The Ancient Egyptians
Adam Terry Ashcroft
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The ancient trade centre and culture of Kerma in the Dongola Reach of Upper Nubia, was the trading 'Middleman' of the ancient world, as well as the first urban society in tropical Africa.
The beginnings of the Kerma culture have always been difficult to ascertain. It seems that the more we explore the site of Kerma, the further backwards in time we can push back the beginnings of this once powerful centre of trade of ancient Upper Nubia. We now have a rough anchor of around c.2500 - 2400 BC for the beginnings of the ancient town of Kerma, going on for about a thousand years or so until c.1500 BC and the starting dominance of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt which had just emerged from the dark years of the Second Intermediate Period. During the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians started to build fortresses along the Nile as far as Semna South, midway between the Second and Third Cataracts. This was to safeguard their interests in the quarries and mining areas of Nubia as well as to protect and ensure the continuity of trade with Kerma. The Egyptians were also fully aware of the growing power and importance of the kingdom of Kerma.
The development of Kerma was contemporaneous with the C-Group in Lower Nubia. While Egypt was concerning itself with the control of Lower Nubia and the C-Group, Kerma was slowly developing its trade and culture beyond this buffer zone. There were three periods of the Kerma culture - Old Kerma, Middle Kerma and Classic Kerma. By c.1650 BC, Kerma had become densely populated and controlled a centralized state stretching from at least the First to the Fourth Cataracts. It was during the mid to latter part of the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt and during the Classic Period of Kerma that saw the apex of its wealth and power. Kerma was sacked in c.1500 BC, when the whole region became part of the Egyptian New Kingdom empire.
Kerma is situated on the east side of the Nile River, just beyond the Third Cataract, in the one of the most favourable and fertile area of Upper Nubia - The Dongola Reach. Placed in this advantageous area, it became the cultural and economic centre of the area known by the Ancient Egyptians of the early second millenium BC, as Kush. This was probably the ancient land of Yam mentioned in Harkhuf's autobiography. A good translation can be found in Sir Alan Gardiners 'Egypt of the Pharaohs' [1964 edition pp99-100]. The Abri-Delgo Reach of the Nile, situated above Kerma and placed two thirds of the way between the Second and Third Cataracts, was also an important area during the rise of the Kerma culture. Here, the Island of Sai, which was the centre of Shaat, was the main focus of trade and the Kerma culture in this area. It has only just recently been discovered that there were three branches of river flowing through the Dongola area, and coupled with the yearly inundation of the River Nile, this would have made the area extremely rich in alluvial deposits and therefore ideally suitable for farming, cattle grazing, animal husbandry, as well as making the this area more favourable for human settlement than any other in Upper Nubia. These now dried up river branches, would have created a basin area of fertile land, which we now call the Kerma Basin. Wherever you may find these favourable conditions, is where you will find the greatest advances of culture in the ancient world. The climate and conditions of this area would have created an ideal situation not unlike some fertile areas along the Nile regions of Egypt itself.
The Sahara Desert stretches for about two and a half thousand miles from the west to the east of North Africa, and for nearly a thousand miles north to south from Algeria and Libya down to the Sahel, where the land starts to become more hospitable for travelling [Philip's, 2000 pp34-35]. The Nile Valley was the only way that was safe enough for any travellers or traders heading from south to north to cross the great Sahara Desert. Any traders or travellers from the west and southern side of North Africa, attempting to get to Egypt, the Mediterranean or the far east, would have deliberately avoided the Sahara Desert and travelled in a sweeping arc which would have taken them around to the River Nile, with the end result of quite possibly first making contact with the inhabitants of the Dongola Reach. Here, trade would have taken place and then transported up the Nile to exchange or trade with goods from Egypt. The Nubians of Kerma would have been rich in resources themselves from contact with Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the southern countries of Africa and as well as the far east. Kerma had established regular trade routes into Africa and from this, Africa's luxury goods were traded and imported into Kerma and from there passed, through a series of middlemen, to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Kerma therefore became a meeting place for a diversity of cultures and ethnic backrounds. The Nubians of Kerma, became more and more powerful and wealthy by this exchange of goods. Because of this ideal geographical situation, Bill Adams aptly calls Nubia, a corridor to Africa.
