World History 1 143 - 9.3.1 The Origin and Rise of the Kingdom of Kush

The history of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush is bound up in the history of Egypt, its northern neighbor. It was heavily influenced by Egypt throughout much of its long history. And at one point during the eighth century BCE, a line of Kushite kings even sat on the throne of Egypt. At that time, the kingdom stretched from the Nile delta south to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles outside Khartoum, the capital of present-day northern Sudan (Figure 9.14). But the origins of the Kingdom of Kush date back almost two thousand years before that impressive period.

Two maps are shown. A very tiny gray and blue map is shown in the top left corner of the continent of Africa with a black square located toward the northeastern portion. A larger map shows this black square enlarged. The Mediterranean Sea is to the north, the Red Sea is to the east, and Egypt and most of Sudan is shown in Africa. An area in southern Egypt and northern Sudan is highlighted pink to represent “Lower Nubia.” A “U” shaped area below the green in Sudan is highlighted green to represent “Lower Nubia.” The Nile River is labelled and highlighted yellow from north of Cairo in Egypt down to north of Khartoum in Sudan.  Past Khartoum it splits off into the “Blue Nile R.” and the “White Nile R.”  Six circles are shown along the Nile River in Upper and Lower Nubia to represent “Cataract,” with the First and Sixth Cataracts labelled. Between the city of Cairo and the city of Khartoum these locations are labelled, from north to south: Lower Egypt, Eastern Desert, Western Desert, Upper Egypt, Kush, Kerma, and the Nubian Desert.
Figure 9.14 Africa’s ancient Kingdom of Kush originated to the south of Upper Egypt in the northern (lower) part of Nubia. This is the area that today straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. In later centuries, the Kingdom of Kush moved its center farther south into southern (upper) Nubia. (credit: modification of work “Political Middle East” by CIA/The World Factbook, Public Domain)

Although the earliest period of Nubian history is shrouded in mystery, we do know that kingdoms from Nubia engaged in trade with the Egyptian Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE). Goods of particular interest to the Old Kingdom Egyptians seem to have been ostrich feathers, ivory, ebony, incense, and especially gold, a commodity that played a vital role in pharaonic ritual and ceremony. For example, craftspeople used Nubian gold to fashion the sarcophagus mask of Tutankhamun, arguably Egypt’s most famous pharaoh.

The earliest Nubian state arose sometime around 2400 BCE and was organized around the city of Kerma (in present-day northern Sudan) located just south of the Nile’s third cataract in a lush floodplain ideal for agriculture and the pasturage of animals. The city’s wealth and prosperity were symbolized by its great walls, behind which lay a palace, religious buildings, dwellings, and roads, as well as a funerary complex that included a temple and chapel. At the heart of the urban center lay a large temple known today as the Western Deffufa. A deffufa is a form of mud-brick architecture specific to Nubia. There are three known deffufas in the area today. Of these, the two best known are the large Western Deffufa and less well-preserved Eastern Deffufa some two kilometers away. The Western Deffufa is an impressively large three-story temple reaching nearly sixty feet in height. Religious ceremonies (possibly involving ancestor worship, although we do not know their actual nature) were held in this massive structure (Figure 9.15). At its height, around the eighteenth century BCE, Kerma may have supported a population of about ten thousand people.

A picture of a building made of sandstone is shown. Four tall, dark brown, rough and bumpy projections stand up from the ground with some rectangular walls at both sides. In the forefront lays a maze of short, sandy walls low to the sandy ground. Blue skies with long thin clouds show in the background.
Figure 9.15 Kerma’s Western Deffufa is one of three such massive temples known to exist. It is fifty-nine feet tall, and its complex extends over fifteen thousand square feet. (credit: “Western Deffufa – Kerma” by Walter Callens/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

It seems to have been the Egyptians who first referred to the Nubian city-state of Kerma as “Kush.” Beginning during the rise of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2040–1782 BCE), the Egyptian state initiated a centuries-long but intermittent expansion southward, a process that entailed the establishment of fortresses to consolidate its control over regional trade. Over time, its trade with Kush grew, and the area became increasingly wealthy. Although the Egyptians’ southward advance was periodically stymied, usually by internal political problems occasioned by the death of a pharaoh and the chaos that ensued, their progress seemed inexorable.

When the Middle Kingdom collapsed and the Second Intermediate Period (1782–1570 BCE) began, trade and Egyptian contact with Kush declined. This left the Egyptian fortresses to fend for themselves. For a short time, the fortress communities attempted to become independent entities. But by at least 1650 BCE, the expanding power of the emerging Kingdom of Kush absorbed them. As this happened, the Kingdom of Kush also adopted elements of Egyptian culture, integrating Egyptian artistic styles and technology into their practices. Additionally, the leaders of Kush during this time cooperated with Hyksos-controlled Lower Egypt to keep the native Egyptian center of power located at Thebes weak.

