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The following is taken from a pamphlet, price 10p, available from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The Shrine of Taharqa

Taharqa was the third of the line of Kushite kings whose power extended from their native Nubia to the whole of Egypt, which they ruled as the Pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty (712-657 BC). Their hold on Egypt came to an end in the time of his successor, Tanwetamani, during which the Assyrians briefly occupied Thebes, the southern capital of Egypt.

The reign of Taharqa was beset with difficulties as he strove to maintain control in the north, threatened by the fitful loyalty of local princes and the growing power of the Assyrians, who twice drove him from his capital, Memphis. Yet he was the greatest builder of the 25th Dynasty, adding to the monuments of Thebes and honouring Amon-Re, foremost god of the Kushites, in his homeland with temples at Gebel Barkal and Kawa (Gematen). Within the Kawa temple stood the small self-contained shrine which is now in the Ashmolean Museum.

SOUTH WALL, doorway: Taharqa is embraced by the gods Harakhe (left) and Atum (right).

Taharqa's was the larger of two temples of Amon-Re discovered at Kawa, the first having been built by Tutankhamun (1333-1319 B.C.). Some time before his reign, the site had acquired the name of Gem(pa)aten, "The Area is Found", referring to the sun disk, the Aten, briefly worshipped as the sole god during the reign of Akhenaten. The remote Nubian site did not lose this "heretical" element of its name and the manifestation of the creator-sun god worshipped there was known as Amon-Re of Gematen. His sacred animal was the ram, with whose head he is often shown.

The story of the building of Taharqa's temple is told in its inscriptions: passing through Gematen on his way north to Thebes, the young Taharqa saw the ruinous state of the old brick temple and how "the sand drift had reached its roof". At his coronation he vowed to renew the building in grander and more lasting form. Craftsmen and an architect were sent from Memphis, 1,000 miles north, to carry out the work, which began in the sixth year of his reign (684 BC.): in the tenth the god was installed in his new home.

NORTH WALL: The god Ptah-Nun-Wer embraces Taharqa.

The shrine itself seems to have been an afterthought, inserted between four columns of the hypostyle hall before the building was complete (see Plan) Its relation to the temple has been aptly compared to that of a chantry chapel to a western cathedral. An inscription running in duplicate to left and right from the ankh sign over the doorway gives Taharqa's royal titles and states that "His father Amon-Re... chose him from amongst a million men, as one whose desire to build a temple and to repair chapels he recognized, the recompense for these things that he did for him being the granting to him of all life, stability, and welfare and the appearance upon the Throne of Horus, like Re, for ever".

The Shrine, which is 4.0 metres square, is made of blocks of light-coloured sandstone carved in raised relief and originally painted: traces of red can still be seen on some of the figures, especially on the west wall. The Egyptian craftsmen worked in an archaic style modelled on the sculpture of the Old Kingdom, in line with the conservative tendencies of the 25th Dynasty, whose rulers favoured orthodoxy and tradition, nonetheless the distinctive features of the Kushite physiognomy are faithfully rendered.

Only the decorated blocks were brought to Oxford: the roof, the interior (which had been painted successively blue, red and finally white), the roughly-dressed stone in the column bays and the lowest exterior course were removed. The stone was in poor condition and much plaster patching which had originally been applied was lost, many repairs had to be made when the Shrine was reconstructed in Oxford. In addition to the friability of the sandstone, the blocks show traces of fire damage, incurred when the temple was sacked and burnt in the 3rd century A.D.

NORTH WALL: The king stands before Sekhmet and Nefertem-Harakhte, the other two divinities of the Memphite Triad: "life", "stability" and "power" extend symbolically towards him from the god's sceptre.

The decoration is organised according to a carefully balanced scheme which emphasises Taharqa's status, as King of Egypt, by showing his piety towards the great gods of the major theological centres; they in turn accept him and favour him with "all life and power". He is shown with the creator gods of Heliopolis (south wall) and Memphis (north wall); with Amon-Re of Thebes (east wall) and Amon-Re of Gematen (west wall).


EAST WALL: Taharqa and the gods of Thebes. He offers "a white loaf to his father" Amon-Re, accompanied by Mut, Khons and Montu.