Ideally placed in such an advantageous spot of Africa, Kerma had become the 'middlemen' of trade in Africa. Wealthy as Egypt was, it still required certain necessities and luxuries that it lacked, to come via the corridor of Nubia and Kerma. Gold, copper, ivory, ebony and slaves, were the most commonly traded products. There is evidence in the graves of the Kerma necropolis, that slavery was in use by the Kerma elite. This would suggest that Egypt gained Nubian slaves through commerce with the Kerma people. Most of the slaves, however, came from raids into Nubia by the Pharaoh's armies. Also traded were incense, aromatic oils, exotic animals such as leopards, giraffes and their skins, gazelles, monkeys, lions, antelopes, dwarves and pygmies, the sacred cynocephalus baboons, ostrich feathers and eggs. Other less valuable commodities such as fruits, palm leaves, dates, etc, were also traded in large quantities.
Shaat and the Island of Sai, was the main trading centre, north of the Third Cataract, for the Kingdom of Kerma. The last of the Egyptian fortresses was at Kumma and Semna, where they exploited the narrow passageway of the Nile, limiting the thoroughfare to just one single vessel by way of a cluster forts and damming. There was also a lookout fort at Semna South to warn of any oncoming traders or troops. Until the New Kingdom, this was the last line of defence for Egypt in Nubia, which gave Kerma the opportunity to take advantage, push forward and make Shaat and the Island of Sai, their main distributor of trade and commerce to the Egyptians. In effect, Kerma became the warehouse and Shaat, it's distributor. The population of Shaat inevitably grew due to this trade and Sai has an impressive necropolis second in size only to the great eastern cemetery at Kerma itself. With trade routes secured and the knowledge that that Sai's master was Kerma and trade was good, the Egyptians decided to stay firm at Semna. This left the Nubians uninterrupted to develop it's main capital of Upper Nubia - Kerma.
The site of Kerma itself has two large, impressive mud brick structures known as Deffufa's [a local Nubian term for any large brick structure]. The Lower or Western Deffufa, is about a mile and a half from the riverbank and the Upper or Eastern Deffufa is a further two miles east, situated in the necropolis of Kerma.
The Western Deffufa is a large solid lump of mud brick with no interior rooms. Certainly an unusual structure, it has a narrow stairway, winding its way up the flat topped structure. A 12 by 15 foot landing is the only 'room' in the structure. This appears at the first turn of the stairway and has become known as the guardroom. We do not know, however, what this space in the Western Deffufa was meant for. The brickwork and use of timber frames suggests that the building of the Deffufa had strong, Egyptian influences. That the Egyptians had a hand in the building of the Western Deffufa, whether it be supervisory or otherwise, is beyond doubt.
This Deffufa could not have been a fortress or a retaining wall of any kind. Taylor suggests that it may have had religious or sacrificial purposes. In the stairway, a slab of stone has been found which may have been an offering stone or sacrificial altar, with the ceremonies taking place on the rooftop. It is my belief, however, that it was a lookout post for trade movement on and around the Nile. The structure has degraded over the years so the original height of the Deffufa must have been more than the present sixty feet - perhaps even doubled. The land surrounding Kerma is flat with no hills or mountains to view long distances from. The Egyptians therefore, not for entirely unselfish reasons, aided the Kerma people in the building of this structure - hence the Egyptian brickwork and wooden beams which were of a style which were also present in the fortresses that were built to protect the Egyptians trade routes and the mining areas. There would not have been any set time for traders to travel upwards to Nubia and so this structure gave the Nubians an added advantage to intercept and indeed welcome trading visitors, before anyone else could encroach and take away the commerce and trade which made Kerma the powerful state that it was.
With the buffer zone set with fortresses between Nekhen, just north of the First Cataract and Semna South, midway between the Second and Third Cataracts, and now with a lookout tower in Kerma, the Egyptians were secure in the knowledge that her trade routes were safe and the powerful state of Kerma, was kept at bay.
The additional buildings that were added on to the Western Deffufa, have been found to contain a great number of objects which suggest that this was the main trading and business area of the Kerma capital. Even though there were numerous fragments of Egyptian mud seal impressions, the main bulk of the objects found were Nubian and undoubtedly used to produce and manufacture goods for trade. These were mainly raw materials and unfinished products. Copper oxide, lumps of resin, a mica block, materials for polishing and colouring pottery, rock crystals, ostrich eggshell, glazed and polishing pebbles, as well as unfinished and misfired pottery, unfinished beads and cracked beads and beakers. Objects of this kind, were also found in the Eastern Deffufa.
The Eastern Deffufa sits in the southern part of the great eastern necropolis of Kerma and was probably one of a twin of structures, identical in height and design. It has been suggested by George Reisner, who excavated the site in 1913-14, that the structures were mortuary buildings because they were built to the north of the eight largest burial tumili. These tumili were situated at the southernmost edge of the cemetery. Again, it was a structure which was obviously built for height. It did have two internal rooms with red, black and yellow painted, Egyptian style pictures on the walls. Each room had four columns in a straight line, going through the centre of the structure, supporting wooden cross beams. The height again suggests that this could have been used as a lookout point to protect the burials in this large, sprawling necropolis.
