Kerma: the Biblical City

By 2500 BC (during the Old Kingdom period) the kingdom of Kerma has established its dominance over the North Sudan. During the Middle Kingdom (2040-1650 BC), Egypt expanded south into Kushite territories and occupied Mirgissa for sometime.1 In the Second Intermediate period (1650-1550 BC),2 the kingdom of Kerma expanded far north into Upper Egypt. However, the Southern boundary of the kingdom is not known. Judging from the natural products transported by the Kushites (i.e., the people of Kerma) to Egypt, such as ivory and ebony, it's conclusive that Kerma controlled regions south of Khartoum where such items are obtainable.3 Also, Egyptian wall representations showing individuals with sub-Saharan features as servants for Kushite sovereigns or as members of ethnic units serving in the Kushite army,4 indicates the expansion of the Kerma kingdom to regions south of the Sahara.

Archeology proved Kerma to be one of the first cities in the world. Its temples and palaces represent some of the largest architectural projects carried in the ancient world. Its cemetery findings are evidence to the wealth and prestige of the kingdom. Some of its royal burials consisted of massive white-plastered mounds, some reaching 90 meters in diameter.5 Archeological finding indicate that the Kushite kingdom was connected with trade routs that reached distant locations such as the Read Sea, the Levant, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Evidence indicates that the kingdom of "Cush" (or Kush) mentioned in the Bible Book of Jasher6(i.e. known in Hebrew as Sefer Ha-Yashar) as part of the story of Moses, is indeed the archeological kingdom of Kerma. Also, the story of Moses, which is traditionally dated by historians to Egypt's 18th Dynasty (1550- 1352 BC) is contemporary with the "Most Ancient Kerma" time phase.7 The Book gives a good idea of the dominance of the Kerma kingdom over the Northern and Eastern Sudan in particular:

"So Kikianus king of Cush (Kush) went forth with all the children of Cush, a people numerous as the sand, and he went to fight against Aram and the children of the east, to bring them under subjugation." (Jasher lxxii: 2).
Stela (depicting a Kushite ruler). From Buhen. Kerma / Second Intermediate Period. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Kushite ruler

This Biblical reference to the Kushite intrusion in Eastern Sudan is backed by the discovery of sea shells and other items brought from the Red Sea shorelines in Kerma.8 According to the story, when Kikianus returns from his military campaigns in the east, he finds that Balaam, the Egyptian (i.e., the magician who predicted to the Egyptian king that Moses would attempt to take his place as king of Egypt), has allied with local rebels and took over the city of Kush. Consequently, Balaam and his rebels refuse to allow Kikianus to enter to the city. As a result, Kikianus is compelled to camp outside the city walls.

After murdering the Egyptian guard for beating the Israelite slave, Moses escapes from Egypt to Kush. There, in Kush, he encounters"the camp of Kikianus king of Cush."(Jasher lxxii:23). Afterwards, Moses decides to join the army of Kikianus in fighting Balaam and his rebels.

The Book of Jasher describes the architectural formations conducted by Balaam and his rebels in strengthening the fortification system of Kush in preperation of a seig under Kikianus:

"So they (Balaam and the rebels) rose up and raised the walls of the city at the two corners, and they built an exceeding strong building. And at the third corner they dug ditches without number, between the city and the river which surrounded the whole land of Cush, and they made the waters of the rivers burst from there." (Jasher lxxii: 8-9)

The excavations of Charles Bonnet in the 1990s uncovered the fortification walls of Kerma.9 The architectural features of the fortification wall are strikingly similar to those described in the Biblical passages. Surrounding, at least, a section of the fortification, Bonnet discovered a ditch, which has apparently been part of the city's defense system. Ditches are similarly described in the Biblical passage as being "dug without number". In case of an attack, the ditch was flooded with water to prevent the attackers from reaching the walls as described in the second passages (see: Jasher lxxii: 9).

Descriptions of the city walls being raised "at the two corners" and the building of "exceedingly strong building" corresponds with the archeological discoveries of buttresses and bastions flanking the city gates of Kerma. Also, Bonnet excavations revealed a ditch immediately in front of the city gate.

The Book of Jasher indicates that on the first day of the war, the besieging army of Kikianus attacked "opposite of the city gate" (Jasher lxxii:16) and on the third day they attempted to assault from "the place of the ditches," (Jasher lxxii:19). Hence, it can be concluded from the passage that there was a ditch dug in front of the city gate, as Bonnet excavations have revealed.

Following the success of the Kushtie army in taking over the city, Kikianus died. The Book of Jasher describes his burial:

"And they built over him (Kikianus) an elegant strong and high building, and they placed great stones below."
(Jasher lxxii:27)

The placing of stones around the tomb structure or monument, mentioned in the passage, is a unique and distinguished feature of the Kerma burial culture. Stones are typically arranged around the tumulus to make it look esthetic and grandiose. Particularly interesting was a royal burial uncovered at Tombos, close to Kerma.10 The grave was originally a long cylinder-shaped superstructure. Granite rocks were found surrounding the base of the structure. Within the burials extravegent finds were discovered including items imported from Egypt. Archeological excavations indicate that the structure was destroyed probably during the later Egyptian invasion of Thutmose in 1500 BC, which confirms the Kushite identity of the desceased. The archietectural elements of the Tombos grave are strikingly similar to the description of the Kikianus grave in the book of Jasher. Archeological evidence confirm the setting upon which the story of Moses was inspired.

