Known and Unknown Kings of Ethiopia

Excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Nuri, 1916-1918 from the Report of Dr. George A. Reisner, Director of the Harvard University – Museum of Fine Arts Egyptian Expedition. 

Ethiopia the Land of gods and marvels

In the writings of the Greeks and the Romans, Ethiopia was a region of the gods, of marvelous books, peoples, and of incredible customs. Long accounts of this mysterious country were gathered from various sources and recorded by Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Pliny. Most of these tales related to the second, the Meroitic Kingdom of Ethiopia, and being current in Rome in the first century A.D., moved Emperor Nero to send an exploring party of Roman soldiers to Meroe, the capital, and to the lands southward of Meroe. But even before the time of Herodotus Ethiopia had its place in the imagination of the ancients. It is mentioned in the Iliad as a land of the gods and its people are included among the descendants of Ham in the list of races given in Genesis.

A hundred years ago the Englishmen, Hanbury and Waddington, and the Frenchman, Cailliaud, following in the wake of the army of Mohammed  Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, journeyed into Sudan to seek the long-lost Island of Meroe.

A hundred years ago the Englishmen, Hanbury and Waddington, and the Frenchman, Cailliaud, following in the wake of the army of Mohammed  Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, journeyed into Sudan to seek the long-lost Island of Meroe. Cailliaud alone was successful. To his delight, he found not only Meroe, but the older capital, Napata, and many other sites with pyramids, temples, and the ruins of cities. However fantastic the tales which the classical writers had handed down, Ethiopia was a land in which a great kingdom and a peculiar civilization had once flourished. Since that time the decipherment of hieroglyphic and cuneiform inscriptions of Egypt and Assyria and the scientific excavation of a number of the ancient sites of Ethiopia have given us a more intimate knowledge of the people and the history Of this remote country. But previous to 1916 there were still two periods lost in obscurity, The earlier of these still remains a blank, – that is, the time between Herihor, the last known Egyptian viceroy of Ethiopia (1090 B.C.), and Piankhy the Great, the king of Ethiopia who conquered Egypt in 721 B.C.

The history of the second period, however, has now been recovered in its main outlines by the excavation of the pyramids, at Nuri. This second, hitherto obscure, the period extends from the expulsion of Tanutaman, the of the nephew of Piankhy, from Egypt by the Assyrians in 661 B.C. to the reign of Ergamenes, King of Ethiopia and friend of Ptolemy II, or about 250 B.C.

Map of Nuri Pyramids

Showing the tombs excavated during the season 1916-1917

The pyramids of Nuri

If one stands on top of Gebel Barkal with the scene of our excavations of 1915-1916* at his feet and looks away up-stream, one sees the pyramids of Nuri rising from the edge of the desert behind the fringe of palms and other trees which line the opposite bank of the Nile. The river is flowing to the southwest, and as the directions the Nile valley is named by the natives from the local course of the river, now as in ancient times, the terms “ north,” “ south,” “ east,” and “ west ”  do not designate the points of the compass down-stream, up-stream, to the right and to the left of the river.

This’ll Nuri lies about five miles“ south ” of Gebel Barkal and must have been outside the “ southernmost ” limits of the city of Napata. The township of Nuri is a fairly rich little district with fields of wheat, barley, maize, and millet, and with many trees, mainly date-palms, dom-palms, and acacias. The village, among the along the riverbank, is a straggling line mud-huts with a few better-built houses, also of mud, and a couple of mud-built mosques.

On the edge of the desert, not far behind the village, the pyramids of Nuri stand in a dense group on a low knoll which has the form of a rough horseshoe with the open end turned “ southwards ” (up-stream). In that direction lies a bend in the river from which countless dunes of river-sand, driven by the wind,  issue forth and cover the alluvial plain and the in the labor of cutting through these dunes to get at the stairways which led down to the underground chambers of the pyramids. It was only by the calculation that we managed.

