Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Gebel Barkal in Nubia - Home of the Hidden God Amun

So who was the god  Egyptian god Amun? Amun was one of a triad of gods of Thebes that also included his consort, the goddess Mut and their son the moon god Khonsu.  The name Amun is usually translated as ‘the hidden one’ or ‘the secret one’, and it is believed that he created himself and then created the world and everything in it, while remaining separate and distanced from his creation.  Amun had been depicted in the lexicon of gods of Ancient Egypt as far back as the Old Kingdom, but his cult expanded dramatically with the emergence of the New Kingdom.  This was mainly due to the fact that Amun was the local patron deity of Thebes, the city that the rulers of the eighteenth dynasty chose to have as their capital.  Amun was often depicted in human form, seated with two, straight plumes rising from his crown.  He is also associated with the ram, a symbol of fertility, a snake and the goose.

Gebel Barkal in the Sudan

Amun was viewed as the creator and protector of pharaoh, and the king’s wife would often be given the title ‘God’s Wife of Amun’, a title that brought with it a lot of political power and prestige. His consort Mut was a goddess associated with the sun and in early times was depicted as a vulture and later in human form, sometimes wearing a double crown and sometimes with the head of a lioness.  The name Mut means mother and she was a divine mother and a sky goddess.  She was initially linked to Amun because he was a creator god and was a ‘mother’ goddess. She was symbolised by the cobra, a lioness or the royal crowns.  The main festival for the god Amun was the Opet festival where the statue of the god travelled from the temple of Karnak to Luxor Temple in a barge down the Nile to celebrate his divine marriage to his consort Mut.

Barkal is an Arabic word that can mean either ‘holy’ or ‘pure’. It is a small mountain in the Sudan near Karima that is situated approximately 400km north of Khartoum.  Gebel Barkal is 98m high and has a flat top that was used as a landmark to pinpoint the easiest place to cross the river Nile by traders on the ancient trade route between Egypt, Arabia and central Africa.  The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Amun lived inside the mountain, hidden from the view of people.  In addition, the pinnacle jutting from the side of the mountain was seen by the ancients as a phallic symbol and a potent sign of Amun’s creative power.  From the west the pinnacle can look like the uraeus or royal cobra that was found on the brow of the crowns of Egyptian kings, and from the east it resembles the divine serpent with the sun disc on its head.  It is believed by some that the mountain itself was actually shaped into the form of a statue, and that the image of Amun himself was carved into the mountain facing a rearing cobra.  Or that it was regarded as the primeval hill, from which all creation sprang.

In Ancient Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty, around the year 1450BC Pharaoh Thutmosis III took his armies and extended the Egyptian Empire deep into the heart of the Sudan, then known as Nubia or Kush.  Thutmosis III founded the city of Napata, close to Gebel Barkal which around 300 years later was to become the capital of ancient Kush or Nubia. Both the ancient Egyptian’s and the Kushites believed that the mountain was the home of Amun.  Gebel Barkal became the focus of their religion for the ancient Kushites and they came to believe that it was the birthplace of every one of their gods, and that it was even the place where the world itself was created.

The ancient remains around Gebel Barkal were first explored by Europeans in the 1820s.  However, excavations of the thirteen temples and three palaces from the pharaonic period were only started in 1916 by George Reisner who led a joint expedition from Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Very unusually Reisner used to excavate all year round; in the winter he excavated in the Sudan and in the summer be went back up north to Egypt. Generally, most excavations in Egypt shut down in the summer due to the extreme heat.  Reisner managed to clear nine buildings at the site and to each he assigned them a 100-number prefaced with the letter B for Barkal.

The 1970s saw fresh excavations from an expedition led by Sergio Donadoni and a team from the University of Rome La Sapienza.  In the 1980s they were joined by another team from the Boston Museum under the direction of Timothy Kendall.  Gebel Barkal along with the site of the ancient city of Napata and some other sites in that area of Nubia were identified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2003.  Even today some of the larger temples and remains at Gebel Barkal, such as the Temple of Amun, are regarded as sacred by the local people.

The Temple of Amun (Temple B500) was started by Thutmosis III in the eighteenth dynasty and extended by Ramses II, known as the ‘Great’ in the nineteenth dynasty.  The temple was extended again by a Kushite king called Piy in the 8th century BC.  In later times there was thought to be an oracle of Amun in the temple, and that Amun would speak directly to the priests and Kushite kings, giving them advice and glimpses of future events.  Temple B500 was dedicated to the southern aspect of Amun, and another temple was constructed, B800, that represented his northern aspects.  This mirrors the position at Thebes, where Karnak Temple is dedicated to the northern aspect of Amun and Luxor Temple to the southern aspect.
The Temple of Mut (Temple B300) was constructed by the Pharaoh Taharqa around 680BC and partly built into the base of the cliff.  Hathor and Bes are also depicted in the temple.  Both these gods can be connected to the ‘Eye of Re’ myth and it is conjectured that images were carved to soothe the anger of the goddess in the story, as Bes is a god of dance and the sistra that Hathor is shaking makes a rhythmic sound.  The goddesses depicted also have an important role in the myths of the divine origin of the pharaoh.

There is a lot more excavation to be done at Gebel Barkal and a lot more information to be uncovered from the sand about the history of the site and the role of the cult of Amun.  Although not as well known as the ancient sites of Egypt itself, the Sudan has a rich and varied archaeological history, and strangely enough has more pyramids than Egypt does!

Image LassiHU Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic

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