The Nubian Pyramids

About Egyptian Pyramids

By Jimmy Dunn writing as Kelly Smith



A Map of Nubia (The Sudan)


The history of Nubia, the land south of Egypt, often in conflict with Egypt, frequently under at least partial control of Egypt and late in history, in control of Egypt, is an integral part of Egyptian history. When Egypt was strong, and expanding its territory, it often did so into Nubia, but when Egypt was weak, Nubian territory grew to the north.


Nubia was known to the Egyptians as Kush. During the Middle Kingdom, its principal town was Kerma, which lies just below the Third Cataract of the Nile River. It was ruled by chiefs, or kings who the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom evidently viewed as a threat, for the Egyptians built a series of fortresses in Northern Nubia to protect Egypt's borders.


During Egypt's New Kingdom, the empire period, Nubia was for the most part a province of Egypt, ruled by the "King's Son of Kush". The southern limits of this control may have been Gebel (mountain of) Barkal, where a Temple of Amun was situated. Then, as the New Kingdom waned and Egypt declined into rival principalities, Egyptian control of Nubia was once more lost. For almost two centuries after the end of the New Kingdom, we find very scant records of Egypt's southern neighbor.


Then, a new Kushite kingdom suddenly appeared, not surprisingly at a time when Egypt was at her weakest. As early as 770 BC, a powerful ruler named Kashta arose out of Napata, located at the foot of Gebel Barkal, to take control not only of Lower, or Northern Nubia, but also of Upper, or Southern Egypt as far north as Thebes. There, he had his sister installed as "Divine Adoratice of Amun", a position that had become as important, if not more so, than High Priest. While the people of Thebes acknowledged Kashta as King of Upper and Lower Egypt, it would be his successor, Piye (Piankhi), who would truly rule a more or less complete Egypt. He left behind remarkable documents at Karnak, Memphis and Gebel Barkal, though only the last survives, that casts himself in the traditional role of Pharaoh, the restorer of order against the forces of chaos.


The Pyramid Field at el-Kurru


After taking control of most of Egypt, Piye set out for Heliopolis to worship the sun god and celebrate his coronation as king of Egypt. There we are told that he:


"...stood by himself alone. Breaking the seals of the bolts, opening the doors; viewing his father Re in the holy Pyramidion House; adorning the Morning Bark of Re and the Evening Bark of Amun."


Afterwards, he returned to Napata where he founded a Nubian dynasty, Egypt's 25th, that would last for about a century. Upon his death, he became the first Egyptian king in 800 years to be buried in a pyramid. He built it at el-Kurru, about thirteen kilometers downstream from the Temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal, and his was the first of an estimated 223 pyramids that would be built in Nubia over the next thousand or so years. We think that his palace may have been located nearby, though it has never been unearthed. Between 1918 and 1919, George Reisner conducted excavations at el-Kurru, but by then only one pyramid was still standing. He found under low mounds of rubble the tombs of Piye and his successors of the 25th Dynasty, Shebaka, Shebitku and Tantamani. Their tombs had once been covered by pyramids, but by the early 20th century, they had been entirely removed.


Plan and Sectional of Piye's Tomb at el Kurru



These pyramids bore much more in common with the private ones that can still be found on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor) than with the Great Pyramids of northern Egypt, though it is commonly assumed that he was inspired by the latter. Even though the superstructure of his own tomb had been removed, its foundation trench indicated a pyramid with a base length of only about eight meters, and a slope of probably about 68 degrees. Nineteen steps led down from the east to the burial chamber that was cut into the bedrock as an open trench and covered with a corbelled masonry roof. Piye's body had been placed on a bed that rested in the middle of the chamber on a stone bench with its four corners cut away to receive the legs of the the bed, so that the bed platform lay directly on the bench. This was probably a Nubian custom, though fragments of canopic jars were discovered, leading Egyptologists to believe that he was most likely embalmed in Egyptian style. There were also the remains of Shabti figures, more typically found in Egyptian tombs. There had been a chapel built over and covering the stairway to the burial chamber, but it too was completely destroyed.


The pyramid of his successor, Shebaka, had a similar layout although the burial chamber was completely subterranean, and included a vaulted ceiling cut in the natural rock. Here, the entrance to the pyramid itself was built far enough to the east to allow it to be entered after the mortuary temple was built. A stairway led down to a short tunnel that than led into the burial chamber.


Along with the kings of the 25th Dynasty, there were also fourteen queens' pyramids built at el-Kurru, measuring between six and seven meters square, actually only slightly smaller than the kings' pyramids, which measured from eight to eleven meters squared.


Reisner also found the graves of 24 horses and two dogs nearby. Four of the horses belonged to Piye, and four more to Tantamani. Scholars speculate that they may have each belonged to a chariot team. There were also ten horses belonging each to Shebaka and Shebitku. All of the animals had been sacrificially decapitated, and their skulls were missing. They were each buried in a standing position, and their bodies were draped with beaded nets hung with cowrie shells and heavy bronze beads. They also had silver collars and gilded sliver plume holders. There is also some speculation whether these horses might correspond with the boat burials of earlier pyramids.


