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Ancient Egypt

From occupiers to good neighbors

München, 07/21/2017

Some 3500 years ago, an Egyptian town was founded on an island in the Nile in what is now Sudan. LMU archaeologist Julia Budka’s work there shows how Egyptian immigrants and the local Nubians transformed it into a thriving community.

This relief in Deir el-Bahari (Luxor) shows Thutmose III (Photos: Julia Budka).

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They came by boat, bringing cooking utensils, crockery and all the other necessities needed for life in a strange land. That is how Julia Budka imagines the arrival, around 1539 BC, of the first Egyptian administrators in the new town on the island of Sai in the Nile. They were far from home, for the settlement lay in Nubia, between the river’s 2nd and 3rd cataracts. Following the final conquest of the whole of the African kingdom of Kerma by the Pharaoh Thutmose III, Egyptian expansion to the south continued, and the island’s location made it an ideal jump-off point. River traffic could be effectively controlled from here, and Egypt’s armies could be supplied with everything they needed to consolidate their hold. For Nubia was the primary source of gold and other valuable resources from Sub-Saharan Africa for the Egyptian state.

“It was a multistage military campaign, which was probably motivated largely by economic considerations,” says Budka, Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at LMU. During the reign of Thutmose III a fortified town was built on Sai to secure the newly conquered region, “and to serve as an unmistakable symbol of Egypt’s domination of the territory”. Sai would remain an episode in the lives of the first Egyptian bureaucrats who reached it. After a few years of service there, they would be replaced and could return home. Budka, however, is interested in how the Egyptian settlers who came to the island in the course of the colonization of Nubia made their homes there. In 2012 she received one of the European Research Council’s coveted Starting Grants (worth just under 1.5 million euros) for her 5-year project AcrossBorders.

The project was designed to study three different sites in parallel. The other two are located in Abydos in the heart of Pharaonic Egypt and on the island of Elephantine in the Nile, which had long served as the gateway to Africa, and was the center of trade between Egypt and Nubia. “I chose these three locations for comparative purposes in order to determine what they had in common and how they differed from one another. Documentary sources show that certain identifiable individuals had lived in more than one of them in the course of their lives.” To uncover the effects of intercultural interactions in Ancient Egypt, she set out to answer the following questions: Did the Egyptians on Sai live in the same fashion as their compatriots at home? What impact did the presence of the native Nubian population have on their daily lives? Conversely, what impact did Pharaonic culture have on local traditions? Now, after 5 years of research, during which she spent several months annually in Sudan and Egypt, Budka can assert that “despite the central role of the Egyptian state, a hybrid lifestyle is discernible in occupied Nubia.”

Prejudice and accommodation
When the first colonial administrators arrived on Sai, the island was completely lacking in infrastructure. “In the beginning, they were totally dependent on Egypt.” But they had brought their own anxieties and prejudices with them. They had misgivings about the locals which are often reminiscent of the negative attitudes that we moderns tend to harbor towards representatives of other cultures. “For instance, there are assertions in surviving Egyptian texts that the Nubians ‘cheat and steal’ and could not be trusted,” says Budka. “However, the picture becomes more nuanced when one considers how the two communities actually lived.” For her findings not only show that Nubians lived in the town, they also indicate that relationships with the Egyptians “exhibit features that resist categorization as either clearly Egyptian or clearly Nubian,” she says. “The notion that ‘this in an Egyptian town, therefore only Egyptians lived there’ is quite misleading. Many aspects of everyday life and culture were a matter of individual choice.”

And so, little by little, the Egyptians and the Nubian locals learned to live and let live. However, the daily lives of the first generations of Egyptians, and their relationships with the surrounding population must have been marked by distrust and continuing conflict with the partisans of the former kingdom of Kerma. But when the resistance had been subdued, the town experienced a sudden economic boom. “I am convinced that this was possible only because a deal was made with the locals, and the occupiers correspondingly adapted.” One result was the establishment of a local pottery tradition. Many of the archaeological finds show that the pieces produced locally conform to the typical Egyptian forms, but occasionally one finds characteristically Nubian features, such as a particular approach to the burnishing of the outer surface. Such wares thus adopt and rework aspects of local Nubian tradition. 

