Egypt’s Pyramid Competitor- The Kush(y) Nubian Pyramids

In joining the designated theme of pre-modern non-European civilizations and the informal trend concerning pyramids which seems to have enveloped the blog, we must look no further than Sudan. A subject at first interesting for its similarities to its more infamous neighbor’s architectural style. On closer inspection and with the help of this post’s inspiration, QI, we can see that not only were the Kushite Kingdoms more plentiful in their pyramids but they also strove to distinguish their burial tombs from that of the Egyptian kingdom’s.

Kushite kingdoms?

Apart from sounding like the setting for a Chinese knock off of a Nintendo game, The Kingdoms of Kush rose like a phoenix into independence from the ashes of the Bronze Age and the disintegration of the New Kingdom of Egypt in 1070BC. To be geographically precise the kingdoms was situated upon where the White Nile, Blue Nile and you’ve guessed it… the River Atbara meet in what is known today as the politically serene Republic of Sudan. Unfortunately the kingdom did not have such a Kush-y ending as after capture by the Beja Dynasty in the 1st Century AD, Kush was weakened and finally disintegrated due to internal rebellion in 350AD.

Were you paying attention?

Understandably a funny name and geography aren’t why this post was written. To understand the pyramids of which we are concerned, it is important to recognize for you less eagle-eyed readers why i have consistently pluralized ‘Kingdom’ when surely there is only one civilization under discussion? That is indeed the case however within this civilization of Kush we find three very congruent political entities following each-other of which are defined by their designated capitals. Without going into the specifics of each: The first kingdom of Kerma lasted from 2600-1520BC when it was dissolved into the New Kingdom of Egypt. This dissolution would explain the extensive hiatus between the dissolution of the Kerma Kingdom in 1520Bc and the manifestation of the Napata Dynasty  which spanned from 1000-300BC. Directly following the Napata Dynasty after its economic downfall from raids of the occupying Persians in Egypt was the Meroe Dynasty which was described by Herodotus as”A great city, said to be the mother of the city of the other Ethiopians.” This trumped-up description of grandeur is not apt for the dynasty’s downfall in 300AD from military exhaustion and decline in traditional industries like fishing.

Why does this all matter?

Through all these dates and dynastic failings we see a clear distinction when it comes to burial as it was only the Napata and Meroe dynasties which employed the pyramid system unlike the Kerma dynasty and its local burial practices. As such focus shall pertain only to the burial practices of Napata and Meroe origin which can be further explained through the Nubian success over Egypt leading to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Egypt in 760BC. This is important as it meant that the Nubian dynasties of Napata and Meroe were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, politics, economy and military.

So unoriginal Nubia?

Well yes but not in the detail. Egypt can lay claim to kick starting the pyramid trend but with only 118-138 (2008 source) pyramids to its name, the 255 found in the former Nubian kingdoms puts its neighbor to shame. In saying that, the larger number makes sense when considering how Nubian queens were given separate pyramids to their husbands unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs who preferred to at least be within the same chamber or should I say tomb to their wives like at Giza. This may be because the Egyptians romanticized and were fascinated over death or just because the Nubians were frightened  of their wives who tended to be warrior queens so they tried to have some distance with their spouses before the afterlife. We may never know but it would be nice to see further research into the warrior queens as little is known. The most remarkable difference between Egyptian and Nubian pyramids come from their design as the Nubians preferred stepped courses of horizontally place stone blocks while the Egyptians found the steep inclines and the small bases unfashionable. Add this to the Nubians only reaching to 30 meters with their tallest structure while Egypt quintupled that figure and you have a good excuse for Egyptian pyramid production.

Can I visit?

Sure, i mean as long as you can avoid the SLM and the war in Darfur than go right ahead. I wouldn’t be surprised however if there’s little to see as much of the pyramid sites have either been raided, excavated or blown up. That last one could do with some explaining as Sudanese government air raids haven’t reached that far north. Such destruction takes the form of an Italian combat medic who after his bout of military service in the 1830s tried his hand at treasure hunting. Unfortunately for us Giuseppe Ferlini took “treasure hunting” to mean- blow off the tops of 40 Nubian pyramids  like that of Kandake Amanishakheto which he leveled to the ground until he had his hands on her gold and silver jewelry pieces. In a sort of sweet revenge- when he returned home, no one believed such high quality jewelry could be made in ‘Black Africa” and so his finds reluctantly ended up in German Egyptology museums where it remains today. These weren’t the only finds as archaeologists have since found in the tombs: the remains of bows, quivers of arrows, archers’ thumb rings, horse harnesses, wooden boxes, furniture, pottery, colored glass, rock art, ringing rocks, metal vessels and an entire cow buried with eye ointment included. Not only do these items show links to extensive Meroitic trade with Egypt and the Hellenistic world but also how much the Nubians valued their horses and horseback warfare much like the Eurasian nomads. If this isn’t evidence enough than if you were to journey 120 meters North-West of pyramids K.51-K.55 than you would find 24 graves suggestive of mass upright horse burials.

Hopefully this look into the pyramids of the Kushite kingdom of sparked somewhat of an interest as I guarantee that you would not find a larger concentration of pyramids anywhere else in the world but Sudan. Remember to keep your eye out next time you wander around an Egypt exhibit if you find yourself in Sudan or even Berlin or Munich as there may be a little bit of Nubia right under your nose!

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4 thoughts on “Egypt’s Pyramid Competitor- The Kush(y) Nubian Pyramids

  1. Yes we’ve heard about this fabulous story, or should we say fact that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt! It is indeed a pity that there is not a “safer” way to go see them. But its a pity it has either been destroyed by adventurers (aka treasure hunters) or by modern warfare.

    1. That is one thing i despise about modern warfare, how certain states or groups can disregard or target heritage and culture sites in such a damaging way that our source of understanding for the future is lost. It is a shame that the pyramids aren’t in the safest place in the world but i don’t see any travel restrictions so i can only request that travelers be safe! If you’d like to see the treasures in a much safer environment than i can only suggest the State Museum of Egyptian Art of Munich or the Egyptian museum of Berlin.:)

      1. Yeah, we read about it safely from the NatGeo History magazine recently…that’s where it was now we recalled. Probably might not even get a visa to visit Sudan, so this is a pipe dream for now!

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