Plan and Section of the Pyramid of Taharqa at Nuri


One of the last kings of the 25th Dynasty, Taharqa (known in the bible, Kings 19:9, as Tirakah), moved to Nuri, a site just on the other side of the river from Gebel Barkal, to build his pyramid. There, he built a much larger pyramid measuring some 51.75 meters square with a height of between 40 and 50 meters. It was the largest pyramid ever built at Nuri, and is unique among the Nubian pyramids in having been built in two stages. The first pyramid was encased in smooth sandstone. Drawings and written reports of the early 19th century reveal the truncated top of the inner pyramid projecting from the top of the decaying outer pyramid. The outer pyramid was the first of a type with stepped courses and planed corners. It had a sloped angle of about 69 degrees. An enclosure wall tightly encircled the pyramid, but Reisner was not able to unearth any traces of a chapel.


However, the subterranean chambers of this pyramid are the most elaborate of any Nubian tomb. The entrance was by way of an eastern stairway trench, north of the pyramid's central axis, but in alignment with the original smaller pyramid. Three steps led down to a doorway with a molded frame and cavetto cornice. The doorway then led to a tunnel that widened and opened into an antechamber with a barrel- vaulted ceiling. Six huge pillars carved from the natural rock divided the burial chamber into two side aisles and a central nave, each with a barrel-vaulted ceiling.


Some of the surviving pyramids at Nuri


Though a rectangular recess was cut into the floor of the burial chamber for a sarcophagus, no sarcophagus was found. In addition, there were four rectangular niches in the north and south walls and two in the west wall. The whole of the chamber was surrounded by a moat-like corridor that could be entered by way of steps leading down from in front of the antechamber doorway. Another set of steps led to the corridor from the west end of the nave. Indeed, the whole arrangement is not unlike the Osireion, a symbolic Osiris tomb built by Seti I at Abydos.


During the reign of Taharqa, the Assyrians were becoming a growing threat. In fact, his successor, Tantamani, after having briefly received the submission of all the Egyptian Delta rulers, was then forced back by the Assyrians to Napata. Nubian rule of Egypt gradually came to and end as Psamtik I, an Egyptian under Assyrian control, consolidated his powerbase in Egypt. Nevertheless, Tantamani and his successors would rule a territory that extended from the First Cataract (at Aswan) south to the White Nile for the next 350 years.


The pyramid field of Nuri plan layout


Though Tantamani returned to el-Kurru to build his pyramid, 21 kings and 53 queens and princes were buried at Nuri under pyramids built of good masonry, using blocks of local red sandstone. In general, they were all much larger than those at el-Kurru, reaching heights of twenty to thirty meters. They had mostly consistent plans, with chapels built against the eastern faces decorated with reliefs and a stela built into the pyramid masonry depicting the king before the gods. The substructures almost always include stairway trenches to the east of the chapels that gave access to chambers, including two or three rooms, which were sometimes inscribed with the "Negative Confession" from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.


Their burial practices were largely Egyptian. They were mummified in Egyptian fashion, and their burials included multiple shabtis (some 1070 in Taharqa's pyramid alone). The royal mummies were adorned with gold jewelry, green stone heart scarabs, gold chest pectorals and gold caps on on the fingers and toes. The kings were also equipped with crooks and flails. The coffins were anthropid, made of wood and covered with gold leaf and inlaid with colored stone. There were sometimes outer coffins that were even more elaborate, covered with gold and stone inlays with the motif of falcon and vulture wings. Several bodies of kings, notably those of Anlami and Aspelta (about 568 BC), were placed in huge granite sarcophagi. Aspelta's in particular weighed 15.5 tons and had a lit weighing four tons, carved with Pyramid Texts, chapters form the Book of the Dead, and depicting various Egyptian gods.


The Nubian pyramid field at Nuri continued to receive the bodies of the royalty until about 308 BC. Afterwards, the site of Meroe, further south between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts rose to prominence as a royal cemetery. No evidence has really surfaced about why this transfer was made, though there is some speculation that the Meroe may have slowly gained importance beginning as early as 590 BC, after Psamtik II campaigned in northern Nubia. He may have defeated King Aspelta's army and marched on Napata, but much of this is very uncertain.


In fact, Peter Shinnie, one of the excavators at Meroe, has pointed out that no settlement has ever been found at Napata (near Nuri), and no royal residence may have ever been located at that site. On the other hand, Meroe was settled as early as the 8th century BC. It may have predated Napata, and even been the cultural and political center all along. At any rate, it provided a somewhat more comfortable cushion of land separating it from Egypt.


