From tekhenu to obelisk: From Kemet to Rome


Tekhenu, Karnak

When you ask many people to describe something from Kemet they will often reference a tall thin structure, but not remember its name. What they are referring to is what the Greek’s called an obelisk (obelisks), but its original Kemite name was tekhenu. The earliest surviving tekhenu dates to what we now call the Middle Kingdom, and bears the names of the king Sensusret Kheperkare (Senusret I, as we call him). Senusret ruled from around 1956-1911 BCE, and commissioned two tekhenu to celebrate his 30 year jubilee, or Heb Sed festival. Only one survives and it stands today in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. However, the form dates back much earlier to the Old Kingdom (around 2686-2181 BCE).

Tekhenu at Karnak

The largest tekhenu to survive can be found at the temple now known as Karnak. These gigantic monuments date to the reigns of Thutmose (I) Aakheperenre who ruled from 1504-1492 BCE and Hatshepsut Maatkare, the female pharaoh who ruled from around 1479-1458 BCE. Those that remain at the site are a fraction of the original number.


Not all tekhenu were as large as the examples at Karnak. The people of ancient Kemet actually distinguished between small and large with the appropriate adjective. Larger tekhenu were placed at the entrances to temples, often in front of the pylon (gateway). Smaller scale examples were also found at the entrance to tomb chapels, and the smallest were in the form of amulets (charms). But what did they mean?

Pyramid, Giza

A tekhenu is related to the benben, which was the sacred mound that the people if Kemet believed rose from the primeval waters from which creation arose. The benben stone was referenced at the top of a pyramid and the tekhenu was effectively an elevated version. In essence a tekhenu lifted this sacred stone to the sun and was closely associated with the sun god Ra. It is likely that the summits of both pyramids and tekhenu were covered with precious metals.

From Kemet to Rome

Examples of stone carving at the Aswan ancient quarry

Many tekhenu that originated in Kemet were taken from their original locations. And in fact even in ancient times there are examples of kings of Kemet usurping a tekhenu by adding their own inscriptions to those of an earlier ruler. Why? Well because manufacturing a colossal tekhenu was not an easy task. In fact a failed attempt can still be seen at the Aswan quarries. You can see from the photograph above that quarry workers would use rock to pound out the form of the items the chief stone mason would then work upon. Why go through the labour and expense of manufacturing and then transporting such a monument when you could just as easily inscribe one belonging to someone else?


The Roman emperor Augustus clearly saw the value of the earlier tekhenu. He transported the example above, which dates to the reigns of Seti (I) Menmaatre (1290-1279 BCE) and Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) from Iunu or Heliopolis in Kemet. The obelisk was initially placed in the circus maximus in Rome, where events such as chariot races were held. Augustus was so enthused by the monuments that he had two small versions placed in front of his own tomb; although this and the transportation of earlier tekhenu was probably for political reasons; he had defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt.

A continuation of a Kemite tradition?

The obelisk of Antinous, Rome

The last example of an inscribed obelisk dates to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who commissioned a monument to honour his dead lover Antinous. Antinous had accompanied the emperor to Egypt for an official visit. Hadrian, a keen devotee of Egyptian cults reportedly hired the services of a Kemite priest to act as a guide during the trip. Part way through the expedition, Antinous drowned in the Nile; Hadrian was inconsolable and in honour of his lover built a city that he named Antinoopolis (The city of Antinous) and initiated a cult to the dead youth.

The river Nile near the ancient city of Antinoopolis, where Antinous drowned

As part of that cult the obelisk was commissioned and brought to Rome. Unlike many of the Roman period obelisks that have nonsense hieroglyphs inscribed on the sides, the obelisk of Antinous must have been carved by a Kemite artist under the supervision of a Kemite priest. It shows that in spite of over 500 years when colossal tekhenu were not produced, the skills and religious traditions had not been lost in Kemet.


A curious statue of a Kemite King

A curious statue

Not only is this statue unusual in its form, but it was first recorded in the 16th century (common era) by the Renaissance architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio at the site of an Ancient Roman temple in Rome, Italy called the Pantheon. This was not, however, where it had originated.

The statue represents a much early king of Kemet: Amenemhat Nimaatre, or Amenemhat III as he is generally called today. Amenemhat was the sixth ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty and ruled Kemet for around 45 years from 1859-1813 BCE. He is perhaps best known for the pyramids he built in the region of the Fayoum. There is a second statue that shows the King with the same hair and beard. This statue (below) was found at the site of Tanis and is in the form of a double representation that shows Amenemhat as a marsh deity (god). It is inscribed with the title “The offering bearers of Tanis”. References to the marshes can be seen on the tables in front of the King; they are decorated with plants and fish.

