One of National Geographic's writers was hard to pin down for a while. That's because Kristin Romey was in Sudan, scuba diving in a pyramid. We had so many questions for her—especially once she shared with us that the contents of the pyramid could fundamentally change what we understand about ancient Egypt’s 25th dynasty.
PETER GWIN (HOST): Kristin Romey is surrounded by dozens of ancient pyramids. She’s in the desert in Sudan. It’s dunes as far as you can see, and Kristin is wearing scuba gear.
KRISTIN ROMEY (WRITER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): Okay. Well, this is going to top it all. Let's go diving in a pyramid. [laughter]
GWIN: Kristin is an editor, writer and one of my colleagues at National Geographic. She’s also an underwater archaeologist and on land, she's investigated plenty of pyramids and ancient tombs. This one is underneath a pyramid, kind of like the basement. There’s a long set of stairs leading down to the tomb. It’s flooded with murky, brown water, but Kristin dives in.
[sound of splash]
ROMEY: It was just zero visibility in the water and it was just like beige, beige, beige, boom: rock wall, where I kept swimming into the sides of the chamber.
GWIN: Actually, she crawls in through a narrow opening about the size of a television. Feeling her way through the dark water, she finally reaches a larger chamber.
ROMEY: There were a couple times when I was working in there and heard a thunk -- you know, splash into the water and something’s falling into the water. And it's not a snake. I know that. So it's, you know, pieces of the tomb falling. And then you’ve got like a really tiny -- It almost looks like a can of hairspray, of emergency air clipped to your back in case gosh forbid there's another collapse inside the tomb and you get trapped inside.
[sound of water]
GWIN: Kristin knows that a king was buried here thousands of years ago. A king whose people grew up along the edges of one of humanity’s greatest powers -- the Egyptian empire. King Tut, Cleopatra, Ramses --the Egyptians you’re probably picturing in your head -- these aren’t them. Their neighbors to the south had their own thriving culture and built their own pyramids. And for a brief while, they conquered Egypt and made the empire as big as it ever was. So why didn’t we learn about these guys in history class? Well, the story of these pyramid-builders has been hiding in plain sight for more than 2,000 years.
ROMEY: History is written by the victors, right? What happens when you have people on the edge of your empire suddenly running things?
GWIN: A new look at that story is waiting out there in the Sudanese desert inside these flooded tombs.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic. A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week, exploring new ground in old pyramids underwater.
GWIN: The site where Kristin’s diving is called Nuri.
ROMEY: Once I drove up to the site and just saw these stunning pyramids just silhouetted in the sun empty with nothing around them. It was breathtaking.
GWIN: And underneath those pyramids? The tombs of kings and queens containing all the riches they wanted to take with them into the afterlife. Maybe you’re thinking -- sounds like Egypt. Maybe the Pyramids at Giza? Or the Great Sphinx? But Giza is a thousand miles away from where we are in Sudan.
ROMEY: Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt does. Egyptians don't want to hear this but it's true.
GWIN: Thank the people of Kush for that. A few thousand years ago, Kush was Egypt’s southern neighbor. But the people of Kush -- or the Kushites -- did things their own way. They had their own language and worshiped their own gods. And their pyramids? The kings of Kush put their own spin on those too.
ROMEY: They're smaller than the ones in Egypt and the proportions are different. A lot of times they tend to be more steep-sided and pointy. So, aesthetically, I think they're really neat looking as well.
GWIN: The people of Kush also looked different from Egyptians. Egyptian artwork shows the Kushites with darker skin, like a lot of people in Sudan today. Over the course of a few centuries, the Kushites built 80 pyramids at Nuri. About 30 of them are still standing.
PEARCE PAUL CREASMAN (ARCHAEOLOGIST): You start looking around and you can feel these things. You can feel the history. You can just tell you're in a place that mattered.
GWIN: That’s Pearce Paul Creasman. He’s an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, and he directs the excavation at Nuri. The Kushites’ homeland has another name. One that’s still used today: Nubia. For a long time, Nubia was autonomous. It had its own thriving cities and it did pretty well for itself. But it had something Egypt wanted: gold, lots and lots of gold. So, about 3,500 years ago the Egyptians colonized Nubia. And they said you’re going do things our way. If you were a young elite from Kush, you might’ve gone to an Egyptian school where you would have learned to write in Egyptian hieroglyphs and worship Egyptian gods. That went on for a few hundred years until...
CREASMAN: Things get messy. There gets to be a lot of competition within Egypt and the Kingdom fractures. And by that I mean there is no one person who rules over all of what we would consider to be Egypt today.
