An ancient African king and his queen stand before his patron deity, offering gifts in thanks for victory in battle. The king is Nastasen, one of the last rulers of the Napatan dynasty of Nubia. His vast territory extended from its northern border with Egypt near Aswan, continuing south up the twisting course of the Nile to the vicinity of Khartoum, the modern capital of Sudan. To the Egyptians, Nubia was known as Ta-Seti, or “Land of the Bow.”
The royal couple stands in a hieratically fixed form in the presence of the supreme authority of Amun, the god of creation and guarantor of the king’s rule. Nastasen presents him with a string of beads and a long-handled bucket containing a liquid offering. Behind him stands his queen, Sakhmakh. She shakes a sistrum, or ritual rattle played to summon the goddess Isis. The queen also pours out a libation from a slender vase. Through the medium of divine adoption, order is assured in the affairs of his realm.
More than 5 feet high and made from a single slab of granite, the engraved monument, or stele, constitutes one of the most informative documents of the late Napatan period. Below the royal images appear dozens of lines of text. Recorded in one of the last known examples of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, the account sheds considerable light on the history of this important monarch. In modern reckoning, it bears the precise date of Nov. 24 during the eighth year of Nastasen’s reign and was carved in commemoration of his victory over Kambasuten, a ruler to the north who had led destructive raids against Nubian territory.
Nastasen’s line was founded by strong leaders who conquered all of Egypt during the late eighth century B.C. For about 70 years, rulers such as Taharqa commanded the entire course of the Nile down to the Mediterranean. Under the 25th, or Ethiopian, dynasty, the traditional religious and social order of ancient Egypt was restored. Shortly after the midseventh century B.C., the Nubian occupation of Egypt first faltered, then ended in retreat along the rising territory of the upper Nile. Though much of the subsequent history of the Napatan dynasty remains poorly documented, it seems that the regime remained stable through Nastasen’s own time 300 years later.
The geology of the land itself shaped key cultural aspects of Nubian civilization. Located near a bend in the Nile about 200 miles north of Khartoum, the impressive rock formation known as Gebel Barkal became one of the chief anchoring points of Nubian culture. Isolated against a wide plateau, the steep escarpments of the massive outcropping were venerated from prehistoric times as the site of the origin of the world. In Nubian cosmology, Amun himself resided within Gebel Barkal. At its base lay a series of great temples, the most important of which was dedicated to Amun. It was there, within the temple precinct, that the stele of Nastasen was originally set up.
When Egyptian forces invaded Nubia during the midsecond millennium B.C., the new masters quickly identified Gebel Barkal as the birthplace of one of their chief gods, Amun. For the Nubians, the visible aspect of this deity took the form of a ram-headed human figure, reflecting the already age-old presence of a local ram cult. In Egypt itself, this new form of the god was added to the pantheon of deities venerated at the great religious center of Thebes. Such a definitive example of religious syncretism underscores the often unacknowledged importance of Nubia’s contribution to the culture of its neighbor to the north.
The sacred mountain carried great meaning for the progress of Nastasen’s rule. According to the inscription on his stele, Amun called to him to proceed to Napata, where a council of priests who interpreted the god’s oracle would vet his succession to the throne. The importance of the peculiarly shaped mountain for the imperial ruler’s cult is underscored by the very design of his court regalia.
One of the several headpieces worn by Nubian kings of this period consisted of a tight cap worn around the head with a projecting piece above the forehead. Its form has been interpreted as a mimetic reference to the shape of Gebel Barkal itself, with its distinctive pinnacle rising at one end of its rounded mass.
The stele of Nastasen sheds a great deal of light on a transitional period in the history of ancient Nubia. Not long after the end of his reign, the capital of Nubia was transferred up the Nile to the important administrative and commercial center of Meroë. There, it seems that one or more ruling families vied with the royal line of the Napatan dynasty. For more than a half-millennium, the Meroitic kingdom of Kush remained a significant power in the region. The economy of Meroë thrived on trade with Egypt and the Red Sea area, and its rulers cooperated with the Egyptians in the maintenance of temples in lower Nubia.
Otherwise, however, the culture of Meroë evolved at a greater distance from Egyptian influence than in previous periods. If the Napatan dynasty of Nastasen can be characterized by its close, sometimes adversarial, relationship with Egypt, the subsequent history of Nubia followed a more independent course. The use of traditional Egyptian hieroglyphic writing for formal inscriptions was replaced by texts formulated in the quite different, and still largely undeciphered, native Meroitic language.
In art, the kingdom’s rulers bear more clearly African characteristics. Ritual scarring of the face and body become common, probably influenced by Meroë’s close contacts with the tribal cultures of central Africa. Tomb architecture also changed significantly, reflecting models from the northern Sudan. The worship of ram-headed Amun and the fertility goddess Isis continued unabated, but added to the ruler’s official pantheon was the lion god Apedemek, a purely local deity.
Slowly a new world was emerging in Nubia, marked by shifting religious beliefs and political allegiances. What remained constant was the resilience of a people adapted to their land along the meandering course of the Nile, often living much as they did when Nastasen paid tribute to his god.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.