Home The Napatan Period
IV. The Napatan Period
PDF Print E-mail

The 400 year period in Sudan following Kushite rule in Egypt is known as the "Napatan Period," since it used to be thought that during this era Napata was the political capital of the kingdom. It is now generally assumed that this city, except perhaps in the eighth century BCE, may never have been more than the chief religious center of the kingdom and that the real political capital, at least from the early sixth century BCE on, was Meroë, about 275 km to the southeast. Throughout the period, however, all royal burials took place in the vicinity of Napata: twenty kings at Nuri, with single kings buried at el-Kurru and Jebel Barkal.  Of all these kings, only seven are known by major inscriptions. The rest are known only by the names preserved in their tombs.

The surviving documents of the period, all written in Egyptian, reveal that the rulers, if indeed they made Meroë their primary residence, continued to make regular visits to Jebel Barkal for their coronations, for the annual New Year ceremonies in early August,  and for consultation of its oracle on matters of state and the conduct of war.  During these journeys, they also visited the other sanctuaries of the kingdom downstream, celebrated festivals at each, initiated building projects at all of them, presented gifts to the gods at each, and waged wars against the peoples on all sides of their periphery.

The Napatan Period, which came to an end in the mid-third century BCE, was an era when the Kushites rather slavishly imitated Egyptian models in art, architecture, and burial customs and practiced a religion derived largely from the Egyptian of the New Kingdom, with Amun as the state god.  During this time royal inscriptions were written exclusively in the Egyptian language using Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

The era in Kush after the Napatan Period – from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE – is known as the “Meroitic Period.”   This period is thought to have begun when the rulers transferred the site of their pyramids to Meroë, a moment which also broadly coincides with a marked shift away from Egyptian cultural and artistic norms, the introduction of new gods into the pantheon, the appearance of new forms of royal costume and standards of beauty that are distinctly central African, and with the introduction of a novel Kushite alphabetic script and the increasingly dominant use of the native tongue (“Meroitic”) for formal inscriptions. Since the Meroitic language has not yet been deciphered, except at the most rudimentary level, our knowledge of post-Napatan, Meroitic history is dependent almost entirely on archaeological data and on a few surviving contemporary Greek and Roman commentaries.


Napatan Kingship

Kushite kingship traditions during the Napatan Period were borrowed almost wholly from the Egyptian of the New Kingdom, although certain non-Egyptian features, such as the rules of succession, clearly indicate indigenous survivals. Whether the Kushites had any memory of a native kingship prior to the Egyptian colonial era is not known, but the chiefs of Napata who appeared out of the mists of the ninth century BCE at el-Kurru, and who within a century went on to conquer Egypt, always cast themselves as the direct successors and heirs of the imperial Egyptian pharaohs.  Any real blood relationship with them, however, is almost certainly out of the question.  In their minds their relationship to the New Kingdom rulers would have been based on the myth of their common paternity by Amun, which meant that they were all heirs to the so-called “royal ka.”


The Royal Myth

Like the Egyptians, the Kushites believed that their kingship was handed down from the sun god Re at the beginning of time.  Just as the New Kingdom pharaohs, centuries earlier, had identified Jebel Barkal, with its uraeus-shaped pinnacle, as the place where Amun “of Karnak” had introduced Upper Egyptian kingship to earth, thus legitimizing their authority to rule Kush as a part of Upper Egypt, the Kushites revived this tradition and used it to justify their own claims, first, to rule Upper Egypt and, later, all of Egypt. In this manner they could present their rule over Egypt during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE as a continuity of the rule of the New Kingdom pharoahs. When they lost control of Egypt to the Assyrians and the rulers of Sais (Dynasty 26), they continued to use the Jebel Barkal kingship traditions to present themselves as the only true kings and heirs of Amun, as they now reconceptualized Kush as Kemet ("the Black Land") and Nesut-Tawy ("the Two Lands") (i.e. Egypt).

To his subjects, the king of Kush presented himself as the “bodily” son of the sun god (Amun-Re) and his earthly manifestation (ka), endowed with the same divine creative powers.  Thus his coronation – his kha’y (“appearance in glory”) - was thought a re-enactment of the creation of the world, a symbolic sunrise and rebirth of the state.  A similar metaphoric repeat of the beginning of time also took place each New Year's Day. It was this day, about August 7,  that marked beginning of the Nile's rise, the renewed fertility of the earth, and the end of the killing heat of summer.  The inundation led to the harvest of the crops in the fall, which was followed by the cooling, salubrious days of mid-winter.  These in turn led again to the heat, violent sandstorms and death-like torpor of late spring and summer, when the whole cycle was again repeated.  Each of these seasons had festivals that required the active participation of the king to ensure that the kingdom successfully passed through the year without undue suffering at the hands of feared deities or rebellious enemy peoples.