GWIN: This is huge. Egypt went from being perhaps the strongest superpower in the world to a divided land with smaller, regional leaders. Kristin Romey says that’s when the kings of Kush realized, this our moment.
ROMEY: They came in and said, hey -- we’re more Egyptian than you guys are! They're saying you know, you guys came down the Nile all the time and you took our gold and we were your middlemen and we were you know doing trade for you. But now that you guys are in such shambles, we're going to come in and make Egypt great again.
GWIN: The king from Kush who really seized on this moment was named Piye. He wanted to show people he was powerful but also righteous in the eyes of the gods. So he started attacking the other kings all up and down the Nile. And to make sure the gods would be happy with him, Piye made his soldiers sprinkle themselves with holy water before battles. Piye conquered all of Egypt -- and started a dynasty known today as the black pharaohs.
CREASMAN: And at its peak, these five kings probably ruled over more territory then all but one or two of the most powerful kings in all of ancient Egyptian history.
GWIN: Pearce Paul says the black pharaohs felt that destiny was calling them to revive some of the old Egyptian rituals.
CREASMAN: They were saying we remember what the great kingdom used to be. It's our responsibility to return it to that.
GWIN: The Kushites were devoted to this one particular god, Amun, who was associated with the glory days of Egyptian power. So Piye built new temples and spruced up old ones. This Kushite King showed his new Egyptian subjects that even though he might not be Egyptian, he had a lot in common with them. Later, when Piye’s son Taharqa became pharaoh, he took this idea and ran with it.
CREASMAN: And so if you go on a big building spree -- this pharaoh Taharqa built all up and down the Nile and he went and he refurbished the temples and these temples were community centers in a way. And so if you have a robust Temple network you have a better way to be in touch with your people.
GWIN: Taharqa is probably the best-known black pharaoh. He even gets a shout-out in the Bible because he and the Hebrews fought against a common enemy: the Assyrians.
CREASMAN: Basically, the only Pharaoh of Egypt mentioned in the Bible in a positive way.
GWIN: Taharqa and the other black pharaohs had one more statement to make. One more way to say, “Behold! Look how great we are!” They wanted to be buried under pyramids.
ROMEY: They kind of recreated the pyramid as a funerary monument because the Pharaohs right before them were not doing that.
GWIN: It had been almost a thousand years since the Egyptian pharaohs were buried at pyramids.
The tradition had lost steam. And for good reason.
CREASMAN: Pyramids serve as giant bullseyes. They scream, come rob me.
GWIN: But Piye built one and Taharqa did too. And Taharqa’s pyramid was the biggest one built at Nuri. After Taharqa, there was only one more black pharaoh. Egypt got invaded, and the Kushites lost control of most of their territory. But they held onto Kush and they kept thriving for a thousand more years in what we know today as Sudan. The Kushites kept running their kingdom and doing their own thing and they kept building pyramids.
GWIN: So why don’t we know who the Kushites are? For starters, the time when Kush controlled Egypt was pretty short. Five pharaohs who ruled for less than a hundred years. And we just don’t have many written records from the Kushites themselves. A lot of what we do know comes from the Egyptians, who were very good at paperwork.
CREASMAN: Egypt is great because we get all these records, but what all of those records do are, they are the versions of history that the Egyptians chose to leave to us. They are not necessarily a narrative of what actually happened.
GWIN: The story the Egyptians told conveniently glossed over the Kushites’ rise to power. So when people in the future start reading the Egyptians’ records, there are a lot of blind spots. And these blind spots are made even worse by, well, racism. Take an American named George Reisner.
ROMEY: Reisner was one of these you know classic Egyptologists. The ones, you know, who have their afternoon sherry and you expect them to be marching around with his pith helmet.
GWIN: So Reisner was a Harvard professor in the early 20th century. He spent decades working in Egypt and Sudan, including a couple of years at the Nuri pyramids. And as archaeologists go, Reisner was a man of his time. Which is a nice way of saying, he took a lot of stuff from Africa and sent it back home.
CREASMAN: We know that the fellow that excavated this place held what we would consider to be some deeply racist views.
GWIN: Reisner wrote an account about his trip to Nuri. The tombs he explored. The artifacts he found. And he wasn’t interested in giving the Kushites much credit. In fact, he used some racist language. He wrote, “The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization.”
Reisner saw what he wanted to see. And Kristin Romey says what he wrote fits into this racist narrative that dominated for a long time.
ROMEY: Generally, you'll see there's kind of an undercurrent like oh this is a second rate version of X or this is a feeble imitation of Y. It's the assumption that they were trying to completely copycat earlier Egyptian cultural practices and techniques instead of saying that what we may be looking at is not a cheap interpretation but rather a development and an addition that is equally as important and interesting.
