The Ruins of Jebel Barkal in Northern Sudan

Sudan > Jebel Barkal

March 2014

[This episode is dedicated to my dear brother, Nadzru Azhari, a Nile apologist.] 

The main reason why we are bunking in Marawi (see earlier story HERE) is to visit the crown jewel of ancient Nubian history, the ‘holy mountain’ of Jebel Barkal, also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s only about 10km away on the other side of the Nile, so as soon as we have checked in at the hotel, we make our way across the Nile in the late afternoon. The city of Nabata, at the foot of Jebel Barkal, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, which existed in parallel to the more famous Egyptians to the north. The Egyptians conquered them (16th-11th c. BC), and they returned the favour (8th-7th c. BC) when they had their capital right here in Nabata.

Again we pass through the lush countryside made fertile and green by the water of the magical Nile.

Rows of date palms interspersed by plots of vegetables, but do not let these green calmness belie the extremely rich ancient history that this land has to offer.

Finally at the sacred Jebel Barkal, a huge sandstone butte 100m high, a geological blip in an otherwise flat desert landscape, which had inspired the Egyptians Pharoahs and Nabatan Kushites since 1500 BC. The pinnacle at its front was said to resemble the ancient cobra (uraeus), the symbol of kingship. Between 8th-6th c. BC, this place (Nabata) was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush (which existed 11th c. BC to 350 AD). In 6th c. BC the capital was moved to Meroe, on the other side of the Bayuda desert, 280km away.

Sacred to the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom (that’s about 3,500 years ago), they and the local Kushites believed that life on Earth started here. In the 13th c. BC, Pharaoh Ramses II came to reconstruct a temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the so-called king of gods of the Egyptians. But this is entrance to Mut temple, which had been dug into Jebel Barkal, concealed behind the brick wall.

Columns dedicated to Hathor (a popular ancient Egyptian goddess), thousands of years old, have managed to survive the rigours of time. Mut temple was built in 7th c. BC by Taharqa, the great Kushite king who managed to conquer the whole of Egypt, right to the Nile delta.

Close-up of Hathor, goddess of the sky, love, beauty, joy, motherhood, foreign lands, mining, music and fertility. In short a wholesome all-rounder, a very nice lady I’m sure.

There are 13 known temples around Jebel Barkal, and virtually all of them face the Nile, hidden among those date palms. Grand avenues probably connect the temple’s entrances to piers along the great river, only 1.7km away.

We gingerly enter Mut temple carved inside Jebel Barkal, just in time for the lights to fail, hence the poor interior shots. Mut is queen of the goddesses and lady of heaven. She’s accompanied by Amon (king of gods), Hathor and Bes (goddess of  households, especially of mothers, children and childbirth). Definitely a very feminine temple.

Mut temple was built in 7th c. BC by Taharqa, the black pharaoh who conquered Egypt and hence was heavily influenced by the Egyptians. Mut temple is full of hieroglyphs, which was adopted by the Kushites until they moved their capital from here to Meroe.

About 150 metres away, we come to the great temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the king of gods of ancient Egyptians. Originally built by Thutmosis, the Egyptian pharaoh from 16th c. BC, it was rebuilt by Amenhotep IV (aka Akhenaten) in 14th c. BC. Such was the importance of this site.

The temple was substantially rebuilt by Ramses II in 13th c. BC. These rams line up the main path leading to the temple’s grand entrance.

A piece of sandstone used for temple construction, but not from Jebel Barkal itself. The mountain is too sacred to be cannibalised for building materials, so sandstones were brought here from somewhere else.

Remnants of some outer wall of the great temple. With 13 known temples and 3 palaces, this place was indeed the seat of power of the Kingdom of Kush during the period 8th-6th c. BC. From here their mighty kings conquered Egypt to the north, right to the Mediterranean.

The ruins have been exposed to desert elements and plunderers throughout the millennia. Only recently the government has started to protect and conserve them (esp. with the UNESCO recognition in 2003), but due to lack of security and funding, looting still happens now and then. Archaelogical digs are always on-going.

This used to be part of the grand entrance to the great temple of Amon. The famous pinnacle thought to represent the sacred cobra head (uraeus) of Jebel Barkal can be prominently seen to the left.

