BHM Day 2: Ancient Kush and the City of Kerma


As promised, I am not starting with Egypt, but with Kush, also called Nubia, because the people of Kush were unmistakably “African”, as can be seen in sculptures and drawings. The history of Kush goes back 10,000 years, in parallel with Egypt, and while its accomplishments aren’t as spectacular, it is clear that they were a civilization in their own right.


The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient African kingdom situated on theconfluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile and River Atbara in what is now theRepublic of Sudan. The first Kingdom of Kush developed around the settlement of Kerma – known as Ta-Sety (“the Land of theArchers’ Bow”) to the ancient Egyptians  and was just above the third cataract on the Nile, in Upper Nubia. (A cataract is a part of the Nile that is shallow, has rocks, and white rapids. There are 6 cataracts to the Nile and 5 of them were in Kush). Human populations settled in theKerma Basin at a very early date, as evidenced by severalMesolithic andNeolithic sites. The earliest traces of a human presence in the region date back tens of thousands of years. From 7500 BC onward, the archaeological remains become more significant: semi-buried dwellings, various objects and tools, and graves. What’s clear is that Kerma’s civilization emerged from an ancient pastoral culture that had flourished in that part of Sudan since at least 7000 B.C. when the first settlements were established. Near 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 B.C., a town began to develop near the Neolithic dwellings. In Old Kerma (2450-2050 B.C.),religious buildings and special workshops for preparing offerings were built using trunks ofacacia trees and roofed withpalm fibers. These plant-based materials, once encased in hardenedclay, could be painted in lively colors. The round huts were usually made of wood and clay. Around 2200-2000 BCE, the builders began using unfired mud-bricks. Later, the use of firedbricks constituted a significant change, because such material remained almost unknown elsewhere along the Nile Valley until the Late Period.

Kerma was surrounded by substantial fortifications, including a wall 10 meters high. At least two miles of ramparts and dozens of bastions protected it from attack. Four gateways gave access to the city, and roadways linked the gates and main structures. Many of the houses were of the traditional circular plan, of grass on a wooden frame, but others were rectangular of stone construction, and some of mud brick. One archeologist has estimated that there were some 150 or 200 households, perhaps as many as 2,000 people living in Kerma in 2000 BC. It is within the walls of the religious center that a bronze workshop was built. The workshop consisted of multiple forges and the artisans’ techniques appear to have been quite elaborate.

The most distinctive products of the Kerma culture were ceramics. The potters were able to produce incredibly fine vessels by hand, without using a wheel. Kerma ceramics are among the most elegant from the ancient world – strikingly modern-looking with simple shapes and bold geometric designs.

kerma art 4Image

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. Recent excavations 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 art 5 kerma art armlet

Although the Kingdom of Kush existed during the ancient Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms (2686 to 1650 BCE), Kerma reached its zenith during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (1650 to 1500 BCE). In recent reports and interviews, archaeologists said they had found widespread evidence that the kingdom of Kush, in its ascendancy from 2000 B.C. to 1500 B.C., exerted control or at least influence over a 750-mile stretch of the Nile Valley with both political and military prowess, especially by archery. It flourished as a totally independent political entity for at least 15 centuries. We now know it held at least 10,000 inhabitants by 1700 B.C.


Kerma had many distinctive features: three deffufa – solid mud-brick towers that seem to have been religious buildings; a large circular building believed to have been a royal audience hall; palace buildings; and cemeteries containing the huge circular tombs of Kerma’s rulers.

The word Deffufa descends from either the Nubian name for mud-brick building, or from the Arabic word Daffa meaning “mass” or “pile”. Although the religious nature of the Deffufas cannot be doubted, their precise function has not been understood. While some regarded the buildings as temples, others considered them to be royal residences. Whatever their function might be, the architectures of the Deffufa are unparalleled elsewhere in the ancient world and their importance to the people of Kerma is comparable to that of the Ziggurat to the people of Summer. So far three Deffufas have been discovered; the Western Deffufa, which is the largest and the best preserved, the Eastern, as well as a third little known Deffufa.

The Western Deffufa is an imposing sight in the vicinity of the small Sudanese town of Kerma. Like the other Deffufas, it is built of thick mud-brick walls to provide cooler temperature in the hot climate. The structure compromises three stories and stretches over an area of 15,070 sq. feet and is about 18 m. tall. The Deffufa is farther surrounded by a boundary wall.

Inside the Deffufa were columned chambers connected by a complex network of passageways. The walls were lavishly decorated with faience tiles and inlays and gold leaf. Magnificent paintings showing exotic scenes of wild-life found in the sub-Sahara farther south served as visual luxury in an environment as harsh and as deserted as that of Kerma. A staircase seems to have led to a shrine on the roof of the building. Evidence for a limestone altar for animal sacrifice was also found. The repeated works of construction and development efforts indicate the centrality of the monument in the town of Kerma; most likely the town’s principal temple.

Three colossal stele were found laid in front of a large funerary Chapel (i.e., labeled K XI) in the royal cemetery of Kerma. One of the stele measures about 4,73 meters in height. Their surfaces had been eroded; whether the steles had inscriptions on them or not cannot be known. Unfortunately, inscriptions or records from Kerma may have likely been destroyed (or erased) during the destructive Egyptian invasions of the New Kingdom, i.e., which lead to the eventual demise of the Kerma civilizations.


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