Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile El-Kurru, Sudan


Temple and pyramid at El-Kurru.
The funerary temple and pyramid at El-Kurru. Photograph by Geoff Emberling.

Graffiti are informal marks in public built spaces. Some graffiti are written texts, others are images. Today, making graffiti can be an act of opposition, rebellion, or personal commentary. As in the modern world, graffiti in earlier times could be left on the walls in alleys, markets, streets, or bathrooms. But some ancient and medieval graffiti were also left in sacred spaces as marks of devotion.

This exhibition, on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology from August 23, 2019 to March 29, 2020, presents a group of devotional graffiti found in 2015 by a Kelsey Museum archaeological project at the site of El-Kurru, located on the Nile River in northern Sudan.

Camels in northern Sudan being taken to Cairo on the Darb el-Arbain (Forty Day Road). Photograph by Geoff Emberling.
Nile River.
The 4th Cataract Region of the Nile River in northern Sudan. Photograph by Geoff Emberling.

El-Kurru is best known as a pyramid cemetery for kings and queens of ancient Kush from 850 to 650 BCE, including some who conquered and ruled over Egypt as its 25th Dynasty (ca. 715–653 BCE). Three centuries later, a new pyramid was begun at the site for an unknown king, along with a funerary temple to preserve his memory. While these later structures were never finished or used, in later times they became sacred sites of pilgrimage. Pilgrims came because they believed these buildings to be powerful, holy places, and they carved graffiti as signs of their devotion.

It is clear that the ancient and medieval graffiti in the Middle Nile region were marks of personal worship rather than idle doodles. They are concentrated in particular places and include images related to offerings (offering stands and tables), to the movement associated with pilgrimage (feet, sandals, and boats), and other religious symbols (sacred animals, for example).

Join Kelsey archaeologists and conservators on a journey to the Nubian desert to explore the fascinating phenomenon of ancient devotional graffiti.