The Kingdom of Kerma

By 2500 BC, the pre-Kerma polity has already developed into the powerful kingdom of Kush. Kerma remained the center of the Kushite kingdom for the next thousand years or more. The archeology of the town testifies to the power and wealth of the city, which ultimately became the center of civilization in Sudan.

Seated Figure. From Kerma, Sudan. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.

Although we do not have concrete evidence on the governship system of Kerma, archeological data and historical sources suggest that the state structure resembled an oligarchy. The Kerma elite class was an expanded one. Authority and political power was distributed among the elites; hence, the authority of a monarch was not necessarily absolute. This power structure somewhat echoes the future political system of the Kushite state when political power was distributed between the royalty, the priesthood, and the military.

The extravagant royal tombs uncovered from the cemeteries of Kerma reflect the prestige and status of the Kushite royalty. The tombs were topped with white-plastered mound superstructures, some reaching 90 meters in diameter,1 accompanied by massive mud-brick mortuary chapels. The tombs yielded large quantities of items of fine qualities such as jewelry, model ships, pottery, and weapons.2 In addition, the burials included large numbers of human (and animal) sacrifices. While some of the scarified humans were buried alive others were slain. In a single burial, 322 human sacrifices were discovered. Another burial revealed 4,000 cattle sacrifices.3

Found within the necropolises of Kerma were a number of statues. Unfortunately, the identities of most of the statues' commissioners have not been known. However, a few statues were identified as belonging to individuals residing in Upper Egyptian cities, such as Asyut.4 Since Kerma extended its northern border to Upper Egypt during the Second Intermediate period, such statues were probably commissioned by Kushite governors or officials residing in Upper Egypt.

Although our understanding of Kerma's political system will remain somewhat vague, we are able to use a wide range of historical and archeological indications to make four broad observations. First, Kerma's governship system was dominated by a class of elites around which a ruler acted as the presiding authority. As suggested earlier, the archeology of the town indicates that the elites were too wealthy and empowered to allow one monarch to gain absolute power. Second, the large sizes of the town's religious structures suggest that the priesthood was powerful. Third, the large quantities of weaponry recovered from graves, along with the strong fortification system that shape the architectural planning of the town, indicate militarization. This suggests that the military leadership was highly influencial in the power structure of the state.

  • 1 Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University Dept. of Social and Political Science, Yale University Publications in Anthropology Section of Anthropology Published for the Department of Anthropology, Yale University, by the Yale UP, 1965).
  • 2 G. A. Reisner, Excavations at Kerma I-V, Harvard African Studies (Cambridge, Mass , 1923).
  • 3 C. Bonnet, "Les fouilles archéologiques de Kerma: Rapport préliminaire sur les campagnes de 1997-1998 et 1998-1999," Genava XLVII: 57-74.
  • 4 D. Wildung, ed. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile, Trans. P. Der manuelian and K. Guillaume, (Paris - New York: Flammarion, 1997) 114-115.
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Jan. 2009.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.