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Roman Kiosk and Apedamak (lion god) temple in Naqa, Nubia Sudan. Source: YiannisMantas/Adobe Stock

The Ancient City of Naqa - The Kushite Religious Stronghold

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For centuries the ancient Nubian Kingdom of Kush stood as a potent rival of the neighboring Ancient Egypt. Over countless generations, the rising Kushite polity engaged in intermittent warfare, trade, and cultural exchange with their northerly neighbors. In time, Kush adopted a largely Egyptian identity, but still remained independent and unique in character. The territory of the kingdom was vast and is filled with many ruins of ancient cities, temples, and necropolises. One of the best known is Naqa, which was in its heyday one of the largest and most luxurious of all Kushite cities.

The Ruined City of Naqa Stands as a Testament of the Power of Kush

The earliest origins of this ruined city are not known with certainty. While the earliest positively dated remnants at the site go back to the 4th century BC, the city of Naqa could be much older than that, perhaps even as old as some of Egypt’s most important sites.

It was built somewhat close to Meroë, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Kush, and today sits some 170 kilometers (110 mi) from the modern-day city of Khartoum. Naqa was situated roughly 50 kilometers (31 mi) from the River Nile. Still, it was not built in an arid place. The site was chosen specifically for its strategic and beneficial position. Here, a number of wadis (wet and lush riverbeds) meet, creating a fertile and lush livable area. What is more, the city was just a camel or donkey ride from the Nile itself, which meant that supplies could always be easily received.

All this meant that Naqa served as an important Kushite trading station on the path towards the East. This gave it considerable strategic importance and meant that the city endured much longer than others.

Temple of Amun in ancient city of Naqa of the Kingdom of Kush. (robnaw/Adobe Stock)

Temple of Amun in ancient city of Naqa of the Kingdom of Kush. (robnaw/Adobe Stock)

Today, in the modern state of Sudan, Naqa remains one of the largest ancient sites, spreading over a large area. This indicates that in ancient times, it was a thriving, bustling, and very important area. It is likely that Naqa was one of the last stops before the entrance into the heart of Africa itself. Thus, Naqa could be seen as a direct link between the Mediterranean world, Ancient Egypt, and the exotic realms that lay beyond the Sudanese deserts.

As we said, the exact origins of the city are still largely debated. The first ever Europeans who discovered these ruins arrived in 1822. Several years later, in 1837, the city was visited again, by the noble German traveler, Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, who made extensive notes about his discoveries. He also visited another Kushite ruined city, Musawwarat es-Sufra, where his carved signature can still be seen.

Karl Richard Lepsius, the renowned Prussian Egyptologist, visited this site in 1843, together with his Egypt-Sudan expedition. His investigations were the first thorough glimpses at the site. Inscriptions and illustrations were copied, proving instrumental in the understanding of the ancient Kingdom of Kush.

Pueckler's name carved as graffiti in Musawwarat es-Sufra. (Clemens Schmillen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pueckler's name carved as graffiti in Musawwarat es-Sufra. (Clemens Schmillen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Town that Exalted the Glory of Apedemak

Thorough modern excavations at the site of Naqa revealed a complex layout of a city with developed agricultural and residential areas. Of course, amongst the most notable discoveries are the extant ruins of several sprawling temple complexes, which perfectly present the religion of the ancient Kushites. The first temple - known as the Lion Temple - is dedicated to the chief Nubian deity Apedemek, and was likely built during the reigns of King Natakamani (reigned from 1 BC to 20 AD) and his co-regent Queen Amanitore.

The Temple of Apedemak was likely the centermost point of the whole city, and its most valuable building. Apedemak was the chief warrior God of the Nubians, represented as a man with a lion’s head. As such, he was the protector, patron, and sacred guardian of the Kushite Kings and Princes. In Kush, no one was allowed to touch the grave of a King, for fear of being terribly cursed by Apedemak. The temple is thus very grandiose, and considered as a classic example of Kushite architecture. At the front is a gigantic, towering gateway, depicting King and Queen Natakamani and Amanitore, triumphant over their prisoners of war. The king holds aloft a battle ax, and the queen a slender sword. At their feet lions are coiled, powerful guardians and divine symbols. Also carved on the facade is the crown Prince, Arikankharor, who died fairly young.

Temple of Apedemak in Naqa. Pylons depicting King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore smiting enemies. The queen holds a sword, the king an axe. (TrackHD/CC BY 3.0)

Temple of Apedemak in Naqa. Pylons depicting King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore smiting enemies. The queen holds a sword, the king an axe. (TrackHD/CC BY 3.0)

The temple was certainly a grand sight to behold for any visitor to Naqa. The majestic display of the King smiting his enemies was a clear sign of power. The Kushites were often at war with the Egyptians and the neighboring desert clans. Maintaining a semblance of power over them was very important. On the temple’s sides and rear are intricate carvings of other important Kushite deities, Amun, Horus, Isis, Mut, Hathor, Satet, Amesemi, and - again - Apedemak. The vast majority of these deities are Ancient Egyptian in origin, a clear indication of the cultural exchange that existed between them and Kush.

