Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.01

Charles Bonnet, Dominique Valbelle, The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings of the Nile. Translated by Deke Dusinberre.   Cairo and New York:  The American University in Cairo Press, 2006.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 977-416-010-X.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Anthony Spalinger, University of Auckland (
Word count: 1342 words

This sumptuous volume, replete with breath-taking and technically oriented photographs, is mainly the work of Prof. Charles Bonnet of Geneva University. As the primary excavator and organizer of the present archaeological work at Kerma, Bonnet has literally sifted through all of the stratigraphic levels of his site in order to give the reader an up-to-date analysis of this important region. With the indispensable assistance of Dr. Valbelle, to whom we owe the translations of the hieroglyphs and expert facsimiles of the texts, the various Kushite and Meroitic statues found in an unexpected cache at Kerma are introduced. This discovery was the impetus for the publication, in French, of the original 2005 edition.

Yet this study is far more than a mere compendium of ten or so statues. Quite to the contrary, Bonnet decided to offer the interested public a thorough analysis of the cultural history of Kerma, based upon his own work along with that of earlier researchers such as G. A. Reisner. Owing to this perspective, the reader will understand the development of Kerma over millennia before he or she, with anticipation, encounters these hitherto "hidden" statues. As a result, the entire work is well organized and does not suffer from too much concentration upon one solitary theme. Moreover, Bonnet and Valbelle complement each other in producing a remarkable volume, one that is of use to the educated layperson as well as to the specialist. Except for the somewhat amusing subtitle of the work and a few blemishes in translation -- see common errors in the use of the English definite article with place names (e.g., "in Sudan" for "in the Sudan") -- this book reads well, provides helpful chronological charts (pp. 210-11), and supplies an abbreviated bibliography for future consultation.

The development of Kerma over time, both historically and archeologically, forms the opening sections of the work. We begin with the slow rise of this trading entrepĂ´t, ideally located so as to communicate, almost effortlessly, east and westwards. The murky period of Old Kerma (ca. 2450 to 2050 B.C.) is explicated in remarkably great detail. Even the uncertainty of Bonnet's datings should matter little to the engaged reader. After all, how secure are these absolute figures which, naturally, must depend heavily upon native Egyptian synchronisms? The Classic Kerma phase (ca. 1750 to 1450 B.C.), most familiar to us because of the rise of a great civilization, ended with the invasion of Thutmose III into the heartland of Kush.

Bonnet does not only spend time describing these different chronological blocks. He is keen to emphasize the social, archaeological, and material remains of each. For example, he notes the use of unfired bricks at Kerma ca. 2200-2000 B.C., a technique that surely came from the north. Likewise, he points out the expansion of settlement in the Middle Kerma Period (2050 to 1750 B.C.), when there was a distinct movement beyond the older native fortifications. For further details about the buttress-type fortifications at Kerma, one might consult Ellen Morris' study, The Architecture of Imperialism: Military Bases and the Evolution of Foreign Policy in Egypt's New Kingdom (Leiden, 2005). This subject should have merited a bit more of Bonnet's attention, considering the obvious military importance of the site. I have in mind the New Kingdom development of Doukki Gel and the remarkable pavement later constructed for a royal palace. Additional points worth developing include the traces of the Amarna Period at Kerma and the description of the Kushite temple of Pnubs. The latter is, in fact, given a separate treatment.

The second half of the work covers Kerma in Napatan and Meroitic times. Here, the emphasis on Dynasty XXV is acute. Bonnet focuses in particular on classic Meroitic pottery, which is remarkably fine and aesthetically pleasing. One key photograph on page 41 should dispel the canard that these peoples were inferior to the Egyptians in pottery production and artistic design of ceramics.

Nonetheless, the volume is centered upon the astounding cache of royal statues. The art historian will not be disappointed. Bonnet has provided wonderful detailed photographs of these objects, in situ and standing on their own. We can examine the fashioning of the eyes, feet, mouths, heads, kilts, belts, the mekes scepter, and the head pendants of these statues. Bonnet discusses both local Kushite artists operating within a long canon of tradition and the Egyptian sculptors who worked during Dynasty XXV and immediately thereafter. This extremely important find covers the following rulers: Tanutamun, Anlamani, Aspelta, and Senkamanisken. As is to be expected, the authors' commentary is as significant as are the photographs. Indeed, this section of the volume could stand alone as a self-contained study of royal statuary from Kerma. I found particularly helpful the discussions "Kushite Artists of Egyptian Inspiration" and "Egyptian Sculptors in Nubia." The authors explore other royal depictions in order to buttress their arguments.

The work does not end with this catalogue of recent finds. Bonnet and Valbelle have provided an exciting -- and that is the correct word -- historical analysis of Dynasty XXV combating the Assyrians. The final third of the book entails a more closely organized approach to Kushite and Meroitic history. Additional new photographs of well-known and not so famous statues and representations of the kings form an effective visual complement to the text. I was particularly intrigued by the excellent reproduction of the Zincirli Stela of Esarhaddon as well as a detail of Assurbanipal in his eight-spoked chariot. Then too, when the writers describe the eventual Saite expansion in Upper Egypt, both Tanutamun and Psammetichus I get their deserved place in the narrative. Well-chosen images additionally confirm the historical outline. For example, it is helpful to see Aspelta's "Election Stela" (now located in the Cairo Museum), his sarcophagus (Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and his equally well-known Year 3 Stela (Louvre). Then the war of Psammetichus II against the Kushite kingdom is insightfully discussed, accompanied by a further series of outstanding photographic renditions.

Last but not least, I appreciated the section "Ritual Deposits in Egypt and Nubia". Although this portion of the book is slim, it complements the final one to no small extent: "The Life and Death of Statues in the Temple". In fact, this pair of subsections presents a new approach for understanding royal or private caches. Both, as well, call into view Egyptian parallels to the Kerma discovery and hence raise intriguing questions of a religious and historical nature. For instance, we are shown reliefs from Karnak and Luxor that aid us in the reconstruction of the original use for these statues.

The text is detailed enough to be read assiduously by scholars and tempting enough to capture the attention of the curious readers from many backgrounds. It appeals to a broader range of interests beyond the geographical. Nevertheless, by an effective merger of prose and picture, it conveys a remarkable survey of Kerma and the long history of how a small garrisoned settlement expanded in Upper Nubia vis-à-vis the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, so that, although the Egyptians of the New Kingdom administered it, Kerma's unique importance persisted down to the end of Christianity.

One cannot praise more this joint work of Bonnet-Valbelle except to state that an equally sharp eye upon the physical remains serves to balance its up-to-date presentation. We can sense their excitement in the subsection dealing with the discovery of the statues. The photographic reproductions of the originals in situ give us a deeper appreciation of the importance of this find. I suspect that the keen archaeological training and ability of Bonnet is reflected in the careful positioning of all sorts of objects and scenes that are illustrated in the book.

Although this volume deserves much praise owing to the integration of a fine text with fine photographs, it also indicates a successful end to one of the most exciting recent discoveries in the heartland of Nubia. Kerma definitely has much more to show us, and we are thankful for the two authors' painstaking approach to detail. This volume ought to be on the shelves of Nubiologistsand Egyptologists.

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