B 350 - The Monument of Taharqo on the Jebel Barkal Pinnacle
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V. Exploration of the Pinnacle Summit

After first observing the cut holes between the cliff and pinnacle walls (Feb. 19, 1987), we were more curious than ever about what we might find on top of the pinnacle. Rising at dawn the next day and repeating our climb up the mountain, we again returned to the drop point.  As before Paul and I rappelled down into the notch (figs. 15 and 16), but this time we prepared to climb up the back side of the pinnacle shaft.  This was a nearly vertical ascent of about 20 m.

Fig. 15: Paul Duval rappels into the notch (where the pinnacle and cliff walls meet), preparatory to climbing the pinnacle (Feb., 1987).

Fig. 16: View of the Jebel Barkal temples from the notch.

Paul secured one anchor point in the notch, and I hooked into it.  He next secured himself to a rope that ran through a safety device on my own belt harness.  As he ascended, I was to pay out the rope through this device. This rope would also run through a series of safety clips that he would fasten into fissures in the rock as he worked his way up.  Were he to lose his grip, I would be able to check the rope; the clips in the rock were intended to prevent his falling more than a meter or so.

Once we were set, Paul started up.  To improve his grip on the rock, which did not offer any generous hand or toeholds, he wore tightly fitting rubber slippers and daubed his fingers in chalk for traction.  I let out the rope as he climbed up, and he soon disappeared from my view.  After several minutes of silence, with the rope still ascending, it suddenly stopped.  Then he shouted down that he was sitting on the summit, and it was my turn to start up.

Once having secured himself on the top of the pinnacle by looping a rope around the peak, Paul tossed down another rope to me, thus providing me with two lines.  One, which he secured to his belt, I bound to my harness.  As I ascended, he would take up the slack on this rope, which, were I to lose my grip, would prevent me from falling.  The second rope, hanging free before me, was available as a handhold in the event that all grips on the rock disappeared.  With this rope I could still pull myself up.

The climb, short as it was, was no simple matter. The inside wall of the pinnacle, where the stone was firm, was sheer and offered almost nothing to hold.  The west side offered more handholds, but here the stone was badly weathered and brittle.  Sometimes what looked like a solid handhold pulled off in my hand and crumbled into fragments.  I thus progressed upward slowly and cautiously, at one point having to trust solely in the loose rope, which seemed the only means of continuing.  Grasping it with my hands, I had to swing across the rock wall to the left and managed to get a toe in one of the ancient holes (figs. 17, 18).  Now pushing with my foot and pulling myself up on the extra rope and gripping one crack after another, I managed to reach the cut ledge P9 about 7 m from the summit. From here, I began inching my way around the west face, ready for what seemed now an easy climb to the top.

Fig. 17: The author climbs up the inside wall of the pinnacle shaft, using the ancient holes as grips.

Fig. 18: Paul Duval and the author on the pinnacle summit, Jan. 1989.  Photo:  Enrico Ferorelli for National Geographic.

No sooner had I begun the final climb than, to my surprise, I encountered more hewn holes and several deeply chiseled vertical grooves on the sides of the pinnacle apex. These holes, all well cut and finely rounded, revealed - to our collective astonishment - that more wooden beams had been erected here as posts. As Paul sat secure on top of the pinnacle and held me with the belay, I was able to move around the sides of the peak with relative ease and safety.  This allowed me to study, photograph, and measure all the man-made features on the summit and to make sketches and notes of their relationship. The rest of the team, seated on the cliff edge, watched everything and offered advice from their respective perches.

As I worked my way around the summit, I could see that there were round chiseled holes or tubular grooves for at least four vertical wooden posts on the eastern side of the pinnacle peak (fig. 19) and probably six on the western side.  These posts had apparently been bound together and secured in some way.  The west side also bore a diagonal cradle-like channel in which a massive beam had been laid and locked in place at the bottom by its own weight (fig. 20).  This beam had an angle of about 50°.  It was hard at first to imagine what precisely had been done here, or what had been the intention of the builders, or even which of the holes had actually been used and which may have simply been experimental.  Yet the very idea of men working here simply defied belief, for they were working at their extreme peril.

Fig. 19: Hole “PE 2”, cut on the sheer eastern side of the pinnacle peak, used for the insertion of a vertical wooden beam.  The hole is 16 cm in diameter and 1.9 m deep.

Fig. 20: Detail of diagonal channel “PW2” on the west side of the pinnacle peak which appears to have supported a long round beam used as a crane arm.

After viewing all of this evidence, we had to accept that hewn timbers, some perhaps up to 9 m long, had been hoisted up some 75 m from ground level and set securely between the cliffs. Next, we had to accept that more heavy beams had been manipulated up through this wooden scaffolding by men working under the most dangerous conditions, and lifted onto the top of the pinnacle, which offers a perch on which today no more than three or four persons can sit safely.  Next we had to imagine that these workers were able to maneuver and fit these beams into holes which they had cut on the steepest sides of the rock, where one misstep would have resulted in a death plunge – if they were not securely fastened with ropes.  They then had to bind these beams together in some way so that they formed a stable framework that would not collapse and fall.  From the looks of all the holes, grooves, and notches cut here, it appeared that the summit had been encased in a wooden  structure or scaffolding to a depth of 6.8 m.  One was left in complete awe both by the conception as well as by the achievement.  The project required enormous human ingenuity, strength, and especially bravery, but to what purpose?

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