Sudan - Sunset over el-Kurru pyramids

Fig. 1. Sunset over the el-Kurru pyramids (Photo. Mafi Moya, URL:




The Cemetery of el-Kurru

Brian Yare

Summer 2006



Fig. 2. View of the cemetery at el-Kurru, Sudan. (Photo. T. Kendall, URL:

The cemetery at el-Kurru, below the Fourth Cataract on the River Nile in what is now Sudan, is of great importance to those attempting to unravel the history of the time that is generally referred to as the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt.

The Nubian civilization after the decline of the Egyptian New Kingdom is variously referred to as Nubian, Kushite, Meroďtic and even Ethiopian. In the interests of consistency it will be referred to here as Nubian. Fig. 3 is a map of Nubia showing important locations referred to in this essay.

During the New Kingdom the Nubians had been an Egyptian dependency under the overall control of a Viceroy, a figure of considerable importance within the Egyptian government. Nubia was important to Egypt not only because it was a neighbour along the River Nile but also as a source of gold. This metal, mined in the deserts of Nubia, may not have been highly valued by the Nubians at the time but the Pharaohs of Egypt needed large quantities of it: not only for decoration and ornament but also for trade with their neighbours in the Levant and beyond. The New Kingdom Pharaohs had therefore subjugated Nubia, travelling as far as the Fifth Cataract where Thutmose I. left a rock inscription at Hagar el-Merwa (Morkot, 2000: p. 72).

The official border of the Egyptian-controlled state was established at the Fourth Cataract, and from year 31 of Thutmose III. tax and tribute flowed into the Egyptian treasury from Upper Nubia (Morkot, 2000: p. 73).

Fig. 3. Map of Nubia (from James et al. 1991: p. 204)


One of the last recorded Viceroys was Panehesy, who appeared at Thebes at the head of a Nubian army in year 8 of Ramesses XI. Earlier Egyptologists suggest that he was responsible for removing Amenhotep from the office of High Priest of Amun, but Morkot suggests that Panehesy was invited by Pharaoh to support the High Priest and restore order in Thebes, where the workmen from Deir el-Medina had withdrawn from their village and created a new village within the precinct of Ramesses III.’s temple at Medinet Habu. In any case Medinet Habu was captured by the Nubian troops, and Panehesy took control. He remained there at least until year 12, and possibly as late as year 17 of Ramesses XI. (Morkot, 2000: pp. 97-99).

From year 19 of Ramesses XI, in the period known as the Renaissance, Herihor assumed power at Thebes. He was General of Upper Egypt, High Priest of Amun and Viceroy of Nubia, and assumed royal titulary although he was ‘king’ only within the Karnak precinct – Panehesy still controlled Nubia. Herihor died in year 6 or 7 of the Renaissance and was succeeded in all his positions by Paiankh. Tribute was still arriving from Upper Nubia in year 4 of the Renaissance but in year 10 Paiankh led an army against Panehesy. Considerable correspondence from this period has been recovered from Medinet Habu, but the fate of Paiankh and Panehesy remains a mystery at the end of the New Kingdom (Morkot, 2000: pp. 100-4).

The collapse of the Egyptian domination of Nubia at this time left many temple-towns and settlements intact, although others were apparently abandoned (Török, 1994: p. 206).

There were no known Royal Cemeteries in Nubia at this time. The first is that at el-Kurru. Here, on the eastern bank of the River Nile, a cemetery was excavated by George Reisner in 1918-20 and published by Dows Dunham in 1950. Reisner’s previous work at the cemetery at Nuri had left him puzzled, as the only 25th Dynasty royal tomb there was that of Taharqa. Where were the others? He decided to cross the River Nile with his men, and investigate an unpromising looking site marked by a single ruined pyramid – el-Kurru. He did not expect to find his quarry there, but was more than pleasantly surprised (Reeves, 2000: p. 149).

