Graffito of cattle with human eyes. Copyright University of Michigan.
Graffito of cattle with human eyes. Copyright University of Michigan.

Graffiti as Devotion

Graffito of cattle with human eyes. Copyright University of Michigan.
University of Michigan

Graffiti are informal marks in public built spaces. Some graffiti are written texts, others are images. Today, making graffiti can be an act of opposition, rebellion, or personal commentary. As in the modern world, graffiti in earlier times could be left on the walls in alleys, markets, streets, or bathrooms. But some ancient and medieval graffiti were also left in sacred spaces as marks of devotion. The related practice of ‘rock drawings’ or ‘rock art’ are, by contrast, informal marks on natural rock formations.

An archaeological project from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan documented a group of devotional graffiti at the site of El-Kurru, located on the Nile River in northern Sudan. El-Kurru is best known as a pyramid cemetery for kings and queens of ancient Kush from 850 to 650 BCE, including some who conquered and ruled over Egypt as its 25th Dynasty (ca. 720–663 BCE). Three centuries later, a new pyramid (Ku. 1) was begun at El-Kurru for an unknown king, along with a funerary temple to preserve his memory. While these later structures were never finished or used, beginning in the Meroitic period (ca. 300 BCE–350 CE), they became sacred sites of pilgrimage. Pilgrims came because they believed these buildings to be powerful, holy places, and they carved graffiti as signs of their devotion.

It is clear that the ancient and medieval graffiti in the Middle Nile region were marks of personal worship rather than idle doodles. They are concentrated in particular places and include images related to offerings (offering stands and tables), to the movement associated with pilgrimage (feet, sandals, and boats), and other religious symbols (sacred animals, for example).

For images of more graffiti from El-Kurru, additional contextual information, and an exhibit catalogue, see the Kelsey Museum’s website for the 2019–20 exhibition, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan:

Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

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