A double statue of King Amenemhat III as a marsh god, found at the site of Tanis in Egypt.

I remember seeing this statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when I first went to Egypt, when I was still studying Classics and before I knew anything about Ancient Kemite art. It stood out from all of the other statues in the museum and I recall being struck by how unusual it was.

Fragment of a statue of Amenemhat Nimaatre. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

Both statues show the king with thick locks of hair cascading down from a shorter twisted style at the front of the head. The sheer volume of hair suggests that the hair type was African, and this is confirmed by the two types of locks that create this incredible hairstyle. The beard is also unusual in its form but complements the head hair.

The facial features on both the Cairo and Rome statues are strong and typical of this period. The broad face, strong cheekbones, and wide nose are reminiscent of the portraits of the previous ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Senusret Kakaure. Suffice to say that the shorter hair style and the facial features that appear on Amenemhat’s statues are those that are typically now categorised as ‘Nubian’.

From Kemet to Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome. Although now a church this building was originally a Roman temple.

As noted, the statue of Amenemhat was first recorded at the Pantheon in Rome (above). In fact, it had originally been placed in the largest Egyptian temple in Rome: The Iseum Campense. There had been a cult to the goddess Isis at the site of the Iseum before the Roman’s took control of Kemet. However, the emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 CE, destroyed the sanctuary following a scandal involving a man named Decius Mundus. Decius pretended to be the god Anubis and seduced a devotee of the cult of Isis named Paulina. When she discovered the truth Paulina complained to the emperor, who responded by throwing all of the statues from the temple into the River Tiber. The sanctuary continued to have chequered history. It was was rebuilt by the Emperor Calligula (37-41 CE), burnt down during the reign of Titus in 80 CE, and then rebuilt by the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE).

It was probably during the reign of Domitian that the statue was brought over to Italy from Kemet. Domitian was a strong supporter of Egyptian cults, especially Isis. It was typical of such cult centres to have a combination of both ancient statues from Kemet and newly manufactured representations of the emperor as an Egyptian king.

As for Amenemhat, he was worshipped as a god in his own right in Kemet during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE), possibly even before. In the Late Period there was a renaissance that looked back to the period of the reigns of Senusret and Amenemhat. During this period artists even copied the portraits and styles of statues that were produced in the earlier period. Whether the Romans who took the statue from its original location were aware of this tradition, we will probably never know.

Gods of Kemet: Anukhet

The goddess in Kemet

Like many traditional African religions, women played a key role in the Kemite pantheon. Perhaps the best known is Isis, the mother of Horus and wife and sister of Osiris, who can be identified by the throne hieroglyph on her head, which spells out her name Iset or Aset (see below).

The goddess Isis, who was called Iset by the Ancient Kemites. She appears with King Seti on a relief at his temple at Abydos

The role that gods played was often flexible and varied, depending on region for example. In the case of Isis, the goddess’ roles expanded to such an extent that in the Roman period she was given a second name to define which characteristic was being worshipped, for example Isis Pelagia was associated with seafaring by association with the lighthouse at Alexandria.   Even in traditional temples in Egypt, the goddess’ crown was adapted during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE); she wore a sun disk and cow’s horns (see below).

Ptolemy II makes an offering to Isis and his sister Arsinoe II. Temple of Isis at Philae

The last Cleopatra took the title ‘New Isis’, presenting herself as a living embodiment of the goddess from the middle of her reign, and appearing in the image of the goddess at a temple in Rome (below). Goddesses, and divine royal women, often wore a vulture headdress. You can see this on the relief above and on the statue below.

Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome


The goddess Anukhet makes an offering on a relief from the temple at Dakka in Nubia

Many people have heard of Isis. However, there are a number of less well known deities. One of these is Anukhet (above). Anukhet was the daughter of Khnum and Satet, who were gods from the region we now call Nubia. Khnum, who was from the New Kingdom presented as a ram-headed god, was seen to be the guardian of the source of the River Nile at Elephantine. He was also powerful creator god; the potter’s wheel that represented him is a reference to the idea that he created children from the clay of the river. It was this aspect of Khnum that was celebrated at his cult centre in Esna. Satet, her mother, appeared in the form of a human and was identified as the giver of water, which she presented to the deceased as purification. Her cult centre was Elephantine, in modern Aswan.

gods_of_Kemet_anukhet_Dakka_ temple
Anukhet, left receives an offering from the King

Anukhet, therefore, was the offspring of two powerful parents. Like her mother she appeared in the form of a human, but can be distinguished from other goddesses by the headdress she wore, which was made of feathers. Although human in form, she was associated with the gazelle. A reminder that many of the animals of Kemet, that are no longer found there, are those that we associated with other African countries further south.