The cemetery proved to have been at or after the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom and could be divided into two phases. The earlier, purely Kushite phase lasted for a century or more and saw the development of burials from modest gravel tumuli to rectangular stone mastabas – see below – all heavily plundered. The later phase comprised tombs with more complex burial chambers surmounted by pyramids. In these latter burial chambers were found canopic equipment and many hundreds of shabti-figures as well as much precious metalwork and jewellery (Reeves, 2000: p. 149).

Fig. 4 shows a plan of the el-Kurru cemetery.


Fig. 4. Map of the Royal Cemetery at el-Kurru (Török, 1997: fig. 3).


There are a number of different styles of tombs in this cemetery, and Fig. 5 shows the main ones.

Fig. 5. Evolution of tomb types at el-Kurru (James et al, 1991: p. 214).

The earliest tombs, of the simple tumulus type, were built on the highest ground, with Tumulus 1 at the summit. These tombs comprised a short shaft with the burial in a side-chamber at the bottom. The shaft was covered with a mound of earth, see fig. 6. The humble predecessors of Alara and Kashta for whom these tombs were constructed are not considered historically important even by specialists of the history of the Middle Nile (Török, 1994: p. 203).

Fig. 6. View of Tumulus 1 at el-Kurru (Photo. T. Kendall, URL:


Starting with Tumulus 6 the mound was contained within a wall, there was a walled entrance passage and the whole was surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped walled enclosure. Between the mastaba and the surrounding wall of Ku. Tumulus 6 hundreds of sherds of red-ware storage vessels were found, attesting the rite of “the breaking the red pots” known also in Egypt in this era (Török, 1994: p. 209). This rite is also attested in Ku. 19 (Török, 1994: p. 211).

The later tombs, starting with Ku. 10, were surmounted by a mastaba instead of a mound, and the enclosure was now rectangular.

Finally, starting with Ku. 17, the subterranean part of the tomb was enlarged and the mastaba converted to a pyramid with steep sides. The subterranean part now comprised a pillared chamber with the sarcophagus on a central plinth. This was covered by a barrel-vault and approached by a stairway from the east. The figure from James suggests that the pyramid was built upon a mastaba similar to that of the previous type.

According to Dows Dunham, the monumental pyramids Ku. 1 and Ku. 2 belonged to a 4th century BC king and his queen (Török, 1994: p. 208)

The photographs on this page show aerial views of part of the el-Kurru cemetery.

Fig. 7. Aerial view showing the largest pyramid (3), a horseshoe shaped enclosure (2) and a tomb approached by a stairway that has a modern roof for protection (1) (Soudan, 2001).

Fig. 8. Aerial view of the tomb marked (1) in fig. 7. The stairway is on the left (Soudan, 2001).




Fig. 7. Chronology of the el-Kurru necropolis according to Kendall, 1992.

The sequence of construction of these tombs is based on the grave goods recovered within them. The earlier tombs and goods were not inscribed so that we cannot name the owners of the tombs. Only when we reach the pyramid-topped tombs do we have securely named artefacts.

Kendall calculated a chronology for the early part of the cemetery as in Fig. 7 (Török, 1997: p. 90). He assumed that the local rulers and their wives had separate tombs, giving an average of two tombs per generation. This has two shortcomings: there is no evidence for any burials of local rulers between the end of the Egyptian domination and the 9th century B.C., and no explanation for the grave goods in the earliest tombs that are of a distinctively New Kingdom appearance.

Török prefers only one tomb per generation, see Fig. 8, which answers both of these shortcomings. In this reconstruction the cemetery at el-Kurru was founded at about the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom and continuity is provided.

Fig. 8. Chronology of the el-Kurru necropolis according to Török (1997: p. 92).


Fig. 9. Family tree of the 25th Dynasty (Dodson and Hilton, 2004: pp. 236-7).


