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The Kingdom of Kush: Out from Under Egypt's Shadow

Updated on May 31, 2014
Pharaohs from Nubia
Pharaohs from Nubia | Source
Egyptian Nubian Territories
Egyptian Nubian Territories | Source
Egyptian ivory wand
Egyptian ivory wand | Source
Crown of Upper Egypt
Crown of Upper Egypt

Development of Nubia

During ancient times, from the beginning of civilization in Mesopotamia to the fall of the Roman Empire, Egypt was the greatest civilization in Africa, but it was not the only great civilization to exist there. Nubia, and later Kush, developed along the southern Nile region and had a love/hate relationship with their northern neighbor, Egypt.

From the Neolithic period, the people of Nubia and those of Upper Egypt were nearly identical. We see evidence of this dating as far back as 3300 BC. The people migrated from the Sudan and the Sahara regions to the Nile River where the fertile soil provided a basis for agriculture.

The territory where the Nubians settled was rich in natural and mineral resources including gold and iron. In addition to its own resources, Nubia sat between the Egyptians and southern African kingdoms and served as a trading partner uniting the entire territory. The Egyptians traded items such as grain and linen while Nubia traded gold, ivory and timber. Trade provided wealth and stability for the entire region. Nubia and Upper Egypt were so closely connected that it is believed that the white crown of Upper Egypt was actually Nubian.

Mentuhotep II - Twelfth dynasty pharaoh
Mentuhotep II - Twelfth dynasty pharaoh | Source
Nubians from the temple of Hatshepsut
Nubians from the temple of Hatshepsut | Source
12th Dynasty Egypt controlled to 2nd Katarakt - 18th Dynasty Egypt controlled to 4th Katarakt
12th Dynasty Egypt controlled to 2nd Katarakt - 18th Dynasty Egypt controlled to 4th Katarakt | Source

Nubia: From First Nome to Colony

Prior to the unification of Egypt by King Narmer, Upper Egypt had essentially incorporated Nubia into their kingdom and made them the First Nome, district. Nubia remained a part of Egypt until the First Intermediate Period when Upper and Lower Egypt once again divided. The Nubians took the instability of the region as an opportunity to break away but continued trading with the Egyptians. During the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt, 2075 BC, however, Mentuhotep II reunited Egypt then set about to regain control of Nubia and its trade routes. He succeeded in turning Nubia into a colony of Egypt. Because of his darker skin tone, Mentuhotep was himself believed to be of Nubian descent though his ideas and policies were completely Egyptian.

During times of Egyptian control, the Nubians had become completely Egyptian. Their buildings, religion, dress and speech had all become Egyptianized. Nubian men even served in the Egyptian military. The Nubians would occasionally try to overcome Egyptian control but would always succumb to their northern neighbors. The New Kingdom's Eighteenth dynasty saw Thutmose I extended Egypt's control to the Fourth Cataract of Nubia. By the time of his daughter Hatshepsut's rule, the Nubians regularly served the pharaoh. Nubians made up part of her trade expedition to Punt, as seen in the images from her temple at Deir el Bahari. Her successor, Thutmose III, built the city of Napata, as a power base in the region.

The death of Ramesses II, Ramesses the Great, in the Nineteenth dynasty, left Egypt with pharaohs less capable of ruling the country and its colonies. With the Twentieth dynasty came a steady stream of pharaohs with the Ramesses name, but each lost a little more control over Egypt because of their own infighting. By the time of Ramesses XI's death, the Priests of Amun in Thebes had finally succeeded in obtaining control of at least Upper Egypt. (Amenhotep III had warned his son, Akhenaten of the priests designs on power as far back as the Eighteenth dynasty) With Egypt again dividing power between Upper and Lower territories, control over Nubia was relinquished.

Kush pyramids at Nuri
Kush pyramids at Nuri | Source
Kushite Empire
Kushite Empire | Source
Remains of the Temple of Amun at Jebel Barkal
Remains of the Temple of Amun at Jebel Barkal | Source
Pharaoh Taharqa and Queen Takahatamun giving sacrifice to Amun-Ra and Mut
Pharaoh Taharqa and Queen Takahatamun giving sacrifice to Amun-Ra and Mut | Source

The Kingdom of Kush - 25th Dynasty of Egypt

Now that Nubia was independent from Egypt, a new kingdom formed centered in Napata, the Kingdom of Kush. The Kushites had been so immersed in Egyptian culture, however, that they maintained many of the practices of their northern neighbor. They continued to worship Egyptian gods, they built pyramids for the tombs of their rulers and continued to use hieroglyphs for their writing.

While their kingdom was flourishing in Kush, the Libyans had invaded Egypt and taken power. In 943 BC, Shoshenq I had established Libyan rule and reunited Upper and Lower Egypt starting the Twenty-second dynasty of Egypt, but the stability would not last. By 880 BC infighting once again had divided the country.

Kush continued to grow more powerful over the next two hundred years, and by 760 BC, King Kashta was ready to take Upper Egypt. He sent his son Piye up the Nile River. Along the way, Piye removed the Libyan's and returned Egypt to the culture to which it had always been accustom. Throughout his own reign, King Piye extended the Kush empire into Caanan and Phoenicia. He attempted to go farther into the Levant but was stopped by the Assyrians. The Kushites rule would become the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt.

The Kushite's rule over Egypt would only last about 75 years before the Assyrians would eventually come for them. In that time, Piye and his family would return Egypt and Kush to prosperity. Building projects were started to repair ancient temples and monuments throughout Egypt and create new ones in Kush.

Piye's successor was his brother Shabaka who finalized control of Egypt by Kush. Shebitku, the son of Piye followed his uncle to the throne. Shebitku initially entered into a peace treaty with Sargon II, the Assyrian king, but following Sargon's death, his son Sennacherib attempted to reclaim Jerusalem which renewed the fighting with the Kushites. Following Sbebitku's death, his brother Taharqa assumed the throne. It was under his reign that the Assyrians invaded Egypt and regained control of Lower Egypt. Shabaka's son Tantamani became pharaoh after his cousin Taharqa but lost control of Upper Egypt to the Assyrians and returned to Kush in 656 BC.

Meroitic Script
Meroitic Script | Source
Meroe
Meroe | Source
Kush pyramids at Moroe
Kush pyramids at Moroe | Source

The Assyrians did not enter Kush and the kingdom continued for several centuries. In 300 BC the capital was officially moved to the city of Meroe which had always been important to the Kushites. The kingdom also switched to Meroitic writing and used its iron working expertise to maintain its prosperity.

The kingdom entered a period of rule by both kings and queens. The queens were called Candace, and it was during the rule of Candace Amanirenas that the Romans entered the picture. In 24 BC, Amanirenas learned that the Egyptian praefect, or governor, Aelius Gallus had gone on a military campaign into Arabia. She took the opportunity to strike at Egypt. She was success in obtaining control of Aswan. Their victory was short lived, however, when the new praefect, Gaius Petronius removed them later that same year. Petronius did not stop at the Kush border once he had the Kushites on the run. He followed them to Napata then destroyed the city. Eventually, a peace treaty was reached with Caesar Augustus in 20 BC. The peace lasted between Rome and Kush for the remainder of the Kushite's reign.

By the second century AD, the kingdom was failing. War with Roman Egypt, declining trade and Christianity had all taken their toll on Kush. In 340 AD, Aksum, a kingdom from South Arabia or modern day Yemen, had taken control and the Kingdom of Kush was no more.

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    • NathaNater profile image

      NathaNater 3 years ago

      A very fascinating and little-known history.