In the presence of the Theban god, Taharqa is dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh wearing the Double Crown but in the other scene he wears some of the distinctive accoutrements of the Kushite kings: the ram's head with sun disc, symbolic of Amon-Re, worn as earrings or an amulet on a cord around the neck; and the Kushite crown, a kind of cap surmounted by two cobras whose bodies snake across the top of the head to the back, where streamers hang down from the encircling diadem.


WEST WALL: Taharqa and the gods of Gematen. He offers a loaf, necklace, pectoral and figure of Maat (symbolic of cosmic order) to Amon-Re, behind whose throne stand Anukis Nethy, Satis and Anukis Ba, The double manifestation of Anukis probably reflects two local goddesses, but it also makes possible a composition which balances with the Theban group on the east wall.

At the end of the south wall, the two goddesses who protect the Egyptian ruler offer "power" and "universal dominion" to Taharqa's royal names: the cobra Wadjet faces his Horus name, Qa-khaw, and the vulture Nekhbet his name as King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Taharqa,

A second shrine was created beside Taharqa's about a century later when a succeeding king, Aspelta (c. 593568 B.C.), blocked off the remaining space no the north-eastern corner of the hall by building a wall with a doorway next to the Shrine (see Plan). This, too, was brought to Oxford and reassembled beside the Shrine: it is built of red sandstone blocks carved in raised relief on the west (outer) face and sunk relief on the east face (originally the interior).

On the west face, Aspelta offers a figure of Maat to Amon-Re, who holds a curving sword topped with a ram's head; behind him stands the goddess Anukis. The inscription above the god's head promises "...my beloved son Aspelta, I grant you strength on the day of battle, I unite the Two Lands in peace for you...". On the east face Aspelta stands before Amon-Re and Mut and receives symbolic life,stability a and power a from die god's sceptreOnce again the scenes balance Amon-Re of Thebes and Gematen, but Aspelta, though styled "King of Upper and Lower Egypt", ruled over Nubia only

Standing in front of the Shrine is one of the granite rams which were placed in pairs before the temple entrances each guarding a small figure of Taharqa; this one came from the entrance to the Hypostyle Hall in which the Shrine stood see Plan), and was presented to the Museum by Professor and Mrs. F.Ll. Griffith in 1931.

Plan of Taharqa's temple at Kawa, showing the original location of the Shrine (A), the wall of Aspelta (B) and the ram (C).

The site of Kawa was excavated from 1930 on by successive expeditions of the Oxford University Excavations in Nubia, directed and largely financed by Professor Griffith; after his death in 1934, the work was completed under the supervision of Sir Lawrence Kirwan. Freed from the protecting sand, the relief sculpture on the walls of Taharqa's temple would quickly have suffered erosion in situ, and the best blocks were removed to the National Museum in Khartoum. In recognition of its work, the Sudan Government generously ceded to the Oxford Expedition the Shrine of Taharqa and the adjacent wall built by Aspelta. Mrs Griffith presented them to the Ashmolean Museum in 1936 in memory of Professor Griffith, and the gallery which houses them bears his name. A concrete platform two metres deep was sunk into the subsoil as a base for the Shrine, and after the blocks had been cleaned and conserved, it was skilfully reconstructed by a stonemason. Most recently, the west wall of the Shrine, where the surface of the stone was particularly friable, has been conserved with the aid of a grant from American Express.

Further reading

M. F. Laming Macadam, The Temples of Kawa, I & II (London, 1949 & 1955)
The reconstruction of the Shrine in the Ashmolean was described by E.T. Leeds in The Museums Journal 41 (1942), 228-30.

The lighting in the gallery was poor, making photography without flash difficult. The following photographs, taken at F2 and 1/8 sec. hand-held have had the brightness and contrast enhanced using PhotoShop so the colours are unlikely to be true.
Detail from left end of north wall: Taharqa receiving life, stability and power.

From a digital photograph by Brian Yare.

Detail from left end of east wall: Taharqa offering a white loaf to his father, Amon-Re.

From a digital photograph by Brian Yare.


British Museum account of the excavations in the Sudan at Kawa

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last updated 19th February 2002