“Sâî is a difficult place to reach”

Currently preparing the next volume of AcrossBorders’ monographs dedicated to our work on Sai, I am just delighted to read some phrases about the history of research of the island.

The following is an account by Wallis Budge (Budge 1907) which I have illustrated with some pictorial memories of this splendid site in Upper Nubia where so much more work remains to be done in the future.

 “Sâî is a difficult place to reach, unless the traveller has his own boat with him. On January 2nd, 1821, Cailliaud crossed the river on a raft made of reeds and pieces of palm trunk.” (Budge 1907, 463)

“Hoskins in June, 1832, needed no raft, for the water in the Western channel only came up to the camel’s knees, and he passed over to the island from the mainland without difficulty.” (Budge 1907, 463)

“Burckhardt, who must have been there in the winter, could obtain the use of neither ferry nor raft, and was therefore obliged to abandon his projected visit.” (Budge 1907, 463)

On the following morning we had our boats loaded early, and dropped down the Nile with the current; as there was no wind we made good progress. In about two hours we sighted a mass of ruined walls which were built on the extreme edge of the Island of Sâî, close to the river. We found a convenient place on the bank and landed, and then climbed up a steep, rough path to the remains of what is called the “Castle of Sâî.”” (Budge 1907, 461)


Budge, E.A. Wallis, The Egyptian Sudan. Its History and monuments, vo. I, London 1907.



Update of the research on the so-called temple towns in New Kingdom Nubia

In the last few months I was very busy with the review of the literature so far published  concerning especially the New Kingdom architectural remains which the Egyptians left on their way from north to south during the so-called conquest of Nubia and afterwards.

I commenced this task from a chronological point of view: with the “reoccupation” of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom fortresses between the First and Second Cataract. The common sense in Egyptological publications is that the Egyptians reused the Middle Kingdom fortresses such as e.g. Kuban, Ikkur, Aniba, Uronarti and Semna as staging posts at the beginning of the conquest and afterwards also as residential areas sometimes with the feature of an newly built Egyptian stone temple (säve-söderbergh 1941; Trigger 1976); Adams 1977; Bard 2007; Heidorn 1999). One point of the thesis is to clarify whether these fortress settlements played a role in the development of the temple towns as kind of ancestors or if the latter is a peculiar type of settlement specific for New Kingdom Nubia.

Studying relevant publications it became clear that the evidence of the so often mentioned reoccupation and renovation of the forts in the New Kingdom is rather hard to find. Also the meaning and usage of this obviously exchangeable description of reusing of the forts attracted my attention. It is not in any case clear if the authors really differentiate in general between undertaken renovation in the course of the reoccupation or the restoration of the defensive fortifications (e.g. Emery 1965; Trigger 1976; Adams 1977; Bard, 2007; Heidorn 1999). Of course it makes a difference concerning the nature of the settlement to speak of reoccupied or refortified settlements. Thus I searched intensively in the old excavation reports and publications for any hint of New Kingdom construction activity in the Middle Kingdom forts (like Emery & Kirwan 1935; Steindorff 1937; Randall-MacIver & Woolley 1911; Emery etal. 1979; Dunham & Janssen 1960; Dunham 1967). But unfortunately in most cases there is only little building activity or material post-dating the Middle Kingdom mentioned, because the main focus lies on the primary architecture and remains. Another issue in this respect is in general the dating of the late Middle Kingdom and/orSecond Intermediate Period material: it still remains unclear whether some of the fortresses have been still occupied during the Intermediate Period or not.

What I can say by now is that serious reconstruction and restoration of the fortifications only took place at Aniba and Buhen, where it is proofed by archaeological evidence. In contrast, because of absence of archaeological evidence, Semna seems not to have been refortified as always stated in the literature (Reisner 1929a; Säve-Söderbergh 1941; Adams 1977; Bard 2007; Heidorn), but indeed reoccupied, attested by the presence of a New Kingdom temple and cemetery (Reisner 1929b; Dunham & Janssen 1960). Another observation I made concerns the fortress of Askut near the Second Cataract. Excavation work was conducted there in the 1960ies by Badawy and the excavated material was reinvestigated by S. T. Smith in the 1990ies (Badawy 1964; Badawy 1968; Smith 1995; Smith 2003). They plausible ascertained a New Kingdom occupation phase at Askut, but still this fortress is often neglected in general studies concerning the New Kingdom occupation phase in Nubia (e.g. Emery 1965; Trigger 1976; Adams 1977; Bard, 2007; Heidorn).