On the “ eastern ” arm of the horseshoe (toward the Nile), stood the largest pyramid of all (52 meters just square), surrounded on the “ north,” the “ east,” and the “ south ” by a large number of very small pyramids (7 to 12 meters square). On the curve of the horseshoe” western ” arm (toward the desert), there were fourteen large pyramids and five small ones. One of the fourteen large pyramids had been identified in 1915-1916 as the tomb of Aspalta, and the great pyramid on the “ eastern ” arm was the one which in 1916 was surmised to be “the tomb of one of the five kings of Ethiopia who ruled over Egypt.

The Pyramid of Tirhaqa

On Thursday, October 26, 1916, the work of clearing the “ western ” front of the large pyramid (Pyramid I) was begun with a force of Egyptians and of men and boys from the local tribe of the Shagiah,. The mass of debris was enormous, consisting of drift sand and debris fallen from the pyramid. It was not until a month later, November 26, that this mass was cleared away. The chapel was found to be utterly destroyed, but on that day we opened the stairway leading down to the burial chambers. On December 5 the men found in the debris filling the stairway a fragment of a stone figure on which was written the name of Tirhaqa.” It was at once concluded that Pyramid I was in fact the tomb of that Tirhaqa who was one of the five kings of Ethiopia who ruled over Egypt, and this conclusion was fully borne out by later finds.

The chambers were cut in the solid rock, a sort of micacious schist which deteriorates under the action. There was a great central hall divided into three aisles by two lines of three rectangular pillars each. The central aisle was approached by a small ante-chamber, which itself was entered by a flight of four steps leading down. A large part of the up from the bottom of this vow or because the place was not as dangerous as it looked, the excavation was finished in the flight of steps leading down. A large part of the work of removing the debris and the water was carried out through this corridor in order to avoid risking the lives of the workmen under the threatening roof of the hall.

Our architect, Mr. Robert. Williams, experienced in more civilized methods of propping, was inclined to smile at our rough use of dom-logs ; but Said Ahmed, the chief Egyptian foreman, vowed to sacrifice a sheep if we finished the work without accident; and whether because the place was not so dangerous as it looked, the excavation was finished in safety on March 6 (1917). About a month earlier, on February 12, we had reached the water-table and had begun to remove the earth which lay under the surface of the water. On that day, one of the Egyptians feeling about with his feet in the ” western ” end of the “ southern ” aisles discovered that a number of stone figures lay embedded in the floor debris of the aisle. A great effort was then made with the bailing,- a hard struggle, as the water never ceased running in as from some great spring. Finally, we got the tomb temporarily dry and saw the floors of the two side aisles covered with over a thousand beautifully carved stone figures varying in height from 18 to 64 cm. Many of them had been ruined by soaking in water, but about 600 were in good condition. The coffin which had been made of wood the mummy cases, and the mummy had been torn to pieces by thieves looking for gold, and had decayed except for a few fragments of bones, three pairs of inlaid eyes, and some bronze trappings pairs of inlaid eyes, and some bronze trappings chamber and partly just outside the main entrance. We found along with them two canopic jars, several stone vessels, and a number of gold ornaments, the latter dropped unintentionally by the thieves.

The Royal Tombs Treasures

While the excavation of the tomb of Tirhaqa was proceeding at intervals all winter, the rest of the men and sometimes all of them were employed. on the excavation of the pyramids on the “western” part of the horseshoe. An account of the exciting work of clearing these royal tombs, of the difficulties overcome, and of the great moments, would take far more space than this article allows. Object after object was found which bore the name of a king: now a gilded electrum ribbon, again a stone vase, or a cylindrical case of gold, an amulet of gold or of semi-precious stone, a stela, an altar, a granite coffin, a batch of magical figures of blue faience, silver libation bowl, or an inscription on the walls of a burial chamber. 

Thus pyramid after pyramid was identified as the tomb of some known or unknown king of Ethiopia. Tanutaman was found two of whose statues we had recovered from the dumps of the Temple of Amon at Barkal Senkamanseken was discovered to be the owner of Pyramid III. Three of his statues had also been found by us in the Barkal dumps, and it was him, who had finished the Temple of Atlanarsa which we excavated at Barkal, and whose name was inserted in the great granite altar of that temple (now the property of the Museum). The floors of his burial chambers at Nuri were also covered with water but not so deeply as the floors of the Tirhaqa chambers ; and one of the most walls were inscribed with the “negative confession” from the Book of the Dead, and whose “south” wall was still lined with magical figures standing up to their waists in water.