Naqa’s Prominent Temples of Amun

Nearby is another well-preserved temple ruin. It is the Amun Temple of Naqa, also erected by the powerful King Natakamani, and one of the most impressive structures at the site. The building was likely begun during the reign of Queen Amanishakheto (reigned roughly from 41 to 12 BC), and completed in Natakamani’s reign. Grandiose in size, the Amun Temple is 100 meters (328 ft), and its axis is dramatically centered on a distant mountaintop on the horizon. It features grand colonnades with statues of rams, and numerous statues of the Kushite ruler himself. The temple is largely built in Egyptian style, with a magnificent hypostyle hall leading into the center of the building. Its walls are adorned with intricate carvings, crucial for the understanding of Kushite culture. One of the notable discoveries in the area was a life-size statue of the goddess Isis, another key deity for the Kushites.

Life-size statue of god Isis found at Naqa. (Sven-Steffen Arndt/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Life-size statue of god Isis found at Naqa. (Sven-Steffen Arndt/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1999, the most complete explorations of the temple were made, focused on the inner sanctuary. Discovered here are some of the most important examples of Meroitic hieroglyphs, which are as yet undeciphered. Also found were some of the most magnificent pieces of Kushite art. Interestingly, archaeologists discovered another Temple of Amun at Naqa. This one is less magnificent and situated on a hill overlooking the city, called Gebel Naqa. The temple was erected by King Amanikhareqerem, sometime in the 2nd century AD. The discovery was a great help for understanding the chronology of the city of Naqa, and the period in which it was inhabited.

However, there was one incredibly important discovery made close by, allowing us to finally learn more about the earliest habitation on the site. At the foot of the sandstone cliffs of Gebel Naqa, overlooking the town, is a ruined temple named simply “Temple F”. Research confirmed that it was built by the powerful Queen Shanakdakhete, who reigned from 170 to 150 BC. The temple was likely finished around 135 BC. A double cartouche of the queen was found in Naqa, dated to the time of her reign, and is considered the oldest epigraph written in Meroitic hieroglyphs. The queen is mentioned in this ruined temple in an inscription that survives:

“Son of Re, Lord of the Two Lands, Shanakdakheto:
The royal-waab
-priest of the Son of Re: Shanakdakheto given life every day
'Beloved of Ma'at' like..., The son of Re,..the Lord of the Two Lands (Egypt): Shanakdakhete.”

Although not preserved as well as the others, the “Temple F” still allows some solid research. It was likely dedicated to a triad of gods: Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, as worshiped in Thebes. Later, Apedemak was also added. A supposed treasure was discovered here in 1834, although badly damaged and poorly documented.

The Remnants of the Roman Presence at Naqa

As Ancient Egypt slowly fell under the Hellenistic and Roman influence, a mix of their collective cultures slowly took over the art and architecture in the region. And, in time, it reached Naqa too. A well-preserved ruin of a Roman “kiosk” stands at the site. Here, a kiosk denotes a small temple, built in the pavilion style. And this one is a mix of several art styles. The topmost lintel displays a row of sacred Uraeus cobras, a classic symbol from Egyptian art. However, the sides have several columns in a row, with distinct Corinthian capitals indicative of a Hellenistic style.

Apedemak as a coiled snake with lion’s head. (Clemens Schmillen/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Apedemak as a coiled snake with lion’s head. (Clemens Schmillen/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Furthermore, the capitals have unique arched windows, distinct representatives of the Roman architectural style. So, we see that the Roman temple at Naqa throws a bit of everything in the mix, and was likely the work of local builders who tried to imitate the styles that were increasingly common in Egypt. The temple was likely devoted to the Goddess Hathor.

Roman Kiosk and Apedamak (lion god) temple in Naqa, Nubia Sudan. (LassiHU/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Roman Kiosk and Apedamak (lion god) temple in Naqa, Nubia Sudan. (LassiHU/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Also discovered at the site was a sprawling and luxurious palace complex - or at least its remnants. Either way, it is a clear indicator that Naqa was a powerful city, and perhaps at one point the residence of the king himself, or at least a powerful Kushite noble or official. In one of the storerooms of the palace, a cache or stockpile of ebony was discovered. This material was an important luxury item, and a clear indication of the power and prestige enjoyed at the city.

Today, the archeological site at Naqa remains one of the largest and most important in Sudan, and clearly indicates that this was one of the most important cities of Kush. As such, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.

A Glimpse Into the Enigmatic World of Meroë

There is still a lot that we do not know about Meroë and the Kingdom of Kush. Its language, script, beliefs, history, and chronology are all still very much enigmatic, and there is plenty that we still have to learn. But the sites such as ancient Naqa allowed us an important glimpse into that ancient realm. From these ruins we learned that Kush was a major regional power - and perhaps even rivaled Ancient Egypt for a time.

The Naqa’s Temple of Amun is the second largest in the whole of Kush. Together with the remnants of palaces, residential areas, and the evidence of the thriving cult of Apedemak, we can safely say that this was perhaps the most prominent Kushite city after the capital, Meroë. As such, the site of ancient Naqa needs to be preserved for posterity, and excavations must continue. For who knows what other wonders lie beneath the hot sands?

Top image: Roman Kiosk and Apedamak (lion god) temple in Naqa, Nubia Sudan. Source: YiannisMantas/Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Grzymski, K. 2020. The Amun Temple at Meroe Revisited. The Sudan Archeological Research Society.

Lobban, Jr. and Richard, A. 2021. Historical Dictionary of Ancient Nubia. Rowman & Littlefield.

Török, L. 2002. The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art: The Construction of the Kushite Mind, 800 BC-300 AD.  BRILL.

 
Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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