Mention the word ‘pyramids’ and everyone thinks of Egypt. In fact, pyramids played a role in many ancient cultures, such as the splendid Nubian pyramids in the north of the Sudan. The Nubian people lived in the southern part of today’s Egypt and in the Sudan. The best relics of their culture are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be seen in the Sudan.
The story begins with the people we call the Kushites. The Kush empire lay in the centre of Sudan near the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, just north of today’s Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The Kushite culture enjoyed several highpoints, the first time between 2600 and 1520 BC when its capital city was at Kerma. The second time was between 300 and 100 BC when Napata was the capital, and the third time was concentrated around the city of Meroë between 300 BC and 300 AD.
Nubian culture, architecture and burial traditions
Kerma was seen as the first centralised state of Nubia with its own architecture and burial traditions. The two later empires (Napata and Meroë) were heavily influenced by Egypt, hence the pyramids which were built in Northern Sudan. There was fierce competition between the Kushite and Egyptian empires in economic, military, cultural and political matters.
The pyramids in Nubia, as with those in Egypt, were the final resting places of dead kings and queens. The two Kushite kingdoms of Napata and Meroë both arose around the same time. That did not stop them competing with each other over who had the most and the best pyramids, as shown by the large number which were built. In total there are 255 pyramids in the Sudan, twice as many as in Egypt (which has more than 120).
The first of the 255 pyramids was built in a place called El-Kurru, where the tombs of King Kashta and his son Piye can be found. Their successors, Shabaka, Shabataka and Tanwetamani, are also buried here. There are also 14 other tombs here for their queens and for a number of generals.
The Napata pyramids were built much later, and over on the western bank of the Nile at a place called Nuri in Upper Nubia. Here 21 kings and 52 queens and princesses are buried, the most important graves being those of Analmi and Aspelta, both of whom were buried in large granite sarcophagusses.
Most of the pyramids lie in Meroë, at a place 62 kilometres north of Khartoum. More than 40 kings and queens are buried here.
The Egyptian pyramids were built during three millennia while those in Nubia were built in a number of centuries. They are slightly smaller and less spectacular than those in Egypt and would thus have been easier to build. They are also of a completely different type. The pyramids are between 7 and 30 metres high and the corners are different to those in Egypt, most measuring 70 degrees.
When the pyramids were discovered in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries there appeared to be many objects lying in the graves but no jewellery. The finds were mainly wooden chests with bows and arrows, armour for horses, pieces of furniture, pottery and coloured glass, metal dishes and other objects related to the trade between the Nubians and other nearby peoples. Is it possible that the jewellery had already been stolen in antiquity?
An unusual grave was discovered in Meroë which contained 390 stones and a large object with rock carvings. The grave also held a complete cow.
The Nubian pyramids were damaged and some were destroyed in 1830 by Giuseppe Ferlini, an Italian doctor who had changed his profession to that of treasure seeker. In order to get inside the tombs and reach the contents he simply blew the tops off 40 of the pyramids.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS DISCOVER 35 PYRAMIDS IN THE SUDAN: From the Archeologie Magazine (in Dutch)
Between 2009 and 2012 roughly 35 pyramids and related tombs were uncovered at the archaeological site of Sedeinga in the Sudan. The ancient structures stand very close together and are relatively small: the highest is seven metres, while the smallest pyramid is no higher than 75 centimetres.
In 2011 as part of this large-scale project, the research team discovered at least 13 pyramids within an area of 500 square metres. The Sedeinga pyramids are very close together and this points to a remarkable building frenzy. ”After a number of centuries of continuous pyramid building the inhabitants began at last to fill up all available remaining empty spaces in the Necropolis”, according to Vincent Francigny, researcher with the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
A number of the pyramids display an unusual shape with an internal dome. As this style did not affect the external appearance of the pyramids, it is unclear why this type of construction was chosen. One possible explanation is that the dome structure was already in use in Sedeinga before the pyramids were built and they combined two styles.
The pyramids are not all in good condition. Some of the keystones on top of the pyramids are missing, they would have been decorated with images of birds or lotus flowers. The graves have also been plundered. Nevertheless the archaeologists found bones and ancient objects, such as an altar which bears two images, probably of the goddess Isis and the god Anubis.
The pyramids are approximately 2,000 years old and date from the time that present-day Sudan was part of the Kush Empire. Between the 16th and 11th century BC this empire bordered on Egypt. There was cultural exchange between the two regions, resulting for instance in Kush being influenced by Egyptian death cults and architectonish styles, by which Kush adopted the pyramid building style.
The large number of ancient pyramids discovered points to a remarkable diversity of culture and religion within the borders of The Sudan, which might have offered shelter to a Sunni Islamic culture, Catholicism and many traditional African religions.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey