Naga: the buried royal city

An exhibition at the State Museum of Egyptian Art (SMÄK) in Munich transports visitors to excavations at the ancient city of Naga in Sudan.

In the Sudanese desert, several hours’ drive north-east of Khartoum, the ruins of sandstone temples rise from the sand and the sound of pickaxes, chirping crickets, and the buzz of a generator echo around the landscape. This is Naga, an ancient city that sits in the foothills of the Sahara, and the subject of an ongoing archaeological project.

Naga: the buried royal city immerses visitors in excavations at the Meroitic site in modern-day Sudan. Image: SMÄK, Die_Werft

Naga, known in antiquity as Tolkte, was part of the Kingdom of Meroë, the neighbour (and rival) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Naga flourished between 200 BC and AD 250, serving as a religious centre and secondary residence for Meroitic royalty. Unlike most ancient cities in this region, Naga was not built on the banks of the Nile. Instead, it occupied a strategic location, some 35km away from the famous river, on an important caravan route, serving as a gateway between the Meroitic state (and the rest of Africa), and Egypt and the Mediterranean world. The ancient city was abandoned in the 4th century AD, and remained largely forgotten by the world until its rediscovery by two Frenchmen in the early 19th century. Official excavations by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin began in 1995, and in 2013 SMÄK took over the research. Since 2021, the work has been led by new director Dr Arnulf Schlüter. The site’s isolated location means that it has not been touched by redevelopment; three temples are still standing, and the remains of others have been discovered in recent years, along with evidence of palaces, administrative buildings, necropolises, water reservoirs, and quarries. Naga was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, and the research project continues to uncover more of the ancient city with every season.

The temple dedicated to the god Amun is the largest at Naga.  Built at the highest point in the landscape, this impressive structure would  once have been decorated in bright colours. Image: SMÄK, Roy Hessing

Exploring the temple city

The new exhibition at Munich’s State Museum of Egyptian Art highlights the work of the team from SMÄK, but this is an archaeology display with a twist. Rather than presenting an array of objects from the site (the majority of which remain in Sudan awaiting the construction of the planned site museum) Arnulf Schlüter hoped to take visitors on a journey to the ancient city, and give them a sense of the ongoing excavation. Through a combination of walk-in panoramic photos, digital storytelling, and soundscapes recorded at the site, Naga: the buried royal city brings the desert site to life for audiences thousands of miles away.

The first feature that might catch your eye is the Temple of Amun: the largest temple at Naga, built at the highest point of the site. The temple is approached through a processional avenue lined by 12 majestic, if slightly weatherworn, ram statues, some of which were found in various states of collapse but have now been subtly restored to their original positions. The temple house, once built of brick, has since been lost, but the main body of the sandstone temple stands tall. Small pieces of colourful plaster above the entrance gate are a testament to the building’s original spectacular appearance. The Temple of Amun also produced the only original artefact on display in the exhibition: the Stela of Queen Amanishakheto, which features a relief of the Meroitic queen and an inscription identifying her. Amanishakheto ruled at the end of the 1st century BC, decades before the Temple of Amun was constructed in the 1st century AD, but was clearly still venerated some time after her death.

The Hathor Chapel and the larger Lion Temple (behind it) both date to  the 1st century AD, and are closely connected to each other. Image: Naga Project

To the west of the Temple of Amun sits the Lion Temple and, in front of that, the Hathor Chapel. The Lion Temple is dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak. Built in the 1st century AD by King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore, the most prolific builders of the Meroitic period, the temple is decorated with images showing the rulers being favoured by the gods and smiting their enemies. The Lion Temple and the smaller Hathor Chapel both feature a combination of Egyptian and Classical architectural and design styles, making them prime examples of Meroitic art and the intersection of different cultures found at Naga. However, conservation of the Lion Temple is a Sisyphean task. Built of sandstone blocks from the nearby mountain, Gebel Naga, this structure has been eroded and weakened over the centuries. British efforts to preserve the temple at the end of the 19th century by filling the cracks with concrete kept the walls standing, but this solution is less than ideal by modern conservation standards. The team are now painstakingly removing the concrete and filling the endangered areas with a special mortar specifically developed for Naga’s desert conditions.

Life on the dig

The exhibition gives visitors a sense of what life is like for archaeologists working at this unique site. The latest technology is used to document the excavation, from drones and cameras to structured light scanners and photogrammetry equipment, but the effort involved in getting all of this kit – and the infrastructure required to run it – to such a remote location should not be underestimated. The team also have to consider the logistics of every element of day-to-day living, from water (brought in by tanker truck – the nearby well is reserved for the use of the local people and their animals) and food (bought from the street market or the nearest city) to coffee (carried in powdered form from Germany by the archaeologists themselves).

The Stela of Queen Amanishakheto is one of many artefacts recovered from the Temple of Amun. It depicts the queen standing between the deities Apedemak and Amesemi. Below them  are five prisoners, perhaps a reference to Amanisha- kheto’s documented conflict with the Romans.  Image: SMÄK, Marianne_Franke

The contribution of the local community should not be overlooked. Every day, 15-20 Sudanese workers travel to the site, where they play an integral role in the excavations. When the archaeological season ends and the foreign research team leaves, it is the local workers who protect Naga: it is ‘their city’. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the project is the role it plays in helping the Sudanese people build their own history, offering new perspectives on ancient Sudan, which view it not as ‘Egypt’s neighbour’ but as a region with its own autonomous culture and past.

Naga: the buried royal city is a new kind of archaeology exhibition, focused not on static objects and structures but on archaeology as a dynamic process, and archaeological sites as living locations. The show immerses visitors in both the ancient site and the modern task of exploring it; could this represent the future of presenting archaeological research?

Naga: the buried royal city
Address: Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, Gabelsbergerstraße 35, 80333 Munich, Germany
Open: until 22 October 2023