Two 36-foot-high figures stand tall, their muscular arms raised with weapons in hand, each gripping the hair of bound enemy prisoners. The prisoners kneel in submission before the standing figures, perpetually awaiting the impending blows. Lions, smaller in scale, but equally vicious, dwell between the legs of the standing figures and attack the kneeling victims. A falcon and a vulture soar above the two standing figures, witnessing and approving of the scenes below. Who are these warrior-like individuals and why are they shown in the midst of this violent action? Why was this image made? Who would have seen this image and what would it have meant to those viewers?
The Lion Temple in the Royal City of Naga
On the left side of this relief is King Natakamani and on the right is his wife, Queen Amanitore, both rulers of the ancient kingdom of Nubia, also known as Kush. Nubia lay south of Egypt and shared much in common with ancient Egyptian art and culture yet was also distinctive and unique in many ways. For example, the Nubians, or Kushites, adopted a variety of Egyptian gods but also worshiped their own distinctive deities or blended the two together.
Kushite visual conventions of royalty and power were similar to those used in Egypt, but specifically conformed to Kushite gender norms. This image of a Nubian royal couple comes from a pylon of a temple, called the Lion Temple, commissioned by King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore in the royal city of Naga in the 1st century C.E., and dedicated to the lion-headed god, Apedemak.
Apedemak was an exclusively Nubian deity and a god of war, often depicted carrying a bow and leading bound prisoners. He was typically represented as a lion-headed human, but also appears as a fierce lion (as seen on the pylon mauling prisoners at the feet of Natakamani and Amanitore) or as a lion-headed cobra. All three forms of Apedemak are depicted on the Lion Temple.
Several other temples remain scattered around the Lion Temple in Naga today. Archaeological evidence (modest offerings found in a small shrine between the Lion Temple and other religious shrines) suggests that it was a place where the broader public came to worship. The rich red tones of the Nubian sandstone lend the monument an air of elegance today, but as with Egyptian monuments, the entire temple would have been brightly painted. One can imagine the colorful temple as a vibrant backdrop to religious festivals in Naga that included throngs of people—farmers, herders, merchants, officials, and priests.
Founded around 250 B.C.E., Naga was an ancient city and royal residence located south of the Kushite capital at Meroë. This important religious, economic, and political center was placed at the foot of a mountain about 30 miles from the Nile in an area of grasslands fed by seasonal rain, a rich region for both pastoralism and farming. It was also a trade destination for caravans headed east, most likely to Ethiopia and the Red Sea.
The Royal Couple that Smites Together, Rules Together
The scene on the pylon of the Lion Temple in Naga projects an image of husband and wife reigning as equals, a common feature of Nubian governance and distinct from Egyptian practices. Nubian queens could, and often did, rule independently as Candaces. Only a handful of Egyptian queens wielded this kind of authority, including Hatshepsut who was a Egyptian female ruler who completely assumed pharaonic power and was male-presenting in certain contexts to legitimate her rule. This was not an issue in Nubia, where queens could be female-presenting and still wield the same authority as kings.
On the Lion Temple’s pylon, the pose with one arm raised holding a weapon and the other clutching the hair of enemies (known as smiting) symbolizes the royal couple’s role in defeating chaos and restoring order to the universe. The same basic motif also appears in royal Egyptian works, including the Narmer palette, which predates the Lion Temple by three thousand years. However, unlike in Egyptian art, here the Nubian king and queen participate as equal forces in restoring order to the cosmos. Representations of the smiting motif on Egyptian pylons inevitably have symmetrical images on either side, but only of male kings.
Additionally, images of Egyptian royalty reinforced male dominance through representations in temples and on stelae by placing queens behind the king and on a smaller scale with a focus on their supporting role in rituals.  This can be seen in a stela depicting the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, performing religious offerings. While Queen Nefertiti does sometimes act on her own in ritual scenes, more commonly in public contexts like this she is depicted behind and smaller than her husband. We see this in an offering scene from an Egyptian temple dedicated to the god Aton.