According to the Book, the Kushites became fond of Moses and his strength in battle. As a result, they chose him to succeed Kikianus as the king of Kush. Thereafter, Moses reigned in Kush for the next "forty years."(Jasher lxxiii:2).

According toJasher, following the crowning of Moses as king, he is given Adoniah, the queen of Kush and the former wife of Kikianus, for a wife. However, Adoniah is Canaanite by ethnicity, not Kushite. Remembering how Abraham prohibited his servant from marrying a Canaanite woman, Moses refuses to engage with Adoniah in marital intercourse. Later in the story, Admoniah conspires with Kushite princes in a plan to overthrough Moses and crown Menacrus, her son, instead. Speaking before the Kushite prices Adoniah makes the follwoing remarks:

"Surely you know that for forty years that this man has reigned over Cush he has not approached me, nor has he served the gods of the children of Kush.
Now therefore hear, O ye children of Cush, and let this man no more reign over you as his is not of our flesh. Behold Menacrus my son is grown up, let him reign over you, for it is better for you to serve the son of your lord , than to serve a stranger, a slave of the king of Egypt."(Jasher lxxv: 5-7)

According to the story, Moses was eventually banished from Kush without harm. Recent archeological evidence in Nubia revealed strong archeological evidence for contacts with the Levant contemporary with the Kerma civilization. Excavations at Qustul and Saras (in Lower Nubia) uncovered a large number of pottery from Syro-Palestine.11

In Tombos, close to kerma, remains of ceramic and pottery coffins, which are particularly characteristic of Egyptian burials in Syria-Palestine, were found.12 It was customary of the Egyptian government to incorporate Nubian royalty as part of the Egyptian colonial administration. Hence, the Syro-Palestinian burial traditions found in Tombos may be understood in the context of a preexisting Canaanite-related royalty. Hence, the reference made in Jasher to the Canaanite queen (Adoniah) put more evidence to the hypothesis that Kerma is the stage were Moses story in the Book of Jasher took place.

In 1500 BC the kingdom of Kerma was sacked by the armies of Thutmose I. Egyptian records written subsequent to the Egyptian incursion indicate that two sons of the former king of Kerma allied with a ruler "North of Kush". Hence, Kerma was not overtaken by the Egyptian invasion of Thutmose as commonly assumed by historians. Also, recent archeological excavations reveal the continuation of construction activities in Kerma following the Egyptian invasion.13 Although the majority of evidence indicates that the Kerma kingdom was greatly weakened after the Egyptian invasions of 1500 BC, the precise date for its eventual collapse is unknown.






1 C. Venot, "Le cimetiere MX-TD de Mirgissa", Cahiers de Recherche de I' Institut de Papyrologie et d'Egyptologie de Lille, 2 (1974).

2 Stuart T. Smith, Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt's Nubian Empire (Routledge, 2003) 56.

3 O.G.S. Crawford, and F. Addison, Abu Geili, The Wellcome Excavations in the Sudan vol.3, (London, New York and Torento, 1951).

4 For Egyptian representations showing individuals with sub-Saharan features as servants for Kushite sovereigns see the presentation on the Tomb of Huy [West Wall: South Side (4)], in N. de G. Davies, The Theban Tomb Series, vol.4: The Tomb of Huy, London: Egyptian Exploration Society (1926), pl. XXXVII, and David O'Connor, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994) 62. Also, for Egyptian representations showing individuals with sub-Saharan features as members of ethnic units serving in the Kushite army see image: Painting from the temple Ramesses II built at Beit el-Wali in Northern Nubia, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Nubia Gallery, 15 Oct. 2007, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Nov. 2008 <http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/nubia/nknapnk.html>.

5 Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University Dept. of Social and Political Science, Yale University Publications in Anthropology Section of Anthropology, (Published for the Department of Anthropology, Yale University, by the Yale University Press, 1965).

6 J.H. Parry, ed. Sefer Ha-Yashar Or The Book Of Jasher (Providence University, 2007).

7 Matthieu Honegger, "The Pre-Kerma Period". Sudan Ancient Treasures: An Exhibition Of Recent Discoveries From The Sudan National Museum. Derek A. Welsby, and Julie R. Anderson, eds. (British Museum Press, 2004) 63.

8 Charles Bonnet, "Archaeological Excavations At Kerma (Soudan): Preliminary report for 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 campaigns," Arkamani Sudan Electronic Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology. Aug. 2001. Nov. 2008 <http://www.arkamani.org/arkamani-library/pre-kerma-and-kerma/prelim_report1.htm>.

9 Bonnet, note 8 above.

10 David N. Edwards, The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (Routledge, 2004) 102.

11 For the Qustul excavation see: Bruce B. Williams, The Royal Cemetery L of Qustul, Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition: Excavation between Abu Simbel and the Sudan Border, Vol. III, (Chicago: University Press, 1986), and for the Saras excavation see: A.J. Mills and Nordstrom H.A., "The Archaeological Survey from Gamai to Dal : Preliminary Report on the Season 1964-1965", Kush XIV (1966): 1-15.

12 Stuart Tyson Smith, Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt's Nubian Empire (Routledge, 2003) 145-6.

13 Charles Bonnet, Edifices et rites funeraires de la necropole de Kerma (Paris, 2000).


The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.