Anukhet was primarily associated with the River Nile, and the annual festival that celebrated her powers involved worshippers dedicating precious items by placing them in the river. The cult centres for Anukhet were on the Islands of Seheil and Elephantine, which are in the modern city of Aswan (below).

Map showing Aswan and the Island of Seheil

On the Island of Seheil, the goddess appears on a number of rock cut inscriptions, left by Kemite officials from the New Kingdom who were travelling further south (below) and who made offerings for protection. She also appears on temples further south, including a number in Kush.


The goddess Anukhet (left)


An ancient Greek view of the people of Kemet

How the Greeks depicted the people of Kemet

Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.


Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans their contemporaries in Egypt were different. This is evidenced through descriptions of people from Kemet and also how both Greek and Roman artists depicted people from Africa. The rhyton above is a case in point. This drinking cup was manufactured in the Italian region of Apulia (below highlighted in red), which was home to colonies of Greek people.

Map showing the region of Apulia in Italy

The cup above shows a figure of a man, who by the colour of his skin and hair can be identified as being of indigenous African descent, who is being attacked by an animal. The scales on the back of the beast, its tail and its snout identify it as a crocodile; although it would appear as often seems to have been the case that the artist had never actually seen a crocodile but was perhaps basing the representation on descriptions or other works of art. What is remarkable about this particular crocodile is that it wears anklets. This is perhaps a practice that was referenced in a passage in Herodotus’ Histories:

For some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals, and for others not so, but they treat them on the contrary as enemies: those however who dwell about Thebes and about the lake of Moiris hold them to be most sacred, and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them: but those who dwell about the city of Elephantine even eat them, not holding them to be sacred. They are called not crocodiles but champsai, and the Ionians gave them the name of crocodile, comparing their form to that of the crocodiles (lizards) which appear in their country in the stone walls.

(Herodotus Histories 2:69)

The crocodile became synonymous with Egypt for Greek and later Roman artists and there are both vases and stone sculptures that depict humans who look very similar to the one illustrated here, accompanied by crocodiles. It is also true if we look at text references to Egypt or Egyptians, that Greek writers saw no real difference between those people from Egypt and those from Ethiopia. In fact the Greek word Aethiops, from which Ethiopian derives, means ‘burnt face‘, presumably because the Greeks who encountered African people saw them as different to themselves.

Many readers will be familiar with another quote from Herodotus (Histories 2:104) that makes reference to  the appearance of the people of Kemet having dark skin (melanchroes) and curly (often translated as ‘woolly‘ on account of the word ‘oleos’. 

A survey of commentaries on the use of these words and their suggested translations reveals some degree of subjectivity on behalf of many authors. In his 1988 commentary on Herodotus Book 2, Alan Lloyd writes the following about the use of the word melanchroes:

There is no linguistic justification for relating this description to negroes [sic.]*. Melanchroes could denote colour from bronzed to black and negroes [sic.]* are not the only physical type to show curly hair

* this is the term that is used in the commentary, it is not one that I condone or would choose to use.

Once again we find ourselves back to the supposition that every person of African descent has (literally) skin that is black in colour, rather than acknowledging that African peoples have, and are today described as, light skinned, dark skinned, and in the case of the Caribbean red skinned (although this means very light). See an earlier post where I discuss how Egyptologists are keen to differentiate between Egyptian/Kemite and Nubian/Kushite people.

The use of a term to describe the hair that includes the word for wool would suggest that the hair of the ancient Egyptian people was textured and different from that of the Greeks. The reference to dark skin also accords with representations such as the vase above.

The artists’ representations for me speak for themselves. I would not classify myself as a philologist but I did study Ancient Greek for my first degree. The fact that the term melanchroes covers a variety of dark skin colours as pointed out by Lloyd, supports that argument that the people of ancient Kemet were indigenous African people, and that they represented the variance that we find amongst African peoples today.



Celebrating Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

A satellite image showing some of the islands in the River Nile that are home to Nubian people

There are a number of traditional Nubian villages in and around Aswan, on both the islands and the banks of the River Nile (see above). These settlements and communities have been one of the few cultural sites in Egypt that have openly recognised the region’s connection to indigenous African cultures. In order to preserve the peace and tranquility of these long-standing communities, the Elders and the then Director of the Nubia Museum in Aswan decided to designate a site as the official heritage village for tourists.

One of the Nubian houses in the heritage village at Aswan

Celebrating Nubian culture


The Rabe family home

The traditional houses are decorated in bright colours and with items that are relevant to traditional Nubian culture. On one example that was built by the Rabe family (above), even the water pots are painted to match the exterior of the houses.

Inside the Rabe family home

Inside, traditional Nubian basketry decorates the walls, accompanied by symbols of foliage, fish and representations of the River Nile. Such symbols have been used as decorative and protective motifs in this regions for thousands of years. In ancient Kemet fish were often depicted in tomb scenes where the deceased hunted for food. Depictions of plants associated with river Nile often appear on Kemite temples as offerings (below) or as a reference to the annual inundation (flood) and the fertility of the Black Land.

A detail from the Temple of Sobek showing Cleopatra II or III presenting offerings

Continuing traditions?

The Kemite god- Sobek

The Kemite god Sobek was represented as a crocodile (see above). In his interview Dr Abdel Meguid talked about working at the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo and the importance of this experience in him becoming an archaeologist and museum professional.

Crocodiles decorating the walls of the Rabe home

Many traditional Nubian homes are decorated with crocodiles (see above) and in the case of the Rabe family home, there was even a live crocodile in a cage in the main room! Although this is largely done for the benefit of tourism, the representation of this animal is nonetheless a tradition that goes back thousands of years. When Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited Kemet he talked about being confused that the Egyptians, as he called them, on the one hand worshipped crocodiles but on the other they ate them.

Baskets decorate the outside of a traditional Nubian house

Basketry is also a traditional craft in this region and indeed in many other parts of Africa. Nubian baskets are made from locally sourced materials, such as reeds from the river Nile and are effectively no different to examples that are 3000 years old. Baskets are used to cover food, serve food and also store food. On the photograph below you see traditional spiced Nubian coffee being made on an open fire. A flat basket was used to grind the coffee and cardamon pods before placing them into a small container with water to boil.

Making traditional Nubian coffee

Museums and communities working together

In 2011 I interviewed the then Director of the Nubia Museum, Dr Ossama Abdel Meguid. He shared his own experiences, as a person of Nubian heritage, of interacting with the Kemite past. Dr Abdel Meguid has worked tirelessly to preserve Nubian heritage and to connect it to the past. I have certainly learned an enormous amount from him, both in terms of understanding Nubian culture and how we should present indigenous cultures in museums. In the interview he talks about the importance of consulting with Nubian communities directly about how they wanted their heritage to be presented. He also explains how the Nubian people have lived in this region for the past 10,000 years and how Kemite culture came from the south. He also talks about the negative impact of the Aswan Dams on Nubian culture and heritage. In fact it was a conversation with Dr Abdel Meguid that inspired an earlier post.

An example of a traditionally decorated Nubian House

I asked Dr Abdel Meguid why the tradition of decorating Nubian houses (above) appeared to be dying out, and he explained that since being moved after the building of the Dams, many people feel disconnected from their heritage and their past. This observation makes projects such as the Nubian Heritage Village even more relevant. Such initiatives help to preserve the past, and present, for the future.



African Queens: Cleopatra

Reconstructing Cleopatra

I have always hesitated to take part in documentaries, because although they set out to be factual, producers often have a set agenda and story that they wish to explore. This agenda quickly becomes apparent in the types of questions that are asked of specialists, and no matter how hard you try to avoid acquiescing, it is the filmmakers who have the ultimate control in the way that they edit.

In 2008 I was asked, in light of writing a book on Cleopatra, to take part in a documentary on the subject of the queen. The producers wanted to reconstruct how Cleopatra might have looked and asked if this would be possible. I said that it was, by looking at statues of the queen. However, from the offset I said that I would only take part if the producer was prepared not to perpetuate the myth that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous film.

A brief background to Cleopatra

Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks, who first arrived in Egypt with the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Kemet. By the time Cleopatra first came to power in 51 BCE her family had lived in Egypt for two hundred and seventy-two years. In terms of Cleopatra’s immediate ancestry we do not know the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother, who was a concubine rather than official wife, nor are we certain who her mother was. It is therefore possible that the concubine(s) were either of Macedonian Greek descent but equally possible that they were indigenous Kemites, along with the majority of the population at that time. We know from documentary research that an increasing number of the population of Ptolemaic Egypt had mixed Greek-Kemite ancestry. This can be documented through people’s names.