Amtalqa, whose headless statue was found by Lepsius at Merawi, was buried stelae are in Cairo, were identified with Pyramids XIII and XV, and other names were found which had never before been read by modern eyes on any monument, lost to human knowledge for over a thousand years. All the nineteen pyramids with which lay on the curve of the horseshoe and in the great line of the “ western ” arm, were the tombs of kings. At the end of 1916-1917, and during the campaign of 1917-1918, we excavated the small pyramids beside Pyramid I on the “eastern ” arm, which we call the main ridge. On this main ridge, we found the tombs of fifty-three royal ladies, queens, and princesses, some of whom, were now discovered for the first time. The curious fact thus appears that Tirhaqa,  the first and greatest of the Nuri kings, and queens of all the periods there represented, were buried on the “ eastern ” part of the knoll, while all the kings in Pyramid IX. Harsiotef and Nastasan, whose after Tirhaqa was buried on the “ western ” part. The chapels and the entrances of all these tombs are turned to the “ west,” the land of Amenti, the land of Osiris, the god of the dead.

All the pyramids at Nuri were of the slender type, steep sides inclined at an angle of about 68” to the horizontal, quite different in aspect from the massive squat pyramids of Giza. Each stood in a small enclosure bounded by a low wall and had an offering chapel consisting of a single room placed against the “ western ” face. The chapel was roofed with two rows of large stone slabs, which leaned against each other from the opposite walls, thus forming a sort of arch. In the middle of the “ eastern ” end of the chapel, a stela was set in the face of the pyramid, and on the floor, in front of the stela two offering stands were placed and a flat altar resting on a stone pillar. Out in front of the chapel a long stairway, open at the top, descended from the “west ” to a doorway opening into a series of two or three burial chambers (A, B, and C) hollowed in the solid rock under the chapel and the pyramid. In the innermost chamber the coffin, usually of wood, but in two cases of granite, had been placed on a stone bench, and in this, the mummy, enclosed in two or three mummy cases.

Chapel and stairway, seen from the Pyramid Looking down to “ West ”

This debris had been piled on each side of the “ western ” end of the stairway, and some of it was always leftover after filling the stairway. Even now after all these centuries the two low mounds can still be seen at the end of the stairway and guided us more than once to the entrance.

Such was the original condition, but each of the pyramids had been used as a quarry for stone and its burial chambers had been repeatedly robbed. The thieves seem to have sought only for gold and to have been regardless of what they broke and trampled underfoot. In the abundance which they found they carelessly dropped some of the gold ornaments in almost every tomb and left gold leaf scattered through all the rooms. I came to the conclusion that there had been a time soon after the abandonment of the cemetery (about 300-250 B.C.) when tomb after tomb was cleared out in a perfect orgy of treasure-hunting.

Tombs of Madikani and Amantekaya; showing denuded pyramid, chapel, enclosing wall and stairway Looking down from Pyramid I

Tombs of Madikani and Amantekaya; showing denuded pyramid, chapel, enclosing wall and stairway Looking down from Pyramid I

The fingers and toes of the mummy had been cased in gold, and the body had borne a heart scarab and many ornaments as in Egypt. Around the walls of this room, and sometimes of Room B also, the small magical figures called shawabti (“ answerer ”) were ranged in rows, and these we often found in place. There had also been wooden boxes inlaid with colored stones and containing alabaster ointment jars, gold ointment sticks, silver mirrors, gold cups and vessels, silver bowls, and other valuable objects. The pottery seems to have been set mainly in Rooms B and A. After the burial the outer doorway was blocked with rough masonry and the stairway filled in with the broken rock taken out during the excavation of the stairway and the chambers.

