Jebel Barkal Site Description
Jebel Barkal is a small sandstone table-mountain, 103 m high, on the western edge of Karima, Sudan, about 325 km NNE of Khartoum. It is situated about 1 1/2 km from the Nile, and confronts the river with a spectacular cliff 80 to 90 m high and 200 m long. It also possesses on its south corner an immense, free-standing pinnacle, 75 m high. Very early, its unusual features – its strange isolation, its sheer cliff, and its statuesque pinnacle - played on the minds of the ancients, who made this rock the subject of intense theological speculation and identified it as the residence of a supreme deity. When the Egyptians conquered the northern Sudan in the early Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1500 BC), they made Jebel Barkal the official upper limit of their African empire and founded a town there called Napata. Jebel Barkal became the site of their southernmost religious sanctuary.
Napata became important initially due to its position on the main river crossing point of an overland trade route that cut across the great S-curve of the Nile in a straight line between the Sixth Cataract region and the Third. It was the site of an important ferry and customs station, where African products from the south were transported across the river and warehoused before shipment down to Egypt. In time, Napata’s strategic importance was completely overshadowed by its cultic importance, which derived from Jebel Barkal. The Egyptians called the rock Dju-wa’ab (“Pure Mountain”) and identified it as the home of a mysterious primeval aspect of their state god Amun of Karnak, who dwelt at Thebes, some 1150 km downstream. If Amun in Egypt was normally represented as a man with tall, feathered crown, or as a mummiform figure with erect phallus, his aspect at Jebel Barkal was normally as a man with a ram’s head, crowned with a sun disk. This novel form of Amun is thought to have been derived from a pre-Egyptian Nubian deity, associated with the ram.
Curiously, the Egyptians imagined Jebel Barkal to be a distant extension of Karnak and came to believe that each site was a manifestation of the other. Amun of Karnak, for example, had always been called “Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands.” But when the Egyptians discovered Jebel Barkal, they decided that, “before it was known by the people,” it had been called “Thrones of the Two Lands.” In other words, they believed that Jebel Barkal was the original Karnak (“Thrones of the Two Lands”) and that their national god had originally come from there. Even the god’s temples at both sites carried the same name: Ipet-sut (“Sanctuary of the Thrones”), which allowed these sanctuaries, for religious purposes, to be deliberately confused. This new dogma thus established Amun as the divine master of Upper Egypt and the entire Egyptian Nubian empire, with Napata and Thebes being his two cultic poles.
The Egyptians occupied Nubia for about four centuries (ca. 1500-1100 BC), but for unknown reasons abandoned it in Dynasty 20. The Jebel Barkal sanctuary then apparently ceased to operate, and its temples were allowed to fall to ruin. Only in the eighth century BC was the sanctuary restored by the Napatan kings of Dynasty 25, who used the cult of “Amun of Napata, who is in Pure Mountain” to justify their claims to the Egyptian throne. Henceforth, Jebel Barkal became the premiere cult and coronation center of Kush and remained in continuous use until about AD 300.
Although the ruins of Napata have not yet been significantly probed, the Jebel Barkal sanctuary is now known to have contained three palaces and at least seventeen temples. Of the latter, only six have yet been excavated. All of the buildings toady are in a very poor state of preservation, owing to soft nature of the building stone, the severity of the local environment (floods and sandstorms), and the long-term looting of the site by people seeking cut stone blocks for use in the nearby Muslim cemetery.