Following a process (of sorts)

With this in mind, I began to work remotely with a company that specialised in computer-generated images. I sent them photographs of a statue of Cleopatra that was found in Rome at a sanctuary of Isis (below left). In case people are wondering, the nose was damaged when the statue was used as ballast in a later building on the site of the original sanctuary. In spite of the statue’s later fate, aside from some surface damage to the nose, all of the features (including the original shape of the nose) were present. I naively thought that this would be a simple task.

A statue (left) representing Cleopatra of Egypt and a first attempt to produce a digital image of the queen

The initial images that were generated can be seen above alongside the original statue. Although the fullness of the mouth has been maintained, little else of the physical features have survived. The nose has been narrowed, the fullness of the jaw line has also been trimmed, and the eye shape is not true to the original.

Reconstruction of Cleopatra based on a statue of the Queen from Rome

The initial attempts looked nothing like the statue. However, eventually we were able to produce features that were closer to the original statue than the first attempt (above). There next challenge was the hair. On the statue that was used as a model for reconstructions Cleopatra is shown with layered locks. The style is a longer version of that worn by Kawit, who was a royal wife of King Montuhotep Nebhetepre, who ruled Kemet from around 2046 to 1995 BCE. Kawit appears on the side of a sarcophagus (coffin) with her hairdresser, who attaches a piece of styled hair to the royal wife’s head (below).

A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled


Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome

In addition to her hair, the statue (left ) presents the queen with a vulture headdress (the head of the vulture is now missing); this symbol identified her as a goddess. The statue doubtless shows Cleopatra as Isis. All of Cleopatra’s representations in her homeland show her as an Egyptian ruler. It is only on coinage minted overseas and on two sculptures that were manufactured in Italy that she was presented with Greek iconography, showing her as a Classical ruler.


Detail of a sculpture representing Cleopatra. Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

The two Classical sculptures (see one example above) also depict Cleopatra with coarse, curly hair; in both instances it is twisted and pulled back into a small bun. The hairstyle was unusual on Classical sculptures, and if we compare the queen’s hair to her predecessors we see waves but not with the coarseness or to the extent that we find on Cleopatra’s Classical-style representations. In short, the closest parallel that I could find for her hairstyle was either twists or plaits that are both commonly worn by people of African descent with African-type hair. The resulting style that was created by the digital artists was somewhere in between (see below and also feature image).

Cleopatra_Profile View_Darker_2
Final version of the computer generated image representing Cleopatra

Responses to the images

Just before the documentary was shown, The Daily Mail (a tabloid newspaper for those reading this blog outside of the UK) ran an article on the reconstruction. The article was entitled ‘Sorry Liz but THIS is the real face of Cleopatra’. The article summarised the documentary and showed a picture of the reconstruction. The wider circulation of the reconstructed images and the opportunity for readers to share their comments on the newspaper’s website, provided a forum for the general public to air their, unsubstantiated, points of view on the racialized identity of Cleopatra.

Some comments were dismissive, others were outraged, and some revealed racist attitudes and ideals embedded within the doctrines of European/White supremacy. From a social psychological perspective, many of these comments enable a clearer understanding of the roots of prejudice and racism more widely. Many reminded me of an encounter that I observed in New York in 2006, and which I wrote about in one of my books on Cleopatra (Cleopatra and Egypt). I was undertaking research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard a man, who it seemed from the conversation was of American nationality and Greek descent talking to his sons. He said to them that in school they would be told that the Egyptians were the forefathers of African-Americans and that this was wrong. He asked his children if the figures on a temple looked like African Americans and they shook their heads in agreement with their father, who then went on to remind them that Cleopatra who was Queen of Egypt was Greek, as indeed were their own ancestors.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah

The temple to which the man referred dated to the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was not, therefore, a representative example for the man to use in his lesson. Nevertheless, this conversation and many of the responses to the idea that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation and that Cleopatra may have been herself part African are revealing in the sense that they allow those of us to see exactly why people react so vehemently against the idea.

What’s the problem?

If the idea that Cleopatra was of mixed African/Macedonian Greek ancestry is so bizarre, why do people respond so strongly? Why does she have to remain ‘pure’ as one commentator on the Daily Mail website stated? The answer lies in an earlier post that I wrote about cognitive dissonance, and in many respects the Cleopatra ‘experiment’ reveals this. It is strange that people use Shakespeare and Hollywood to evidence how Cleopatra simply couldn’t have looked like the proposed reconstruction rather than turning to the images of the queen that have survived from her lifetime. It is ironic that some people of European descent wish to maintain ownership of Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus, was not so keen to welcome either her, or her son by Julius Caesar to Rome and it is quite apparent that the Queen was seen to be Egyptian.

DNA from Kemet: does it really have all of the answers?

DNA from Kemet

Thanks to Charles B for raising the following question last week:

What do you say to Eurocentrics who claim that the ancient Egyptians were European Caucasians and they have DNA evidence to to back it up?

I will start by saying that I am not an evolutionary biologist or a biological anthropologist, and I do not undertake research in this very specialised field. It is perhaps worth noting that many people do seem to feel qualified to comment on this subject, when they themselves are equally placed. For this reason, I would urge caution when reading and referencing even academic articles when using DNA to identify ‘race’. Here are some pointers:

  1. If you can access them*, read academic papers that are peer-reviewed by specialists within a particular field. This process is meant to ensure a certain quality control and involves the process of academic research being checked by two or three other scholars within that field before it is accepted for publication. In the Social Sciences and Sciences, the source of evidence and methodologies are rigorously checked. Egyptological research, unfortunately rarely utilises theoretical frameworks, models, or tested methods of investigation in the same way that other fields do.
  2. If you are struggling with the technical terms used in these papers then I would recommend that you look at the following workshop presented by Dr Shomarka Keita. Dr Keita is well qualified to write on both Kemite culture and biological genealogy. Has studied medicine, biological anthropology and Egyptology. I defer to his research because it is clearly evidenced, and when he presents it he explains any issues of interpretation that many other academics either assume non-specialists understand, or choose to disregard.

*Many of these papers can be found by a using google scholar search and accessed for free because the authors have loaded PDFs onto their academic profiles or websites.

Key points to remember when thinking about DNA

Like many people I once assumed that DNA had all of the answers when it came to the genealogical ancestry of the people from Kemet. However, having attended workshops and conference papers by Shomarka Keita, and having had the privilege of discussing this subject with him in person, I now accept that this is not necessarily the case.

Biological genealogy is one of a number of types of evidence that can be used to understand more about the people of Kemet. Others include: the physical and cultural geography of the land, the language, and the culture. In the workshop that is referenced above Dr Keita is keen to stress that these lines of evidence do not necessarily run parallel; and he is right to do so.

My reasons for initially believing that science had the answers is that the other types of evidence listed above are restricted by the knowledge of the people who interpret them. I have noted previously that if cultural parallels are restricted then those who are investigating them are ignoring potential links to other groups simply because they are not aware that they exist. Similarly, in regard to language, very few people have the language skills that range from Ancient Kemite to other African regions. It is only in recent years that scholars such as Dr Abdul Salau have started to fully explore similarities between Yoruba and the language of Ancient Kemet.


DNA testing also relies on comparison. This is a key point in answer to Charles’ question above. If, when you compare DNA samples, you do not have a large enough dataset, and if the model that you use is not rooted in African diversity then the results can be misleading.

Simplification of ‘racial’ types

There are other methods rooted in the biological sciences to compare groups of people. Cranial and limb ratio studies are also used to determine shared physiological traits of groups of people. Models of ‘racial’ types work on the assumption that people who belong to the same group share well-defined sets of physical traits. Many people assume that if people look the same they must be connected, and by the same argument any difference is appearance is often explained through mixture.

In his lecture Dr Keita uses the Berber people of North Africa as an example of how this approach can be misleading. Many people who belong to this cultural group have light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. It is therefore often assumed that they have some kind of European ancestry. However, when their genealogy is compared to African and European groups they cluster with the former as Africans.

African biological variations  

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

I have noted in previous posts that people often work from the premise that in order to be categorised as ‘African’ an individual has to meet discreet criteria. This has led to the acceptance within Egyptology of ‘Nubians’ (see above) as African people but as Kemites as somehow mixed in terms of their racialised identity. In doing this, people fail to take account of biological variations of African people. Whereas those who understand that there is variation in skin colour, physical features and hair types amongst people of African descent will make reference to the fact that Kemite artists showed this when they represented their people; others use an over-simplified interpretation of this variation to claim that the ancient people of Kemet were descended from Europeans.

