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“From King to Ancestor: Transition to Napatan Royal Afterlife (A Glimpse of a Funerary Ritual)” Birgitte Balanda (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Birgitte Balanda came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the internal decoration of some Napatan royal tombs and explain what it tells us about the Napatan’s funerary rituals & beliefs. Napata is the name given to the culture that existed in Upper Nubia between the third & fifth cataracts of the Nile from around 800BC to 300BC. The dynasty who ruled the Napatans were also the 25th Dynasty Pharaohs of Egypt – most well known of which is Taharqa. After the Nubian Pharaohs were driven out of Egypt by the 26th Dynasty they continued to rule in Nubia, and I think continued to consider themselves the rightful rulers of Egypt.

The Napatan civilisation was centred around Gebel Barkal, which is a prominent rock feature that has been important to several different Nubian cultures over the millennia. There were two royal cemeteries for Napatan rulers near Gebel Barkal – one called el Kurru and one called Nuri. Balanda talked about the two best preserved & documented tombs from each site – coincidentally in each case a mother & son pair. The cemeteries were originally excavated by Reisner, who worked in Nubia between 1916 and 1923. He was thorough, but very brisk by modern standards – completing his excavation of the whole of Nuri in his 1917 and 1918 seasons, and the whole of el Kurru in 1918-1919. Reisner never published this work, it was published in the 1950s by Dunham – who had worked with Reisner as a young man, so was relying both on his own memories and Reisner’s notes. The tombs at el Kurru are accessible so Balanda had her own photographs to show us, but the tombs at Nuri can no longer be entered (sand has buried them once again) and so she was relying on the old photographs and line drawings of Dunham’s publication.

Balanda started by talking about two tombs at el Kurru. These were Ku16 (tomb of Tunwetamani) and Ku5 (tomb of Qalhata). Tunwetamani was the nephew of Taharqa, and succeeded him as both ruler of the Napatans and Pharaoh of Egypt – he was the last Napatan to rule Egypt. His mother, Qalhata, was probably Taharqa’s sister. Taharqa had actually founded the cemetery at Nuri, but Tunwetamani had decided to be buried in the old cemetary at el Kurru. Neither Ku16 nor Ku5 have been fully published, so as Balanda said this was quite exciting as she was showing us things not everyone has been able to see. The decoration in both tombs is reasonably well preserved – Ku5 has better preservations of the scenes and Ku16 has better preservation of the inscriptions. At first glance the decoration looks very Egyptian in style, and it is – but on closer inspection there are differences. Some of the differences are in the details, for instance the double uraeus as a symbol of royalty, ram headed jewellery, short hair on the queen and she also has darker skin than an Egyptian woman would be depicted with. Other differences are in the scenes and texts chosen – and in the past this has been put down to the Nubians “not knowing what they were doing” and copying things almost at random. However Balanda is clear that the tombs are decorated with deliberately chosen motifs & texts that fit with the Napatan beliefs about the afterlife.

The second pair of tombs were from the Nuri cemetery and were from towards the end of the Napatan era. The Nuri tombs are generally a bit bigger than the el Kurru tombs – with 3 chambers for a King’s tomb (as opposed to two) but still one or two for a Queen’s tomb. Nu8 was the tomb of Aspelta, and Nu24 was his mother Nasalsa’s tomb. Compared to the el Kurru tombs there are more texts and fewer vignettes.

In each tomb Balanda talked us through the decoration following a circuit starting at the south wall of the outermost decorated chamber, moving into and round the inner chamber and then out via the north wall of the outer chamber. The bulk of her talk was discussing the scenes & texts in detail – which was very interesting. I started to write out descriptions of what scenes and texts are where, from my notes but sadly without her pictures to go with them it just turns into a bit of a boring list. Instead I’ll move on to the summary & conclusions that she finished up with. In all of the tombs there is a clearly defined progression around the tomb in the order she talked abuot the scenes. The deceased is first lead into the tomb and afterlife with spells to do with things like preservation of the body, then at the back there is the Weighing of the Heart. On the way out via the north walls the deceased is first resurrected and then lead by deities to go out into the world again. There are differences between the el Kurru tombs and the Nuri tombs – for instance the texts are only from the Book of the Dead in the Nuri tombs but from several sources (including the Pyramid Texts) at el Kurru. However the scheme is the same in both groups. The walls of the tomb recapitulate the journey of the deceased and also the funerary ritual performed when the deceased was buried (the Stundenwachen-Ritual). Balanda believes that this wasn’t just an Ideal Performance of the ritual inscribed in stone for eternity, but that it was also used for the actual ritual.

She finished her talk by considering what information can be gleaned about the similarities and differences between the Napatan beliefs and the contemporary Egyptian beliefs. She pointed out that even after political ties were broken between the two countries there must still’ve been religious ties as changes in texts used happen in both places. However the Napatan afterlife concept was much more exclusive than the Egyptian belief system at the time. In Egypt anyone who’d had the right rituals performed could become Osiris in the afterlife, but in Napata it was restricted to royalty. Interestingly this is also reflected in other ways in their society – the only statues found are of royalty or deities, no nobles or officials or priests or anyone like that which is in contrast to Egypt. Also only Kings and Queens have Isis & Osiris amulets. Balanda said it’s about how the Napatan elite asserted their legitimacy (particularly with regards to their claim to rule over Egypt) – only they are descended from the mythical ancestor, only they will become him in death.

I found this a fascinating talk. It covered a time & place I’ve not heard much about before and it was also interesting to hear about tomb decoration as a cohesive whole rather than as pieces.