Meroe would remain the royal cemetery for 600 years, until about 350 AD. The main heartland in this area, known today as Butana, was better known to ancient writers as the "Island of Meroe". It is bounded on three sides by the rivers Nile, the Atbara and the Blue Nile. Most traffic from Napata to Meroe, however, took the road along the Wadi Abu Dom that cuts across the great bend of the Nile from the Fourth to the Sixth Cataracts. Meroe was repeatedly a refuge for Napatan and Meroitic kings when they retreated from world powers who penetrated down the Nile. It lay just beyond the reach of the Roman Empire, with which it was tied economically through trade.


The Pyramid Fields of Meroe in Nubia (The Sudan)

The Pyramid Fields of Meroe in Nubia (The Sudan)


Some writers have described Meroe as one of the largest archeological sites in the world. The actual settlement of Meroe is just about one half mile east of the river and its cemeteries lie in the desert somewhat farther east. The first known, major king to build his tomb at Meroe was Arkamaniqo (sometimes referred to as Arikakaman, known to Diodorus as Ergamenes). He ruled at about the same time as Ptolemy II in Egypt. His pyramid was built in the South Cemetery, which had actually been in use since the time of Piye. There were as many as three kings buried here, including Yesruwaman and Kaltaly, as well as six queens, but the crowding caused by more than 200 individual graves prompted future royalty to move across a narrow valley to a curving ridge, where they initiated a North Cemetery. As many as 30 kings may have been buried in the North Cemetery. A third cemetery at Meroe, known as the West Cemetery, includes brick-faced and rubble pyramids of lesser royalty surrounded by a host of graves, many of which are well furnished, belonging to important private households of Meroe.


Two Pyramids at Meroe restored by F. W. Hinkel


Like Nuri, these pyramid are fairly standardized. They are all steep-sided pyramids built of sandstone, with a height between ten and thirty meters. As at Nuri, they are stepped and built on a plinth, though here each triangular face was framed by smooth bands of raised masonry along the edges where the faces meet. Note that the pyramids at Gebel Barkal also have this feature.


Where the upper parts of the pyramids are preserved, these lines are rounded, like the torus moldings on the corners of Egyptian temples, for the upper fourth of the total pyramid height.


Pyramids of Meroe with their pylon-like Chapel Entrances


Against the eastern side of the pyramids was situated a chapel, often fronted by miniature pylons.


Towards the end of the Meroitic period, the pyramids are no longer stepped, but smooth and the casing blocks become much smaller laid on a poorly constructed core. In fact, the last of these pyramids were built of rubble and brick and had a plastered surface.


For the substructure, they have an eastern stairway descending to a blocked doorway in front of usually three adjoining chambers. Normally, two of the chambers had square pillars carved from natural rock, with a third, innermost smaller chamber. Ceilings were slightly vaulted in earlier chambers and more roughly hewn, round vaulted in later ones.


More Pyramids of Meroe


At Meroe, the body of the deceased was buried in the innermost chamber in a wooden anthropoid coffin placed on a raised masonry bier. The finer ones were carved with divine figures. Relief scenes in the chapels attached to the pyramids, including depictions of mummies and the remains of canopic equipment, suggest that at least the royal bodies were still mummified. Excavations unearthed bodies that were adorned with gold and silver jewelry, along with bows, quivers of arrows, archers' thumb rings, horse trappings, wood boxes and furniture, bronze lamps, bronze and silver vessels, glass bottles and pottery. The chamber nearest the entrance often contained wine amphorae and food storage jars.


Here, and elsewhere in Nubia, kings and even wealthy commoners also took with them to their graves servants who were apparently sacrificed at the time of their master's funeral. Animals, including yoked horses, oxen, camels and dogs were also slaughtered and interred outside the entrances of the burial chambers.


A famous treasure, known as the Ferlini Treasure named for its discoverer, the Italian explorer, Giuseppe Ferlini, was unearthed in 1830 in one of the North Cemetery Pyramids (Beg. N.6). This was the pyramid of Queen Amanishakhto who lived during the late 1st century BC. Ferlini reported that this cache of gold rings, necklaces and other ornaments was found in a secret chamber at the top of one of the pyramids, with obvious results. Soon, other treasure hunters were lopping off the tops of the other pyramids. In fact, the treasure was almost certainly found in one of the subterranean chambers.


Plan and Section of the Meroe Pyramid Beg N.6



The re-emergence of the royal pyramid after some 800 years is an interesting case of the transfer of an architectural, as well as a religious idea from one region and culture to another. It seems that the Nubians, for a considerable period of time, probably had a rather high regard for their neighboring culture to the north. When Egypt floundered, the earlier Nubian kings who took control of Egypt sought to turn back time to a more classical Egyptian past, and they took some of this past home when they left Egypt.


The Nubian pyramids are characterized by smaller scale, with steeper slopes, but they are far more numerous, considerably more standardized and owned by more members of the royal households (and probably non-royals as well) than the classical Egyptian pyramids. When the Nubians stopped building them, the pyramid as a marker for a royal tomb would be no more.








Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 825 2

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1

Treasures of the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 798 1