Leaders in Kush had good reason to believe that a strong Egypt threatened their survival. And when the native Egyptian rulers began to grow their power and inaugurated the New Kingdom (1570–1069 BCE), they soon expanded into Kush. By the time Pharaoh Thutmose I came to the throne in about 1506 BCE, the Egyptians had extended their control of the Nile valley as far as the Nile’s second cataract. Thutmose was determined to conquer Kerma. His forces sacked and burned the city, desecrating its great temple with the unsettling inscription, “There is not one of them left. The Nubian bowmen have fallen to slaughter, and are laid low throughout their land.” Decades later, Thutmose III built a temple to the god Amun at Napata, just below the fourth cataract of the Nile. For the next five hundred years, Egypt controlled Nubia, and the region was further Egyptianized—that is, it was made Egyptian in character. The Kingdom of Kush was crushed as New Kingdom pharaohs asserted their control over Nubia, constructed Egyptian-style architecture, and promoted the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs on temples and Demotic (ancient Egyptian) script by the region’s Egyptian administrators.

In Their Own Words

The Nubian Travels of Harkhuf, Egyptian Governor of Aswan

Nubia was rich in resources, and Egyptian pharaohs often sent provincial governors there to trade for gold, ivory, and feathers and recruit soldiers. Following is an excerpt from the travel writings of Harkhuf, an Egyptian noble from Aswan in southern Egypt. Harkhuf held many titles, including governor of the south and ritual priest. A caravan trader by profession, he made multiple journeys into Nubia for the Old Kingdom monarchs, the details of which were inscribed on his tomb.

The majesty of Mernere, (my) lord, sent me together with (my) father, the “sole companion” and lector-priest Iri, to(wards) Yam (Upper Nubia) in order to explore the way to this country. I accomplished it within seven months, and I brought all kinds of products therefrom, beautiful and exotic. I was much praised about it.

When his majesty sent me a second time, I was alone: I went forth on the “Ivory Road” and I descended from Irthet, Mekher, Tereres, Irtheth in a period of eight months. And I went down, and I brought (back) of the product from this country very much, the like of which had never been brought to this land (i.e. Egypt) before.

And when his majesty sent me a third time to Yam, I departed from the Thinite districts on the Oasis Road. I discovered that the chief of Yam had gone by himself to the land of Temeh in order to beat Temeh to the western corner of heaven. When I had gone out in his support to the land of Temeh, I appeased him, so that he was praising all gods for the sovereign . . .

I descended with three hundred asses loaded with myrrh, ebony, heknu, grain, leopard skin, ivory tusks . . . (and) all beautiful products. And when the chief of Irthet, Sethu, and Wawat saw that the troops of the Yamians, who had descended with me for the Residence, and the soldiers, who had been sent with me, were strong and numerous, then this chief supported me and gave me cattle and goats and showed me the ways of the ridges of Irthet, as the vigilance which I carried out was more excellent than that of any associate-overseer of mercenaries sent to Yam before.

—Harkfuf's tomb inscription

  • Why were the Egyptian kings interested in Nubia?
  • What does the excerpt suggest about the strength of the Nubian army?

With the decline of the New Kingdom and the beginning of Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (1069–525 BCE), local leaders in Nubia were able to reassert their independence. As Egypt withdrew, Nubians built up a new independent Kushite kingdom around the city of Napata, just above the fourth cataract and beyond the Nile floodplain but within the zone of tropical summer rainfall and a region of fertile soil. Despite efforts to assert a specifically Nubian culture, the rulers at Napata were still largely Egyptianized—they built temples to Egyptian gods in Egyptian styles, increased trade with Egypt, and governed their state along Egyptian lines.

By the year 736 BCE, the Kushite kingdom centered on Napata was growing in power and influence, as evidenced by the fact that a Kushite king named Piye managed to install his own sister as high priestess of Amun in Thebes. Such a move was tantamount to an assertion of Kushite authority over Upper Egypt itself and appears to have precipitated a war. During the war, King Piye of Kush marched his army down the river to the Nile delta, effectively conquering all of Egypt. This move inaugurated a period of Nubian rule in Egypt that lasted for several decades. Egyptologists refer to this unique period as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty or the Ethiopian dynasty.

The Nubian leaders who ruled Egypt during this period were thoroughly Egyptianized in culture and religious traditions. As a result, they ruled as Egyptian leaders, carefully preserving Egyptian cultural practices and traditions as a way to strengthen legitimacy. Like other pharaohs, the Kushite pharaohs wore the traditional double crown, promoted the worship of Egyptian deities, and constructed architectural testaments to their rule in the Egyptian style (Figure 9.16).

A broken piece of a long rectangular stone shown vertical on a solid black background is pictured. Hieroglyphs are carved from the top to the bottom. There is an oval with a pedestal at the bottom and three carvings inside. At the top is a decorative carving that has three tall broom-like projections and then two smaller spears in between them, all placed on a horizontal oval etching. Next is the carving of a large four-legged animal resembling a ram with long twisted horns on the sides of his head. At the bottom are two arms connected to each other in a “U” shape with palms facing straight up.
Figure 9.16 Like pharaohs before and after, the Kushite pharaohs of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty inscribed their names on temples using traditional Egyptian hieroglyphics. This stone remnant displays the name of the Kushite pharaoh Chabaka. (credit: modification of work “Cartouche au nom du pharaon Chabaka (Ägyptisches Museum Berlin AM 31235)” by “Tangopaso”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax