Discovering the Story Behind a Temple Devoted to the Cult of a Dead King

An aerial view of the pyramids. Photo courtesy of Geoff Emberling.

We have just finished our first week of excavation at El Kurru in northern Sudan. This site has been known to be an important center of ancient Kush since the excavations of the American archaeologist George Reisner in 1919. Reisner found a sequence of elite burials that began with traditional mounds and which changed through time until they had become pyramids—the first royal pyramids of Kush. The most powerful kings buried here were those that had conquered Egypt  by 715 BC and ruled as the Egypt as its 25th Dynasty. They are sometimes called the “Black Pharaohs”.

This dynasty of Kush was driven out of Egypt in 653 BC by the Assyrian army, which had fought its way into Egypt from its heartland in what is now northern Iraq. Yet they continued to rule a broad area of Nubia (now southern Egypt and northern Sudan) for about 1,000 years.

Our project in El Kurru is an international collaboration with three interrelated parts. Our Sudanese co-director, Prof. Abbas Sidahmed Mohammed-Ali, is working on a cultural heritage project with the archaeology faculty of the University of Dongola in Karima to clean and protect the remains of the pyramids excavated by Reisner and to present them more effectively to visitors.

Our British co-Director based at the Copenhagen University, Prof. Rachael Dann, is beginning a project to explore the area around the cemetery looking for non-royal burials (and perhaps even royal burials) and other features that Reisner may have missed.

My team is focused on excavating the ancient settlement around the cemetery. In his field notebook, Reisner mentioned that he had found five elements of a settlement: two temples, two segments of fortification wall, and one large well, which he thought must have belonged to a palace. He didn’t excavate or record these very thoroughly, and he never published them. It was not until 1999 when some of Reisner’s observations were published by Dr. Tim Kendall, then at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

We had a small first season last year, also supported by National Geographic, in which we succeeded in re-locating four of the five elements of the ancient settlement (see my blog about that season).

This year, we will be focusing on what we think is a “mortuary temple”—a temple devoted to the cult of a dead king. It was amazing to re-discover it last season because it contains 26 stone columns preserved over 8 feet high, and it had been entirely buried in the sand. It is an extremely unusual temple because it has a network of underground rooms, carved out of the rock, with columns underground to support the roof. We have no idea yet whether these rooms will turn out to be part of the ritual practices, or perhaps a storeroom for the temple, or a place for priests to live.

But perhaps most exciting of all, we have decided to excavate the largest pyramid on the site, which we think was associated with the temple, and which Reisner was unable to excavate because of structural flaws. Stay tuned over the next 6 weeks as we work hard to understand these structures (and more!).

Learn More

National Geographic Magazine’s “The Black Pharaohs”

  • Ima Ryma

    I am Piye, a Kushite king,
    The first Black Pharoah on the throne.
    Doing great temples was my thing.
    Of course I did one of my own,
    A pyramid at El-Kurru,
    In what’s now called Northern Sudan.
    Tunnels ‘neath the pyramid do
    Lead to this mummy once a man,
    Now a reminder from the past
    That very few of humankind
    Once dead, do memories long last.
    A few like me to future bind.

    Inside my temple, I will be
    For the future to unearth me.

  • Brian

    @Ima Ryma, cool poem. I don’t think they would say the first black pharaoh, in some respects that is a oxymoron considering that the pharaohs of the 12th dynasty were of cushite origins as well.

    Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the 12th Dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.
    …the XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) originated from the Aswan region. As expected, strong Nubian features and dark coloring are seen in their sculpture and relief work. This dynasty ranks as among the greatest, whose fame far outlived its actual tenure on the throne. Especially interesting, it was a member of this dynasty that decreed that no Nehsy (riverine Nubian of the principality of Kush), except such as came for trade or diplomatic reasons, should pass by the Egyptian fortress and cops at the southern end of the Second Nile Cataract. Why would this royal family of Nubian ancestry ban other Nubians from coming into Egyptian territory? Because the Egyptian rulers of Nubian ancestry had become Egyptians culturally; as pharaohs, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies. (Yurco 1989)


    To me it becomes silly when people say black pharaohs, as if the country in earlier times did not have them.

  • Geoff Emberling

    Just a quick comment on “Black Pharaohs”. Brian is right to point out that there is a long and complex history of interaction between Egypt and Nubia. It encompasses trade, migration, intermarriage, and also warfare, conquest, and imprisonment. The term “Black Pharaohs” is admittedly a popularizing term, but I don’t think it’s silly–it refers to the only time when ruling kings of Kush also ruled over Egypt, which is not the case for Mentuhotep II (founder of the 11th Dynasty), although he is depicted with Nubian features.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media