Kerma - Ancient African Capital, Opponent to Egyptian Pharaohs

Trading Partner and Formidable Rival to Bronze Age Egypt

Western Deffufa at Kerma
Western Deffufa at Kerma. Lassi

Kerma is the name of the capital city of the Kerma society, a cultural group based in Sudanese Nubia, and part of the Kush or Kushite kingdom rival to Middle and New Kingdom Egypt. Kerma was the first Nubian state, situated between the fourth and fifth cataracts of the Nile River in what is now the Sudan, between 2500 and 1500 BC.

What archaeologists recognize as the Kerma society emerged near the third cataract of the Nile River in the early 3rd millenium BC, developed from cattle pastoralists who are known to archaeologists as the A-Group or pre-Kerma culture.

At its height, Kerma's reach extended as far south as Mograt Island and as far north as the Egyptian fortress of Semna in Batn el-Haja, on the second cataract of the Nile.

Kerma Chronology

Archaeologists recognize three phases of Kerma society. Dates on the table below are derived from the known age of Egyptian imports recovered in archaeological contexts at Kerma, and some radiocarbon dates.

  • 1500 BC: Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis I (father to Hatshepshut) defeats the Kush, and the territory annexed to New Kingdom Egypt
  • Classic Kerma (Kerma Classique) 1750-1500 BC
  • Middle Kerma (Kerma Moyen), 2050-1750 BC
  • Ancient Kerma (Kerma Ancien), 2500-2050 BC

The earliest Kerma society was based on animal herding, with occasional hunting of gazelles, hippopotami and small game. Cattle, goats, and donkeys were herded by the Kerma farmers, who also grew barley (Hordeum), squashes (Cucurbitae) and legumes (Leguminosae) as well as flax.

The farmers lived in round hut dwellings and buried their dead in distinctive circular tombs.

Emergence as an Egyptian Rival

At the beginning of the Middle Phase about 2000 BC, Kerma emerged as one of the major economic and political centers in the NIle Valley. This growth was at the same time as the rise of the Kush kingdom, mentioned in contemporary Egyptian sources as an important trading partner and an intimidating rival.

Kerma was the seat of the Kushite rulers, and the city developed into a foreign trade-based society with mud-brick architecture, dealing in ivory, diorite, and gold.

During the Middle Kerma phase, the Egyptian fortress on Batn el-Haja served as the boundary between Middle Kingdom Egypt and the Kushite kingom, and it is where exotic goods were exchanged between the two governments. During the Classic Phase, the Kushite kings seized control of the Egyptian fortresses and the gold mines in the Second Cataract, sacrificing control over their their lands in lower Nubia to the C-Group people.

Kerma was overthrown in 1500 by the third New Kingdom pharaoh, Thutmose (or Thutmosis) I, and all their lands fell to the Egyptians.

The City of Kerma

The capital city of Kerma was one of the first African urban centers, located in the Northern Dongola Reach of northern Sudan above the 3rd cataract of the Nile. Stable isotope analysis (Thompson et al. 2008) of human bone from the Eastern cemetery indicate that Kerma was a cosmopolitan town, with a population made up of people from many different places.

Kerma was both a political and religious capital. A large necropolis with approximately 30,000 burials is located four kilometers east of the city, including four massive royal tombs where rulers and their retainers were often buried together.

Three extant massive mud brick tombs are the deffufas, large mounds of earth and stone, called deffufas, two of which are associated with temples.

Kerma Necropolis

The Eastern Cemetery at Kerma, also known as the Kerma necropolis is located four kilometers (2.5 miles) east of the city, towards the desert. The 70 hectare (173 acre) cemetery was rediscovered by archaeologist George A. Reisner, who conducted the first excavations there between 1913 and 1916. Additional research since that have identified at least 40,000 tombs, including those of Kerma's kings; it was used between 2450 and 1480 BC.

The earliest burials in the Eastern Cemetery are round and small, with the remains of a single individual. Later ones more elaborate larger burials for higher status individuals, often including sacrificed retainers.

By the Middle Kerma period, some burial pits were as large as 10-15 meters (32-50 feet) in diameter; the Classic Period royal tombs excavated in the early 20th century by Reisner measure up to 90 m 300 ft) in diameter.

Ranking and Status in Kerma Society

The largest tumuli are located on the central ridge of the cemetery and must have been the burial places of generations of Classic Phase Kushite rulers, based on their monumental size, the high frequency of human sacrifices and the presence of subsidiary graves. The ranked burials indicate Kerma was a stratified society, with the highest late Classic Phase ruler buried in Tumulus X. Human and animal sacrifices became common in the Middle Phase and sacrifices escalated in numbers during the Classic Phase: at least 211 people were sacrificed for the royal burial called Tumulus X.

Although the tumuli were all heavily looted, bronze daggers, razors, tweezers and mirrors, and pottery drinking cups were found in the cemetery. Most of the bronze artifacts were recovered in seven of the great tumuli of the Classic Phase Kerma.

Warrior Cult

Based on the large numbers of young men buried with weapons beginning in the earliest Kerma period, many of them exhibiting healed skeletal trauma, Hafsaas-Tsakos has argued that these individuals were members of the most trusted elite warriors in the personal guard of the ruler, sacrificed during the funerary rituals of the dead ruler, to protect him in the afterlife.

Archaeological Research at Kerma

British archaeologist George A. Reisner excavated at Kerma between 1913 and 1916, focusing on the extensive urban settlement and the Eastern Cemetery. Charles Bonnet of the University of Geneva began excavating at Kerma and other related sites in 1976. Recent excavations have been conducted at Kerma by the Swiss Archaeological Mission in Sudan.

Recent investigations by A.H. Thompson et al. have included stable isotope analysis of the individuals excavated from the cemetery by Reisner.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Kushite Kingdom, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

See the website of the Swiss Archaeological Mission in Sudan for more information on ongoing investigations at Kerma.

Chaix L, Dubosson J, and Honegger M. 2012. Bucrania from the Eastern Cemetery at Kerma (Sudan) and the practice of cattle horn deformation. Studies in African Archaeology 11:189-212.

Gillis R, Chaix L, and Vigne J-D. 2011. An assessment of morphological criteria for discriminating sheep and goat mandibles on a large prehistoric archaeological assemblage (Kerma, Sudan). Journal of Archaeological Science 38(9):2324-2339.

Hafsaas-Tsakos H. 2013. Edges of bronze and expressions of masculinity: the emergence of a warrior class at Kerma in Sudan. Antiquity 87(335):79-91.

Honegger M, and Williams M. 2015 (n press). Human occupations and environmental changes in the Nile valley during the Holocene: The case of Kerma in Upper Nubia (northern Sudan). Quaternary Science Reviews in press.

Thompson AH, Chaix L, and Richards MP. 2008. Stable isotopes and diet at Ancient Kerma, Upper Nubia (Sudan). Journal of Archaeological Science 35(2):376-387.