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Digging into Africa's past
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 11 - 2007

Charles Bonnet and Dominique Valbelle, (2006) The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo
Al-Ahram Weekly reviews this well-illustrated publication written by archaeologist Charles Bonnet, former president of the International Nubiology Association, and Egyptologist Dominique Valbelle. It covers an important period of history that has so far been made known only in a fragmentary fashion and, in particular, describes the discovery of monumental black granite statues portraying the Pharaonic rulers of Egypt's 25th or "Nubian" Dynasty that lasted for 50 years from 720 to 671 BC.
The statues, one of the most important discoveries of recent years, were found by the University of Geneva's Mission Archeologique in 2003. The team working near the Third Cataract of the Nile at ancient Kerma (now known as Doukki Gel -- a Nubian term which can be roughly translated as "red mound"). Formerly known as the "Ethiopian" Pharaohs, these black rulers of Egypt are now generally known as "Kushites" from the area of modern-day Sudan which constitutes an important realm of Egyptology.
The Swiss team discovered the cache of statues in a ditch within the area of a temple then known as Pnubs (literally "the city of the jujube tree"). Magnificently sculpted, they portray five rulers of the Nubian Dynasty. Two of the statues -- Taharqa and Tanutamun, the last two Pharaohs of the dynasty -- are masterpieces that rank among the greatest in art history.
Egyptology is constantly enriched as new evidence comes to light, and every discovery provides food for thought. In fact, the treasures found in the Kerma cache forced the discoverers to face questions that had been previously overlooked. The authors of The Nubian Pharaohs explore a new geographic realm in depth; they deal with issues that are far from resolved; and they describe the various ritual practices associated with the area.
Kerma was a Neolithic dwelling place in about 3000 BC. There were rectangular buildings and circular huts, pits for the storage of food, enclosures for livestock, and a major defence system, all of which attest to the town's belonging to a centrally-governed chieftaincy. Several centuries later an independent kingdom emerged, which, the evidence suggests, had a level of culture similar to that of the earliest Egyptian Pharaohs. From various archaeological finds in the town and the necropolis -- including the Deffufa or main temple and its surrounding urban areas -- it is possible to postulate the existence of a network of exchanges with other lands.
In the past we have tended to consider Nubia and Kush (Sudan) from an Egyptian perspective. That is to say, Nubia was considered vitally important to Egypt's economy because the requirements of a highly-developed civilisation demanded raw materials that were imported from, among other places, the agriculturally-impoverished but mineral-rich land to the south, in exchange for grain, oil, and honey. Now, however, excavations around the main temple have shown how urban development in Old Kerma developed various construction techniques and materials inspired by traditions dating back to prehistory -- and which, incidentally, are still being used today. Nubians were aware of the requirements of Pharaonic Egypt, realised the advantages of trade, and while allowing Egyptians to satisfy their mineral requirements, acted as entrepreneurs, opening up markets even further south, in the Sudan and further south.
The powerful Pharaohs of Egypt's Middle Kingdom (2133-1786 BC) built fortresses at Semna, Buhen, and beyond, and even established a trading post in Kerma, where generation after generation of Egyptian soldiers and settlers lived in or around the fortress towns. The Nubians protected their own trade routes with buttressed walls and rectangular and semi-circular bastions for defence. Egyptologists have described this as a period of colonisation in Nubia, during which they slowly spread their traditions and religious beliefs.
As the Swiss mission excavations show, however, this was Kerma's classic heyday. The Nubians lived on the edge of the Egyptian empire and remained in contact with the populations of central Africa and the Red Sea shoreline. The king's audience chamber (rebuilt at least 10 times on the same spot) bears no resemblance to any Egyptian building. On the contrary, the chamber might be seen as a prototype for the large princely and royal huts discovered on the African continent in the last hundred years. The most ancient architecture of Kerma clearly reveals that its roots lay in an African architecture. The kings asserted their power by planning their own funerary cult and by having hundreds of people sacrificed at the time of their death. Kerma has provided an opportunity to rediscover the originality of Nubian rituals and accomplishments.
Nearly 1,000 years of uninterrupted cultural development in Nubia came to an end only with the first military campaigns of Egyptian Pharaohs in the early 18th Dynasty. In about 1547 BC Tuthmosis I pushed the Egyptian frontier south of the Second Cataract. Many fine temples were raised in Nubia, among them that of Queen Hatshepsut at Semna, later claimed by her successor Tuthmosis III who built another at Soleb. At nearby Sesibi, his successor Akhenaten built another temple. Egyptian viceroys were appointed to govern these territories and ensure the regularity of shipments northwards.
