The Cult of Amun

Features May/June 2015

In the epic rivalry between ancient Egypt and Nubia, one god had enduring appeal
(Courtesy Y. Guichard © The Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project)

In its 3,000-year history as a state, ancient Egypt had a complicated, constantly changing set of relations with neighboring powers. With the Libyans to the west and the Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Persians to the northeast, Egypt by turns waged war, forged treaties, and engaged in mutually beneficial trade. But Egypt’s most important and enduring relationship was, arguably, with its neighbor to the south, Nubia, which occupied a region that is now in Sudan. The two cultures were connected by the Nile River, whose annual flooding made civilization possible in an otherwise harsh desert environment. Through their shared history, Egyptians and Nubians also came to worship the same chief god, Amun, who was closely allied with kingship and played an important role as the two civilizations vied for supremacy.

During its Middle and New Kingdoms, which spanned the second millennium B.C., Egypt pushed its way into Nubia, ultimately conquering and making it a colonial province. The Egyptians were drawn by the land’s rich store of natural resources, including ebony, ivory, animal skins, and, most importantly, gold. As they expanded their control of Nubia, the Egyptians built a number of temples to Amun, the largest of which stood at the foot of a holy mountain called Jebel Barkal. This the Egyptians declared to be the god’s southern home, thereby conceptualizing Egypt and Nubia as a unified whole and justifying their rule of both. After Egypt’s New Kingdom collapsed around 1069 B.C., the kingdom of Kush rose in Nubia, with its court based in Napata, the town adjacent to Jebel Barkal. The Egyptian colonizers may have been gone, but their religious legacy lived on, as the Kushite rulers were by this time fervently devoted to Amun. Just as the Egyptians had used the god to validate their conquest of Nubia, the Kushites now returned the favor. During a period of discord in Egypt, the Kushite king Piye first secured Amun’s northern home, in Karnak, Egypt. Then, claiming to act on the god’s behalf to restore unified control of Nubia and Egypt, he conquered the rest of Egypt and, in 728 B.C., became the first in a line of Kushite pharaohs who ruled Egypt for around 70 years.

The cult of Amun remained central to religion—and politics—in Nubia for centuries to come. This has been illustrated by the findings of an excavation in Dangeil, a royal Kushite town on the banks of the Nile south of Napata. The excavation, which has been carried out since 2000 with support from Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the British Museum, and the Nubian Archaeological Development Organization (Qatar-Sudan), has turned up evidence of what may have been a series of temples to Amun that stood on the same location for around a thousand years in all—from the period when Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt to the first few centuries A.D., when Kushite civilization entered a new golden age and Egypt served as a Roman colony.

At Dangeil, archaeologists have found fragments of statues of at least three Kushite kings who ruled during the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., along with evidence of a monumental structure they believe might have been a temple to Amun dating to the same period. The earliest of these kings is Taharqo, one of the Kushite pharaohs, who ruled Nubia and Egypt from 690 to 664 B.C. Intact, Taharqo’s statue would have stood almost nine feet tall. Inscribed on a belt on one of the statue’s recovered fragments are Egyptian hieroglyphs that read: “The perfect god Taharqo, beloved of Amun-Re.” Indeed, Kushite kings during this period were considered sons of Amun, and it was believed the god would select new kings through his priests. Coronation took place at the temple at Jebel Barkal, after which the new king would visit other temples to Amun and then build new ones and renovate old ones—all steps taken to establish the king’s connection to the god and affirm his right to rule. The territories covered could be vast.

Taharqo was a particularly ambitious leader in this regard who presided over a kingdom that extended as far north as Palestine. He renovated and built temples throughout Egypt and Nubia, perhaps even the possible temple to Amun in Dangeil. Dangeil is the farthest south a colossal statue of Taharqo has been discovered, suggesting that it may well mark the southern extent of his kingdom. Over time, Kushite control extended even farther south, and, by the third century B.C., the capital is thought to have moved from Napata to Meroe, south of Dangeil.

“We don’t know exactly when the south began to have greater influence, but it looks as if it starts to happen during the seventh century B.C.,” says Julie Anderson of the British Museum, a codirector of the dig at Dangeil. “With the statues in Dangeil and the presence of this early building, it looks as if the royalty at Napata have direct control over that area during this period.”

Kushite rule over Egypt reached its height under Taharqo, but his reign ended in defeat, with Egypt largely lost to Assyrian invaders. Ultimately, the Nubian expulsion from Egypt was completed under Taharqo’s successor, Tanutamun (r. ca. 664–657 B.C.). The other Kushite kings whose statues were found at Dangeil are Senkamanisken (r. ca. 643–623 B.C.) and probably Aspelta (r. ca. 593–568 B.C.). Hieroglyphs on the back of the Senkamanisken statue identify him as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” suggesting that despite having been kicked out of the country decades earlier, the Kushites still saw themselves as the rightful rulers of Egypt. However, any designs they might have had on reconquering Egypt were snuffed out around the beginning of Aspelta’s reign. In 593 B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtek II invaded and defeated Nubia.