Granite coffin and shawwabtis in position

The objects which they made are indistinguishable in form and technique from the objects made in the corresponding period in Egypt (665-650 B. C.). Each subsequent set of workmen must have learned their crafts from the preceding set, producing, of course, from time to time new methods and new styles, and either losing or gaining in skill and in their hold on the early traditions. Thus of the various craftsmen who worked for anyone king, some must have continued to work under his successor, some would have died and handed on their traditions through their apprentices, and some would have been supplanted by new masters of their crafts. In other words, it may be assumed that the archaeological group of each king contained examples of the work of some craftsmen who had worked for his predecessor and of some who were to work for his successor, but was in itself a unique group, the production of a set of men who lived contemporaneously only under one king.

Doorblock of tomb of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

Doorblock of tomb of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

Doorblock of Tomb of Aspalfa, Room B. Objects dropped by plunderers From the left : Silver libation bowl, gold jug, silver basin, gold vase-lid with gold chain attached of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

Doorblock of Tomb of Aspalfa, Room B. Objects dropped by plunderers From the left : Silver libation bowl, gold jug, silver basin, gold vase-lid with gold chain attached of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

The objects which they made are indistinguishable in form and technique from the objects made in the corresponding period in Egypt (665-650 B. C.). Each subsequent set of workmen must have learned their crafts from the preceding set, producing, of course, from time to time new methods and new styles, and either losing or gaining in skill and in their hold on the early traditions. Thus of the various craftsmen who worked for anyone king, some must have continued to work under his successor, some would have died and handed on their traditions through their apprentices, and some would have been supplanted by new masters of their crafts. In other words, it may be assumed that the archaeological group of each king contained examples of the work of some craftsmen who had worked for his predecessor and of some who were to work for his successor, but was in itself a unique group, the production of a set of men who lived contemporaneously only under one king.

Thus, by careful comparison, it should be possible to link up to these twenty groups as a continuous series of overlapping units and to set the names of the corresponding rulers of the country in the same order. In thus establishing the list of the kings of Ethiopia in their chronological order the initial step was the division of all the pyramids into four groups (a, b, c, and d) each characterized by peculiarities of masonry and plan and each showing such a technical advance over the other as to leave no doubt as to the order of the groups. Group a contained the pyramids of Tirhaqa and Tanutaman, and group d exhibited the nearest approach to the masonry and plan of the pyramids of the Meroitic period, which came after the Ethiopian period. An examination of the stelae, altars, inscriptions, faience figures, stone vessels, gold and silver ornaments, and other objects confirmed the division into four groups in the order already determined and indicated the order of the pyramids in each group.

At this point in the course of the fieldwork, the discovery was made that a sacrificial foundation deposit had been made under each of the four corners of most of the pyramids, as follows :

One Tomb of Aspalta. Gold jug pyramid of the group a, all the pyramids of groups b and c, and all but three of the pyramids of group d. Foundation deposits had never before been found under pyramids. We had already searched for them at Nuri itself, but hampered by the doubt as to their existence, by ignorance of their position, and by fear of damaging to no purpose the masonry of the pyramids, we had failed to find them. At the very end of the season of 1916-1917, when I had already set the date of our departure for Egypt, one of the workmen clearing the corner of Pyramid II (Astabarqaman) to enable Mr. Williams to make a plan of that pyramid, accidentally broke through into a cavity containing a sacrificial foundation deposit. This pyramid had been built originally about 28 meters square on shallow foundations so that the “ northern ” side had either cracked or fallen; and the whole pyramid had been taken down and rebuilt on more solid, deeper foundations, but on a smaller scale (about 27 meters square). The outer row of stones of the foundation course of the older pyramid had been left in place, and our workman engaged on the second pyramid broke through from the inside into the deposit covered by the “ northwestern ” comer of the first pyramid. With this assurance of the existence of the deposits and this indication of their position, the finding of the other deposits was a simple matter. I sent off Mr. Williams, the architect, and Mrs. Symons, the secretary, at the appointed time, while Mr. Kemp, the recorder, Mrs. Reisner, who was helping with the care of the antiquities, my daughter and I remained until the 10th of May and finished up the recording of the foundation deposits. Fortunately, the weather held unusually cool for Sudan, although we were well inside the tropical zone.

