The fortress of Mirgissa



The fortress of Mirgissa, situated on the western bank of the Nile, c. 16km (10 miles) south of Buhen, is renowned for its impressive outer northern gate. Military architects were well aware that, as the weakest spot within the defence, the gate area had to be highly fortified in order to withstand possible attacks.


In the Middle Kingdom Egypt controlled the Second Cataract as far south as Semna. There it built forts. In fact, under Sesostris I (1964-1916 BC), the forts of Buhen and Kor (on the left bank of the Nile downstream from the Second Cataract) are probably economic units. The location of Kor at the end of the rapids of the Great Cataract is of an outpost controlling the sending of goods towards Egypt.

His successor, Amenemhat II (1919-1881 B.C.) constructs, upriver from the cataracts, the fortress of Mirgissa, counterpoint of Kor. It controls the river navigation coming from the south.

During the Second Intermediate Period, it is occupied by a Kerma garrison and during the New Kingdom once more by Egyptians. A children’s cemetery of the Napatan period and the remains of a Christian building suggest continuity of occupation.

The fort was partially studied by an American team in 1931-1932. Jean Vercoutter took up the excavations when Egypt was authorised by

Sudan to construct the Aswan High Dam. The remains of Pharaonic presence are impressive:

–   A fortress, a fortified town, an open town, cemeteries, a quay, a small fort and a ramp that allows for the pulling of boats or their cargoes overland from one end to the other of the rapids that block the river in this area.

– The location of Mirgissa is mirrored by the presence of a natural harbour bordered by a natural plain.

– On an island opposite the fort of Dabenarti dates to the same period. It gives strategic importance to the complex.

According to Francis Geus, who has worked at Mirgissa, this excavation was the most colossal enterprise undertaken by Jean Vercoutter. It runs over more than 2.5 km along the Nile in an essentially rocky environment. To his surprise, the archaeologist discovered in a small sanctuary dedicated to Hathor, ‘mistress of Iu-ka-na’, that the famous port of Iken in the Egyptian texts, is no other than the fortress of Mirgissa. The excavations unearthed an impressive number of weapons: lances and javelins with flint heads (some 400) imported from Egypt. The shafts had been devoured by termites but left impressions in the soil.

The fort of Semna South is probably built to protect the fort-depot of Mirgissa.

Faced with the growing power of the kingdom of Kerma, Sesostris III (1872-1854 B.C.) erects in the 8th year of his reign a stela at Semna south, at the extremity of the Batn el-Haggar to mark a zone of influence of the Egyptian territory and so as to impede that any Nubian crossing the frontier, be it by land or in a boat, except those that come to trade at Iken (Mirgissa). After 10 years of reign, he installed his camp at Sai. Six years later, he reinforced the Batn el-Haggar and two other stelae are erected at Semna West and at Uronarti. In the texts, he employs threat and disdain to dissuade any Kushite from taking up arms.

The forts of Semna West, Kumna and Uronarti are completed by a line of exceptional defence with Faras, Shelfak and Askut.

The fortifications of Buhen and Kor were enlarged. The fortresses of Sesostris III are less important but better adapted to a military strategy. The control of this ‘Maginot line’ is undoubtedly carried out from Buhen.

The fortresses stand along the river at strategic locations. They carry aggressive names, for example ‘the one that reduces foreign lands’. They embrace the lie of the land, a half-circle at Askut, a triangle at Uronarti. Their size is impressive. Buhen has been calculated to cover 27 000 sq m., Mirgissa is larger still. It contains official buildings as well as small houses. The excavations have confirmed the presence of granaries, indispensable to an independent life. As for the religious domain, the texts mention the presence of a clergy.

Outside the circuit wall, ateliers form industrial areas. A port completed the infrastructure of the fortresses with storehouses, some of which have been identified at Kor, Askut, Uronarti and at Mirgissa.

It is not until the XVIII Dynasty that the fortresses are once more used without defensive purposes, as in the Middle Kingdom.

From Buhen to Abu Simbel, the Egyptian settlements bordered the Nile: Argin, Debeira West, Akasha, Serra East and West, Faras East and West.

With the creation of the reservoir, most of the constructions in mud brick have been dissolved. Many were almost four thousand years old.

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