On a cloudless morning in northern Sudan, the first rays of the sun cast a glow on Jebel Barkal, a small tabletop mountain perched near the Nile River. Jebel Barkal rises barely 320 feet above the surrounding desert but is distinguished by one prominent feature: a pinnacle jutting out from its southwestern cliff face. If your imagination is keen enough, the isolated butte might resemble a crown or an altar, and the pinnacle an unfinished colossal statue—perhaps a rearing serpent, its body poised to strike.
Striding toward an excavation near the base of the pinnacle, archaeologist Tim Kendall pauses momentarily to admire what he calls the "little mountain with big secrets." Thousands of years ago, Jebel Barkal and Napata, the town that grew up around it, served as the spiritual center of ancient Nubia, one of Africa's earliest civilizations. The mountain was also considered a holy site by neighboring Egypt, whose pharaohs plundered and tyrannized Nubia for 400 years.
But in the eighth century B.C., Nubia turned the tables on its former colonizers. Its armies marched 700 miles north from Jebel Barkal to Thebes, the spiritual capital of Egypt. There the Nubian king Piye became the first of a succession of five "black pharaohs" who ruled Egypt for six decades with the blessing of the Egyptian priesthood. What happened? asks Kendall. How did the Nubians, overrun by Egypt for centuries, crush their colonizers? And why did the priests of Thebes decide the black pharaohs had a mandate from heaven? Kendall has been searching for those answers for 20 years. They can be revealed, he believes, by cracking a code of geomorphological symbols at Jebel Barkal and by parsing hieroglyphic texts that refer to the mountain as Dju-wa'ab, or "Pure Mountain." "I feel as if I'm deciphering a mythological puzzle," Kendall says. "It's a real mystery story."
Kendall is convinced that the physical form of Jebel Barkal is a clue. His research suggests that when Egypt's warrior-pharaoh Thutmose I set out to conquer the far reaches of Nubia in 1500 B.C., priests accompanying the armies took one look at Jebel Barkal and its pinnacle and believed they had come upon the birthplace and primeval abode of Egypt's supreme deity, Amun. "Amun is god of the sun and of fertility, father of all the gods and goddesses," says Kendall. "He's male; he's female. He's the father of fathers and mother of mothers. He is the father of the king, who is his living manifestation on Earth."
The ruins of a great temple built to Amun stretch for nearly two football fields in the shadow of Jebel Barkal's cliff. It's the largest and best studied of the site's numerous temples, but not the most interesting to a researcher probing Jebel Barkal's origins as a cultic site. Rather, Kendall's focus lately has been on uncovering the original Egyptian coronation temple here. He believes a long-lost chamber was once chiseled into solid sandstone at the base of the pinnacle and that it has remained sealed off for centuries by tons of earthquake debris. For a decade, Kendall has been methodically searching for the chamber, where, he suspects, Egyptian pharaohs dating back to Thutmose III and Ramses the Great symbolically entered the mountain to be crowned by Amun. Their coronations may have been magical charades of ceremonies held simultaneously at the royal temple of Luxor in Thebes, Kendall says, but he suspects the pharaohs actually came here too.
Some scholars doubt the Egyptians would have ascribed so much significance to Jebel Barkal based simply on shapes they saw in the rock. "The more meaning I find here, the more my colleagues think I've gone off the deep end," Kendall says. But if he turns out to be wrong, he will still have collected substantial evidence to bolster his argument that Nubia deserves more respect in the annals of archaeology.
"Basically, he's moving the center of Egyptian royal ideology outside of Egypt," says Krzysztof Grzymski, curator of the Royal Ontario Museum's Egyptian and Nubian collections. Grzymski has followed Kendall's work since they both worked in Sudan during the mid-1980s. "Not everyone agrees with him, but he makes a good case. He's stirring up the world of established Egyptology."