It is for this reason that the term Mediterranean is often used as a descriptor of the people of Ancient Kemet. In fact, I once heard a colleague who is a forensic anthropologist who works on human remains from Egypt insist that the term was a valid one. When I asked her to explain to me what she meant by the term Mediterranean she responded by stating that Egypt was on the Mediterranean coast. So she was using a geographical term to denote racial identity. I pointed out that more of Egypt is on the continent of Africa and asked why we could not use that term as a descriptor instead. I did not get an answer. The conversation was a public one during a lecture that I presented in Cambridge in 2014.

In conclusion

I would urge people to look at the lecture I link to above, in which Shomarka Keita explains many of the pitfalls of categorising humans. It is also important to consider the historical and cultural links between groups of people as well as their genealogy. As I have previously noted, through archaeology and the study of Kemite material culture we can make many connections between the people of Kemet, and other cultural groups on the African continent. DNA offers one way to consider ancestry, but like other methods it can distorted.


Ancient Egypt beyond a colonial past

Presenting Ancient Egypt

The special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum 2016

The earliest religion in Kemet was animism. Like many traditional African religions, the Kemite version looked to nature in order to explain the world, and to provide spiritual support and protection. Animals played an important role within Kemite religion and were seen in two key capacities: (1) as representations of the gods on earth and (2) as symbolic guardians and protectors.

One particular aspect of this phenomenon was the subject of a special exhibition at Manchester Museum: Gifts for the Gods. Animal Mummies Revealed. As the title suggests, the exhibit explored the cultural context and composition of animal mummies, the latter through CT scans. Such technology has enabled museums to see what was inside the wrappings without damaging the actual item. In the Victorian period, when mummies (both human and animal) were first removed from their original contexts and placed in museums throughout the world, they would typically be unwrapped. The legacy of this practice can be seen in museums globally, especially in regard to the display of the remains of Kemite people.

Presenting the past

Any museum curator will tell you how difficult it is to balance the number of objects on display with the information that is presenting about them. Ultimately you are often left with a choice: do you display more objects or give people more information? Some museums have what are called open access displays. This is where all objects are accessible to the public in display cases but there are no explanations, dates or reference numbers accompanying them. I personally really like this type of display because you can see everything. However, such displays can cause frustration, especially if you want to know what something is or where it was excavated because you often can’t even find the registration number in order to write to the museum to ask them.

Detail of an information panel at the special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum

In the Gifts for the Gods exhibition, however, there was plenty of room for information provision. A large information panel entitled British Archaeologists in Egypt included an archive photograph of the Egyptologist John Garstang sitting in front of a union flag (above). Egypt was, of course, occupied by British forces between 1882 and 1952; and although the country retained its autonomy as part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914, British archaeologists and Egyptologists often raised their national flag at excavation sites. The text accompanying the photographs reads:

John Garstang’s workroom inside a rock-cut tomb at Beni Hasan, showing him seated to the right, 1902-4

I was disappointed that the opportunity was not taken to comment further on the colonial nature of this photograph or indeed the history of Egyptology. For visitors, such images have the potential to reinforce and accept Britain’s colonial past rather than to question and consider the consequences.

Addressing Britain’s colonial past

The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, April 2016

Upstairs in the the Manchester Museum was another exhibition entitled The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Here, a label that accompanies material culture from the Congo River includes the following text:

These objects were collected from places and people along the Congo River from the late 19th century. Such collections are the legacy of European commercial and colonial interests in this part of Africa, the same interests that drive Charles Marlow in the novella Heart of Darkness.

These objects were also collected during a similar time period to those in the exhibition on Kemet. Why then is there such a discrepancy in the way in which this practice is presented in two exhibitions in the same institution? Is it not timely and appropriate for Egyptologists to adopt a more critical approach to the history of their subject? I would suggest very strongly that it is.

Idealised and Romantic (and Racist?)

edwin_longsden _long_the_gods_and_their_makers
The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Longsden Long. Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnely

The painting above was used in the exhibition to illustrate a woman carving a statue of a cat. I was struck immediately by the appearance of the ‘Egyptians’ in the work, identified by the artefacts that they hold and who are clearly of European descent. The only African person to be represented in the painting is holding a cat, that is the model for the sculptor.The panel accompanying the painting read:

European paintings and literature of the 1800s portray an idealised, romantic version of ancient Egypt, inspired by impressive temple ruins. The vast numbers of animal mummies buried in catacombs were well know to travellers. This led to the mistaken belief, based on Western ideas about animals as pets, that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals themselves rather than the gods they represented. The reality for many animals prepared as mummies was very different.