The stone shabti is inscribed with the name of the first occupant of the tomb – the master goldsmith Chnummose. (Source: Julia Budka)

The tomb of the master goldsmith
The finds made so far suggest that the better-off sections of the population of Sai rapidly embraced the Egyptian way of life and became indistinguishable (in the archaeological record) from the “real” Egyptians. For example, they adopted Egyptian funerary customs and venerated Egyptian gods, including the Pharaoh. In addition to the extensive town area, there are Egyptian-style cemeteries on the island, the earliest of which goes back to the time of Thutmose III. Here, in 2014, Budka and her colleagues discovered Tomb 26, a partially undisturbed tomb consisting of several chambers, in which at least 25 individuals had been laid to rest. This year she was able to identify the remains of 15 adults and several children, some of whom had been buried in wooden coffins. Unfortunately, only traces of the painted blue-and-yellow decoration have been preserved, as the tomb was at some stage inundated with groundwater. Perhaps the most exciting find was a stone statuette depicting a so-called shabti or servant for the afterlife. Because shabtis typically bear the name of the deceased, the occupant could be identified as the master goldsmith Khnummose. The tomb is thought to have been built for him, and it thus contains the mortal remains of members of a family that was directly involved in one of the town’s principal functions – the mining and processing of gold.

Julia Budka would now like to know whether the people buried in this tomb were born locally or had migrated from elsewhere. She assumes that, from the third generation after the foundation of the town, at least some of its officials will have been born in Nubia. But did such individuals have Egyptian parents or were they perhaps progeny of the local princely families who ruled the area prior to the conquest? This question can be answered by measuring the levels of different isotopes of the element strontium which is incorporated into bones and teeth and provides insights into the composition of the individual’s diet. If ancient DNA can be recovered from the skeletal remains found in Tomb 26, it should throw light on the genetic relationships between those buried in it. Budka now awaits the results of the DNA analyses underway at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

The excavations in Sai also yielded a so-called pyramidion (the capstone used to top off a pyramid constructed from mud bricks) that bears the name Hornakht. Hornakht is known to have been one of the top-ranking Egyptian officials stationed in Nubia during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. In addition, his name and that of his wife have also been discovered on several doorjambs found in Sai. “It was thought that by the time of Ramesses II, about 300 years after the founding of the town, the center of Egyptian administration in the area had moved to the town of Amara West. But these finds conclusively demonstrate that Hornakht’s residence was located on Sai and that he was buried there.” Furthermore, Budka strongly suspects that Hornakht was born on Sai and that other members of his family also held important positions in the Egyptian administration, although they were natives of the town.

Indeed, the results of the fieldwork carried out on Sai indicate that the settlement existed from 1500 until 1200 BC, two generations longer than previously thought. “Sai retained its importance up until the end of the 18th Dynasty. From then on, the Egyptian state invested less and less in the town, and a new settlement was built at Amara West, which soon took over its functions. But we now know that the two must have co-existed for some time, and some families obviously remained on Sai. Moreover, it is still not clear why the Egyptians abandoned Sai. But there must have been a specific reason for the decision, for our British colleagues at Amara West have shown that the site was far from ideal and was itself forsaken within a relatively short time. Living conditions there were very difficult, and people suffered greatly from the unrelenting northerly wind.” Budka believes that political factors may account for the move to Amara West, although environmental conditions may well have played a role. “The course of the Nile seems to have changed slightly.” Indeed the results of her project have made the grounds for the desertion of Sai even more mysterious. “To begin with,” she says, “Sai was totally alien to the Egyptians. But they gradually adapted to it and settled down quite nicely. By the end of the 18th Dynasty, its inhabitants enjoyed a standard of living comparable to that in Egypt proper.” Over the 300 years of the settlement’s existence, they managed to turn an initially forbidding prospect into somewhere they could eventually call ‘home’.

Conference: “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual Households and Cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia”

Julia Budka has organized a Conference, scheduled for September 1-3, at which she will review the results of her project “AcrossBorders”.The list of invited speakers includes archaeologists Charles Bonnet (University of Geneva), who will give a talk on the architecture of Kerma during the period of the New Kingdom, and Neal Spencer (British Museum), who will report on his excavations at Amara West.

The Conference takes place in Munich’s Egyptian Museum.

Representatives of the Sudanese Embassy and the Sudanese Antiquities Authority, who can provide information on the current conditions for archaeological excavations in the country, will be present at the Conference

Those wishing to attend are kindly asked to register prior to August 15 by sending an e-mail to

For further information on the ERC project “Across ancient borders and cultures: An Egyptian microcosm in Sudan during the 2nd millennium BC”, see