Kendall is fair skinned, and to protect himself from the sun he wears an embroidered white shawl wrapped turban style around his head. His team—a Greek and two Sudanese archaeologists, a pair of conservators from Italy and Austria, and an American archaeological surveyor—are at the dig site today, trying to accomplish as much as they can before the sun rises higher in the sky and the desert temperatures soar beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Kendall has offered to give me a firsthand look at some of Jebel Barkal's coded rock features.
It's a five-minute walk from his rented guesthouse to the site, across an undulating expanse of sand strewn with pastel-colored gravel and, in one section, thousands of shards of coarse, funnel-shaped pottery that make a crunching sound underfoot. "They're bread molds," Kendall says. "The priests baked the gods' daily offering in them and smashed the molds to remove the bread."
The sheer number of cast-off molds underscores how long Napata functioned as the cultic heart of Nubia. This was the Nubians' primary religious and coronation site in the eighth century B.C., more than 300 years after Egypt abandoned its colony (for still uncertain reasons). It remained as such for at least a millennium, until the second or third century A.D. Even after the Nubian kings shifted their political and administrative center several hundred miles farther up the Nile to the city of Meroë for better security, they journeyed north across the forbidding Bayuda Desert to be crowned at Napata.
Following a trail through the smashed crockery, Kendall and I crest a small rise, round a bend, and find ourselves surrounded by a lost world. Before us stand the ruins of the Amun temple. Now roofless and largely filled with sand, the shrine was started by the Egyptians and later expanded by the Nubians. Over the centuries, it evolved into a complex of courtyards, chapels, and covered halls extending 500 feet from the sanctuary at the rear, near the mountain's majestic bluff, to an avenue of sphinxes beyond the entry pylon. The sphinxes, of which only six remain, are giant recumbent rams that represent Amun.
The Amun temple was probably the Nubians' chief repository of ancient knowledge and religious literature, Kendall says, as well as a national museum. It would have been filled with statues and monuments that celebrated the kingdom's rulers and linked them to earlier Egyptian pharaohs, whom the Nubian kings counted as their ancestors. In every detail, the temple carefully mimics Egyptian religious architectural styles, right down to the pair of enormous gray granite blocks that supported a model of Amun's ship, a bark in which he sailed the heavens. Both blocks are inscribed with hieroglyphs and oval-shaped royal symbols called cartouches, and decorated by repeated images of the king standing in profile, with his torso turned outward and arms upraised to support a band of stars. Several bearded deities are depicted with pendulous breasts and rounded stomachs, symbolizing "the fertility of the Nile," Kendall says. On public occasions, Nubian priests would hoist the ship onto their shoulders and carry it into the temple's forecourt, where oracles performed divinations and other sacred rituals.
Aerial photographs indicate that as many as 16 temples were built at Jebel Barkal. Seven have been excavated, along with three palaces and many secular buildings. Spread out on a gravel plain of about 20 acres, the temples were situated so that the axis of each pointed toward the mountain. Two of the palaces, on the other hand, were oriented at right angles to the entryway of the Amun temple and on the right side. Egyptian tradition called for the pharaoh's residence to be placed on the starboard (right) side of Amun's bark.
From where Kendall and I stand, the pinnacle is about a hundred yards away, at the far end of the cliff. Its obvious phallic shape would have immediately struck Egyptian priests as a sign of Amun's presence, Kendall says. But because Jebel Barkal is a lone mountain, isolated from other buttes in the area and sometimes nearly engulfed by the Nile's floodwaters, the priests may also have seen it as the perfect metaphor for the primeval mound: the island where Amun pulled himself out of the waters of the Abyss and created the first gods by masturbating. Kendall draws attention to the shaft's bulging head, which he says resembles "a human figure wearing the white crown," a tall, conical headdress (shaped a little like a bowling pin) that pharaohs wore to signify their dominion over the empire's southern territories.
