I had wanted to visit the sites linked to the Soleb Lions (also known as the ‘Prudhoe Lions’) at the British Museum ever since childhood. I would hold my grandfather’s hand as we stood and playfully growled at these two realistic-looking red granite lions. The lions had been moved at least once in antiquity – along with six black granite rams – to Gebel Barkal in Sudan by the kings of Kush. They had originally been carved during the reign of Amenhotep III for his Temple of Amun, located between the Second and Third Nile Cataracts at Soleb. Various inscriptions had been added to them during the reigns of Amenhotep IV, Tutankhamun, Ay, and the Meroitic king Amanislo (the Ethiopian king Amonasro in Verdi’s opera Aïda). It is widely believed to be Amanislo (c.260-250 BC) who moved them from Soleb to Gebel Barkal.
There were other items that I had seen from Sudan in museums around the world that had intrigued me in more recent times, including Taharqo’s Shrine in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In the summer of 2022, I visited the excellent Pharaoh of the Two Lands – the African story of the kings of Napata exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, and was struck by the exquisite beauty of the giant 3D-printed replica statues of the Napatan kings that had been found at a place called Dukki Gel. From that moment, I hoped one day to go and see the originals.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Sudan was marked as red (against all travel) by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), so I had to put my plans to travel there on hold. Once travel restrictions began to be lifted, I seized the opportunity to book a bespoke trip for me and my friend Paul, for spring 2023. I will not elaborate on how to obtain the visas and travel permits now that Sudan is once again on the red travel list (like many others, I was horrified by news of the outbreak of fighting five weeks after my trip), but we landed in Khartoum after an uneventful flight from Cairo and were driven to our accommodation – the legendary Acropole Hotel – deep in the heart of downtown Khartoum. It was the end of February, but the temperature was still 36° Celsius at 8pm as we took a short stroll past the Republican Palace, down to the Nile.
The following morning we met our guide (Ibrahim) and driver (Mohamed), and loaded up into a Toyota Hilux that was to be our transport for the next fortnight. We enjoyed an engaging stop at the medieval site of Old Dongola, given a tantalising glimpse of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty there by an archaeologist from the Polish mission who was working at the site of an early Christian citadel. He showed us some recently discovered blocks bearing pharaonic hieroglyphs. Whether this was evidence of a pharaonic settlement at the site itself, or they were simply blocks that had been relocated from another site, is currently unknown.
That evening, we arrived at the Nubian Rest House at Karima, just walking distance from the 100 metre-high sandstone mesa known as Gebel Barkal. The ancient settlement around Gebel Barkal was known as Napata, and it was one of the most important sites for at least two of the defining eras of the Kingdom of Kush. Situated around 370 kilometres north of Khartoum, the flat-topped ‘Pure Mountain’ (as the ancient Egyptians called it) is 1.5 kilometres north of the Nile. It has a very distinctive free-standing pinnacle on the southern edge, which bears a striking resemblance to a colossal uraeus (the stylised rearing cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty and divine royalty by the ancient Egyptians) protecting the god Amun inside the holy mountain.
The ‘pinnacle as uraeus’ concept is depicted in a wall scene inside the rock-cut Temple of Mut of Napata. Mut and a ram-headed version of Amun are seen seated inside a shrine representing the mountain; the uraeus, wearing a solar disc, projects out from the front much like the pinnacle above it.
Further into the interior of the temple we see the Twenty-fifth Dynasty king Taharqo depicted on two recently restored bas relief wall panels, in yellow ochre and Egyptian blue on gypsum mortar. The king is shown making an offering to differing forms of Amun – a demonstration of his rule over the Two Lands. On the left (downstream journey) wall he is offering to the human-headed Amun of Karnak, and on the right (upstream journey) wall he is offering to the ram-headed Amun of Gebel Barkal, who was known as ‘Amun of Napata who lives inside the Pure Mountain’.
In a small on-site museum I finally spotted some lions. However, none of them bore any resemblance to the granite lions in London. First, they were carved from pale cream sandstone, and, second, they were in various poses sejant (a heraldic term for seated upright). The information panels said they were guardian lions found at the gates to the Royal Palace of the Meroitic king Natakami (Reisner number B1500), which had been built around 200 years after the supposed arrival of the lions from Soleb. I thought of them as direct descendants of the Soleb Lions, and quietly growled a friendly greeting.
After this exciting start, I was keen to try to locate the actual find-site of the Soleb Lions. The location had been documented by several early 19th-century visitors as being near to the north-west outer wall of the Royal Palace of Napata (Reisner B1200). The exact spot was difficult to find, as there was not much to see in that area, but Ibrahim and I located a ridge of mud brick and some stone that could easily have been part of the palace, and we walked around to the appropriate edge. Although I can’t be certain, I would like to think that I was at least very near to the spot where Algernon Percy – Lord Prudhoe – and Major Orlando Felix had first seen the two granite lions in February 1829. The journey that the lions then took to London is not documented, but they arrived at the British Museum in 1835, having possibly been in London slightly earlier. They were given the numbers EA1 and EA2, and are now ceremoniously sited as ‘guardian figures’ at one end of the gallery of Egyptian Sculpture.
