The mystery of the Nubian pyramids

Nubian pyramids and the natural landscape

Nubian landscape

By Nubian pyramids, I mean pyramids in the region of Nubia (today this is southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Because historically this area was home to a culture that was older than Kemet, people often assume that there are a greater number of older pyramids. This isn’t true of man-made structures. The earliest pyramids to survive date to 8th century BCE, whereas those in Kemet are much older. The pyramids at the site of Giza are traditionally dated to around 2560 BCE.

Example of a natural rock formation in southern Egypt

There are, however, thousands of examples of natural rock formations in the Nubian Desert that have the appearance of pyramids. These mounds were formed by water that once flowed through the now desert. They would have been present when people from Kush moved north to settle in Kemet.  Their size and number is striking as you drive through this region.

Example of the rock formations in the Nubian Desert

The landscape was extremely important to both Kemite and Kushite cultures and played an integral part in how the ancient people explained their existence, and also many of the divine stories that related to their religion. Today, in archaeology, we call this the phenomenology of landscapes, or how people experienced and interacted with their environment. These natural rock creations are striking even to a contemporary visitor to this region. I would suggest that they would have been equally so to someone from the ancient world. I also wonder, but have no direct evidence, if these shapes didn’t somehow inspire the development of the form of the pyramid.

Pyramids at Nuri

Pyramids at the royal cemetery of Nuri, northern Sudan

The pyramids at the cemetery of Nuri include that of King Taharqa (690-664 BCE), one of the kings who ruled Kush and Kemet, as part of Dynasty 25. These pyramids were constructed from sandstone blocks, which are extremely vulnerable to the elements.

Pyramids at Meroe

The cemetery of Meroe

There were 3 cemetery areas at Meroe, or Begarawiyah, in northern Sudan. These are divided into South, North and West and contain over 300 pyramid structures.

The pyramids at Meroe, Sudan

The pyramids at Meroe range from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Many of these structures were damaged in 1834 by an Italian treasure hunter, who was searching for gold. Archaeologists are still trying to reconstruct and restore them today.


Pyramid at Meroe, showing the tomb chapel at the entrance

The construction of these smaller pyramids included a small tomb chapel at the front. This created a small chamber in which to leave offerings for the deceased (see left).

Pyramids at Gebel Barkal

Gebel Barkal (Sacred Rock) and temple
The royal pyramids of Gebel Barkal, Sudan

The pyramids at Gebel Barkal housed the burials of rulers of the Meroitic Kingdom and date between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century BCE. They were close to the sacred rock of Gebel Barkal (above), which again was an important part of the ancient landscape and is an example of a natural phenomenon being recognised and used as a sacred space. As with the other pyramids, these are constructed from sandstone.

Appropriation for a British monument

A British war memorial in Northern Sudan inspired by the form of a pyramid

Finally, the form of a pyramid, like many Kushite and Kemetic structures has inspired designers of monuments from European cultures. This small memorial (above) commemorates fallen British forces, and is in the form of a small pyramidal structure. The inscription is damaged but reads:

To the memory of British officers and… who died… Anglo…


Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet: The case of Senusret Kakaure

It seems a little odd, when the majority of Egyptologists have no direct connection to Africa in regard to their own biological or cultural heritage, that they feel justified in deciding when a representation is or isn’t of a person of African descent.

Granite statue of Senusret Kakaure. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.37.1930)

The ruler illustrated in this post is a case in point. It represents Senusret Khakaure, who is now known as Senusret III. He was a fifth ruler of Dynasty 12, which belongs to a period now referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and ruled Kemet from around 3800 years ago (circa 1872-1853 BCE). His strong jawline, hooded eyelids and prominent cheek bones have led many people to recognise facial features that are typical of some indigenous African people, and people of African descent.

Fragment of a statue of King Senusret Kakaure. Copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3005.1943)

Now it should be the case that you don’t need a qualification to decide whether a statue represents someone of African descent, no? Well, that doesn’t seem to be the academic consensus in the case of Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Since the 1990s it has generally been assumed that images of kings are not true likenesses of the people they represent.

I should state from the off-set that I do not subscribe to this point of view and whilst I am prepared to concede that rulers, from any culture, are typically represented in an idealised way, I really do not understand why a portrait would look nothing remotely like the subject. Particularly when there is such a variety amongst Ancient Egyptian royal sculpture.

I adopted this point of view very early in my career as an Egyptologist.  My doctoral thesis was on Egyptian royal sculpture and I subsequently spent some years continuing to research this particular area. I am confident that I could correctly identify an image of any Ancient Egyptian ruler. I can do so, because each had a very specific ‘portrait’ type.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

There was a good reason for this phenomenon. Life-size stone statues, (such as those above) were often placed at the entrances to temples or palaces with the intention of promoting the King. Inscriptions were not always visible on statues and so the iconography (symbols) and the facial features needed to also play a part in assisting with identifying who the statue represented. How then are the features of Senusret III typically explained?

