The ancient city of Kerma, Sudan.

The Forgotten Kingdom of Kerma and Its Incredible Deffufas


The Kingdom of Kerma was an ancient civilization that existed between 2500 BC and 1500 BC, located in what is today the northern part of Sudan. This kingdom was the first Nubian state, and its capital, Kerma, is today an important archaeological site. Kerma was also the earliest urban center in Africa outside Egypt.

At the ancient city of Kerma one encounters deffufas - a type of structure unique to the ancient Nubians. According to one website, the importance of these buildings (three of which have been discovered so far) to the inhabitants of Kerma is “comparable to that of the Ziggurat to the people of Sumer.”

Statues of pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt (Black Pharaohs) discovered near Kerma.

Statues of pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt (Black Pharaohs) discovered near Kerma. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The first settlement in Kerma can be traced back to the 4th millennium BC. This phase has been called ‘Pre-Kerma’. The Kingdom of Kerma, however, was established around 2500 BC. The timeline of this kingdom has been divided into three phases – Ancient / Early Kerma (around 2500 BC – 2050 BC), Middle Kerma (around 2050 BC – 1750 BC) and Classic Kerma (around 1750 BC – 1500 BC). Around 1500 BC, this Nubian kingdom came to an end, as it was during this period of time that the Egyptian pharaoh, Thutmosis I, defeated it and brought its territories under Egyptian rule.

Model of the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Kerma, 2500 to 1500 BC. (Matthias Gehricke/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Re-discovering the Kingdom of Kerma

The Kingdom of Kerma was re-discovered by the controversial American archaeologist, George Reisner, during the early 20th century. Reisner came upon the remains of the unique culture during his excavations between 1913 and 1916. Additionally, sites later discovered between the First and Fifth cataracts have added to the understanding of this culture. Nevertheless, the most important site of this civilization is its capital, which was discovered close to a modern city (known as Kerema) located on the east bank of the Nile to the south of the Third cataract.

The Kingdom of Kerma is thought to have existed without a writing system. Therefore, knowledge about this civilization is derived either from archaeological evidence or Egyptian sources. In the latter, the kingdom is referred to as Kush, and its inhabitants were renowned for being skilled warriors and archers. In terms of economy, the people of Kerma are recorded to have engaged in trade, in addition to tending livestock, hunting, and fishing.

Ancient Kerma bowl kept at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Bowl with Running-Spiral Decoration"

Ancient Kerma bowl kept at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Bowl with Running-Spiral Decoration" ( Public Domain )

Classic Kerma is when the Kingdom of Kerma experienced its golden age. It was during this period that its rulers successfully took control of Egyptian fortresses and gold mines in the Second cataract. The strength and importance of this kingdom is also evident in the alliance that was proposed to them by the Hyksos in Lower Egypt around 1580 BC. Furthermore, monumental constructions were undertaken during this time to reflect the power of the kingdom.

Kerma’s Deffufa’s

One of the types of monumental work believed to have been built during this time is called the deffufa. The word ‘deffufa’ is either derived from the Nubian term for a mud-brick building or from the Arabic word ‘daffa’, meaning ‘mass’ or ‘pile’. There are three known deffufas, i.e. the western deffufa, the eastern deffufa, and a third lesser known deffufa.

The western deffufa. ( homocosmicos /Adobe Stock)

The western deffufa is the best preserved of the three. Like the other two deffufas, the walls of the western deffufa are constructed of mudbricks. In the scorching heat, these walls help to cool the interior of the structure. The western deffufa measures 18 m (59.06 ft.) in height, and covers an area of about 1400 square meters (15069 sq. ft.)

There are columned chambers connected by a network of passageways in this three story structure. The decorations and paintings on the interior walls have also been preserved, and a shrine on the roof of the building has been discovered. While the western deffufa is almost certainly connected to the religious life of the people of Kerma, its precise function is still uncertain.

The eastern deffufa is located 2 km (1.24 miles) to the east of its western counterpart. The former is smaller than the latter, though there is a clearer idea of its function. As this deffufa is surrounded by a cemetery containing at least 30 000 graves, it has been suggested that this structure may have once served as a ‘royal funerary chapel’ for the people of Kerma.

Early Kerma burial found in Kerma necropolis. The tumulus' top consists of small stone stelae and is surrounded by bucrania (bull skulls). The deceased lies in a cowering position on his right side with his arms and head facing the east. (Matthias Gehricke/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Strange Structures Found Nearby

In late 2016, Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, one of the world’s most decorated experts when it comes to Sudan’s history and archaeological heritage, announced the discovery of three temples related to the Kerma Kingdom which are “unlike anything discovered” before. The round structures were unearthed at a site called Dogi Gel (“Red Hill”), just a few hundred meters from Kerma.

Comparing the recently found buildings to the structures at Kerma, Bonnet said, “At Kerma the architecture is square or rectangular shaped… and here just a kilometer away we have round structures. We don’t know of many round temples in the world… we don’t have examples to compare.” The archaeologist has spent five decades excavating Kerma, its necropolis, and the surrounding area.

Bonnet also referred to the unique buildings found at Dogi Gel as “the secret of Africa,” and he stated that “This architecture is unknown ... there is no example in central Africa or in the Nile Valley of this architecture. There are no roots today in Africa and we have to find these roots.”

Top Image: The large mud brick temple, known as the Western Deffufa in the ancient city of Kerma, Sudan. Source: walter callens/ CC BY 2.0

By Wu Mingren

Updated on August 18, 2021.


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