The Meaning Behind a Nubian Ruler’s Offering to a Falcon God

Image of the Week: A small Egyptian sculpture may not have the status of the Pyramids, but it can still reveal a complex culture.

Nubian. Pharaoh Taharqa offering wine to the god Hemen, circa 685 B.C. Bronze, gold-plated stone on base of silver-plated wood, 19.7 cm. The Louvre, Paris

Taharqa was perhaps the greatest ruler of the 25th Dynasty and is certainly the best documented. His reign marks the high point of the Nubian domination of Egypt, which lasted for less than a century but left a lasting impact, including the reintegration of ancient Egyptian religion and culture. He re-established the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes as a major religious center, restoring its many great temples and the power of the priests as an intellectual, spiritual and political force within Egypt.

The small scale of the work and the formal gesture of gratitude made by Taharqa to the deity characterize it as a temple offering. Presumably it was placed within a shrine dedicated to Hemen, probably the principal one at Hefat. Quite possibly, Taharqa here offers thanks for divine intervention in alleviating a natural crisis threatening the welfare of the realm.

In 685 B.C., one of the largest inundations of the Nile ever recorded delivered the lands along the river from several years of severe drought. The event occurred fairly early in Taharqa’s reign and was regarded as a miraculous intervention of the gods on behalf of their suffering people. To commemorate it and other events of the sixth year of his reign, Taharqa set up a stele, or incised tablet, at the holy site of Kawa along the Nile and commissioned others to be placed in various regions of the kingdom. The text evokes the defining relationship between the king and the chief Egyptian god Amun-Re, but it seems that Taharqa also took pains to offer more specific thanks for the involvement of lesser deities.

In addition to his veneration as a protector against evil, Hemen was also associated with the annual flooding of the Nile. It seems likely that this votive piece was dedicated to the falcon god in thanks for such a particularly bountiful bestowal of life-giving water.

By the time Taharqa took the throne, in about 690 B.C., all of Egypt lay under the control of Nubia, now rightly considered an empire. Nubian kings ruled from Memphis in Lower Egypt, hundreds of miles north of the traditional capital city of Napata. Taharqa’s momentous quarter-century rule took place against the constant military threat of the great Near Eastern power of Assyria. After twice repulsing its incursions, in 667 B.C. he was compelled to retreat to more secure positions within Nubian territory. He died circa 664 B.C. and was buried in a pyramid almost 50 meters high. A revised version of the Great Pyramids of Giza, this majestic monument exemplifies the creative response of Nubian culture to the ages-old civilization of Egypt.

The 25th Dynasty ended with the expulsion of the Nubians from Egypt by Assyria. Afterward, Nubia remained a significant regional power, centered on the prosperous city of Meroe further up the Nile. For over a thousand years this civilization dominated the upper stretches of the river. Contact with Egypt continued, but with time it seems that trade was oriented to just a few outlets along the Red Sea. In late antiquity Nubia abandoned its ancient gods, somewhat reluctantly, to adopt Christianity.

The reputation of Taharqa, however, not only survived the passage of time but, indeed, flourished. The accomplishments of the great ruler retained a permanent hold on the collective consciousness of later ages. The name of Taharqa eventually became a byword for “universal conqueror.” During the Middle Ages, his exploits were even likened to those of Alexander the Great. Ancient Greek historians claim that he extended his empire as far as the Pillars of Hercules—that is, to the Atlantic Ocean. Writing in 1553, the early-modern historian Florián de Ocampo more specifically records the invasion of Spain by one Tarraco, a general of the Ethiopian army and future king of Egypt.

With the recovery of the actual artifacts of Taharqa’s reign, a more realistic impression of his ethos has come into focus. In the image of Taharqa offering thanks to Hemen, we see not the all-conquering hero but the savior of his people from disaster at home. His glory undiminished, his humanity more intact, Taharqa here seems more truly restored to the gaze of posterity.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.