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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Archäologie

Musawwarat es-Sufra

(Project directors: Dr. Cornelia Kleinitz & Prof. Dr. Alexandra Verbovsek)


The picturesque valley of Musawwarat es-Sufra, part of the ‘Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe’ UNESCO-World Heritage entry, harbours an impressive and unique ensemble of Kushite monumental architecture. Among the built structures are the earliest known temple dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak, the labyrinthine building complex of the Great Enclosure, and the Great Hafir, Sudan’s largest ancient water reservoir. While monumental architecture at Musawwarat dates back to the Napatan period, most of the standing structures seen today were constructed in the Early Meroitic period, with major building activity taking place under King Arnekhamani (c. 235-218BC).


View of the Central Terrace of the Great Enclosure from the East (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2008).


Musawwarat es-Sufra is located among low sandstone mountain ranges in c. 25km distance to the Nile, the closest source of permanent surface water. Large artificial water reservoirs were constructed at Musawwarat in order to allow the building and maintenance of monumental architecture, such as numerous temples, shrines and other buildings, and to sustain humans, animals and plants. There is no evidence for large-scale permanent settlement in the valley, which seems to represent an ancient ritual landscape that was closely linked to the cult of Apedemak, the ‘Lion of the South’.


Relief depiction of the god Apedemak on the northern wall of the Apedemak Temple (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2017).


Apedemak appears as a supreme god of the Kushite kingdom shortly after the shift of the royal burial ground from the Napatan region to the south, to Meroe, in the early 3rd century BC. His local origin is alluded to in the inscriptions at his temple at Musawwarat, where Apedemak is referred to as the Lord of Musawwarat and neighbouring Naqa. With its exceptionally well preserved reliefs the Apedemak Temple is a superb example of Early Meroitic architecture and art, religious thought and practice.


The Apedemak Temple at Musawwarat as seen from the South (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2017).


The nearby Great Enclosure is a maze of temples, rooms, corridors and courtyards, and it boasts intricate architectural decoration including elephant and lion figures as well as a rich corpus of ancient pictorial and textual graffiti. The building complex, which extends over c. 240x200m, has retained its mystery due to its unique architecture and its lack of formal inscriptions. While many opinions as to its purpose have been voiced, including an elephant training station, a desert palace, a pilgrimage centre, a national shrine and the main sanctuary of Apedemak, the function of the Great Enclosure is still debated and a focus of ongoing research.


Elephant wall end on the Central Terrace of the Great Enclosure (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2011).


The monuments of Musawwarat es-Sufra have been studied in some detail since 1960, when Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin started its research at the site. Besides pursuing a range of research topics, Humboldt-Universität’s Musawwarat Project has always seen conservation-restoration measures as well as the public presentation of the site among its main tasks. Measures included the clearing of the monuments from rubble in the 1960s and the re-erection of the Apedemak Temple in 1969/70. Despite severely limited funding, protective casings, roofing structures and sand barriers were constructed, restoration measures undertaken and a site museum erected during the 1990s and 2000s.


Column base with sculpted depictions of a lion and an elephant (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2017).


With funding from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP), a first systematic conservation-restoration plan was drafted in 2017. It guides conservation-restoration approaches and measures in the short, medium and long term. Immediate large-scale measures in the 2017/18 field season were linked to the development of a first visitor guidance system with marked pathways and information panels, which aims at improving the visitor experience while ensuring the protection of the monuments.


Wall 119/108 on the northern side of the Central Terrace after conservation work in early 2018 (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2018).


Further measures undertaken in the 2017/18 field season include the beginning of the re-organisation and refurbishment of the Musawwarat Site Museum, where intricate Early Meroitic architectural decoration is displayed in a protected environment. Since the 2016/17 field season, conservation measures have been focusing on the singular decorated columns of the Great Enclosure, which had been hidden in their protective casings for the past 20+ years. Some of the drums and bases were consolidated and then transferred to the Musawwarat Site Museum, where they are now on display. While the originals will have to remain in the site museum, replicas of these column drums and bases are planned to be installed in their original position in front of the Central Temple.


Lower part of column 3 after consolidation and during excavation work in early 2018 (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2018).


During the 2017/18 field season, the replication method was already tested on smaller sculpted objects and a first set of replicas was created. This concerns two sculptures of seated lions in front of Temple 300 in the East of the Great Enclosure, which were re-assembled and copied using silicone moulds in which artificial stone was cast. The two lions complete the set of architectural sculptures adorning the access route into the temple, guarding once again the ramp leading into the porticus of the building.


Temple 300 as seen from the South, with the replicas of two lion sculptures newly installed at the bottom of the ramp (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2018).


Water reservoirs were a prerequisite for the construction and maintenance of Musawwarat and other sites that are located far from the Nile in areas without permanent water sources. Sometimes, these reservoirs were equipped with sculptures. In the case of Musawwarat, one of these sculptures – a seated lion of c. 1,6m height – was found in the 1960s in the Great Hafir. The lion sculpture is still situated in its original position just inside the water reservoir, facing exactly to the North. It was re-excavated in the 2017/18 field season for an evaluation of its state of preservation.


Large lion sculpture in the Great Hafir after its re-excavation in early 2018 (photo: Cornelia Kleinitz, 2018).


The integrated approach to site preservation and presentation at Musawwarat is based on  comprehensive site-specific management planning and on an overall sustainable tourism plan for the ‘Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe’ World Heritage Site. This approach will ensure the long-term preservation of the monuments of Musawwarat es-Sufra and facilitate their public appreciation as part of Sudan’s and the world’s archaeological heritage.