Tomb of Aspalta. Gold vase-lid with chain

Tomb of Aspalta. Gold vase-lid with chain

Tomb of Aspalta. Gold vase-lid with chain

Drawings of the designs on two gold cylinders, from the tomb of Aspalta

The contents of the deposits varied, like all else, from group to group and from pyramid to pyramid. The earlier cavities were square and the later circular, decreasing in size. All the cavities contained, lying on the top, the skull and one forequarter of a sacrificial calf or young bull. There were also vessels of pottery, or models of such vessels, and a few stone implements (bread-grinder and rubbing stone, mortar, and pestle) which varied from the pyramid to pyramid. In the deposits of group b, there were also from eighteen to twenty faience cups, and in the deposits of the two earliest pyramids, these cups were inscribed with the name of the king and of a god who loved him. Below, the floor of the cavity was strewn with tablets and model tools of bronze and iron. In the earlier deposits, there were tablets only, but these gold, electrum, silver, bronze, faience, red jasper, crystal, lapis lazuli, alabaster, and malachite, one of which was inscribed with the name of the king. In the c-group, the tablets were much the same, but only the faience tablets were inscribed. In the d-group, except for one faience tablet in each deposit of Pyramid XI, none of the tablets were inscribed ; but in compensation the deposits of this group contained models of various tools which in the earlier pyramids (XI and XII) were of bronze and in the later pyramids (XIII and XIV) of both bronze and iron. The evidence offered by the changing character of these deposits and their contents confirmed fully the conclusions already obtained regarding the chronological sequence of the kings.

It is with the names of these long-forgotten kings and queens that we have now filled out the four centuries after the death of Tanutaman. But before Tanutaman, the life of the Ethiopian monarchy had been only a short one, consisting of the reigns of Kashta, Piankhy I, Shabaka, Shabatoka, and then our Tirhaqa, a period of only about eighty years. The royal cemetery at Nuri was founded by Tirhaqa. His pyramid, the largest of all, was the first king’s pyramid to be built on the site, and that of Tanutaman was the second. Henceforth, the kings of Ethiopia were to rule only over their own were of land, the most barren part of the Nile valley, a  country which owed its material prosperity to its every geographical position as the land of the trade routes between Egypt and Central Africa and to the gold mines of its eastern desert. The native Negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization. The early kings sprang certainly from the Egyptianized ruling class and had, without doubt, a large portion of Lybian or Egyptian blood in their veins.

After the expulsion of Tanutaman from Egypt, the kings of Ethiopia were unable to exercise any authority over Egypt except quite temporarily over the provinces south of Thebes. Nevertheless, they all claimed the fivefold titulary of the kings of Egypt until in the days of Harsiotef and the other kings of the later d-group the very names used with three of the five titles became stereotyped and passed as parts of the titles from king to king.

One king succeeded another, built temples, endowed the offerings of the gods, suffered under the intrigues of courtiers and priests, and waged his petty wars with the negro tribes the south or with the nomads of the eastern and the western deserts. Each one gave much heed as profited him to the priest-made oracles of Amon-Ra of Gebel Barkal, married him a queen from his own family, gave his mother honored burial at Nuri, built himself a pyramid in the same field, died, was buried with his fathers.

The Egypt-Lybian elements in the royal family and in the ruling class were gradually replaced by the native Negroid elements, probably through climatic influences and intermarriage. The deadening effects of this racial change appear in the gradual decline of all the arts and crafts. Later, after the death of Nastasan, there was a new influx of people from Egypt and there was a new influx of people from Egypt and which we call Meroitic. But the native influence continued, in spite of this apparent set-back, and the language of the people replaced the Egyptian even in the royal inscriptions. The native language was first written in a sort of bastard hieroglyphics and finally in a cursive alphabet adapted from these hieroglyphics, the so-called Meroitic script.

