Nubian pyramids

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Nubian pyramids
Sudan Meroe Pyramids 2001.JPG
Aerial view of the pyramids of Meroë
Alternative nameNubian pyramids
Coordinates16°56′15″N 33°44′55″E / 16.93750°N 33.74861°E / 16.93750; 33.74861Coordinates: 16°56′15″N 33°44′55″E / 16.93750°N 33.74861°E / 16.93750; 33.74861
Founded800 BCE – AD 100

The Nubian pyramids were built by the rulers of the ancient Kushite kingdoms. The area of the Nile valley known as Nubia, which lies within the north of present-day Sudan, was the site of three Kushite kingdoms during antiquity. The capital of the first was at Kerma (2500–1500 BCE). The second was centered on Napata (1000–300 BCE). The third kingdom was centered on Meroë (300 BCE-AD 300). The pyramids are built of granite and sandstone.

Heavily influenced by the Egyptians, Nubian kings built their own pyramids 1000 years after Egyptian burial methods had changed.[1] In Nubia, pyramids were built for the first time at El Kurru in 751 BC.[2] The Nubian-style pyramids emulated a form of Egyptian private elite family pyramid that was common during the New Kingdom.[3] There are twice as many Nubian pyramids still standing today as there are Egyptian.[1] Forty of the pyramids were partially demolished by an Italian treasure hunter, Giuseppe Ferlini, in the 1830s.[4] The Nubian pyramids are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[5]


The Nubian pyramids were built over a period of a few hundred years to serve as tombs for the kings and queens and wealthy citizens of Napata and Meroë.

The first three sites are located around Napata in Lower Nubia, near the modern town of Karima.

The first of these was built at the site of el-Kurru, including the tombs of King Kashta and his son Piye, together with Piye's successors Shabaka, Shabataka, and Tanwetamani. Fourteen pyramids were constructed for their queens, several of whom were renowned warrior queens. This can be compared to approximately 120 much larger pyramids that were constructed in Ancient Egypt over a period of 3000 years.

Pyramids of Nubian kings Aspelta (foreground), Aramatle-qo and Amaninatakilebte at Nuri.

Later Napatan pyramids were sited at Nuri, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) north on the opposite bank of the Nile. This necropolis was the burial place of 21 kings and 52 queens and princes including Anlami and Aspelta. The bodies of these kings were placed in huge granite sarcophagi. Aspelta's weighed 15.5 tons, and its lid weighed four tons.[6] The oldest and largest pyramid at Nuri is that of the Napatan king and Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaoh Taharqa.

Wide view of Nubian pyramids, Meroë. Three of these pyramids are reconstructed.

Another small group of nine pyramids is located next to Jebel Barkal itself.

The most extensive Nubian pyramid site is at Meroë, which is located between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile, approximately 240 kilometres (150 mi) north of Khartoum. During the Meroitic period, over forty queens and kings were buried there.

Between 2009 and 2012 the new group of pyramids was discovered near the village Sedeinga.[7]

The physical proportions of Nubian pyramids differ markedly from the Egyptian edifices: they are built of stepped courses of horizontally positioned stone blocks and range approximately 6–30 metres (20–98 ft) in height, but rise from fairly small foundation footprints, resulting in tall, narrow structures inclined at approximately 70°. Most also have offering temple structures abutting their base with unique Kushite characteristics. By comparison, Egyptian pyramids of similar height generally had foundation footprints that were at least five times larger and were inclined at angles between 40–50°.

Layout of the pyramids of Meroë in 1821

The tombs inside the pyramids of Nubia were plundered in ancient times. Wall reliefs preserved in the tomb chapels reveal that their royal occupants were mummified, covered with jewellery and laid to rest in wooden mummy cases. At the time of their exploration by archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, some pyramids were found to contain the remains of bows, quivers of arrows, archers' thumb rings, horse harnesses, wooden boxes, furniture, pottery, colored glass, metal vessels, and many other artefacts attesting to extensive Meroitic trade with Egypt and the Hellenistic world.