The cemetery itself, contains thousands of burials. If size and the number of sacrificed animal and human burials in a grave are indicative of wealth and power, the tomb holder of the largest grave on the site, must have been a very powerful person in Kerma. The tomb is nearly 300 feet in diameter with between 300 and 400 human sacrificial burials. Reisner divided the types of burials into four categories: great tumili, minor tumili, subsidiary burials and independent graves.
There were 8 great tumili, all at the southern end of the cemetery. Ranging between 150 and 300 feet in diameter, each with numerous human sacrificial burials. There were men, children and women sacrificed, but the majority of sacrificial burials were women - suggesting that they may have come from the owner's harem.
Minor tumili are spread throughout the cemetery but are mainly concentrated at the southern end around the great tumili. Smaller than the great tumili, they vary from 75 to 150 feet in diameter.
The subsidiary burials were placed in the superstructure of 6 of the great tumili and also in a few of the minor tumili. This was not a show of disrespect for the owners - quite the opposite. The graves were placed in such a way as to not disturb the substructure of the main burials. These burials were probably friends, members of the family of the deceased or even persons who revered the deceased, many years after he or she had passed away.
Independent graves were present all over the cemetery. Oval but small in size, they still contained the standard mortuary objects, that were found in nearly all of the Kerma necropolis burials.
The standard burial patterns and objects that were discovered by Reisner were as follows: the person was placed on a bed, on his right side in a relaxed fetal position, usually on the south side of the rectangular pit. The body was clothed and on the bed, artifacts were found that were common in nearly all the graves; leather sandals, a fan made of ostrich feathers and a wooden headrest. Also found were weapons, such as daggers, bows, and various bronze implements. The sacrificial human burials were placed not in any particular position, although a majority were on their right side with the head facing east. The rest of the bodies occupied a number of positions - on the front or back, or even tightly curled up, with hands covering the face, clutching the hair or even around the neck [Adams, 1977]. This seems to suggest that some of the sacrifices were buried alive. Sacrificed rams were also found in most of the burials. Reisner also discovered that the northern tombs only contained the bodies of sacrificed animals, with the main burial. There were no sacrificed human bodies.
Kerma type cemeteries, with identical burial patterns, have also been found north of Kerma at Ukma, Sai Island, and further north past Semna at Saras, Abka, Mirgissa, Abu Sir, Buhen, Aniba and Kubban. These more northern burials are near the Egyptian fortresses and suggests that at some point, these Nubians may have manned the strongholds themselves.
When the Hyksos invaded Lower Egypt, the Egyptians grasp on the fortresses and the domination of Lower Nubia weakened and was eventually lost. Some Egyptian officers did stay back and manned the forts alongside Nubian troops, but loyalty was to Kerma and it's king. This can be verified by Sepedher, a Commander at Buhen, whose loyalty switched to the King of Kerma. On his stele, he says 'I built the temple of Horus, Lord of Buhen, to the satisfaction of the Ruler of Kush'.
With the New Kingdom and it's triumphant 18th Dynasty, re-emerging from the turmoil of the Second Intermediate Period, came the end of the great Kerma culture. The Egyptians reclaimed the fortresses and pushed on southward to dominate Upper Nubia and Amenhotep I founded a fortified town at Shaat. His successor, Thutmose I, continued on to Tombos, by the Third Cataract, only 30 miles from the once great capital of Kerma. The Egyptians would eventually go on to dominate as far as Napata and the Fourth Cataract as well as make it's influence felt pass the Fifth Cataract and into Irem.
The great culture of Kerma was left to develop and flourish for a
thousand years, untouched by Egyptian dominance, slowly and gradually
building their state into an organized society - a chance the
contemporaneous C-Group of Lower Nubia did not have. Although left alone
and not overpowered by Egypt, Kerma's wealth and power still depended on
it's economic strategy and trade with the Egyptians. The favourable
geographical setting and agricultural advantages discussed in this
paper, also aided Kerma in becoming power that it once was. When Kerma
was eventually sacked, it took an Egypt which was at it's military
strongest, which eventually went on to dominate from the Orontes River
in the north down to the Fifth Cataract of the Nile. Nubia bounced back
eight centuries later, with kings from Napata conquering Egypt for the
first time. Kerma's strength had created a backbone for the Nubian
people to eventually challenge the great might of the Ancient Egyptians.