The Coronation

The most important ritual event in the kingdom of Kush was the coronation of the king, which generally took place first in a great public spectacle at Jebel Barkal and was repeated in annual versions every new Year’s Day.  This ceremony was then repeated on a smaller scale at each of the other great Amun sanctuaries of the kingdom: especially  Kawa and Pnubs.  Most of the known royal stelae of the Napatan Period describe this ceremony, and it was even one of the few Kushite (“Aithiopian”) customs mentioned by the Greek historian Diodorus in the first century BCE.

In Kush, after the death of a king, the choice of a successor was said (by the official propaganda) to have been left to the great god Amun himself.  The reality was that the successor was probably already known before the old king's death. The god's formal oracular choice simply made it official.  From their surviving inscriptions, we know that Kings Irike-amanote and Nastasen knew they were to assume the royal office before they went before the god at Napata.

Diodorus reported that the priests "elected" the king from among themselves and that the chosen one was accepted by the multitude when formally "seized" by the god. Once a candidate was identified as the new king, the people immediately prostrated themselves before him and honored him as a god.  The story parallels almost precisely what we know from actual Napatan texts, except that the royal successor seems to have been chosen not from among the priesthood but from among the king's surviving brothers or nephews, most of whom were apparently officers in the army.  The army, in fact, seems generally to have been present at these events. Although in Egypt a pharaoh was customarily succeeded by his own son, in Kush he was generally succeeded by one of his brothers or by the son of one of his sisters.  Only after his successor's reign was over, so it seems, could his own son be considered for the throne.

The most complete account of the enthronement ceremony at Jebel Barkal is preserved in the Coronation Stele of Aspelta. Here the king states that after the unexpected death of his predecessor - his brother, Anlamani - the army and all the great officials gathered at Jebel Barkal to ask the god (through his priests) to signify his choice for successor.  The priests then entered the great temple together with the army commanders and officials, and, prostrating themselves before the god, they put the question to him.  At this point all of Anlamani’s brothers were paraded before Amun, who declined to choose any of them. Finally when Aspelta appeared before the god, Amun spoke, saying "This is your king."  At this point, Aspelta entered the sanctuary, found there the crowns and scepters of former kings, put on the crown of Anlamani, and stepped forth into the open again, where he was acclaimed by the troops and massed throng.

Other textual data indicates that the king's mother played a paramount role in the ceremony.  We know, for example, that the actual crowning of the king often took place in a separate temple called the Per-wer ("Great House") and that the act of putting the crown on the king’s head was performed by a goddess called Weret-Hekau (“Great of Magic”) (goddess of the crowns). Her role, however, seems to have been played by the king’s mother, transformed into the goddess by “great magic.”  The Per-Wer temple at Jebel Barkal was almost certainly B 1100, which was constructed directly in front of the pinnacle – which was imagined as a colossal natural image of the royal uraeus.


Royal Names and Titles

In the Kushite language, the king was known as the Koré . In formal texts in Egyptian, he assumed all the normal titles of a pharaoh as well as the pharaoh's usual series of five names.  In actuality, however, he used only two of these names with any regularity: the name that he was born with, and a special "throne name," which he received when he was publicly acknowledged by the god Amun-Re as his own son.  This name identified the king as a unique aspect or ka of the god.   Among examples of such names are Ankh-ka-Re "The ka of Re lives" (Anlamani), Ka-ankh-Re, "Living ka of Re" (Nastasen), Mery-ka-Re, "Beloved ka of Re" (Aspelta), Sekhem-ka-Re, "The ka of Re is Powerful" (Malonaqen), and Nefer-ka-Re, "The ka of Re is Beautiful" (Analma'aye).  While some throne names made no reference to the ka, they nevertheless expressed the same sentiment: for example, Sa-mery-Amun, "Beloved Son of Amun" (Harsiotef), or A'a-kheper-Re, "Great is the manifestation of Re" (Amani-nataki-lebte).


