Mussarawat-Es-Sufra; The Lion Temple and Great Enclosure

We went to Sudan on a bit of a whim, to follow the history south from Egypt and to see the pyramids at Meroe. As  I've said elsewhere we underestimated the wealth of historical sites in Sudan and the interest we'd have in their antiquities. Having seen the pyramid field at Meroe we were done, how much better could it get? We'd seen what we came for but once again we underestimated the scale, quality and beauty of the Nubian sites we were to see on our drive back to Khartoum including Mussarawat and Naga which I will cover in a separate blogpost. This was the heartland of the Kush and as we travelled south we were moving forward in time to see the later Nubian monuments. 

They didn't disappoint, (well they couldn't really!) because once again we had little to no expectation but Mussarawat was magnificent in its isolated splendor , silent and stunning alone in the desert,  what a place to end our Sudanese trip. As with everything in Sudan getting there was part of the adventure and the flat desert  landscape encircled by hills was spectacular. These sites really feel like they're are out in the middle of nowhere and  as UNESCO concluded when granting World Heritage status, "They have been subject to no inappropriate interventions of any significance since their abandonment and their places in the natural landscape have not been compromised or degraded." Indeed I'd say they're pretty hard to find! We drove and drove on dirt tracks that I would have found impossible to follow until we came upon the Lion Temple the first of three sites separate with  kilometers between each.
The first was a beautiful Nubian Lion temple (235-217BC), situated near to a  small reservoir where nomads came on donkey back to collect water and to bring their herds of sheep and goat to drink. Apparently this has been a spring for millennia and this may explain the location of the temple itself. Here you can see the scene this small child on donkey back looked down on was timeless.
The temple itself (though plan on the front facade) was very impressive and once again we could see the distinctively Nubian decoration in combination with a classically Egyptian architectural form. Dedicated to the local lion god Apedemak the more naturalistic representations of the rulers on the exterior  marks this as  a masterpiece of Nubian art with its distinctively African bodies with rounded hips and tight short hair.  
Above, you see the Egyptian poses of the figure in prayer, venerating  the god with arms held out in front, but  while the representation  is still static and two dimensional it is no longer stylized as a slender, sylph like Pharaoh. Here the King and Queen look like "real people"  and as such they speak directly to the viewer across  the thousands of years since their deaths. The Queen is a little harder to distinguish below.
For someone who has looked at innumerable Egyptian sites and tombs and seen an artistic tradition that maintained itself rigidly over thousands of years from the Old to the New Kingdom this transformation of form is a radical departure. Once again I was saying if we had seen nothing else in Sudan this would have been enough to justify the journey. Here was the Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs  with an artistic example that spoke to their distinctive cultural existence, that drew from Egypt but was not limited by Egyptian aesthetic expression.
As our guide Ayad explained to us, in comparison with traditional Egyptian artistic representations of the Pharaohs  you can see far more ornamentation, jewelry and decoration on the Nubian figures. Additionally the Queen is represented   on the same scale as the male King figure, rather than in a diminutive form, speaking to the prominent role of Queenship  in Nubian culture.
In addition to the exterior decorative work the temple was heavily decorated inside as well with images of daily life including farming.

Below you can see captives on the lower right, held along the neck by rope in a line and a elephant carved on the left. This representation is significant as the nearby Royal Palace may have been  a center for elephants which may have had a religious significance. A great deal of this is unknown but there are images  of elephants and broad, wide ramps to be found here. Nubia played a pivotal role in trade between the Egyptian empire  to the north and African kingdoms to the south and certainly goods including animals and animal products where a key part of the route. Even today Sudan continues to export both camels and meat to Egypt.
 Below are some of the interior carvings.
The lion god Apedemak to home the temple is dedicated sitting under the seat of the king and transmitting power to him. As you can see the columns are beautifully rendered. Interestingly it's worth noting that the temple was renovated by the East Germans in 1969.
While the pictures below are rather poor I also wanted to share these images  from the interior of winged Assyrian lions. This speaks to the incorporation of religious and cultural images from other societies. Significantly the 671BC and 663 BC  Assyrian invasions ended Nubian rule of Egypt and the  rule of the of the Nubian Pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. It is the Nubian sucessors of the this Dynasty that retreated to Napata and establish the Meroitic culture that thrived in relative isolation through the Fourth Century AD. The Met Museum has a wonderful page on this period here if you'd like further historical details. Below is the familiar Assyrian winged lion with the wings emerging powerfully from the shoulders., carved in a column in the interior of the temple.
Below the image from an interior wall is a little harder to see, the wings of the lion fan out on the right beside his face.
The sense of cultural confluence that you get from these Nubian sites is one of the most compelling  parts of a visit here. Slowly we were gathering up threads of history and  geography to weave an understanding of how Nubian fit into our understandings of Egyptian history. The next site in the large temple complex at Mussarawat was the nearby "Great Enclosure", covering an enormous area,  including temple complexes, gardens, courtyards and ancient reservoirs much of which appears to be un-excavated
This large site is unlike anything else in either Egypt or Nubia but very little is currently known about it and oddly they have found little evidence of large scale residential occupation - raising questions about what exactly these complexes were used for? It is presumed to  have been some sort of significant religious, or perhaps fertility center. As you can see there are a number of decorative, bound papyrus style pillars.
A number of Nubian Queens are said to have resided here and as I mentioned above there seems to be some connection with elephants, leading some to say it was an elephant temple, training or breeding center. However,  the current archeological record remains open on exactly how and why the site was utilized. Here you can see an elephant statue. 
And, below the long, low ramp believed to have been used by elephants.
It may be from 1937 but someone needs to tell Holroyd it is still graffiti and UNESCO would not be pleased! Incidentally we saw his name carved at several sites and you can read more about him here.
We had exactly the same experience  of the  captivating vast emptiness of Mussarawat and Naga as as the travel writer Paul Therouux,  and I can’t put it any better than he did in his book Dark Star Safari, “The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesa like mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away"
If you haven't read my other Sudan posts you can find them here and as always our highest recommendation goes to our travel agent Waleed at Lendi Travel who made all of the ease we found in traveling in Sudan possible.