The royal cobra in Kemet

The meaning of the royal cobra

More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.

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The cobra and vulture on the brow of the king

On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.

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

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.

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King’s Wife and King’s Mother Iset

The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.

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Fragment of a statue of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra

Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.

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Detail of a statuette of Tiye. Louvre, Paris.

Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.

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Representation of royal wife Tiye

Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.

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Nefertiti

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.

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Representation of the royal wife Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Royal Women of Dynasty 25

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Relief from the Chapel of Amenirdis, Medinat Habu

As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.

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Statue of Amenirdis

Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret

For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.

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Statues representing the Kushite kings, Kerma Museum Sudan

The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.

 

Jebel Barkal: The sacred mountain of Kush

Jebel Barkal

Jebel Barkal means sacred mountain in Arabic. The fact that this large natural feature, which lies around 200 miles north of Khartoum, has been recognised for thousands of years is testimony to its power. Priests who accompanied the Kemite King Thutmose (I) Aakheperkare and his army, who entered Kush in 1504-03 BCE, identified the feature as “Pure Mountain” and “Thrones of the Two Lands”. These titles were a reference to the god Amun; the priests believed that this was the place where he lived.

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Jebel Barkal

The ancient people were very responsive to their natural landscape. A temple, which was cut out of the mountain’s rock, offers a clue as to what prompted the priests to come to their conclusions. The ancient people saw the profile of a uraeus or cobra when they viewed the rock (above) and this was depicted on a relief representation inside temple B 300 (below). Here the cobra wears a sun-disk on its head.

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A depiction of the mountain inside a chapel at the site

To the right of the depiction of the mountain King Taharqo who also ruled Kemet (690-664 BCE) makes an offering to the gods Amun and Mut. The divine pair are represented in front of the the sacred mountain. You can just about make out the crown of Amun on the photograph above. The reliefs are badly damaged. Taharqo, who was also accompanied by his consort, can be seen below.

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Nefertemkhura Taharqo making an offering to an image of the sacred mountain

A sacred complex

The earliest sacred archaeological remains at the site date to the reign of the Kemite King Thutmose Menkheperre (usually referred to as Thutmose III) who ruled Kemet from 1479-1425 BCE. This king laid the foundations for the temple to Amun, which was later completed by Ramesses Usermaatre-setpenre, better known to us as Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). The early temple, which was constructed out of mud brick has been replaced by a succession of later buildings. The majority of those standing today date to the reigns of the Kushite rulers who formed Kemet’s Dynasty 25 (around 746-664 BCE).

Temples were positioned in front of the sacred mountain. Today, only scant remains can be found. The photo below shows the dromos (processional walkway) flagged on either side with statues of the god Amun in the form of a ram. The sandstone bricks on either side once formed part of the pylon (gateway).

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Remains of the temple of Amun at Napata, now known as Jebel Barkal

Home of Amun

The reason that the Kemites were so interested in this site was because they believed that it was the dwelling place of Amun, a god who originated in Kush but who had one of the most powerful priesthoods in Kemet, and indeed one of the largest temple complexes at the site now known as Karnak (below).

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The sacred Lake at Karnak temple complex

Both complexes had temples and shrines dedicated to other deities. At Jebel Barkal these included Hathor (below) and the Cobra goddess.

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Hathor columns from temple B300 at Jebel Barkal, dating to the 7th century BCE

Continuity of a sacred space

When the Pure Mountain became known as the Sacred Mountain with the advent of Islam, the space retained its religious importance. Since the nineteenth century CE there has been a the tomb of a Sheikh and a Muslim cemetery at the site.

However, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, the site is evidence of the cultural connections between Kemet and Kush. Politically the two cultures were divided in ancient times. However, it is clear that the priests who accompanied Thutmose I recognised the site as one of the most important to their cult: the dwelling place of Amun.

The natural landscape also consistently played an important role in Kemite and Kushite religious practice, and this is common in other traditional African religions.

Celebrating Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

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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.

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One of the Nubian houses in the heritage village at Aswan

Celebrating Nubian culture

 

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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.

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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.

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

Continuing traditions?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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).

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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

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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.

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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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

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Gebel Barkal (Sacred Rock) and temple
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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

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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…