Lyre – Singing a Song of the Sudan, British Museum & Beyond


Lyre, kissar, from northern Sudan, mid to late 19th century, courtesy ©The Trustees of the British Museum

During 2015, to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the Commission for Africa, and launch of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the British Museum at London is celebrating culture in Africa through a series of events and displays.

The Asahi Shimbun Display is a series of regularly changing presentations, which looks at objects in new or different ways. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun Company long term supporters of the British Museum, the object in focus is a magnificent lyre known as a kissar, from Nubia in northern Sudan.

Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre display will enable exploration of the historical and contemporary cultural significance of the lyre, while showcasing the artistic qualities of one of the most remarkable ancient objects in the museum’s collection.

A lyre in ancient times was a musical instrument consisting of a sound box and two curved arms, connected by a yoke from which strings were stretched to the body and used to accompany singing and recitation.

Lyre BEst 2

Detail: Lyre, kissar, from northern Sudan, mid to late 19th century, courtesy ©The Trustees of the British Museum

This particular lyre is associated with cult ceremonies referred to as ‘Zar’ and was used in times past in celebratory ceremonies in Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt. It was associated with calming restless spirits.

The lyre is ‘adorned with objects that acted as charms, including ‘beads and cowrie shells that may have come from the Maldive Islands, a metal mechanism, bells and coins (mostly Ottoman minted in Cairo but also from Great Britain and even Sumatra)’.

Today the Zar ceremonies are illegal in the Sudan and a dangerous occupation for those who seek to try, with contemporary bands using electric and amplified instruments to emulate traditional sounds.

Associated events include free gallery talks and performances of Sudanese music.

In antiquity the lyre became renowned for its power of persuasion.

Similar in appearance to a small harp, which evolved from it, is the differences that appear dependent on the culture where it developed.

Detail from the Golden Lyre of Ur or Bull's Lyre, found in the grave of Queen Puabi aat Ur, courtesy The British Museum

Detail from the Golden Lyre of Ur or Bull’s Lyre, found in the grave of Queen Puabi aat Ur, courtesy The British Museum

The Hagia Triada Mycenaean sarcophagus, 14th century BCE, depicts the earliest lyre with seven strings. We also know a Lyre soundbox with lapis lazuli carvings existed in the ancient city of Ur in the region of Sumer, southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 2500 BC.

This was the city famed as the home of Abraham in The Bible and depicted a bull-lyre on the Standard of Ur dating from 2600 – 2400 BC. The tombs of the Royal Cemetery gave up valuable information while establishing the sophistication of the art, religion and social mores of ancient Sumer society.

The city was excavated by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley during the 1920s and 1930’s, revealing its treasures. This included an extravagant array of jewellery of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, cups of gold and silver, bowls of alabaster, and extraordinary objects of art and culture.

In the grave of ‘Queen’ Pu-abi identified by a seal bearing her name written in Sumerian, the world’s first written language, the woman ‘… lay right against the lyre and, according to Woolley, the bones of her hands were placed where the strings would have been.’

Ur 2

The Standard of Ur, Sumerian city of Ur, southern Iraq, c. 2600-2400 BCE, Mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, courtesy The British of Museum

Standard of Ur

Detail of a lyre on The Standard of Ur, courtesy The British Museum

The wooden parts of the lyre had decayed in the soil. However Woolley poured plaster of Paris into the depression left by the vanished wood and preserved the decoration in place.

The front panels had been made of antiquities favourite stone the rich blue gold flecked lapis lazuli, with shell and red limestone originally set in bitumen.

The gold mask of the bull decorating the front of the sounding box had been crushed and was restored.

While the horns are modern, the beard, hair and eyes are original and also made of lapis lazuli.

Apollo Citharedos 2nd Century

Apollo Citharedos, 2nd Century, Museo pio Clementino, discovered in 1774 with with seven statues of the Muses, in the ruins of Gaius Cassius Longinus’ villa near Tivoli, Italy, courtesy Vatican Museums

Apollo Citharedos, a 2nd Century Roman sculpture of the Greek God now in the Museo pio Clementino as part of the Vatican Museums, was discovered in 1774 along with seven statues of the Muses, in the ruins of Gaius Cassius Longinus’ villa near Tivoli, Italy.

Finding them together was significant.