In 1844, Prussian Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius arranged for the ‘best of the rams’ in front of the neighbouring Great Temple of Amun (B500) to be taken to Berlin. The origins of this temple date back to a mud-brick structure built by Thutmose III, and it was subsequently expanded by many New Kingdom pharaohs. None of that mud-brick structure is visible today, but there are distinctive yellow talatat (sandstone blocks), dating back to the reign of Amenhotep IV, at one part of the stone-built temple. After a period of decline, the Kushite kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty made restorations and additions of their own, including Piy (Piankhy) who added elaborate wall scenes to illustrate his Victory Stela (originally raised in court B501), although most of these reliefs are now missing or very worn. He also moved six black granite rams from Soleb to form a ceremonial avenue at the eastern entrance of the temple. Restoration and use of the site continued long into the Meroitic period, and a kiosk was later added between these rams by a Meroitic queen, believed to be Amanishakheto.
Having explored the Gebel Barkal area thoroughly, we began the long journey northwards to Soleb via Sedeinga, stopping briefly for cups of strong black tea and peppery coffee laced with ginger and cinnamon from one of the first of many sit al shai – Sudanese tea ladies – on our trip. We were on the east bank of the Nile, and drove past open-cast gold mines currently being explored by local villagers and (according to our driver) some less-friendly outlaws. The lure of Nubian gold is as important now as it was to the ancient Egyptians.
The temple at Sedeinga was built by Amenhotep III for his Great Royal Wife Tiy. It was conceived as the feminine counterpart to his own temple at nearby Soleb, and this is believed to have set the pattern for the double temple of Ramesses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel a century later. The original plan for the temple included a large columned hall with eight Hathoric columns. This hall opened on to a sanctuary on the western side. Six centuries later, Taharqo added a columned portico to the east. Built on shallow foundations and an earthen platform, the temple collapsed during the mid-Napatan Period and the stone was reused in a nearby Meroitic cemetery, and in a church from the early Christian era. Today there is only one Hathor column standing. Around 120 blocks are displayed in a recently installed outdoor museum, and we quickly found the famous block depicting Tiy as a female androsphinx, and one of the Hathor column capitals depicting a young Tiy.
Soleb was a relatively easy 15-minute drive south of Sedeinga. The sandstone temple was dedicated to Amun and Nebmaatra – the divine image of Amenhotep III himself – and is the largest known temple built by the Egyptians in modern-day Sudan. I was interested in seeing the other side of the temple – the eastern entrance and the dromos or processional avenue – where the black granite rams and red granite lions had originally been located.
Walking through the temple, we arrived at the eastern end of the site. Ahead of us was a modern-date palm cultivation and I hoped that it was not encroaching too much on the area in which I was interested. Thankfully, the dromos appeared to be undisturbed, and there was still evidence of the rams that had been left behind by Piy. He had taken only six of the original twenty-four to Gebel Barkal. Many were just lumps of crumbly granite, but two still looked vaguely ram-like, and had the slot on their heads where the bronze solar discs and horns used to be inserted.
The original location of the lions was harder to ascertain. If they were ‘temple guardians’, as is widely believed, then they could have been placed on the outside of the exterior pylon. This was exactly the point where the modern cultivation meets the temple. They could also have guarded the front of the dromos procession of rams, inside the exterior gateway. There is, of course, another possible doorway position – which was at the western edge of the dromos, by a small portico in front of the Great Pylon of the temple. At this location there were two sandstone plinths, each with a headless black granite Horus hawk loosely placed on top of them. As with most of the archaeological sites in Sudan, there was nobody around to ask whether or not these hawks were recent additions. The plinths, however, were square, and the lions in London would not have sat well on them, being on rectangular bases. I did wonder if the plinths might originally have been for a pair of small obelisks.
To date, I have still not been able to find out their exact location, but I was once again overjoyed to simply be in the immediate area of the original positions of the Soleb Lions.
Karl Harris is a freelance consultant to the Heritage Education sector, and a regular contributor to ‘Out and About’ in AE magazine. In the next issue, he continues his journey though Sudan, visiting sites linked to the Meroitic kings of Kush, and the lion-headed Nubian god Apedemak.
• T Kendall and A M El-Hassan (2016) A Visitor’s Guide to the Jebel Barkal Temples (NCAM Gebel Barkal Mission; available here: bit.ly/JBVisGuide).
• C Rilly (2018) ‘The QSAP Programme on the Temple of Queen Tiye in Sedeinga’, Sudan & Nubia 22 (The Sudan Archaeological Research Society; available here: bit.ly/QSAPSedeinga).
• J Ruffle (1998) ‘Lord Prudhoe and his lions’, Sudan & Nubia 2 (The Sudan Archaeological Research Society; available here: bit.ly/PrudhoeLions).
All images: by the author, unless otherwise stated