Realistic, symbolic or psychological portraits?

In 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition entitled: Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom . The key issues relating to Middle Kingdom portraits are contextualised in an essay for the catalogue by Dorothea Arnold entitled: Pharaoh. Power and Performance (Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom, edited by A. Oppenheim, D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 68-72). They are as follows:

  1. Realistic– Egyptologists Cyril Aldred and Jacques Vandier who wrote, in the 1980s, on the subject of portraiture in Kemet dating to the so-called Middle Kingdom concluded that the portrait features on statues from this period were realistic representations of the kings.
  2. Non-realistic– in relation to non-idealised portraits on funerary representations dating to the earlier period of the so-called Old Kingdom, Bernard V. Bothmer concluded that no representations from Kemet should be called ‘portraits’.
  3. More recently, Egyptologists have interpreted features on the sculptures of Senusret as coded messages– for example the prominent eyes representing a vigilant king.
  4. In 1996 Egyptologist Jan Assmann, put forward the idea that these portraits represented the inner character of the kings and were psychological.

More recently, and as Arnold concludes in her essay, specialists in sculpture generally accept that these royal representations draw upon the actual appearance of the king, but within an acceptable framework so that he can be identified as such by people who looked at the statue. Arnold writes the following:

… it is very difficult to imagine that Senwosret III’s eyes in his official image did not reflect his own peculiarly shaped eyes in real life… The faces of Senwosret III… are best understood as recognizable images of these pharaohs with some realistic details formalised in the particular intellectual climate.  (p. 71)

I have included this quote because a number of friends and colleagues who have questioned professional Egyptologists have met with a response that suggests portraits from this period are to be dismissed as non-realistic representations. In other words when asked if Senusret really looked like his statues, they are told that this is not the case. The question often arises because people of African descent recognise the portrait features on these statues as similar to their own. Therefore, to deny that the statues look even remotely like their subject, is to deny their African origin.

There is one key issue that no-one seems to have addressed. Whether these ‘portraits’ are realistic or idealised representations, the overall appearance of these statues (their profiles, facial features, and also where hair is represented) suggests very strongly that they represent indigenous African people. Why would any sculptor show their kings in this way if they were anything other than African?




Curating Kemet: 5 things that museums could do

Curating Kemet

There are a number of very simple approaches that museums could utilise in order to reaffirm the African origins of Ancient Egypt. And if you find yourself in a position to impart knowledge to others and are tired of waiting for this to be be implemented in your local museum, you can, of course, quite easily do this yourself.

1. What’s in a name?

A simple technique that I used when writing the information for a virtual gallery was to refer to anything that dated before the Ptolemaic Period (332 BCE) as ‘Kemet’ rather than ‘Egypt’. Αίγυπτος/Aegyptus were the names used by the Ancient Greek and Roman writers for Kemet. By continuing to use it, we are effectively still looking at the culture through a European lens. By abandoning this name, it is also possible to remove many of the Eurocentric interpretations that have been place upon this ancient African culture. It encourages people to look at the culture from a fresh perspective.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

Many of the names that we use for rulers of Kemet are Hellenised (from the Greek versions). For example, Senusret Kakaure (left) a ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty is sometimes referred to as Sesotris, which is the Greek version of his name. A similar issue arising the the use of Arabic names for ancient sites; Tell el-Amarna/Amarna, was named Akhet-Aten when it was occupied by the ancient people. By using the original African names we immediately resituate the ancient culture and its people.

A helpful site that lists all of the original names for the kings of Egypt and also gives the original names for sites is Digital Egypt.

2. Cultural context

Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum

When an object is removed from its original site, the context is lost. It is therefore essential that museums seek to present objects within the appropriate cultural context. In university and national museums in the UK the Ancient Egyptian galleries are rarely connected to other African cultures. One exception to this is the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London. Here, a Kemite coffin is displayed alongside more recent ethnographic materials (see below) from a number of cultures from Africa and the African Diaspora.

Mami Wata Shrine in the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum, London.

Kemite culture has much in common with other African cultures: from individual items such as hair combs, pottery, basketry, headrests; to concepts such as traditional religions, kingship and the role of women in societies. By referencing other African cultures that we know more about, curators can help visitors to obtain a better understanding of an ancient culture. In spite of this observation, you are more likely to find the Kemet collections next to the galleries that display Ancient Greece, Rome and the Ancient Near East than the African galleries. Adding ‘Africa’ to the name of a gallery that relates to ‘Ancient Egypt’ would be a good starting for many museums.