Doorblock of tomb of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

Doorblock of tomb of Aspalta, showing thieves ’ entrance above and bronze vessels left on floor at time of burial

  • New Collection

    New Collection

    The discovery of the foundation deposit at Pyramid II On the left the “Northwest corner of the second pyramid; on the right, the foundation course of the first pyramid with one stone removed to show the foundation deposit underneath
  • Super Sale

    Super Sale

    Circular Foundation deposit. Queen’s Pyramid XLVII Bones of the sacrifice, and pottery
  • Best Quality

    Best Quality

    Inscribed blue faience cups Foundation deposit of Anlaman, Pyramid VI
  • Tablets from foundation deposits of Pyramids III VI, VIII, and IX, all inscribed with the name
    Tablets from foundation deposits of Pyramids III VI, VIII, and IX, all inscribed with the name of the king. From left to right, blue faience, red jasper, crystal, lapis lazuli, alabaster, blue Amazon stone, gold, electrum, silver, bronze, and blue faience
  • Granite stela of Queen Bathyly, wife of Harsiotef
    Granite stela of Queen Bathyly, wife of King Nastasan Approaching the Meroitic in style. Height, 62 cm.
  • Bronze mirror, with silver handle, of King Nastasan,
    The bronze mirror, of Harsiotef with a silver handle, Pyramid XV
  • Alabaster ape's head, lid of canopic jar, ” Figures and models of bricks, made of mud, and a blue
    Alabaster ape’s head, the lid of the canopic jar, the tomb of “ the great Queen Itakhibaskan time of Tirhaqa
  • Figures and models of bricks, made of mud, and a blue
    ” Figures and models of bricks, made of mud, and a blue, faience dad-sign, from the exterior foundation
  • Cylindrical sheath of gold, broken but complete,
    The cylindrical sheath of gold, broken but complete, from the tomb of Queen Madikani. Height, ca. 13 cm.
  • Necklace of gold, amethyst and Amazon stone,
    Necklace of gold, amethyst and Amazon stone, from the tomb of Aspalta, Pyramid VIII, Room B
  • Gold tweezers from tomb of Aspalta Pyramid VIII
    Gold tweezers, from the tomb of Aspalta, Pyramid VIII
  • Drawings of the designs on two gold cylinders from the tomb of Aspalta 1 1
    Drawings of the designs on two gold cylinders, from the tomb of Aspalta
  • Drawings of the designs on two gold cylinders, from the tomb of Aspalta
    Drawings of the designs on two gold cylinders, from the tomb of Aspalta

Thus summarized, the history of Ethiopia may seem the dullest of affairs. But the stelae found at Barkal give us certain details of the reigns of Tanutaman, Aspalta, Harsiotef, and Nastasan which add human interest to these names. As all the other kings of Ethiopia undoubtedly left similar records at the great temple of Amon-Ra at a Gebel Barkal, there must once have been fifteen or twenty more of these stelae which have not yet been found. It may, therefore, be hoped by continuing the excavations in that temple to find further records which will enliven our knowledge, of many another king of Ethiopia. With the material now at hand, all the broad outlines have been recovered which in the history of Ethiopia add to human knowledge another example of the physical basis of political power and of the dependence of the exploitation of that power on racial on capabilities, another example of the organization of a theocratic state and of the practical effect of such an organization on human affairs. Set in this historical background, the collections of objects found at Nuri present the whole course of the development of the arts and crafts of Ethiopia and over a period of four centuries.*

But far more than this, if the objects now buried in the fourteen royal tombs at Kurru be added, then these are all the remains which mankind is ever likely to recover of most of the Ethiopian crafts of this period. Examples of the sculpture, it is true, will probably be found in the temples at Barkal and elsewhere; but the condition of the smaller private tombs already excavated shows that nothing is to be hoped from these. The series of gold objects, of foundation deposits, and above all, of the shaw wabtis can never be duplicated. Aside from the historical importance of these figures, a large number of them possess artistic merits of no small value. The stone figures of Tirhaqa are unique for this period, and the faience figures of Senkamanseken, Aspalta, and some of the early queens are unsurpassed by anything of the same sort found in Egypt.

Beginning of excavation of Pyramid I, tomb of Tirhaqa. The mass of debris seen from the “Northwest ”