Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region are testimony to the important ancient culture of the Second Kingdom of Kush.
Gebel Barkal was believed to be the residence of the State God Amon and is still considered a sacred mountain. The five archaeological sites set on the banks of the Nile include unique funerary architecture (with and without pyramids), temples, living complexes and palaces. The walls of the structures are decorated with reliefs, writings and painted scenes.
Community Perspective: “You are likely to be the only tourists there,.. you could almost be a 19c explorer reaching the sites for the first time!” El-Kurru (with painted tombs) and Nuri (pyramid fields) are two of the other components worth visiting besides Gebel Barkal itself.
Map of Gebel BarkalLoad map
I organized my December 2019 trip to Sudan with ITC Sudan and stayed at their Nubian Rest Camp near the foot of Jebel Barkal and Meroe Camp overlooking the pyramid field. I stayed at Acropole Hotel in Khartoum at the beginning and end of my trip, and in between visited Jebel Barkal, a holy mountain surrounded by the ruins of two thirteenth century BCE temples and some of the most intact, yet lightly visited, pyramids in Sudan, erected between the third and first centuries BCE; Nuri in northern Sudan, a component of the Jebel Barkal WHS, where more than twenty ancient pyramids that served as a necropolis for Nubian kings and queens still stand near the Nile, and where visitors should be mindful of the presence of deadly, deathstalker scorpions (their real common name); Meroë, an ancient city along the eastern bank of the Nile and home to hundreds of Nubian pyramids; the Temple of Apedemak at Naqa, dating from the first century CE and one of the largest ruined sites in Sudan; and Musawarat es-Sufra, a large temple complex dating back to the third century BCE. My visit to Sudan was much easier than I expected, from procuring a visa (which only took a few days, far shorter than I had been led to believe), to travel (with empty roads and even emptier sites), to safety (I wandered by myself around Khartoum, the first African capital where no one offered to be my guide, told me they were from my hotel, or asked me to enter their shop "just to look"). If pressed to mention some areas for improvement I would include the roadside cafes (where I had to race against swarms of flies to finish my lunch) and weak WiFi outside the capital (it's blazingly fast at the Acropole in Khartoum, which often serves as the home base for international new organizations, but was weak in the desert lodges (although that hardly matters)). Also, not many sights to see in Khartoum, although most itineraries require a day in the capital -- the city’s highlights are the National Museum and biweekly Nubian wrestling (and supposedly the weekly Whirling Dervish performance, but that's only on Fridays, so I wasn't able to attend).
Gebel Barkal was Nubia's Holy Mountain. Its size and shape appealed so much to exploring Ancient Egyptians who came down the Nile, that they started building temples at its foot. It remained a sanctuary to the god Amun for centuries, from the Egyptian "colonization" to the time of the Black Pharaohs when the local Nubian rulers took control over South Egypt and moved their capital to Meroë.
Although the main Amun Temple looks to be well-excavated nowadays, I was amazed at the level of archaeological work still going on. Two teams were busy when I visited: an international group under the guidance of the Sudanese Ministry of Antiquities and an Italian-led group. The Italians were focusing on a building which is being excavated for the first time, although it lies right next to the Amun Temple and also directly at the foot of the mountain.
There were no other people around besides the archaeologists when we visited during the day, but some 50 locals and international tourists showed up later to watch the sunset from the top of the mountain. To me, the site's highlights include the still erect pillars topped with serpents symbolizing the goddess Hathor (see picture below), the hieroglyphs on the column fragments that have fallen down, the finely carved interior of the Temple of Mut, and the small pyramid field at the far end of the archaeological zone.
Some 10 km from Gebel Barkal, on the outskirts of a small village, lies El Kurru. This is the oldest among the 5 locations that constitute this WHS. The pyramids here are gone, but the underground tombs that lay beneath them have been preserved well. There are three of these tombs at the site (most travel guides name only two, which shows that important new discoveries are still made in Sudan). The excavation of the third and biggest one is sponsored by Qatar.
I was only able to visit the interior of the tomb of Tanwetamani ; that of his mother was undergoing maintenance. It lies deep underground, you go in via a steep stairway. Downstairs the tomb is surprisingly spacious. Ten people fit easily into either of the two rooms. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in wall paintings of the Egyptian kind, using red, yellow and blue on a white background. The lower paintings (up until 1m from the floor) unfortunately have been damaged by flooding. This is the best collection of original wall paintings that I saw during my time in Sudan, their colours have been beautifully preserved.
Nuri is the third location of this WHS that I visited, doing so at the end of a 2-hour Nile "cruise" that ended at the opposite side of the river from where we started. The other two included sites (Zuma and Sanam) are smaller and barely excavated. Nuri's pyramids are more "Egyptian" in style than the ones at the main Gebel Barkal site: bigger and less steep. They are among the oldest that remain in Sudan.
Nuri has visual links with the Gebel Barkal: the table mountain is always in sight when you're walking around Nuri's 19 remaining pyramids. The American archaeologist George Reisner has thrown in some of the usual solstice theories.
The charm of Gebel Barkal and associated sites lies in this sense of exploration and ongoing discoveries. They are less well-researched and excavated than similar Egyptian sites, but are majestic in their appearance and worth their spot on the WH List.
