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Jebel Barkal, Sudan

Director: Geoff Emberling

Jebel Barkal is a sandstone outcrop along the Nile in northern Sudan that was sacred to ancient Nubians and Egyptians. At the base of the mountain was a succession of settlements, now covered by desert sands and sediment from the annual Nile flood. The earliest, known only from potsherds, was of the Kerma culture of perhaps 1700 BCE. When the Egyptian New Kingdom conquered this region, then known as Kush, it made Barkal the southernmost outpost of its empire and built a fortified settlement called Napata. During the Egyptian occupation (1500–1070 BCE), a temple to the god Amun was built and expanded, and it remained the focal point of the city for nearly 2,000 years. 

After the collapse of the Egyptian empire, a local dynasty of Kush made Napata its capital city, built a royal palace there, and expanded the temple area. This dynasty, under the rule of kings Kashta and Piankhy, conquered Egypt, where they would rule for nearly a century as its 25th Dynasty (ca. 750–664 BCE). Piankhy greatly expanded the Amun temple and his successors would continue to build and enhance the temple area and palace. Royal pyramid burials during this “Napatan” dynasty were built at the nearby sites of El-Kurru and Nuri. 

An Egyptian raid ordered by King Psamtek II in 593 BCE destroyed royal statues and other monuments at Barkal. After this raid, Kushite kings increasingly built at the city of Meroe, 230 kilometers to the southeast, and when the location of most royal burials was moved there in about 270 BCE, Meroe would be seen as the capital city of Kush until its collapse after 300 CE. Barkal continued to be an important city in Kush, with construction of several new royal palaces and continuing renovation of the Amun temple, until the end of the empire of Kush. 

Jebel Barkal was a focus of travelers and early archaeologists, with the major early excavations being those of the American archaeologist George Reisner in 1916–1920. Work at the site resumed in the 1970s. 

The Kelsey Museum project began work at Barkal in 2016 at the invitation of Timothy Kendall, who had been working at the site since the 1980s and was wrapping up his research. Our initial research question was, where was the city? Where did the non-royal people live and work? We located a promising area that we called the “East Mound” using magnetic gradiometry, and we subsequently completed a geophysical survey of that area and have had two short excavation seasons. The uppermost levels of this area date to the 1st century BCE/1st century CE—the “Meroitic” period when Kush was in contact with Roman Egypt. We plan to continue to investigate this early city and also to excavate beneath to begin to understand the layout of the Napatan city.

Community Engagement at Jebel Barkal during the Sudan Civil War

The video below was created by Sami Elamin, a team member of the Jebel Barkal Archaeological Project. In it, Sami showcases work with children who are internally displaced due to ongoing fighting in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum. The children arrive from local refugee shelters, explore the site museum and the site’s pyramids with archaeologists, learn a bit about archaeology (and conservation!), and spend time relaxing and drawing together. This work is funded by a generous grant from the U.S. Department of State Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.