Further and detailed studies are necessary to give an answer to the development-issue of the temple towns and to the dating-issue of the maybe continuously settled or indeed reoccupied fortresses. But the fresh evaluation and reconsideration of the literature shows by now some interesting first results.


Adams, W. Y. 1977      Nubia. Corridor to Africa, London.

Badawy, A. 1964      Preliminary report on the excavations by the University of California at Askut, Kush 12, 47–56.

Badawy, A. M. 1968      A history of Egyptian Architecture. The Empire (the New Kingdom), Berkely.

Bard, K. A. 2007      An introduction to the archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Malden, Mass.

Dunham, D. 1967      Uronarti, Shalfak, Mirgissa: excavated by George Andrew Reisner and Noel F. Wheeler, Second cataract forts 2, Boston.

Dunham, D. & Janssen, J. J. 1960      Semna, Kumma, Second cataract forts 1, Boston.

Emery, W. B. 1965      Egypt in Nubia, London.

Emery, W. B. & Kirwan, L. P. 1935      The excavations and survey between Wadi es-Sebua and Adindan 1929 – 1931., Mission Archéologique de Nubie 1929 – 1934, Cairo.

Emery, W. B., Smith, H. S. & Millard, A. 1979      Excavations at Buhen. The archaeological report, Excavation memoir 49, London.

Heidorn, L. A. 1999      Nubian towns and temples, 579–583, in: Bard, K. A. & Shubert, S. B. (Hrsg.), Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt, London, New York.

Randall-MacIver, D. & Woolley, L. 1911      Buhen, Eckley B. Coxe Junior expedition to Nubia 7, Philadelphia.

Reisner, G. A. 1929a    Ancient Egyptian forts at Semna and Uronarti, Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 27, 64–75.

Reisner, G. A. 1929b    Excavations at Semna and Uronarti, Sudan notes and records 12.

Säve-Söderbergh, T. 1941      Ägypten und Nubien: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte altägyptischer Aussenpolitik, Lund.

Smith, S. T. 1995      Askut in Nubia. The economics and ideology of Egyptian imperialism in the second millennium B.C, Studies in Egyptology, London, New York.

Smith, S. T. 2003      Wretched Kush. Ethnic identities and boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian empire, London, New York.

Steindorff, G. 1937      Aniba. Mission Archéologique de Nubie 1929 – 1934. 2, Glückstadt.

Trigger, B. 1976      Nubia under the pharaohs, Ancient peoples and places 85, London.

Ahmose Nebpehtyre in Upper Nubia

Since the beginning of my studies, I always regarded king Ahmose Nebpehtyre as one of the key figures of Egyptian history. Having studied in Vienna with Manfred Bietak, the excavator of Avaris, the ancient Hyksos capital which was taken by Ahmose as the first king of the 18th Dynasty, this is of course no surprise. I was furthermore fortunate to join Stephen Harvey and his excavation in the Ahmose complex at Abydos in 2002 – ceramics datable to the reign of this king were now in my hands and have occupied me since then!

Joining the SIAM at Sai and especially with establishing AcrossBorders, Ahmose Nebpehtyre is now definitely one of the focal points of the project.