I am not suggesting that museums should not show such works, but they need to be presented through a critical lens, and the blatant racist ideologies that accompany such images need to be deconstructed. Otherwise there is a danger that visitors leave the space with a confirmation that this was a reality. By describing such works as ‘idealised’, ‘romantic’ museums are failing to address a colonial and racist past.


Nubia versus Kush: which term is best?

Nubia and Kush

A few years ago I ran a small survey. I asked a group of adult students, who were culturally diverse, what the term Nubian meant to them. Out of a group of 40 people, only those with a connection to African, Black British or Caribbean heritage had heard of the term and these were their responses:

Black; a place in Africa; old Africans; a forgotten African culture; ancient word for Black people in general; oldest African culture; just a country; part of African people; a Black woman; ancient term for a Black race in Africa; a group of people that Black people evolved from; just a country.

Egyptologists use the term Nubian when referring to the Kingdom of Kush, which is south of Kemet/Ancient Egypt (see detail from the tomb of Sokehotep below). However, they also use the adjective Nubian to describe any representation that has the appearance of an indigenous African person. In doing so, they distinguish between the ancient Nubian people from Kemites (ancient Egyptians).

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

Since, as I have also previously noted, the majority of Egyptologists in European and North American institutions do not have a direct connection to Africa, I wanted to find out how contemporary Nubian people defined themselves, and if this was an appropriate term to use for the ancient people from this region. So, in 2011 I spent time recording the responses of Nubian colleagues, Elders and community members in both Egypt and Sudan. Many of the conversations were recorded and can be found on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

Nubia as a geographical region

kush_or_nubia_map _of_nubia
Map showing the aproximate region of Nubia (in red)

The territory of Nubia runs from the first cataract of the river Nile in Aswan to the sixth cataract of the river, which is north of the city of Khartoum in Sudan. However, when the second Aswan dam was completed in 1970 Nubian people were forced to move further north in Egypt to the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, both of which are on the river Nile. Many Nubian people were also displaced even further away, to the desert in the east, in a town named Nasr al Nuba.

The new town of Nasr al Nuba in Egypt

The building of the dam destroyed communities and archaeology alike. And although major monuments were moved to new locations away from the flooded land, the communities of Nubian people had to leave their traditional homes and were displaced. Not everyone who lives in this region is Nubian. In fact Nubian people form a minority group, who have had to fight to maintain their cultural identity.

Nubian people

A Nubian family at their traditional house in Darrow, Egypt.

Nubian can also refer to a group of peoples who form a distinct cultural group who originate from this region. Today, the majority of Nubian people are Muslim, however, many of their traditions from the time before they adopted this religion remain. One such tradition amongst some Nubian people is to take a child to the river Nile when it is born. This is because the river has always been important within Nubian traditions.

Many of the people who I interviewed in Egypt made reference to the fact that Nubian people today are “mixed”. That their ancestors married other Islamic people who came to this region; religion being a common link between two groups that were originally culturally diverse. Perhaps because of this Nubian people have a range of different appearances, as can be seen from some of the photographs that were taken as part of the research project I mentioned. These can be viewed on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

In North America the term Nubian can be used to refer to African American or African people.

Nubian as a language

Nubian is also a language that has at least three distinct dialects. However, as the Elders die so are some of these dialects. Preserving the Nubian language was such a concern that the Nubia Museum in Aswan began a programme of teaching it to young people, in order to preserve it. For the majority of Nubian people, their first language is now Arabic. Young people naturally feel that it is more useful to learn a European language in order to be better placed to find employment. Thus, Nubian, like many African languages, is literally dying out. When I spoke to Elders of Nubian communities in both Egypt and Sudan in 2011, the majority said they simply don’t use Nubian on a daily basis.

Nubian as an ancient culture?

Should we then be using Nubian when describing ancient people from this region? Or is the ancient term Kush or Kushite preferable?

Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

The adjective Kushite is generally used to describe rulers of Dynasty 25. These rulers originated from Kush and ruled their own country alongside Kemet. This dual rule was referenced on their statuary by the two cobras that they wore on their brows; most kings of Kemet only wore one cobra. The cobra symbolised protection for royalty and also gods. The phenomenon can be seen on the statue of King Taharqa above.

I would use the term Nubia in regard to the region, in the same way that I might use Egypt or Sudan. However, as with Egypt I feel it is important to make a distinction between the ancient peoples and those who live in this region today. The cultures, religions, languages, and also a large percentage of the population has changed considerably since ancient times.

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to the question that I posed at the start of this post. For now, I feel happiest using the terms Kemet and Kush, but I would be interested to hear other people’s views on how they feel the term Nubian should be used.

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…