The lower half of the pinnacle is partially obscured, so we walk out to the forecourt of the Amun temple, past teetering columns and tumbledown walls, for a full-length view. Seen from top to bottom, Kendall suggests that the pinnacle looks like a rearing cobra wearing the white crown. The cobra, or uraeus, represented a fire-spitting goddess who could decimate enemies with death-ray precision. It was a powerful symbol of divine authority, and each pharaoh wore one on his brow as an amulet. Kendall and I continue walking to the west and look back at the pinnacle. Seen from that angle, it morphs yet again into a uraeus that's crowned by a sun disk. In Egyptian mythology, the golden sun disk symbolized the Eye of Re, a potent female deity who embodied all of Amun's daughters and chief protector goddesses.
Egyptian texts found at Jebel Barkal support Kendall's belief that the ancients saw the pinnacle as an effigy for Amun as well as a uraeus. But the most dramatic evidence of his pinnacle-as-uraeus thesis—his window into the minds of the ancients—is not textual but graphic. At Abu Simbel, the famed Egyptian rock-cut temple 300 miles south of Aswân whose entrance is adorned with four colossal statues of Ramses II, a wall relief shows the pharaoh making an offering to Amun, who appears as a man. Amun is seated inside what appears to be a pavilion guarded by a uraeus wearing the white crown. In fact, Kendall says, the pavilion is Jebel Barkal, and the uraeus is the pinnacle.
A similar scene appears in the only rock-cut temple that has been found intact at Jebel Barkal: the temple to Mut, Amun's consort and protector. Like Abu Simbel, the Mut temple is hewn out of solid sandstone, carved right into the base of the pinnacle. It's a beautifully decorated, five-chambered shrine commissioned by Piye's son, Taharqa, the most prolific monument builder of all the black pharaohs. One of its smudgy, graffiti-scarred frescoes shows Taharqa bearing an offering to Mut and Amun. In the scene, Amun is depicted as a man with a ram's head, his Nubian form. The divine couple is situated in a flat-topped pavilion with a sloping face, but the cobra emerging from it is crowned by a sun disk—just like the pinnacle as seen from the west, outside the temple doorway.
A seminal moment in Kendall's research occurred when his colleague Lynn Holden first made a connection between the pinnacle and the fresco's uraeus, providing a vital link between the mythical and the real worlds. "It changed our whole understanding of the mountain," Kendall says. "That the mountain had a uraeus would have had tremendous meaning to Egyptians. Afterward, we started to see that the pinnacle had other meanings—that it was a serpent and a phallus, that it was wearing a crown. You see that it was viewed as the center of creation, the home of the creator god, the source of kingship. When you start reading texts, you say, 'My God! This is why the Nubians thought they were entitled to the crown of Egypt.' "
Ancient Nubian texts also mention a repository for crowns, scepters, and other regalia among the Barkal temples, but it has never been located. Kendall is convinced that the references are to the missing rock-cut coronation chamber and that he'll find it just to the right of the Mut temple, buried under the heap of earthquake debris at the base of the pinnacle. Provocatively, he proposes that the earthquake that brought the face of the mountain down on top of the chamber may have occurred in the 11th century B.C., prompting the Egyptians to retreat from Nubia. "It is difficult to imagine the priesthood interpreting this event in any other way than as a sign that Amun was angry and that he wished to revoke indefinitely the reigning king's authority to rule Amun's southern domains," Kendall says.
It's a hypothetical scenario, but tempting because Kendall's chronology meshes neatly with a poorly understood period when Egypt lost control of Nubia's gold mines and lucrative trade routes to sub-Saharan Africa and plunged into a dark age of economic and political turmoil that lasted 350 years. Kendall contends that Egypt's political crisis prompted the embattled priests of Thebes to send missionaries to Napata to convert the Nubian chiefs to the Amun cult and recruit them as allies. That could explain how the Napatan royals and elite became Egyptianized so rapidly. In the short space of several generations, they adopted the written language of hieroglyphics and revived the tradition of pyramid building long after the Egyptians abandoned it. Ultimately, the Nubian king Piye marched north to restore order in the name of Amun and returned to Napata as a pharaoh.