Bust of an ushabti of the pharaoh Taharqa

Bust of an ushabti from the grave goods of the Nubian pharaoh, Taharqa, brother of Shebitku, the preceding king, and son of Piye, Nubian king of Napata, who conquered Egypt and founded the 25th Dynasty, the Kushite dynasty. Taharqa was buried in a tomb 60 metres high (pyramid n. 1 of the Nuri necropolis), the highest in Nubia. After this time, Nubian sovereigns would be buried in this same necropolis, thus changing the tradition in force until this time.

More than 1,070 ushabtis were found in his pyramid in the royal necropolis at Napata. Most of them are conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and in Sudan. Very few of them are to be found in private collections.

Like all other monarchs and important persons who could afford ostentatious funerary monuments, Taharqa fitted out his tomb with an important set of funerary figures. The pieces were lined up along the walls of the chambers and passages in columns two and three deep. Of diverse types and sizes, all of these figures were made from a variety of materials: quartzite, serpentine, alabaster, black or green granite.

The ushabtis show a powerful, inscrutable king, in a solemn pose, with a serious expression, large eyes and mouth, and always gazing directly forward. At the same time it can be seen that most of them, as is the case with this example, show a figure with the ceremonial beard and the Nemes headdress. In reality this is a white head-cloth adorned with stripes dyed blue, in substitution for the crowns. This head-cloth was light and comfortable. It covered the entire head, fell vertically behind the ears and was held in a knot near the nape of the neck, forming a manner of plait. In other cases the head is covered by the so-called Khat headdress. This is simpler that the Nemes as it is without lateral decorative elements, has no folds or stripes and hangs open down the back of the figure.

As the property of the king, some of the ushabtis, representing labourers, carry hoes and sacks of grain. Others appear carrying paraphernalia associated with a king: a staff and whip. The shroud wrapped around the entire body with the exception of the head and hands is the base on which text is incised. This is in horizontal registers containing text taken from Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, a funerary text destined to guide and help the deceased to reach eternity.

At no time is pigment used to emphasize any characteristic of the figures: neither the eyes, mouth, ceremonial beard not the headdress are emphasized through the use of colour.

The ushabti figures (those who answered) were figurines that were buried in tombs so that they could “respond” to a call from Osiris, when the latter demanded that the owner of the tomb perform certain manual labour in the afterlife. These figures substituted the owner in this work in the fields of Aaru, the Egyptian paradise, thus ensuring his sustenance in the afterlife. Apart from the fact that they held hoes and baskets like any labourer, the shaping of these figures imitated the features of the mummy of the deceased. Ushabtis first appeared in the Middle Kingdom and the usual practice was to bury the deceased with 365 of them, one for each day of the year, grouped in squads commanded by 36 overseers.

At first the kings of Kush were buried in beds placed on stone platforms inside the pyramids. These structures were based on the private Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom. Taharqa introduced more Egyptian elements in the burial, such as mummification, coffins and sarcophagi, as well as the placing of ushabti figures.

During the 25th Dynasty there was a nostalgic return to artistic forms of the past, particularly forms from the Middle and the New Kingdom. The use of stone for royal statuary and the sculptural style are the best examples of this tendency. To be precise, the ushabti figurines of the pharaoh with the somewhat rough carving of the body, the facial features and the use of obsolete versions of inscribed text, all reflect the influence of models that date from the Middle and New Kingdoms.

Tahaqa was the brother of Shebitku, the preceding king, and was the son of Piye, the Nubian king of Napata who conquered Egypt and founded the 25th Dynasty. It was during his reign that his enemies, the governors of Assyria, invaded Egypt. Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, lead various campaigns against Taharqa, invading Egypt in the seventeenth year of the reign of the pharaoh, and sacked Memphis, capturing a number of the members of the royal family. Taharqa fled to the south, and Esarhaddon reorganized the political structure in the north, placing Necho I, of the 26th Dynasty, on the throne as king at Sais.

However, after the Assyrian king’s departure from the country, Taharqa reorganized the affairs of Lower Egypt and fanned numerous revolts. Esarhaddon died before returning to Egypt, and it was left to his son and heir, Ashurbanipal, to once again invade Egypt. Ashurbanipal defeated Taharqa, who afterwards fled to Thebes where he died after the 26 years of his reign. He designated Tantamani, a son of Shabaka, as his successor.


- Group of ushabtis of the Pharaoh Taharqa. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


- Nubia. Los reinos del Nilo en Sudán. Fundación La Caixa. 2003.
- TAYLOR, J.H. Egypt and Nubia. The British Museum Press. London. 1991.

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