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”