Royal Costume

The preferred crown of the king of Kush in Dynasty 25 and the Napatan Period was a kind of tight fitting, ornamented skull-cap to which were affixed two uraei rather than the usual single uraeus worn by Egyptian kings.  The bodies of the two uraei wound over the top of the crown, ending in two cloth bands or ribbons, which hung down over the ruler’s back.  Because of the similarity in shape of the Kushite cap crown to the outline of Jebel Barkal when seen from the east (=upstream, “south”), there seems little reason to doubt that the crown was designed to simulate the shape of the mountain (See Part III, C).

The "cap crown" was accompanied by a distinctive cord necklace, which wound once about the neck and left the ends to fall forward over the shoulders. Ram-head pendants, representing the face of the Amun of Napata, or Nubia in a general sense, were fastened to it at the throat and at each end. Identical pendants were sometimes worn as earrings.


Royal Women

Like the king, who was thought to be a son and living manifestation (ka) of Amun-Re, his sisters were thought to be "daughters of Re" and hence living manifestations of the great goddesses, who were also thought to be the god's daughters, consorts, and mothers.  The king and his mother, sisters, and daughters, therefore, were thought to mirror on earth the family of gods in heaven, and thus they were able to assume by magic any of the diverse roles, names, and identities of the gods in rituals. Since the goddesses were understood to be the protectors of Amun-Re, especially when transformed into uraei, the women of the royal family must also have been seen as the king's divine protectors and his own living uraei.

The female hierarchy of the royal family was probably based on seniority of bloodline and age, with the king's mother having the highest status.  Since the king was identified as a child of Amun, it was his mother whom the god had chosen to love, and whom, disguised as her husband, he had impregnated.  She therefore had the highly venerated status of god's consort, which made her a living equal of Mut, Hathor, Isis, and all the other great goddesses who were so often represented as divine mothers of the king.  Since these goddesses and others so often assumed the identities of each other interchangeably, it follows that the king's mother, who was also their “sister”, would have had the same ability to assume their identities “by magic” in the same way.  Thus at times a king's mother might be likened to the sky goddess Nut, mother of the gods (as her husband, the king, was likened to the earth god Geb).  In this context she may also have been a royal grandmother - the living mother of a deceased king (an “Osiris”) – as Nut herself was the mother of Osiris.  Again, she could be likened to Mut, mother of the gods and consort of the king (just as her husband was likened to Amun).  Or she might be likened to Hathor, primeval generatrix (as her husband was so frequently likened to Re-Atum).  Or she might be likened to Isis, mother of Horus (as her deceased husband was to Re or Osiris).  The king's mother and/or wife appear on virtually all the royal Napatan stelae, suggesting that no major interaction of the king with the great gods was possible without the ritual involvement of one or several of the royal women, who acted as intermediaries.

Second in status to the king's mother was his "great royal wife," who was probably a daughter of a former king and held the rank of chief consort, if indeed she was not the king's very own sister.  Although there was only one "great royal wife" at any one time, over the course of a king's lifetime, more than one wife might accede to the title if a former queen predeceased her husband.  These ladies also performed rituals together with the king, and appear both on the stelae and on temple reliefs.  The king surely also maintained a large harem of lesser wives and concubines, either drawn from the royal family or political marriages.  Each king thus must have had many children, but they are never mentioned unless they either became kings themselves or assumed high office. Kings' sons could become priests, governors, or military commanders.  Kings' daughters or sisters were given as wives to high officials or were given high female priestly positions in the Amun temples.

Despite the official dogma that the king was the god's son, Aspelta (ca. 600-580 BCE) still felt the need to justify his right to the throne by more orthodox genealogy. In a speech in his Coronation Stele, this genealogy is put into the mouth of Amun, who identifies Aspelta's natural father as "my son, the Son of Re (King so-and-so [name erased])" and his mother as "King's Sister, King's Mother, Mistress of Kush, Daughter of Re (Nasalsa [name erased])." This was followed by the genealogy of Nasalsa, who, we learn, was the direct descendant of six generations of "king's sisters," which also implies that she was the direct descendant of seven generations of kings.  The male line required no mention, since it was accepted that the king’s father was always Amun (of his ka).  It was the queen's line that guaranteed the passage of royal blood. In Aspelta’s case, if there had been any controversy about the correctness of the oracle granting him the throne, he could show direct royal descent, through the female line, through seven generations.


The King's Activities

Since he was a “son of Re (the Sun),” the king's activities were often described in solar terms.  When he was crowned, he “appeared in glory” like the rising sun.  When he departed his palace, he went forth "as Re shines in the horizon.”  His perfume vials described his unguents as the "sweat of Re.”  His mirrors, with their round disks explicitly symbolizing the face of the sun, were designed so that when he gazed into their polished metal faces, he saw his own face reflected in the face of his "father."