I am therefore delighted that an important epigraphic evidence of the king from Upper Nubia was just published in the new issue of Sudan & Nubia: Vivian Davies presents the fascinating results of the expedition led by Frederik William Green (1869-1949) from Halfa to Kareima in the winter of 1909-1910. Among the meticulous epigraphic documentation by Green there is not only the well-known building inscription by viceroy Nehi from Sai (Davies 2014, 7-8), but also the cartouche of king Ahmose Nebpehtyre near Jebel Kajbar, at Jebel Noh (Davies 2014, 9-10). It was rediscovered by the survey of the University of Khartoum and first published by Edwards with a photograph (Edwards 2006, 58-59, pl. 4). Davies can now provide the complete set of data: Green’s original copy of the cartouche, a photo and a new copy. He stresses the historical importance of this rock engraving: “It provides direct in-situ evidence of an Egyptian presence far south at the Third Cataract during the reign of the first king of the 18th Dynasty.” (Davies 2014, 10). He rightly adds to this: “Since the inscription is currently an isolated case, caution is required in drawing any firm conclusions at this point as to the nature of this presence.” (Davies 2014, 10). I strongly agree with Vivian Davies about the historical significance of this cartouche and that the precise nature of the earliest Egyptian occupation in Upper Nubia still has to be established by future excavations and a consideration of all sets of data (ceramics, archaeological evidence and textual sources).

The complete set of data will allow a re-assessment of the presence of the early 18th Dynasty in Upper Nubia.

The complete set of data will allow a re-assessment of the presence of the early 18th Dynasty in Upper Nubia.

For Sai, we can definitely attest an Egyptian presence in the earliest New Kingdom. The earliest strata within the Pharaonic town date, according to the ceramics, to the period of Ahmose Nebpehtyre to Thutmose I. This nicely complements the textual sources from the island, which also include references to Ahmose, especially his famous sandstone statue (Gabolde 2011–2012, 118-120).

Several Nubian campaigns are attested by king Ahmose Nebpehtyre (Morris 2005, 70-71), but we still know little about the precise setting of his battles and activities against the kingdom of Kerma. This is why the Jebel Noh cartouche is of such importance.

All in all, the ongoing archaeological work on Sai Island, and new evidence such as a rock engraving of king Ahmose Nebpehtyre close to the Third Cataract, support the idea that Sai functioned during the early 18th Dynasty as a “bridgehead into Kush proper and a secure launching pad for further campaigns” (Davies 2005, 51). With excavations at other sites like Sesebi and Doukki Gel we are currently getting closer to understand the Egyptian activities in Kush during the early New Kingdom.


Davies 2005 = Davies, W. V., Egypt and Nubia. Conflict with the Kingdom of Kush, in C. H. Roehrig (ed), Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharao, New York, 2005, 49-56.

Davies 2014 = Davies, W. V. 2014. From Halfa to Kareima: F. W. Green in Sudan, Sudan & Nubia 18, 2014, 2‒19.

Edwards 2006 = Edwards, D. N., Drawings on rocks, the most enduring monuments of Middle Nubia, Sudan & Nubia 10, 2006, 55-63.

Gabolde 2011–2012 = Gabolde, L., Réexamen des jalons de la présence de la XVIIIe dynastie naissante à Saï, CRIPEL 29, 2011-2012, 115–137.

Morris 2005 = Morris, E. F., The architecture of imperialism. Military bases and the evolution of foreign policy in Egypt’s New Kingdom, Probleme der Ägyptologie 22, Leiden/Boston 2005.

Pharaonic blocks and statues within the Ottoman fortress of Sai

Among other things we have been busy with reconstructing the history of research of Sai Island in the last weeks. Jördis collected all bibliographical data and available illustrations, especially of descriptions of the Ottoman fortress and the state of its ruins – in doing so we are hoping to get a better understanding of the multifaceted formation processes of the site, especially the state of preservation of the Pharaonic town which was overbuilt by the later fortress. It is therefore essential to review which blocks, columns and other worked stones were observed at what time and whether this corresponds to the current position of the stones blocks.

Current state of the ruins at Sai: remains of the New Kingdom town within the Ottoman fortress (view towards the Southeast).

Current state of the ruins at Sai: remains of the New Kingdom town within the Ottoman fortress (view towards the Southeast).