GWIN: Now that these blind spots have been identified, archaeologists like Pearce Paul are wrestling with some bigger, more exciting questions. Like, what happened when these two different cultures came into contact?
Ancient Egypt gave itself credit for civilizing Kushite culture. But what did Kush add to Egyptian culture? Nuri might hold some of those answers.
ROMEY: There's a lot of other important sites nearby that are I think maybe are a little bit more manageable and smaller. But Nuri, between the sheer scale of the site and the fact that so many of the tombs appear to be inundated with water it's just made it technically really a bugbear for archaeologists.
GWIN: This is why Kristin Romey needs scuba gear. Over time, changes in the Nile River made the water table beneath the pyramids rise. And about 10 years ago, a new dam on the Nile raised the groundwater even more. So today, the water table is high enough to flood the tombs. But that’s not all bad news. Even though archaeologists couldn’t easily get into the tombs, grave robbers couldn’t either. So as far as we know, some of the tombs could still be intact. And surprisingly water can actually prevent damage. You don’t get wild temperature swings and nosy animals.So it might actually have preserved what’s inside.
CREASMAN: The jackpot is finding intact archaeological remains that can inform us about these big questions that we that we hope to be able to address. And we have the possibility to find a few of those.
GWIN: Inside the dark tomb, there’s a place for Kristin to sit, just out of the water. She starts sifting through the mud.
ROMEY: You're picking little pieces of gold while you're trapped in this, you know, soggy cave. Then you take a break and you whip out the dry bag of gummy bears and sit and eat your gummy bears in the chamber and that's lunch and then you get back to work. It's very, very odd in a lot of ways. But fascinating!
GWIN: There’s a doorway at the end of this chamber. Through there, even farther inside the pyramid, Kristin gets a peek at the jackpot.
ROMEY: I was like oh my gosh. I am literally inside the burial chambers of the pyramid.
GWIN: It’s even harder to see because with each move, Kristin kicks up clouds of murky sediment. But beneath her, under the water…
[sound of water]
ROMEY: If you kind of like float in without being tethered to the scuba equipment and all that and you don't disturb anything you could look down and see this big sandstone slab that is probably the covering of the sarcophagus.
GWIN: A sarcophagus that has been lying in this tomb for more than two thousand years. It seems untouched, which means that it may still hold the remains of an ancient king of Kush. Pearce Paul says finding that at a pyramid is almost unheard of.
CREASMAN: Of the hundred or so pyramids in Egypt that we know of, as far as I know, archaeologists have only ever found human remains in two of them.
GWIN: Archaeologists have just started to discover the full story of Kush in the past few decades. And as we unlock the treasures inside Nuri’s pyramids, history’s perception of ancient Egypt -- one of the cultures we think we know so well -- could change dramatically. And even now, as Pearce Paul leads the current excavation, Kristin says he and his team are taking lessons from George Reisner’s work.
ROMEY: You know, it's humbling because you realize how much was overlooked or not done a century ago and how much was thrown out that could have been incredibly useful. And so nowadays -- y’know and I have to commend Pearce Paul for this, he's very careful about making sure he doesn't completely excavate a feature and wants to leave part of it for future archaeologists because they're going to have so much better tools than we have right now.
GWIN: Pierce Paul’s team hasn’t opened that sarcophagus yet, but they plan to work here for years to come. Kristin imagines duck-sized robots going inside the tomb, taking 3-D scans and showing us what’s inside. Hopefully preserving even the tiniest clues the Kushites left behind.
The story we’re telling now about Kush, it shows us how the old story came up short. That version kept the Kushites in the background. It’s where the Ancient Egyptians relegated them. And later, that’s where some westerners thought they belonged. But that leaves out so much of the story, a story that gets richer and more dramatic the more puzzle pieces we unearth and are able to fit together. And now, diving inside the pyramids at Nuri gives us a chance to find even more clues and better clues. Pointing us closer to the whole, epic story. And this time, the Kushites are the main characters.
GWIN: To read more of the fascinating story about the Kushites, check out the links in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app. And while you’re there - subscribe to Overheard at National Geographic. And it really helps us to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Emily Ochsenschlager, Kristen Clark, Brian Gutierrez, and Robin Miniter. Our editors are Casey Miner and Ibby Caputo. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Nick Anderson, Devin Ocampo, Jerry Busher, and Interface Media Group.
Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media, and Arizona Public Media. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Susan Goldberg is our editorial director. I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all here next week.