By the 19th Dynasty (c. 1320 BC) Egyptian influence had spread southwards to the Fourth Cataract, and another settlement was established at Napata. With the establishment of large communities, not only were Egypt's technological skills introduced far southwards, but its religious tradition as well. Ramses II constructed six temples in Nubia between the first and second cataracts. There is no doubt that Egypt's dominant position in the ancient world was due largely to the country's command of Nubian gold production -- the precious metal assured Egypt's superiority as the richest country in Africa and western Asia.
The situation changed when the Egyptian high priest Hrihor declared himself viceroy of Kush, and his control of the Nubia gave him the wealth and military might to usurp the throne of Egypt in about 1000 BC. Anarchy reigned, and after Hrihor's death there followed a period of confusion. This enabled the African rulers of Kush to become increasingly independent. Liberated from Egyptian domination, Napata became the focal point of a revived kingdom. It was Egyptian in tradition and religious belief, but it was unquestionably African in origin.
The Kushites had a Pharaonic-style court, with its assembly of officials, Pharaonic titles, and a temple at Kerma where the temple of Amun of Gem-Aten was located. And so strong and powerful were they that when, following unstable conditions and a period of decline, Egypt succumbed to Libyan rulers who proclaimed themselves Pharaohs of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Kushite king Piankhi saw it as his duty to liberate Egypt, its northern neighbour, from what he considered to be the forces of barbarism. He did not regard himself as an invader when he marched northwards, because his people had long absorbed Egyptian culture. In fact, Piankhi and his descendants, especially Taharqa, who was the powerful Kushite king of Egypt in the first half of the seventh-century BC, proved to be leaders of strength and ability.
How long a Kushite king might have remained on the throne of Egypt we cannot say because the powerful Assyrian army marched on the Delta in 671, and although Taharqa made plans to meet his rival, he was no match to the mighty Esarhaddon, king of Assyria. Worthy of note is that Taharqa's long resistance to the Assyrian invasion merited mention in the Bible. His force, composed of local militia and recruits from the Nile Delta, were, however, finally vanquished in about 656 BC. The "Black Pharaohs" were forced to abandon the Lower Nile and withdrew to the south, thereafter reigning as the Napatan Dynasty.
In about 600 BC Napata was no longer considered suitable for the expanding economy, and the capital was moved further south to Meroe (Shendi), where, in a fertile bend of the river, on a spot free from invasion, well placed for trade, rich in mineral wealth, especially iron ore, and in wood for iron- smelting, a new culture developed.
The Kushite kingdom was at once a continuation of the Egyptian-influenced Napatan culture, and a distinctive African culture. The Meroitic Period reached its heyday during the reign of King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore, shortly before the start of the Christian era, and authors Bonnet and Valbelle recount, in The Nubian Pharaohs, the main phases of the kingdom of Kush which came to rival the great ancient civilisations. They trace all kinds of visible remains throughout the archaeological site of Kerma; its demographic growth -- which is apparent from the increase in the number of tombs and the building of its religious precinct of Doukki Gel, one of the largest Meroitic sanctuaries in Sudan -- and different stages of destruction, reconstruction and restoration.
It was here, at this remote site in northern Sudan, that the Swiss mission, after 30 years of excavation in the area, made the astounding and unexpected discovery of the granite statues.
The sculptured portraits of the African kings reveal them to have been tough individuals with strong features and powerful bodies. The lavish illustrations in The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile, reveal the individual features and characteristics of the monarchs, who have now taken their place in history. In the words of Leclant, here is "an expressive art that combines the rigor of revived classicism with a fascinatingly 'primal' aesthetic... unexpectedly concrete evidence of negritude."
The Meroitic Period survived until the fourth century AD when the temples were deserted and a population with different traditions moved into the region. Two centuries later, Christianity arrived -- although only few tombs at Kerma testify to a new cycle of development -- followed by successive stages of Islamisation.
The city of Kerma/Doukki Gel then lost its pre- eminence. Despite its favourable geographical location, the Christian capital of one of the three Sudanese kingdoms was founded farther south, at Old Dongola, where grandiose and superbly-decorated churches constituted a new centre of influence.
The Nubian Pharaohs is a major book that combines the latest archaeological research with stunning photography. It has transformed our understanding of the art of that period, and Bonnet and Valbelle narrate the incredible story that will change our understanding of Egypt and Africa in the ancient world.
Reviewed by Jill Kamil


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