The Empire of Kerma

Top: Monumental stone decoration with sacred hippopotami from the entrance to a funerary temple at Kerma, 1600 B.C. Naturally mummified body of one of the archers whose job it was to protect Kerma 4,200 years ago. Above, clockwise from left: Excavated area showing post holes left by numerous huts built over several centuries some four millennia ago. In the background are the eroded remnants of ancient Kerma’s main temple built of mud brick around 2000 B.C. Six pots from Kerma 2000 B.C. Bucranias in front of a Kerma grave. Storage pits for wheat and barley from the very beginning of Kerma civilisation 3000 B.C. 
Archaeologists in Sudan are unearthing one of the world’s oldest civilisations – an ancient kingdom which began to fourish 5,000 years ago, hundreds of miles to the south of ancient Egypt. 
Excavations – directed by Swiss archaeologists, Professor Charles Bonnet and Dr. Matthieu Honegger – have been revealing a royal palace, temples, extraordinary tombs and a massive ancient city on the banks of the Nile in Northern Sudan. Academics have been speculating over whether this long-lost civilisation may have been the precursor of the famous biblical Kingdom of Kush, which was alluded to in the Book of Genesis.

As a direct result of these and other excavations, Sudan is emerging as one of the most significant archaeological regions in the world. Due to the country’s superbly preserved archaeology, it has yielded evidence of early cattle domestication that pre-dates any in Egypt’s Nile Valley. What’s more, the earliest Sudanese civilisation – known as Ta-Sety (“the Land of the Archers’ Bow”) to the ancient Egyptians and Kerma to modern archaeologists – is the most ancient African urban culture outside the Land of the Pharaohs. It flourished as a totally independent political entity for at least 15 centuries – until finally, around 1500 B.C., it was conquered by the Pharaohs of Egypt.
This ancient Sudanese civilisation appears to have been ruled by a series of extraordinarily powerful kings – perhaps even emperors. Several of the royal tombs were spectacular man-made hills, 30 metres wide and up to 15 metres high. To underline their power in this life (and the next), the rulers of Kerma seem to have had the unsettling habit of taking all their retainers and many of their relatives with them to the afterlife! One tomb held 400 skeletons. Even before these kings began taking human escorts with them to eternity, their funerals had still been massive ritual events in which their imperial power over vast areas of territory was symbolically demonstrated. Indeed, excavations and subsequent scientific investigations over the last few years have revealed that some of the kings had themselves buried alongside the remains of literally thousands of cattle. In front of one royal grave, the king’s retainers had sacrificed 4,500 of the animals – arranging their skulls in a huge, horn-shaped crescent in front of the tomb. But of greatest significance was the chemical analysis of the horns, which revealed that the cattle had been reared in different environments and been brought to the funeral from the length and breadth of the kingdom.
What’s clear is that Kerma’s civilisation emerged out of an ancient pastoral culture that had flourished in that part of Sudan since at least 7000 B.C. when the first settlements were established. Nearby Kerma archaeologists have discovered one of the two oldest cemeteries ever found in Africa – dating back to 7500 B.C. – and the oldest evidence of cattle domestication ever found in Sudan or, indeed, in the Egyptian Nile Valley. Around 3000 BC a town grew up not far from the Neolithic dwellings place. 

The economic basis of both of the pre-urban and urban cultures of ancient Kerma was cattle. The people themselves seem to have come from two distinct areas and may originally have belonged to two tribal groups. Excavations last winter revealed how, for the first 100 years of Kerma’s existence, these two peoples continued to preserve their distinct cultural traditions while living in the same city. Although the distinctions may have been tribal in origin, they also reflected differences in wealth and possibly social status. Kerma was an extraordinarily prosperous empire. It was an advanced Black African state which established itself very successfully as a middle-man between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt. It therefore supplied ancient Egypt with 
everything from tropical animals and slaves to gold and precious hardwoods. Archaeologists have been unearthing truly wonderful works of art in Kerma – everything from model hippopotami, lions, giraffes, falcons, vultures, scorpions and crocodiles made of faience, mica, ivory and quartz to bracelets, ear decorations and necklaces made of gold, shell and faience. Kerma ceramics are among the most elegant from the ancient world – strikingly modern-looking with simple shapes and bold geometric designs. The kingdom’s capital was defended by substantial city walls. 

At least two miles of ramparts and dozens of bastions protected it from attack. Yet by around 1500 B.C., the defences failed and Kerma was conquered and occupied by the Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Tuthmosis I, one of the most militarily aggressive rulers the world had ever seen. 

Bronze Age Sudan’s fight to protect its independence and its resistance against Egyptian occupation was one of the longest military struggles of the ancient world, lasting some 220 years (roughly 1550-1330 B.C.). Indeed, in a sense, this ancient conflict had started even earlier. For, in around 1900 B.C., when Kerma was already a major kingdom, the Egyptian Pharaoh Senusret II(literally “Man of the Goddess of Thebes”) officially established the southern border of Egypt “in order to prevent” any people from Kerma “crossing the frontier, by water or by land unless for trading or other approved purposes”. Not content with simply maintaining a heavily policed border, the Pharaoh’s son and successor, Senusret III, started to attack Kerma. In order to facilitate troop movements, the Egyptians built a canal around the Nile’s first great series of rapids (the First Cataract) near Aswan. Then the Pharaoh launched a series of invasions and boasted of his exploits in the Kingdom of Kerma. “I carried off their women. I carried off their men-folk. I captured their wells, killed their bulls and reaped or burned their crops,” he wrote. 

But Senusret failed to permanently subdue Kerma and the Kingdom survived for another 300 years, growing ever more powerful. Indeed, by the mid-17th Century B.C., it was ruling over southern Egypt as far north as Elephantine Island near Aswan. But after Egypt was re-united in around 1550 B.C., the Pharaohs began to re-launch their long-suspended campaign to conquer Kerma. A region, often known in history as Nubia, the Kingdom of Kerma managed to withstand raids by the first two rulers of this powerful and aggressive re-united new Egypt, but, a few decades later, a military strongman, Tuthmosis I, came to power and almost immediately invaded and conquered it. These ancient Egyptian Pharaohs had a somewhat condescending and ferociously hostile attitude to their Sudanese southern neighbour. One of Tuthmosis’ generals described how, “that wretched Nubian troglodyte” – the enemy leader (almost certainly the last independent king of Kerma) – was brought north “hung, head downwards, from the prow of the Pharaoh’s royal barge”. Tuthmosis (his name means “Born of the Moon God”) was an empire-builder of the first order and the Kingdom of Kerma was one of his first targets. 

He was also not given to false modesty, writing, “I extended the frontiers of Egypt as far as that which the sun encircles.

I put Egypt above every other land.” Tuthmosis I and his immediate successors then set about building great temples to Egyptian gods (temples now being excavated in Kerma) in the newly conquered Sudanese territory. Kerma was annexed and became an Egyptian colony – “The Land governed by the Pharaoh’s Son”.

Pendant made of polished shell, 2300 B.C.

Ancient Egypt’s rulers had wanted control over Kerma for economic – as well as purely political – reasons. For Kerma had, for centuries, controlled the flow of gold, ivory, ebony and slaves into Egypt. For its survival, Egypt depended on wealth, but much of that wealth came from outside its borders and its supply had, in effect, been partially controlled by the independent non-Egyptian empire of Kerma. But although under military occupation from
the time of Tuthmosis I, Kerma’s spirit of independence was not dead. Indeed, for the next two centuries, Sudanese resistance leaders led revolt after revolt against their new Pharaonic overlords. A particularly major uprising was suppressed in 1450 B.C. Seven Sudanese princes captured by the Egyptians were executed personally by the Pharaoh Amenhotep II (with a rather large royal mace!) as a sacrifice to the Egyptian God Amon. The Pharaoh (whose name translates, somewhat appropriately, as ‘Amon is delighted’) then dispatched six of the unfortunate princes to be hung from the walls of the Temple of Amon in Thebes and one to be similarly suspended from the walls of a Sudanese city, “so that the victorious power of His Majesty could be seen (by the people of Kerma) for ever and ever”.
Part of ancient Kerma
Tragically, Black Africa’s oldest civilisation was extinguished by the Pharaohs of Egypt – but now modern archaeology is revealing to the world the long-lost glory of Bronze Age Sudan’s ancient empire of Kerma. 
Aerial view of the city of Kerma with its temple precinct

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