While the king may have engaged in hunting sports, archery, and horse riding, the traditions report that he normally stayed inside his palace compound in god-like seclusion.  He seems to have ventured forth only to embark on certain annual or semi-annual ceremonial journeys to the other towns throughout the kingdom and to preside over regular rituals.  With the exception of their royal predecessors of Dynasty 25, the later Napatan kings seem seldom or never to have led their armies in person, although there is good reason to believe that prior to becoming kings, many or all had active careers in the military.


 The Palace

Through most of the Napatan period the king seems to have resided mainly at Meroë, but he had palaces in all the major towns, where he dwelt when visiting to perform cultic duties.  The most important surviving palace known from the Napatan period is that at Jebel Barkal (B 1200).  This was an enormous mud brick structure, still not fully excavated but perhaps about 70 m by 70 m. in area.  It had stone columns and stone doorways, and had staircases at the eastern and western ends leading up to a second floor or simply a roof plaza.  Harsiotef, who describes its restoration in his stele, remarked that it had sixty rooms.  Excavation has revealed that the interior walls were plastered white and painted with red, yellow, or blue moldings and murals. One of the lower rooms was a large formal audience hall with high ceilings (3.5 m high) and carved and painted columns.  Here the king received officials, dignitaries and priests, and in some rooms undertook personal ablutions prior to visiting the surrounding temples.  B 1200 actually preserves a throne room, approximately 9 by 9 m, whose roof was supported by four columns.  The stone sockets for the legs of a throne dais or canopy, facing east, can still be seen in the floor.  The throne itself, as pictured in reliefs at Nuri, was an armless chair with lions' legs and lions' heads.  A larger room, 13 m long, supported by eight columns, led to this throne room, and we can imagine it filled with anxious officials waiting here for the signal to approach the king, who was seated in the smaller, more intimate chamber.

The west end of the Barkal palace preserves a large open kitchen area with many hearths and stone sockets in the ground, possibly for awnings to shade the cooks.  Archaeological debris reveals that slaughtered cattle, goats and fowl were cut up here and cooked on the bone.  Nile clam shells and date pits suggest other entries on the royal menu.  A fragment of a flat bread mold with pictorial motif suggests that some foods were quite fancifully prepared. The debris also yielded a great percentage of mold-made pottery cups, bowls, and plates painted with red rims.  Since sherds of this ware were also found in the palace proper, such vessels were evidently used as the royal tableware, although their quality was poor and individual plates and bowls may never have been used more than a few times - perhaps only once!

On a day to day basis, the king probably conducted business in the morning and napped in the heat of the afternoon, as most Sudanese do to this day.  The officials most constantly engaged with him were probably those listed in the texts:  the "friends" of the royal residence, the palace scribes, the seal bearers of the palace and granaries, the overseers of the granaries, the priests, the military commanders, the king's personal physicians and interpreters of dreams, and of course the members of the king's family, especially his mother, his chief wives and sisters, and his children.  The nature of the daily business can only be guessed, but it surely involved briefings on local and distant events, discussions about the inundation - whether too high or too low, whether it would have adverse effects on the food supply - what neighboring tribe might be in revolt and the defensive preparedness of the kingdom, etc.  Much of the king's life, though, seems to have centered about the performance of rituals, for it was these that were thought to keep the world in balance and the gods appeased.  The king was also expected to pursue wars with the peoples on the edges of the kingdom and to seize their livestock as dedications to the god, thereby keeping the temples supplied with food.   As for the temples, he was expected to build new ones or restore and beautify old ones, to keep them supplied with statuary and precious objects, and to keep them staffed. From the texts as well as archaeological evidence we also know that the kings took much delight in planting gardens and orchards around the temples.


The King's Death

The king's death in official inscriptions was a subject treated with the greatest delicacy. A report of the Greek historian Agatharcides of Cnidus, written in the late third century BCE, (and repeated by Diodorus) may explain why.  He stated that it was the custom of the most powerful priests “of Meroë” to send a message to the reigning king, as if it were an oracle from Amun himself. This message was an order for the king to end his reign by commiting suicide. “In former times,” the historian wrote, “the kings were subject to the priests, without being vanquished by arms or any force at all, but overpowered in their minds by … superstition. “  They thus followed the command without question.  The custom, however, was said to have been abolished by a king named "Ergamenes" – who was reported to have “received instruction in Greek philosophy” - who upon receipt of his letter, simply marched with his army to “the forbidden place where the golden temple …was situated,” put the priests to the sword, and "ordered matters according to his own will."  The chronicler noted that “Ergamenes” (the historical Meroitic king Arqamani-qo) was a contemporary of Ptolemy II (ca. 309-246 BCE).