The Muses were associated with water and the springs of Helicon along with Apollo, Greek god of the sun and of music, playing on the strings of his lyre imitating the sounds of sonorous mountain streams, springs and the winter snows when they were melting into spring.

The Muses considered the source of all knowledge had tales about them related for centuries in poetry, myth and legend, including the story that the Lyre was invented by the God Mercury who gave it to Apollo.

Music became a ‘muse-inspired and muse descended art’, when the Greek muses’ along with the God Apollo their leader,  became guardians of it.

Plato, one of the three giants of Greek philosophy, also conducted an intense, aesthetic and ethical discussion about music, believing there was an ‘analogy between the movements of the soul and musical progressions’.

He concluded music was not only an important source of amusement, but also about the ‘perfection of the soul’. This ensured that music achieved a state of ‘building up character and morals’, an eminently ‘public affair’


Apollo playing his lyre, fresco from one of five dining rooms discovered in 1959 in the remains of a villa about 600m south of Pompeii’s Stabia Gate near the ancient mouth of the River Sarno.

Roman Chair Solium

A woman playing a cithara while seated on a Roman chair known as a solium, fresco from the Villa of P Fannius Synistor at Boscroeale, 40 – 50 BC

Musicians in ancient Greece were acknowledged as the ‘Children’ of Venus and musical instruments the instruments of love.

There were two main forms and what we know as the lyre proper now could be used by anyone (amateurs). The Cithara was a larger version usually played by professional musicians and virtuoso.

The Romans of the 1st century embraced the much larger Cithara, with many images of it appearing in frescoes discovered on excavated still intact ancient walls.

Fourth century Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions the lyre in the context of being a ‘big as chariots’.

They were needed, as by imperial times, the rich and varied musical life enjoyed by the Romans meant its musicians and singers enjoyed a high reputation throughout the Empire.

They gathered in mass ensembles to play a number of instruments of which the lyre was only one.

Celtic bards mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in the 1st century as favouriting the lyre, ensure its popularity survived well into the early Middle Ages.

The instrument certainly survived the dissolution of the western Roman Empire and in northern Europe Germanic tribes played a type of lyre called in Old English the hearpa.

During medieval times in Europe the word music deriving from the Egyptian moys ‘water,’ perpetuating the notion there was an association between the sounds of the landscape and water that could be replicated on a lyre.

The lyre has also been discovered in Saxon and Frankish graves in Germany and England; dating from the fifth through to the tenth century the most famous from the Sutton Hoo excavation, currently dating to the early seventh century.

By the age of chivalry the lyre was widespread at the height of its popularity, and it gave its name to lyrical poetry sung accompanied by music on the more complex wire strung harp that was now becoming predominant.

Lyre Best 3

Detail of the decorations on the Lyre, kissar, from northern Sudan, mid to late 19th century, courtesy ©The Trustees of the British Museum

TAntique music stand, made of  bronze, on white backgroundhe lyres of modern East Africa reflect the ancient diffusion of the instrument via Egypt with Box lyres surviving in Ethiopia and among the Sebei, a Nilo-Hamitic people of Uganda.

Playing techniques and tuning of the African lyres affords insight into the probable tuning and playing techniques of the ancient Greek lyres, which corresponds with pictorial evidence

The lyres of modern East Africa reflect the ancient diffusion of the instruments traditions that came to Ethiopia via Egypt where box lyres survive.

Its healing haunting refrains that were believed to have contributed to the reputation of good men and the general well-being of the res publica, continues.

Music is an art form that binds human beings together. Today the Lyre remains a powerful symbol of both love and music.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
British Museum, London

Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre
18 June – 16 August 2015
Room 3, Free


Celebrating Sudanese music: tanbura performance by Hassan Salih Nour

Saturday 18 Jul, 14.00–15.00,
Room 25

Singer and instrumentalist Hassan Salih Nour performs on the tanbura, the traditional five-string lyre of northern

Sudan. The performance in the Sainsbury African Galleries celebrates the language, musical heritage and customs of his upbringing in Sudan.

Free, just drop in, standing room only

The Sudanese lyre and the slave trade

Wednesday 22 Jul, 13.15,
Room 3
A gallery talk by Rovianne Matovu, independent speaker.

Free, just drop in

The iconic Sudanese lyre in African art history

Friday 7 Aug, 13.15,
Room 3
A gallery talk by Elsbeth Court, SOAS.

Free, just drop in



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