Nubia in the New Kingdom: The Egyptians at Kurgus

Feb 3, 2019

Fig. 2: Hagar el-Merwa from the east.

Project description

The joint Sudan Archaeological Research Society-British Museum project between 1998 and 2012 investigated the many records left by the Egyptian military expeditions during the New Kingdom at Kurgus (today known as the Hagar el-Merwa), including two boundary stelae of the pharaohs Thutmose I and Thutmose III, and numerous other inscriptions.

Decorative program

The Hagar el-Merwa, a white quartz outcrop 40m long and 15m high, dominates the right bank of the Nile 40km upstream of the Nile bend at Abu Hamed. Carved and painted on the Hagar are many indigenous drawings and Egyptian inscriptions, the latter dating mostly from the 18th and 19th Dynasty.

“The most important area of decoration (A) occurs towards the southern end of the east side, where the rock face is naturally angled towards the rising sun. It consists of two large tableaux, one of Thutmose I, the other of Thutmose III, the latter closely simulating the former. Each has three components (Fig. 5), with large figural elements in zoomorphic form, a display designed to impress and intimidate on both a secular and cosmic level… In the most elevated position is a stela (Figs 5–7) showing the god Amun-Ra, in criocephalous guise (probably representing the assimilation of a native deity), facing left, offering life and dominion to the king embodied in his Horus-figure and name within the serekh (‘Strong bull beloved of Maat’ and ‘Strong Bull Arising in Thebes’ respectively). The scene surmounts four horizontal lines of inscription, the text warning off potential intruders. To the left (Figs 5, 8) is the figure of a bull, facing right, identified as the self-generating ‘Amun- Ra-Bull-of-his-Mother’, the image of the bull here cleverly serving two functions: as an enlarged hieroglyph, writing the element kꜢ of the god’s name kꜢ-mwt.f; and as a rare representation of the god himself in bull-form. To the right (Figs 5, 9–10), facing left and balancing the bull, is the figure of a walking lion, by far the largest of the images and very finely done, identified by a cartouche with prenomen as the king.”

“The asymmetrical disposition of the various components (see Fig. 5) is due to the variable quality of the rock surface, the decoration being placed where the rock required minimal preparation. The artists of Thutmose I, who were first at the site, took advantage of the best spaces, his stela in the centre, his bull at the lower left, and lion at the lower right occupying the optimal surfaces. The figures were initially drafted in red paint. They were dressed internally and the outline carved (or, rather, hammered), not always in full. Details were then added in red, as was the final outline. Most of the red has now gone, though it is reasonably well preserved on the Thutmose III figures, especially the lion. Owing to the uneven rock surface, the sculptors struggled to follow the drafted forms of the hieroglyphs, which were often clumsily finished, here and throughout. Occasionally they took advantage of natural faults and ridges in the stone to help shape the signs. The material, especially in its eroded state, poses a significant challenge to the modern epigrapher.”

“The Egyptians paid no respect to the indigenous drawings already present on the rock. The bulls and associated inscriptions partly obliterate a scene of animals including cattle and at least one anthropomorph (possibly representing a drover) progressing towards the right (Fig. 8). The lower lion similarly covers an earlier scene of animals facing left, painted in red (Fig. 9). This lion was in turn disfigured by mounted-quadruped figures, much later in date, the only post-Pharaonic decoration so far identified on the rock.”

“A few privileged individuals, including three ‘king’s sons’, were permitted to have their names and titles inscribed in very close proximity to the sacred area (A) demarcated by the animal figures (see Fig. 5).”

“Female elite were also represented on the Hagar el-Merwa. They were granted their own special area, in a complementary location on the west side of the rock (C)… The name and title of Thutmose I’s senior queen, ‘Great king’s wife, Ahmose’, are found here with those of certain of her officials (Fig. 15).”

“The bulk of the inscriptions, comprising the names and titles of other members of the expeditionary forces, are recorded along the east face of the rock on either side (D and B) of the sacred area (A). Almost all were written in columns, facing right, some carved and finished in red paint (mostly gone), others done entirely in red paint, these latter generally located in areas of the rock covered by a light brown patina on which the red stands out.”

Documentation method

Not specified by the author.

‘Colleagues who have assisted with the epigraphic work during the various seasons at Kurgus comprise El-Tahrir El-Nour, Ikhlas Abdel Latief, Renée Friedman, Marcel Marée, Ilona Regulski, Claire Thorne and Jake Wilson… Drawings for this paper have been inked-in by Will Schenck. Illustrations have been prepared for publication by Claire Thorne and Xavier Droux… The photographs are by the author unless otherwise indicated.”

Visual example(s)

Fig. 5: Pharaonic decoration on main face (A). 

Kurgus rock inscriptions (Photo by the The Sudan Archaeological Research Society)

Stela of Thutmose I. (Fig. 6 on the left) and Stela of Thutmose III (Fig. 7 on the right).

Fig. 8: Bulls of Thutmose III (upper) and Thutmose I (lower) placed over indigenous decoration.

Fig. 9: Lion of Thutmose I. 

Fig. 13: Inscriptions on west side (C). 

Fig. 10: Lion of Thutmose III. 

Inscriptions C1–6 (Fig. 15 on the left) and various inscriptions from Area B (Fig. 19 on the right).

What we like

  • Carved decorative elements bearing a distinguishable outline (hieroglyphic texts, god representations etc.) are indicated as a single-weight outline drawing.

  • The often-faded painted remains (hieroglyphs, animals, internal details, preliminary sketches etc.) are represented by a texture fill (targeting pigment traces) rather than solid outline drawings. This technique is not only essential for the brush strokes’ faithful representation, but also provides a clear visual distinction between carved and painted elements. 

  • As an additional characteristic differentiator, textual and figurative remains that were originally applied in red paint are indicated by using the same color in the visual representation.

  • A series of peck-marks marking large areas of figurative rock-art signify yet another layer of information. These decorative features are shown through an additional set of texturing indicated with solid black ink on the drawings. 

  • Distinct surface formations (damaged areas, cracks etc.) that interrupt the decorative elements are represented by only a few grey, single-weight lines, so as not to interfere with the clarity of the drawings.

Additional reading

For the original context of the material appearing in this article, see:

W. Vivian Davies: “Nubia in the New Kingdom: The Egyptians at Kurgus” in: Nubia in the New Kingdom, Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan, 3 (2017): 65-105.

To read more about the ongoing investigations at Kurgus, visit The Sudan Archaeological Research Society’s website.

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

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