Although this account has been treated skeptically by scholars, there are a number of reasons to suspect it to be at least partly true.  First, it explains the obvious archaeological break between the Napatan and Meroitic periods and is chronologically coincident with the date of the move of the royal cemetery from Nuri to Meroë.  Second, the custom of putting a king to death when he began to grow infirm is a well-known one in many traditional Sudanese and African societies, even to the late nineteenth century. Killing an old king and replacing him with a younger, healthier man was thought necessary because of the belief that the vitality of the state was dependent on a ruler's good health and vigor.   Third, at Nuri there appears to be an elaborate funerary temple (Nu 400), which suggests that the bodies of many of the kings must have been prepared for burial on the site.  This would be odd if they lived most of the year at Meroe and died there, for the temple suggests that the kings died and were mummified at Napata.  We do know that some kings, like Talakhamani (5th century BCE), did die at Meroe, must have been mummified there, and his body brought across the desert 275 km for burial at Nuri.   The difficulty of transporting a king’s body from Meroë and preserving it during this trip suggests that at least some of the kings traveled from Meroë alive, died at Napata and were embalmed at Nuri.  This may well suggest that at least some of them may have been summoned to Napata "by the god," where they took their own lives, as ordered, to facilitate burial in their pyramids at Nuri.


The King's Burial

The most important surviving monuments of the Napatan Period are the royal pyramids at Nuri.  This cemetery was founded by Taharqo, and it was used by nineteen of his successors and fifty-four queens. A twentieth successor and his queen were buried at el-Kurru; a twenty-first was buried in the plain just west of Jebel Barkal.

The Nuri pyramids were erected on a pair of parallel ridges about 1.5 km from the Nile, about 9.7 km northeast of Jebel Barkal on the opposite (left) bank. The kings' pyramids, of solid masonry, averaged about 26 m on a side, and were of variable height, between 20 and 40 m   Probably because Taharqo was recognized as the greatest member of the dynasty, his successors allowed his pyramid to remain more than twice the size of any of theirs at about 52 m sq. and 63 m high. The queens' pyramids averaged about 9 m on a side, although near the end of the period the pyramids of the primary queens reached 17 m, attesting to their increasing political importance. Small chapels were built on the eastern sides of the pyramids (facing away from the river toward sunrise); and within these chapels offerings of food and drink were made to the deceased.

The tombs were cut in the bedrock beneath the pyramids. The kings' tombs regularly consisted of three interconnecting chambers; the queens tombs, only two. When well-finished, these rooms were completely painted and carved with Egyptian texts from the "Book of the Dead."  Each was entered by a long flight of stairs cut in a descending trench in the rock ledge, far out in front of the chapel entrance. After the burials, the stairway was filled in, camouflaged from the ground, and the chapels were built over their shafts in order to seal the tomb entrances.

Typically Kushite kings and queens of the Napatan period were mummified according to Egyptian practice.  Their bodies were wrapped holding gold crooks and flails; their fingers and toes were capped with gold; their faces were covered with gold or electrum masks; and large green stone heart scarabs and gold pectorals were placed over their chests. During mummification, their viscera were removed and placed in large calcite canopic jars.  The royal mummies were then encased within carved wooden anthropoid coffins covered with gold foil, inlaid with colored stones set in designs of falcons or vultures with outstretched wings. The coffin eyes were inlaid with gilded bronze, calcite, and obsidian. The coffins were then placed within one or two larger gilded anthropoid coffins.  In two cases these nested coffins were placed within huge fully decorated granite sarcophagi, carved with scenes from the Book of the Amduat (See Part III, I). Around the walls of the burial chambers shawabti figures of stone or faience, numbering between several hundred to over a thousand, would be arranged standing. Evidence indicates that the kings were also buried with chests of valuable jewelry, perfume and unguent vessels, and other personal possessions, and a large number of storage jars containing food and drink for the afterlife.

Although the Nuri tombs were all plundered in antiquity, much remained in them revealing what the burials had been like. They were excavated in 1917-18 by Boston archaeologist George A. Reisner, and many of the finds are presently on permanent exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Sudan National Museum, Khartoum.