3. Illustrations

Detail of a display of early grave goods at the Kerma Museum, Sudan

Illustrations and reconstructions are an important part of the presentation of cultures in museums, particularly when that culture is ancient. The photograph on the left shows a display in the Kerma Museum, Sudan and offers a powerful artistic interpretation to illustrate how the original owners of the grave goods would have worn these objects. The racialised identity of such reconstructions is important, because at an unconscious level we are likely to recall this when we think about the culture and its people in the future. Many people who have attended talks that I have given on Kemet have later said that they had simply never thought of Ancient Egypt as African. This is, in my opinion, largely the result of the media (for example films or documentaries that show reconstructions of the ancient people), museums, and the education system failing to differentiate between the ancient and more recent cultures in Egypt.

4. Historical timeline

Which brings me onto the fourth point: looking at this region’s historical timeline and acknowledging the changes in cultures and populations that have occurred over the past ten thousand years. I have summarised the key periods in a previous post under the heading From Kemet to Egypt to Misr. By recognising external cultural interactions and internal transitions, it is possible to obtain a better understanding of Kemet’s importance as an ancient indigenous African culture. Historical timelines also demonstrate the importance of this region and its people in the development of the Coptic church, and so Christianity more widely.

5. Connecting with Kush

Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

In two recent posts I have observed that museums often differentiate between the people and cultures of Kemet and Kush. The result of this practice is that any representation from Kemet that is seen to represent an indigenous African person will be labelled as ‘Nubian‘. This practice continues to be standard, in spite of the fact that the majority of museums acknowledge the similarities between these two ancient cultures.

Egypt in Africa

Egypt in Africa at the British Museum

I recently had a couple of hours to kill and so decided to go and look again at the galleries that are curated by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. I was interested to look in more detail at the ways in which the museum differentiated between the ancient peoples of Kemet and Kush. So I headed to Room 65, which is named ‘Sudan, Egypt and Nubia’. The objects in this gallery come mainly from the region now known as Nubia (which incorporates southern Egypt and northern Sudan).


Information panel in the British Museum’s Sudan, Egypt and Nubia Gallery

The panel above states the following:

This gallery tells the story of Sudan, southern Egypt, Nubia and the river Nile. A corridor for trade and the movement of people and ideas, this region was home to major civilisations. For thousands of years it was a vital link between central Africa, Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

This is the only gallery that houses material from BCE (Before Common Era) Egypt in the museum that mentions Africa. The introductory panel above very firmly associates Egypt with the Mediterranean world rather than situating it within its own continent. In fact the ‘borders’ between Kemet and Kush were not fixed in antiquity and the two regions shared much in common.

A second panel also refers to the role of the region of Nubia within Africa, but again in doing so it also ‘removes’ Egypt and Nubia from central Africa with the following statement:

The unique position of Nubia as the only reliable land route between Egypt and the African interior made it a region of great economic importance…


Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep, Thebes, Egypt. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

The painting above depicts people from Kush, who are bringing offerings to King of Kemet. It is used in Gallery 65 to show people how ‘Nubians’ were depicted by Egyptian artists. The accompanying information panel states the following:

The ancient Nubians shared a broadly common ethnic background with the Egyptians, but their physical characteristics showed variations of skin colour, physiognomy, and skeletal proportion… In Egyptian art Nubians can easily be recognised by their dark skin, feathers worn in the hair, large earrings and leopard-skin kilts…

In actual fact some depictions of the people from Kush show them with the same skin colour as Kemites. An example of this can be seen on the relief above; if you look carefully behind the second man from the left is another worshipper, who has the same skin tone that was used by Egyptian artists to depict their own people. I showed another example of this in an earlier post. Thus, not all depictions of people from Kush show them with ‘black’ skin. Like the people from Kemet their skin tones vary.


Historically, Egyptology has differentiated between ancient representations of people who meet an oversimplified test of whether they conform to being a ‘True African’. This fails to recognise the variety of skin tones, hair types and physical features that are found among indigenous African people today. Nowhere in the galleries at the British Museum is there any attempt to situate Egypt within an African context; the only exception is the small gallery on Egyptian Coptic culture, which also displays material from the Ethiopian church. The museum houses large collections of material from many African cultures and yet these collections are never displayed together.

Ancient Egypt is included among African civilisations on the museum’s webpages that contain education resources. In the teachers’ notes it states the following:

… Ancient Egypt is generally studied under the heading of ‘great Mediterranean civilisations’ and is often forgotten that it is equally a part of the history of Africa. Much of its trade, history, wars, politics and ethnicity are bound up with the continent, and it has every right to be considered African- a powerful counter argument to those who try to belittle the cultural and technological achievements of African civilisations…

Although the statement still does not fully place the ancient culture within its rightful continent it goes further than the gallery information panels in recognising that Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Egyptians were African.