Returning to the Lion Temple, King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore face each other, standing at the same height, each actively slaying their enemies. The Egyptian gods Horus (shown as a falcon), and Nekhbet (shown as a vulture), both associated with royalty, hover protectively over the couple while Apedemak the lion god accompanies both rulers. Further signifiers of equality between husband and wife include the use of a Kushite cap crown for both the king and queen, double lion-headed uraei on their foreheads (the lions again refer to Apedemak), as well as distinctively Kushite jewelry, feathered garments, and weapons for each ruler. While portrayed as an equal to her husband, the queen retains a distinctly female body with wider hips and breasts, in contrast to the Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut who sometimes was represented as male to fully assume royal power.
Images of the Nubian king and queen continue around the exterior of the Lion Temple and maintain the distinctively Kushite balance of feminine and masculine royal power throughout the decorative program. On the southern side for example, the king, queen, and their son, the Crown Prince Arikankharer, worship before a mix of Egyptian and Nubian male deities, including Apedemak, Horus, and Amun-Re.
On the northern side, the king, queen, and their heir stand before another group of Egyptian and Nubian goddesses, including Isis (Horus’s mother), Mut (Amun’s consort), and the cow goddess Hathor.
The back of the temple also reinforces the message of equality between the king and queen in the eyes of the gods. Here the queen (to the south—our left) and king (to the north—our right) are balanced between a unique three-headed, four-armed Apedemak, who faces the king, queen, and viewer. Showing Apedemak with three heads is likely a clever Nubian innovation designed to balance the figures of king and queen equally between the god and the worshiping public.
Jointly commissioned by the king and queen, the Lion Temple’s exterior imagery illustrates the tradition of gender equality in Kushite rule. Together, the royal couple also commissioned other buildings in Naga as well as throughout the Kushite kingdom, including a palace and pyramids for themselves. Together these construction projects served to reinforce and legitimize their authority as rulers and mirrored practices of Egyptian pharaohs to the north.
Egypt and Nubia in Scholarship Today
As an analysis of the Lion Temple in Naga demonstrates, Nubia and Egypt had a long history of interaction through trade, religion, and a shared visual language. However, war also brought these two ancient African societies into direct contact. In 1500 B.C.E., Egypt conquered all of Nubia through the fourth cataract of the Nile, but by 747 B.C.E. Nubian kings ruled as Pharaohs of Egypt’s 25th Dynasty. These Kushite kings are commonly referred to as the “Black Pharaohs” in both scholarly and popular publications, though this suggests that the ancient Egyptians were neither Black nor African themselves. Despite direct connections and commonalities, why has Nubia received considerably less scholarly and public attention?
Traditionally, Nubia has been classified as African and its people Black, while ancient Egypt has long been separated from its African context and its people not thought of as Black. This construct consciously or unconsciously draws on racist ideas developed through early American Egyptology and anthropology, particularly in the 1854 book Types of Mankind, which established the basis for “scientific” racism in the United States. The authors, including a pro-slavery advocate, realized that their hierarchical racial classification placing Black people as inherently inferior could not stand if Egypt and Nubia were both acknowledged as Black African civilizations, so they and later scholars went to great lengths to separate Egypt from Africa and from Nubia, a legacy that sadly lives on today.
However, as the Lion Temple in Naga clearly displays, ancient Nubia and Egypt were intricately connected religiously, politically, economically, and artistically. The history and culture of one cannot be separated from the other. In analyzing the images of royal power present on the pylon of the Lion Temple in Naga, we see how Nubian rulers asserted their own specific customs of royal gender equality while utilizing visual conventions of power common to the entire Nile River region.
 In a rare exception, Queen Nefertiti does appear in a smiting scene on a booth in the representation of a ceremonial barge dedicated to her.
For more about the ongoing excavations and conservation at Naga, see the Naga Project.
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