Spending this week in Berlin, I am not only meeting current and hopefully future team members, but I am also using the libraries here to check some of the travellers’ accounts we have been unable to trace in Vienna. Among the early travellers and explorers who visited Sai Island were Cailliaud, Hoskins, Bonomi, Wilkinson, Lepsius, W.A. Budge and also Louis M. A. Linant de Bellefonds. The latter was exploring the island on June 5, 1822 and I found his published report yesterday at Humboldt University. He describes the beauty of its landscape and also its archaeology – being full of monuments from the Egyptian, Christian and Ottoman eras. His focus is – like of the other early travellers – on the dominant monument, the Ottoman fortress, of which he left us a beautiful view in water colours. But Linant de Bellefonds also mentions Pharaonic blocks within this castle. He describes in particular the Ottoman gate of the fortress in the south – and notes that it was built with several reused blocks, some of them coming from a Pharaonic temple.

Reused blocks forming the southern gate of the Ottoman fortress (Jan. 2014, photo: Nicole Mosiniak).

Reused blocks forming the southern gate of the Ottoman fortress (Jan. 2014, photo: Nicole Mosiniak).

What stroke me in particular while reading his description yesterday is the following sentence: « Il y a parmi ces pierres [clearly referring to stones around the gate] les restes de deux statues qui paraissent avoir été d’un bien beau travail. » (Shinnie 1958: 191). Two statues of good quality – maybe I am here just a typical victim of Egyptological subjectiveness, but I was immediately thinking of the two seated royal statues of Ahmose Nebpehtyra and Amenhotep I. Could they have been visible already in the 1820ties? It was Blackman and Fairman who reported the discovery of the lower part of the Ahmose’s statue in 1937 – having been found in the Ottoman fortress (see Arkell 1950: 34).

The two statues are now in the Khartoum National Museum and are among the most debated monuments from Sai (Davies 2004; Gabolde 2011-2012) – there is an ongoing argument whether the statue of Ahmose was set up during his lifetime (e.g. favored by Vivian Davies) or was a post-mortem monument erected by his son Amenhotep I (as e.g. believed by Luc Gabolde). It also remains unclear where the statues were originally standing – the small Amun-Ra temple (Temple A) located north of the Ottoman citadel dates to a later time (Thutmose III). I have proposed last year at conferences in Prague and London that these heb-sed statues are likely to belong to so-called Ka-chapels of the kings. Such chapels are known to have been located outside of fortresses during the Middle Kingdom and are sometimes simple mud brick structures – maybe explaining why a hwt-ka has not yet been found on Sai.

Upper part of the Ahmose Nebpehtyra statue from Sai, now in the Khartoum National Museum - its head was found a bit further south than the lower part (Davies 2004).

Upper part of the Ahmose Nebpehtyra statue from Sai, now in the Khartoum National Museum – its head was found a bit further south than the lower part (Davies 2004).

Even if the statues seen by Linant de Bellefonds are not the ones of Ahmose and his son, I understand his account as an important hint that most of the Pharaonic statues discovered within the town area of Sai actually come from a well-defined and specific area: the southern part of the Ottoman citadel, especially from the surroundings of its gate. Whether this indicates a still unknown building near-by or simply reflects the gathering of dismantled Pharaonic structures at the steep slope towards the south remains uncertain for now. We will try to pay special attention to this part of Sai in the upcoming years hoping to be able to understand more of the very complex history of the site.


Arkell 1950 = A. J. Arkell, Varia Sudanica, JEA 36, 24–40.

Davies 2004 = W. V. Davies, Cat. 76, Statue of Amenhotep I, 102–103, in: D. A. Welsby and J. R. Anderson (eds.), Sudan. Ancient Treasures. An Exhibition of recent discoveries from the Sudan National Museum, London.

Gabolde 2011-2012 = L. Gabolde, Réexamen des jalons de la présence de la XVIIIe dynastie naissante à Saï, CRIPEL 29, 115–137.

Shinnie 1958 = M. Shinnie (ed.), Linant de Bellefonds: Journal d’un voyage à Méroé dans les années 1821 et 1822, Occasional papers, Sudan Antiquities Service 4, Khartoum.