A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A tour of ancient Nubia where clusters of steep, topless "tombstones" punctuate a remote desert landscape
Last year, I drove twice across 600 miles of Sudanese desert to study the world's most exotic and elegant pyramids at the ancient Nubian site of Meroe. The desert is different from any I had ever seen before--beautiful dunes, vast areas with scrub vegetation like the American Southwest, and flat, hard sand for hundreds of miles in all directions. The Sudan has double the pyramids of its neighbor, Egypt, but because they are so remote, even the kings who built them and their function were uncertain until American George Reisner's excavations beginning in 1916.
Nubia is a relatively modern name, introduced a mere 2,000 years ago by the Greek geographer Strabo, who met members of the Noba tribe and decided to call their country Nubia. For millennia before Strabo's visit, the Egyptians called it Ta-Seti, Land of the Bow, because of its famous archers. It is Kush in the Old Testament, and the only pyramid builder mentioned in the Bible is the Nubian king Taharqa (r. 690-664 B.C.). It may have been Taharqa's predecessor, Piye (r. 747-716 B.C.), who revived the building of pyramids for royal burials, an Egyptian tradition that had been extinct for more than eight centuries.
To understand this pyramid-building revival, you need to understand Nubia and Egypt's complex love-hate relationship. For more than a millennium, Egypt dominated the Nubians, who are shown in tomb paintings bringing tribute--exotic animals, pelts, and rings of solid gold--to the pharaohs. Depicted as different from the Egyptians, with darker skin and curlier hair, they were a people apart, to be conquered, ruled, and used. At the same time, many Nubians worked as free laborers in Egypt, formed a hired police force, and served in the army. One Nubian general, Mahepri, was even buried in the Valley of the Kings. If he were willing to live like an Egyptian, a Nubian could have the benefits of an Egyptian. Still, it was always clear who was in control. Eventually, the roles reversed as Egypt declined in power and Nubia grew more and more independent. Free of Egyptian control, Nubians nonetheless regarded Egypt as their patrimony, worshiped its main deity Amun, and made offerings to other Egyptian gods. When Egypt was at its weakest, Piye marched north and conquered it ca. 722 B.C., founding the 25th Dynasty. He and his successors did not, however, see themselves as outsiders; they called themselves pharaoh and intended to restore Egypt to its former greatness. When Piye died, he was buried in his homeland, Nubia, but most scholars believe that above his sepulchre there was an Egyptian-inspired pyramid.
Bob Brier is an Egyptologist at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.