Remarks on Kushite Temples Dated to the Napatan-Meroitic Period
The Kushite temples (i.e., dated by archeologists to the Napatan
and Meroitic periods) were built of durable materials such as
red fired-bricks and stones which helped them to endure the ravages
of nature through time.1 Temple columns were worked with
extensive designs carved to shape lotus flowers and the heads of
gods Bes and Hathor. The walls were carved with relieves and painted;
sometimes they were plastered. Calligraphy with carved and
painted relieves and inscriptions covered the walls and the roofs
of their temples. They depicted gods and goddesses in secular interactions
with the kings and royal persons, demonstrated religious motifs
such as life after death, and political themes such as the commemoration
of military victories.
The Napatan period witnesses some of the most extensive building
projects in the history of Sudan . The 'standard' room plan is the
main characteristic of temples of the Napatan era. The 'standard'
room plan consisted of a successive arrangement of (1) Pylons, (2)
Court, (3) Hypostyle hall, and (4) Sanctuary; the best examples
of such temples are found at Jebel Barkal, Kawa, and Meroe.
Napata is the most important religious center in Sudan built around
a huge mountain called Jebel-Barkal with a peek that reaches an
approximate height of 350 feet and a circumference of about 5000
feet.2 On one top end of the mountain is a pinnacle bulging
off the mountain. The Kushites believed the pinnacle to be a massive
urea head symbolizing the Kushite god Horus. Because of that the
Kushites considered the mountain site as the most sacred site in
Sudan. Horus symbolized political and religious leadership and Napata
; therefore Napata became the religious and political center of
On this pinnacle, the Kushite King Taharqa inscribed a 10 by 5
feet panel on the pinnacle.3 A complex of temples and
Kiosks was constructed at the bottom of the mountain, at the center
of which lies the temple of Amon, which is the largest temple ever
built in Sudan. The temple was built sometime before the Napatan
period but its modern structure is largely built later. Modifications
and enlargements were commissioned by pharaohs of the Napatan period.
The temple measured about 116 by 50 feet inside.4 The
building plan followed the classic rectangular Theban and/or Kushite
architectural plan, with the 'standard' temple plan incorporating
pylons, a hypostyle hall, a peristyle court, and other courts and
sanctuaries, an avenue of criosphinxes, an enclosure wall, and flagstaffs.5
Of particular interest is the sanctuary of the Mut temple dug into
the interior of the Barkal Mountain beyond the Amon temple.
Amun temple at Jebel Barkal. Source: D. Dunham, The Barkal Temples
(Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1970).
Greek influence is evident in temples like the Sun-temple built
around 600 BC and restored in the 1st century.6 The temple was
built in honor of the god Re. It had a high pylon gate, and was
built on a podium with a colonnade around the temple's sanctuary;
a Greek architectural feature that characterized the Athena temple
in Greece. The temple has been associated with the legend of the
"Table of the Sun" mentioned by Herodotus; after which the temple
was named the "Sun Temple".7 Remains of an obelisk, symbol
of the sun god, have been found in the sanctuary.8 The pavement
of the temple was fancily covered in blue and yellow tiles. According
to Herodotus, the legend revolved around Persian ruler Cambyses
sent spies to Kush (Ethiopia) in a mission to find out if the "Table
of the Sun" really existed. Herodotus tells the following:
"Now the table of the Sun is said to be as follows:-
there is a meadow in the suburb of their city full of meat boiled
of all four-footed creatures; and in this, it is said, those of
the citizens in authority place the flesh by night, managing the
matter carefully, and by day any man who wishes comes there and
feasts himself; and the natives (it is reported) say that the earth
of herself produces these continually." (Herodotus iii:18)9
Under the Temple of the Sun at Meroe, archeologist Garstang
found artistic representations showing scenes of human sacrifices.
The representation show victims being dragged to an altar.10
Inscriptions from the time period testify to the historical importance
of the temple. In the temple precinct, an inscription bearing the
name of Meroitic king Aspelta was found. The walls of the temple
showing depictions of victory scenes show prisoners from various
nations identified by cartouches, Kushite soldiers leading captured
enemies, a procession of women in presence of the king, performers
dancing, livestock, and a four-horse chariot.11
During the Meroitic period, new types of architectural plans emerged
and became more influenced with the Hellenistic and Roman architecture, as well as the emergence of new gods. Although all Meroitic temples had pylons and most of them
had enclosure walls, they followed diverse architectural plans.
While some temples had one-room plan (i.e. like the Lion temple
at Musawwarat es Sufra), others (such as temple M.720 at Meroe)
had three or more rooms.12
Built in the first century CE, the Roman Kiosk still stands in
front of the Lion temple at Naga. The Kiosk has been considered
as part of the Lion temple complex by some archeologists; yet, this
probability has been rejected by many, since the axes of the two
buildings are different.13
Meroitic rulers built temples at Musawwarat es Sufra and Meroe,
distances away from the Nile facing the eastern deserts. These temples were surrounded
by numerous hafirs that probably drew large numbers of desert nomads
to the Kushite kingdom. The architectural grandiose of the temples
and the magnificent artistic representations showing a variety of
royal and military themes served as tools of political propaganda.
On another dimension, the temple complexes would have acted as centers
of regional authority where the affairs of the desert inhabitants
where closely monitored.
Built facing east like all other Lion temples, the temple is rectangular
in plan and is enclosed by a wall. A colonnade was built on the
outside of the temple, which reflected the Alexandrian style of heart-shaped
Also in Basa, a hafir was excavated (i.e. also enclosed by a wall),
which indicates the central function of the temple as a resting
place for travelers and nomads. These are only a few of the vast
and diverse types of Napatan-Meroitic Kushite temples. Other well known
temples include the Great Enclosure at Musawwarat es Sufra, the
Amon temple at Naqa, the Isis temple at el-Deragab, the Apis Shrine
Nine lions have been discovered; four in front of the temple, and
two immediately in front of the temple's gateway. Of course the
lion in Kushite culture represented a form of the war-god Apedemac.
Since defense and war became a central aspect of Kushite culture
during the Meroitic period; Apedemac came to occupy a higher reputation
among the other gods.
The lions are plastered and are colored with a yellowish pigment.14 Five lions were placed around the hafir as guards. Their sizes are
the natural and are cut of sandstone.15 The name
of the king Amanikhable, who reigned in the mid-first century BC
was found on the bottom of one of the lions.16 One of
the statues incorporated the representation of an enemy captive
that was shown as being devoured by the lion.
Edited: Jul. 2009.