or courses, but they are not as tall, ranging in height from about 20 to 100 feet, and they have a much smaller “footprint,” meaning that they do not take up as much ground usually an area of about 25 feet square. They are much more steeply pitched, rising at an angle of about 68 to 70 degrees, so they appear more pointedcompared with the Egyptian pyramids. At the base of the pyramids are small temples. Mention should be made of another Meroitic site, the temple at Faras.
Faras became an important town in the Meroitic kingdom in the third century c.e. On the west bank of the Nile stood a temple constructed during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (r. 1333–1323 b.c.e.) aswell as a chapel to the Egyptian god Hathor cut into the rock and probably built during the reign of Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 b.c.e.) and enlarged under Tutankhamen and Ramses II (r. 1290–1224 b.c.e.).
Today only ruins remain. The symmetrical temple included a square courtyard with a portico on two sides and two rows of columns. It also included a hypostyle hall with a sanctuary and 12 columns. (A hypostyle hall is one with a flat ceiling supported by columns.)
Meroe: northern cemetery, From the book Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile, Dietrich Wildung, 1997, p. 414