A pyramid excavated at Meroë included hundreds of heavy items such as large blocks decorated with rock art and 390 stones that comprised the pyramid. A cow buried complete with eye ointment was also unearthed in the area to be flooded by the Meroë Dam, as were ringing rocks that were tapped to create a melodic sound.[8]

Great pyramid N6 of the Pyramids of Meroë, belonging to Queen Amanishakheto, before and after its destruction by the treasure-hunter Giuseppe Ferlini in the 1830s

In the 1830s Giuseppe Ferlini came to Meroe seeking treasure and raided and demolished a number of pyramids which had been found “in good conditions” by Frédéric Cailliaud just a few years earlier.[9] At Wad ban Naqa, he leveled the pyramid N6 of the kandake Amanishakheto starting from the top, and finally found her treasure composed of dozens of gold and silver jewelry pieces. Overall, he is considered responsible for the destruction of over 40 pyramids.[9][10]

Ferlini raided the Meroe pyramids in 1834.

Having found the treasure he was looking for, in 1836 Ferlini returned home.[11] A year later he wrote a report of his expedition containing a catalog of his findings, which was translated in French and republished in 1838.[note 1][12] He tried to sell the treasure, but at this time nobody believed that such high quality jewellery could be made in Sub-Saharan Africa. His finds were finally sold in Germany: part of these were purchased by king Ludwig I of Bavaria and are now in the State Museum of Egyptian Art of Munich, while the remaining – under suggestions of Karl Richard Lepsius and of Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen – was bought by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin where it still is.[9]

George Reisner, a Harvard archaeologist, investigated the pyramids at Nuri and mapped more than 80 royal Kushite burials in 1916–1919.[13] Reisner started to explore burial chambers but he found they were flooded by the rising water table. He abandoned further excavation because he thought it was too dangerous, probably because a collapse of a staircase had killed five of his workers.[13] Some of his findings were published in 1955.[14]

National Geographic funded explorations from 2015 to 2019 using underwater scuba diving equipment[15] and remote controlled robots.[16]

Pyramids and cemeteries[edit]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Giuseppe Ferlini, Relation Historique des Fouilles Operées dans la Nubia par le docteur Joseph Ferlini de Bologna, suivie d'un catalogue des objets qu'il a trouvés dans l'une des quarante-sept pyramides aux environs de l'ancienne ville de Meroe, et d'une description des grands déserts de Coruscah et de Sinnaar. Rome, 1838.


  1. ^ a b Takacs, Sarolta Anna; Cline, Eric H. (2015-07-17). The Ancient World. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-45839-5.
  2. ^ Mitchell, Joseph; Mitchell, Helen Buss (2009-03-27). Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World History, Volume 1: The Ancient World to the Pre-Modern Era , Expanded. McGraw-Hill Education. ISBN 978-0-07-812758-8.
  3. ^ Kolb, Michael J. (2019-11-06). Making Sense of Monuments: Narratives of Time, Movement, and Scale. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-429-76492-9.
  4. ^ Melikian, Souren (2010-05-21). "The Mysteries of Meroe". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  5. ^ "Wonder at the Meroe Pyramids, Forgotten Relics of the Ancient World". Atlas Obscura. 2017-05-03. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
  6. ^ Lehner, Mark (1997). The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson. pp. 196–197. ISBN 978-0-500-05084-2.
  7. ^ Jarus, Owen (7 February 2013). "35 Ancient Pyramids Discovered in Sudan". Fox News. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
  8. ^ Adams, Stephen (16 October 2008). "Ancient Egypt had powerful Sudan rival, British Museum dig shows". The Telegraph.
  9. ^ a b c Cimmino, Franco (1996). Storia delle Piramidi (in Italian). Milano: Rusconi. ISBN 88-18-70143-6., pp. 416-7
  10. ^ Welsby, Derek A. (1998). The kingdom of Kush: the Napatan and Meroitic empire. Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener., pp. 86; 185
  11. ^ Epitaph from his gravestone in the Certosa di Bologna.
  12. ^ Dawson, Warren R.; Uphill, Eric P. (1972). Who Was Who in Egyptology. London: Harrison & sons., p. 166
  13. ^ a b Emberling, Geoff (2014-04-04). "Continuing Excavations at an Ancient Burial Site Last Touched in 1919". National Geographic Society Newsroom. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  14. ^ Romey, Kristin (2019-07-02). "Dive beneath the pyramids of Egypt's black pharaohs". National Geographic, Culture & History. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  15. ^ Gwin, Peter; Romey, Kirstin (2019-07-02). "Episode 4: Scuba diving in a pyramid". National Geographic. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  16. ^ Rappaport, Nora (2015-05-21). "Amazing Drone Footage of Nubian Pyramids". National Geographic Society Newsroom. Retrieved 2019-07-04.

External links[edit]