The statues of the kings found at Dangeil were intentionally broken at the neck, knees, and ankles, but were not defaced. Caches of statues of the same kings, and a few others, all broken in a similar manner, have also been found at Jebel Barkal and another location in Nubia. The most likely explanations for the statues’ ritual breakage, according to archaeologists, are that they were destroyed during Psamtek II’s invasion, or later, during infighting among competing Kushite dynasties. At least in the case of Dangeil, Anderson favors the latter explanation, noting that it is unlikely that Psamtek II made it that far south and, if he did, it’s unlikely that the statues would have been broken but not defaced. “It’s more like a polite decommissioning rather than a pillaging and a looting,” she says. Janice Yellin, a professor of art history at Babson College who specializes in ancient Nubia, agrees: “If it’s some kind of ritual destruction of the enemy, it seems you would smash the faces and smash out the names, and that doesn’t happen here.”

On the same site in Dangeil where they believe a temple to Amun may have stood starting around the seventh century B.C., the archaeologists have found far more extensive evidence of a temple to Amun dating to the first century A.D. It has the same directional orientation as the earlier building and used some of its walls as foundations. According to Anderson, this suggests that the earlier building was probably still functioning when it was replaced. This later temple was likely built during the reign of Queen Amanitore and her co-regent Natakamani, a period of peace and prosperity remembered as a golden age of Kushite civilization. A war with the Romans, who had by this time colonized Egypt, had come to an end around 20 B.C. with a nonaggression pact and resumption of trade. Following the pattern of leaders such as Taharqo, the co-regents pursued an ambitious campaign of building, renovating, and expanding temples throughout Nubia.

The remains of the temple complex the co-regents are associated with in Dangeil suggest that it must have been stunning. A monumental gate facing the Nile measured roughly 100 feet across. Inside, a processional way was lined with sandstone sculptures of kneeling rams, which were strongly associated with Amun in Nubia. There, the god was portrayed with a ram’s head, having been amalgamated with indigenous ram-headed gods when he was imported from Egypt, where he was generally portrayed with a human head. Along the processional way was a kiosk where Amun—in the form of the temple’s ram-headed cult statue carried by priests in a sacred barque—would rest on trips out of the temple sanctuary during festivals. These festivals featured large crowds and allowed common people, who were barred from the temple sanctuary, to revel in the presence of the god. “These were big holidays,” says Yellin. “There was probably feasting, and certainly drinking—it was a good time.”

In the sanctuary itself, a series of columns that the archaeologists found partially standing were decorated with plump river gods designed to ensure plentiful flooding, with plants and flowers growing from their heads. “In a season when the Nile didn’t flood, people would starve,” says Anderson. “The Nile is everything, and the inundation is everything, and that’s what makes the fertility figures so important.” Amun, too, was associated with fertility in Nubia. Also inside the sanctuary were several altars, including a finely carved one made from pink sandstone. Fragments of this altar discovered by the archaeologists were inscribed with cartouches containing Queen Amanitore’s name, which suggests that the temple was built or modified during her reign in the first century A.D. Cartouches with her name have also been found on fragments of the ram statues, and carbon dating of the temple’s wooden beams also points to construction during the first century A.D.

Pigment found on the temple and kiosk indicates that they were painted blue, red, and yellow, colors that would have stood out vividly against the austere desert backdrop. “Most temples in the past would have been painted or colored in some way,” says Anderson. “But we have been fortunate, because of the conditions, to have some of the pigments preserved. Because we’ve actually found them on pieces of plaster, we’ve been able to reconstruct to a certain degree what, for example, the kiosk looked like—and, boy, was it a brightly colored building.” The complex’s coloring would have made it all the more impressive. “The statement the temple would have made about the state religion would have been fabulous,” says Yellin, “especially if you went for one of these festivals with the procession and all the pomp.”

In a rubbish dump behind the temple, archaeologists have found evidence that the complex drew worshippers in large numbers. In just a small trench, they have found more than a million fragments of cone-shaped ceramic molds used to make offerings to Amun. Based on a count of mold bases, at least 77,000 such offerings are in evidence. “Ordinary people really worshipped there,” says Yellin. “The cult of Amun was culturally and religiously meaningful to them. Dangeil’s temple was more than just a structure that a ruler built there for political reasons.”

Despite its once formidable appearance and popularity among the public, the first-century A.D. temple to Amun was eventually destroyed in a large fire that was preceded by looting and smashing of the altars. “The looters dug a hole through the sanctuary floor—perhaps they were looking for gold or treasure,” says Anderson. “The ram statues are also smashed into tiny little pieces, so it looks as if a group of people came, looted the temple, smashed stuff up, and then may have set it on fire.”

Archaeologists have found no evidence of the date of the fire, though it most likely took place near the end of the Meroitic Kushite kingdom, which fell in the fourth century A.D. Anderson says that the temple appears to have been neglected and ultimately abandoned before the fire. “This might suggest a decline or weakening of centralized authority at Meroe and of the priesthood,” she says. Anderson is skeptical, however, that the destruction of the temple indicates a growing disregard for Amun. Evidence suggests that the god continued to be worshipped in Nubia for several centuries after the fall of the Meroitic kingdom—that is, until the Byzantines introduced Christianity in the sixth century A.D.

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    (Courtesy Y. Guichard © The Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project)