Read more from Els Slots here.
I visited jebel barkal and karima in 1988. At the time I was not aware of the temples and town which did not appear to have been excavated yet. However, the pyramids were easy to find and climbing up onto the jebel was easy. Children guided me around the jebel as there were no tourists nor kiosk. nothing really. However, two half buried panthers were discernable. At the time I thought they were sphinxes but National Geographic did an article indicating they were panthers. Being there in 1988 was a priceless experience and perhaps more intimate than visiting the archeological sites in Egypt. And getting to Karima was quite an adventure. There was no road and the train took an arduous 40 hours. Getting from Karima to Aswan took about 18 days.
For a range of historic and logistical reasons the “Egyptian” ruins of Sudan are considerably less known than those of Egypt proper. Books on Egyptian archaeology rarely give more than a few lines to the sites south of Abu Simbel. Whilst Meroe (only on Sudan’s tentative list) is my favourite Sudanese site the inscribed site of Jebel Barkal is well worth visiting. As at all Sudan’s sites you are likely to be the only tourists there (what a contrast to Egypt!) and the atmosphere is heightened by the encroaching desert sand – you could almost be a 19c explorer reaching the sites for the first time!
The UNESCO “site” of Jebel Barkal consists of 5 locations. The “main” one is the “table topped” mountain of Jebel Barkal itself which is only around 100 metres high but dominates the flat Nile valley for miles around. Even though it was for long periods outside their area of direct control it was believed by the Ancient Egyptians to be the home of the god Amun. This was possibly because of sandstone pillar at one end (photo) which could be regarded as looking like a “Uraeus” (the cobra symbol of kingship). At the base of this and symbolically cut into the mountain lies a cave containing a temple to Mut the bride of Amun. Inside is a statue of the dwarf god Bes the protector god who helped in childbirth and promoted fertility. Below the Jebel are the ruins of a Temple to Amun from 15th C BC. Although there are a number of later Nubian Meroitic period pyramids around the Jebel it is its connection with mainstream Egyptian beliefs that gives the site its prime significance. Rameses the Great turned the temple into an important centre during that period when Egyptian influence over the area was strong. In Abu Simbel Amun is shown sitting inside a mountain thought to be Jebel Barkal.
The other locations relate more directly to the Nubian civilizations which had a separate existence from those of Lower and Upper Egypt. At El Kurru there is a royal Cemetery of the Kushite civilization. Two of the tombs can be entered and contain fine wall and ceiling paintings – but unless you are a great expert in the styles of different Egyptian periods you will not probably find these any more interesting than those which can be seen in Egypt. More interesting perhaps is the existence on this 1 site of pyramids built over a period of c 250 years from around 880BC showing a process of Egyptisation from low circular structures through to more “classical” pyramids. By the end of this period these Nubian rulers had taken over Egypt proper and ruled as the 25th Dynasty – using ownership of Jebel Barkal as providing legitimacy to be the true representative of Egyptian traditions. The other location which might reward non specialists is the royal Cemetery of the Napatan civilisation at Nuri on the other side of the Nile in sight of the Jebel and used by the later 25th Dynasty rulers. It contains a number of typically Nubian steep sided pyramids in various states of decay but without any visitable tombs.
We visited the Jebel and El Kurru but only viewed Nuri across the Nile by binoculars from the Jebel and from a viewpoint about 10 kms north (there is apparently a small local ferry). The Jebel is well worth climbing for sunset – it provides a fine view down on to the Temple of Amun and of the Nile valley. You can also see the holes thought to have been made to support wooden structures used in reaching the pinnacle to carve cartouches and cover the “Uraeus” with gold. The climb up is a bit rocky but a sand dune face provides for a rapid and safe descent down another side! The temples themselves can be visited in the morning. At El Kurru, some 20 kms south, all of the structures are very ruined and most visitors will need a book to assist any mental reconstruction of what they looked like (The Times “Ancient Civilizations” has such a plan). Amazingly flash photos are still allowed inside the tombs. Visiting the sites is tied up in bureaucracy – As of late 2005 each separate location costs $40 (up from $10 a year earlier) and both permission and payment must be arranged in Khartoum as the authorities don’t trust the local “Ghaffirs” with money (they presumably want it all for their own BMWs!!). The nearby town of Karima is the road/rail head (though the latter is closed). Roads from East and West to Karima are both desert tracks (with local pick up trucks or bus) but a sealed road East across the Bayuda desert is being built by the Chinese to support the Merowe Dam. If you come in from Wadi Halfa and Egypt you apparently need to go to Khartoum because of permit issues even though you will pass relatively close to the desert track to Karima at Dongola. For these reasons it may be simpler to give Jebel Barkal a miss and concentrate on the sites at Meroe, Naqa and Musawwarat (all Tentative List sites). It would be shame for committed Egyptologists or WHS enthusiasts but in many respects these sites are more accessible both logistically and in terms of what is “on show”.
The site has 5 locations
The hill and main archaeological site lies on the outskirts of the city of Karima. The other 4 locations are further away, and need private transport.
The site has 25 connections
Religion and Belief
Science and Technology
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
34 Community Members have visited.