a major archaeological site, located below the Third Cataract of the Nile River, in Sudan (19°36′N, 30°25′E). Kerma was the seat of one of the first African kingdoms (2300–1500 BCE), identified in Egyptian texts as Kush from the Middle Kingdom onward. Possibly the land of Iam (mentioned in the sixth dynasty by Hirkhouf) may have been centered around Kerma. The kingdom was blessed by an environment conducive to agriculture and husbandry, and it owed its scope to a privileged geographic situation that assured it a dominant role in the trading networks of Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Red Sea. Its political importance is evident in the chain of fortresses erected in Lower Nubia by the pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty.

A study of Kerma's ceramics and funerary customs has led to the identification of several chronological phases: Old Kerma (end of Old Kingdom/First Intermediate Period), Middle Kerma (Middle Kingdom), and Classic Kerma (Second Intermediate Period). The territorial boundaries have not yet been established. To the south, Kerma remains have been located up to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, while to the north, Batn el-Hagar most certainly marked a border. During Classic Kerma, the kingdom of Kush expanded its sphere of power into Lower Nubia and occupied the fortresses of the Second Cataract. Armed conflict, documented in Egyptian sources, seems not to have stood in the way of trade exchange, as witnessed by the archaeological discovery of Egyptian ceramics and seal imprints that belonged to Egyptian administrative services. This development was reflected in the structures brought to light first by G. A. Reisner (1923) and by the expedition of the University of Geneva from 1977 onward. The city of Classic Kerma, surrounded by an imposing system of defences, covered an area larger than 30 hectares. The topography is characterized by causeways and some specific sectors: the religious quarter dominated by the deffufa, a temple whose mud-brick walls still rise to 18 meters (55 feet); the palace and its stores; and the harbor quarter, not counting the chapels of the secondary settlement. All these institutions indicate a complex organizational structure, undoubtedly inspired by Egypt, yet whose precise modalities we cannot establish owing to a lack of written sources. The existence of an administrative organization was confirmed by the discovery of local seals and seal impressions. The seals were made of baked clay, and clay reserves were prepared especially for them.

Kerma's funerary customs are distinct from those practiced in Egypt. The dead rest in a bent position on a leather blanket or a wooden bed. The surface of the tomb is marked by a circular tumulus, ceramics, and bucrania (ox skull) deposits. From Middle Kerma onward, chapels are associated with certain tombs. The layout of the necropolis in Classic Kerma indicates the existence of an elite class in the service of the sovereigns who exercised near-absolute power. The last sovereigns are interred in monumental tombs that measure up to 100 meters (320 feet) in diameter, which contain hundreds of human sacrifices and abundant funerary offerings. These include Egyptian pieces, such as the famous statues of Hapydjefa and Sennuwy, most likely acquired during raids into Lower Nubia. Two temples seem important because of their faience decor and painted murals, which blend purely sub-Saharan African elements with others borrowed from Egyptian themes. The city of Kerma was probably destroyed under Thutmose II of the eighteenth dynasty, when all of Nubia fell to Egypt.

See also NUBIA.


  • Bonnet, Charles. “Les fouilles archéologiques de Kerma (Soudan). Rapports préliminaires.” Geneva, vols. 26–45, 1978–1997. Detailed presentation of the excavations undertaken by the Swiss Mission of the University of Geneva since 1978.
  • Bonnet, Charles. Kerma: Territoire et métropole. Bibliotheque General, 9. Cairo, 1986. Conference at the Collège de France, offering a sound approach to the study of urban development, religious architecture, and funerary customs, principally based on the excavations carried out at Kerma.
  • Bonnet, Charles, et al. Kerma: Royaume de Nubie. Geneva, 1990. Exhibition catalog of the Musée d'art et d'histoire de Genève, dedicated to the excavation work led by the University of Geneva at Kerma. Abundant graphic and photographic documentation on the material, architecture, and urban culture, and on funerary customs; detailed bibliography.
  • Dunham, Dows. Excavations at Kerma. Boston, 1982.
  • Gratien, Brigitte. Les cultures Kerma: Essai de classification. Lille, 1978. Synthesis of what is known of the history of the Kerma culture and its relations with Egypt and other Nubian cultures.
  • Gratien, Brigitte. Saï I. La nécropole Kerma. Paris, 1986. Second important Kerma site, excavated from 1971 to 1978. Based on the research of this necropolis, Gratien defined the main chronological phases of Kerman culture.
  • Reisner, George A. Excavations at Kerma. 2 vols. Harvard African Studies, 5–6. Cambridge, Mass., 1923. Results and interpretation of the excavations undertaken by the author between 1913 and 1916.
  • Wenig, Steffen. Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, vol. 2: The Catalogue. Brooklyn, 1978. Exhibition catalog, giving an overview of all successive culture in Nubia, from perhistory to the Christian era; rich iconographic documentation and detailed bibliography.
  • Wildung, Dietrich, et al. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Paris and New York, 1996. Exhibition catalog, including the most recent archaeological research with regard to prehistoric periods up to the Meroitic period; rich iconographic documentation. (English version in progress.)

Charles Bonnet; translated from french by Elizabeth Schwaiger and Martha Imber-Goldstein