We do have a fair idea of the family connections within the 25th Dynasty, shown in fig. 9. The kingship appears to have been passed from brother to brother as well as between generations. If this was also the case in earlier times then Reisner may have been right with his short chronology of the cemetery. The relationships between the 25th dynasty kings was made more difficult to assess because of a stela, Turin 1467, believed to be fake, donated to the Turin Museum from the Victor Emmanuel collection in 1868 (Morkot and Quirke, 2001: p. 351). It shows Neferkare Shabaqo and Djedkare Shebitqo, Shepenwepet Piye and Amenirdis. A complete examination of this paper is beyond the scope of this essay, and the authors do not clearly explain why the stela is deemed to be a fake.

In summary, there are a number of scenarios to consider. Reisner estimated the date when the cemetery was started in the early-mid 9th century B.C. based on an allocation of six to seven generations at 20 to 30 years per generation. He ignored the artefacts found in the tombs as dating criteria (Morkot, 2003). Kendall attributed many of the objects found in the early tombs as “heirloom” and stated “Evaluation of the evidence in light of contemporary Egyptian history may actually suggest that the cemetery was founded as late as 850-830 B.C.” (Kendall, 1999: p. 50). He re-dates the cemetery by associating it with the appointment of Crown Prince Osorkon as High Priest of Amun at Thebes (Kendall, 1999: p. 57). Török’s long chronology places the start of the cemetery in the late 11th century B.C., as mentioned above.

Orthodox chronology would fit with Török if the artefacts in the earliest tombs at el-Kurru were indeed late New Kingdom. The new chronologies of James and Rohl would similarly fit Reisner’s and Kendall’s dates, again with the cemetery being founded around the fall of the Egyptian Twentieth Dynasty. But a combination of Török’s dates and the new chronology, placing the foundation of the cemetery as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty is also intriguing, as such a link would fit the dating of faience and alabaster vessels found at el-Kurru (Morkot, 1994: 235).

“The chronology of the cemetery (both internal and absolute) cannot be resolved until the total material is adequately published” (Morkot, 1994: p. 235).


[1757 words]


Dodson, Aidan and Hilton, Dyan (2004) The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson.

James, Peter, et al. (1991) Centuries of Darkness. London: Jonathan Cape.

Kendall, Timothy (1992) “The Origin of the Napatan State: El-Kurru and the Evidence for the Royal Ancestors” in Seventh International Conference for Meroitic Studies, Berlin.

Kendall, Timothy (1999) “The Origin of the Napatan State: El Kurru and the evidence for the royal ancestors” in Studien zum antiken Sudan (= Meroitica 15), pp. 3-117, Berlin.

Morkot, Robert G. (1994) “The Foundation of the Kushite State” in Actes de la VIIIe Conférence Internationale des Études Nubiennes, pp. 203-228, Lille.

Morkot, Robert G. (2000) The Black Pharaohs. London: The Rubicon Press.

Morkot, Robert and Quirke, Stephen (2001) “Inventing the 25th Dynasty: Turin stela 1467 and the construction of history” in Begegnungen – Begegnungen. Antike Kulturen im Niltal. Festgabe für Erika Endesfelder, Karl-Heinz Priese, Walter Friedrich Reineke, Steffen Wenig, pp. 349-63, Leipzig.

Morkot, R., (2003) "On the Priestly Origin of the Napatan Kings: The Adaptation, Demise and Resurrection of Ideas in Writing Nubian History", in D. Connor (ed.), Ancient Egypt in Africa (London: UCL Press - Encounters with Ancient Egypt series), pp. 151-168.

Reeves, Nicholas (2000) Ancient Egypt, The Great Discoveries. London: Thames and Hudson.

Soudan (2001) El Kurru et Dangeil.[Online] available: [19 Jun 2006]

Török, László (1994) “The emergence of the Kingdom of Kush and her myth of the state in the first millennium BC” in Actes de la VIIIe Conférence Internationale des Études Nubiennes, pp. 203-228, Lille.

Török, László (1997) The Kingdom of Kush. Leiden: Brill.