One can only imagine how grand it looked like during the glory days. [Source: http://www.vizin.org/projects/gebelbarkal/gallery.html]

This is a good representation of what the above pinnacle (cobra head) and Jebel Barkal meant to the ancient people — the whole mountain was worshipped as a holy site, where Amon resides.

Jebel Barkal conceptualized in Egyptian art:  Here Ramses II is shown making offerings to the god “Amon of Karnak,” seated inside the mountain; the pinnacle is rendered as a giant uraeus (cobra head) springing from the god’s throne. [Source: http://www.jebelbarkal.org ]

It is believed an avenue, maybe a processional way, started here at the temple’s entrance and went all the way to the Nile, hidden behind the rows of date palms in the background, just 1700m away.

In any case, the great temple of Amon is a heaven for professional and amateur archaeologists alike. It’s just full of stuff to explore, like a playground to me.

Done with the the temples on the southeastern side of Jebel Barkal, we move northwest of the hill to face the setting sun, where the pyramids of the royal cemetery are. There are two groups of pyramids, northern and southern. These are the southern group, Egyptian style, not as famous as the northern ones. Used to be spectacular structures, these poor pyramids are now virtually rubbles.

These are the more famous northern group of pyramids, very well-preserved, built in 7th c. BC. Pyramid-building was thought to have been started by King Piye (Piankhi), the black pharaoh who conquered Egypt in 8th c. BC.

Pyramids are actually graves, and this royal cemetery of the Kush kingdom was in use from 300BC to 50AD. First excavated by Harvard University in 1916.

Very spectacular indeed, especially in the setting sun. These pyramids date from 300 BC, when the capital was already moved to Meroe, 280km to the southeast.

They are much smaller than their Egyptian counterparts, only 30m high the tallest one. They also have different construction style and stone-finishing technique. Steeper for sure.

One can only imagine the glorious original finishing — it must have been spectacular, fit for dead kings and queens.

The most important difference between these pyramids and the Egyptian ones is functionality. Egyptian pyramids contain burial chambers right inside them; Kushite ones were built as monuments, with the dead buried underneath them.

The sun gets lower, and the pyramids’ stones get even redder. So too the sandstone of Jebel Barkal at the back.

From this vantage point, I can see sacred Jebel Barkal virtually in its entirety — 100m high, with a distinct flat top, just like the much bigger Table Mountain of Cape Town.

I just can’t get enough of these 2,300-year-old behemoths, really — the significance of it all in our human civilisation, such mind-boggling raison d’être, a living history I’m witnessing.

The desolateness of the pyramids is enhanced by the failing sunlight.

We are told to go up Jebel Barkal for the sunset … what, climb that huge stone? But it sure looks inviting, so we hurriedly take our car to the foot of the rock.

I see people climbing up the sandy slope, some sliding and slipping backward, but the majority soldier on, … and most are having fun, I bet.

It looks like a harmless day out for the whole family, climbing this sacred hill – see that 45-degree slope!

The sun is setting fast, so we decide to stop just maybe 20m up the rocky slope before it completely disappears … and Sabariah does her usual leap, with the famous Nubian pyramids in the background.

One of us, Tok Mat, even manages to make friends. Good on you!

With the sun slowly disappearing over the desert horizon, the changing hues and colours make a surreal presentation of the ancient pyramids.

With the sun finally gone and the celestial show over and the pyramids looking very lonely indeed, we grudgingly descend Jebel Barkal for our vehicles for the evening ride back to Marawi.

Verdict: Jebel Barkal is as awesome as it could get, when history and nature put up a great show together. Please visit!

 

> TO BE CONTINUED

4 Responses to “The Ruins of Jebel Barkal in Northern Sudan”

  1. nadzru azhari says:

    Eeng, merci beaucoup.Magnificient.

  2. naim says:

    I think you have been to Jebel Barkal. I remember seeing a pic of you at the Mut temple, with the Hathor columns.

  3. Ashri says:

    Splendid. Satisfied to be part of the ‘exploration’.

  4. naim says:

    Thanks, but you made this adventure possible, sir!

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