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The Kingdom of Kush

The kingdom of Kush, and the fascinating civilization it gave rise to, has been overshadowed in the telling of history by its more famous northern neighbor, Ancient Egypt. However, Kush occupies a significant place in world history, and a pivotal role in the history of Africa, as the first literate, city-based civilization south of the Sahara.


Egypt’s geographical position, lying in the northern portion of the long valley of the River Nile, meant that it was cut off from the rest of Africa by almost impassable desert to east and west, and by only somewhat less-impassable cataracts to the south.

It therefore fell to Kush to mediate the arts of civilization to societies south of the Sahara. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of its civilization is the way that it gradually changed from being little more than a cultural satellite of ancient Egypt, to becoming the first truly African civilization. It thus played a key role in the long history of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Rise of Ancient Nubian civilization

The land of Nubia

A more detailed survey of the land of Nubia, in which Kush was situated, is given in the article on Ancient and Medieval Nubia.

Nubia lies immediately south of the land of Egypt. The border between Ancient Nubia and Egypt was marked by the northernmost of six cataracts over which the waters of the river Nile flow (confusingly, this is traditionally called the First Cataract, as the ancient Egyptians numbered these cataracts from north to south).

Going southwards from the First to the Third Cataracts, the landscape is similar to that of Egypt, albeit on a smaller scale. It is formed of ribbon of intensively cultivated irrigation-based land along the banks of the Nile, hemmed in on either side by the Sahara desert. This area is called Lower Nubia.

South of the Third Cataract the Nile is the tropical zone of central Africa. Here, rain-fed agriculture is possible, allowing farming to take place away from the river. This land is called Upper Nubia, and lies in present-day Sudan.

Prehistory of Nubia

From the fourth millennium BCE, the farming population of Lower (i.e. northern) Nubia shared in the economic and cultural advance which, to the north, resulted in the emergence of the sophisticated civilization of Ancient Egypt. While Nubian civilization could not compare with that of Egypt in terms of material culture, it saw villages expand into towns, and boasted royal burials even more splendid than those of the early pharaohs of Egypt. 

Once Egypt had become unified, its militarily superiority became apparent. During the period of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, hostilities between the neighboring lands culminated in the occupation of Lower (northern) Nubia by the Egyptians. The Egyptian planted towns and forts between the first and second cataracts.

From the early days of Egyptian civilization, Nubia was a major source of commodities such as slaves, gold, ivory, ostrich feathers and ebony. It was to retain this role right up to modern times.

The first kingdom of Kush

As the Old Kingdom of Egypt went into decline, the Egyptians withdrew (or were expelled) from Nubia, in around 2500 BCE. Lower Nubia became the base for an independent kingdom. This was known to the Egyptians as Kush. Its capital was Kerma, an impressive and well fortified city just south of the Third Cataract.

Kush at the time of Middle Kingdom Egypt

With the reunification of Egypt at the start of its Middle Kingdom (c. 1990 BCE), hostilities between Egypt and Nubia grew, and the Egyptians occupied Nubia up to the Second Cataract. The Egyptian army built forts near the new border, and took direct control over the gold mines of the area. 

Kush recovers and survives

To the south, the kingdom of Kush survived, and in fact would endure for another 500 years. When Egypt went through a second period of division and weakness (its Second Intermediate Period, 1785-1540 BCE), Kush as able to take over the Egyptian forts and re-occupy the territory up to the First Cataract. 

Centuries of contact with their more advanced neighbor to the north had led the Kushite elite to adopt many aspects of Egyptian civilization. Their capital, Kerma, had Egyptian-style temples, and the royal palaces were of Egyptian design. Egyptian influences can be seen in Kushite pottery, jewelry, weapons and furniture. Nevertheless, Kushite culture retained indigenous features. Notably, royal burials involved not only the internment of masses of luxury items, as in Egyptian tombs, but also of hundreds of men and women – presumably royal retainers and slaves – who seem to have been buried alive to accompany their dead master.

End of the first kingdom of Kush

The re-unification of Egypt under the expansionist New Kingdom pharaohs (c. 1550-c. 1070 BCE) spelt the end of the first kingdom of Kush. Egyptian armies invaded Nubia, burnt Kerma to the ground and gained control of the Nile valley as far south the Fifth Cataract.

In the centuries which followed, Nubia effectively became a part of Egypt. It was ruled by an Egyptian viceroy from the new provincial capital, Napata, near the southern border. This was only one amongst several towns in the area which were either set up as Egyptian colonies or were pre-existing settlements now heavily Egyptianized. 

Over the next five hundred years, the Nubian ruling class adopted the religion, language, writing and other cultural facets of their imperial masters wholesale.

The Kingdom of Kush

A second kingdom appears

In due course, however, the traditional cycle reasserted itself. The New Kingdom of Egypt went into decline in the 11th century BCE, and the Nubians asserted their independence. A new Kingdom of Kush was established some time around 1000 BCE, with Napata as its capital.

By this time, however, the culture of Kush had become thoroughly Egyptianized, and the rulers seem to have regarded themselves as one amongst several regional Egyptian princes who had divided the kingdom of Egypt amongst themselves. The kingdom of Kush was organized along Egyptian lines, and grew steadily in power and influence. 

Kushite Pharaohs of Egypt

When groups of Libyan tribesmen from the western desert pressed in on Egypt, the Kushite king, Piye, posed as the champion of Egyptian civilization and marched north (730 BCE) to defend the country. He succeeded in fending off the invaders, and his successor defeating rival rulers within Egypt, and was left in control of the whole land of Egypt.

The Kushite kings ruled Egypt for some sixty years, appearing in Ancient Egypt’s long history as the 25th Dynasty. The kings were, to all intents and purposes, Egyptian pharaohs, wearing the traditional double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, worshipping the Egyptian gods and patronizing the Egyptian temples. They first ruled from Thebes, in southern Egypt, and later from Memphis, in the north.

Kushite rule in Egypt lasted until c. 670 BCE, when Taharqa was defeated by an Assyrian army. He and his court were forced to flee south to Napata, leaving the Assyrians to add Egypt to their huge empire. Efforts by the Kushites to regain their power in Egypt failed, and they established their capital once again at Napata. 

Though unable to regain Egypt, the kingdom of Kush survived for almost a thousand years more in its Nubian homeland.

Kush as an Egyptianized kingdom

Two millennia of close contact, including hundreds of years of actual occupation, had effectively turned Kush into a cultural satellite of Egypt. The Kushite ruling class had absorbed Egyptian language, writing, religion, art and architecture, and other aspects of Egyptian civilization. This process must only have intensified during the time when the Kushite regime ruled Egypt as the 25th dynasty. 

These influences did not simply evaporated with the expulsion of the Kushites from Egypt. Far from it. The rulers of Kush continued to wear the double-crown of the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt centuries after they has ceased to rule in Egypt. Egyptian remained the official language at the Kushite court, inscriptions were written using Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian gods were worshipped in Egyptian-style temples. 

Change, however, was on its way.

The Meroë Period of Nubian Civilization

The Rise of Meroë

At some point before c. 600 BCE, the kingdom of Kush gained control of territories far to the south, centered on the Island of Meroë. This was an area of land between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile and bounded on two sides by the Nile and Atbara rivers.

The “island” rapidly became increasingly important within the kingdom. Ancient writers describe a fertile land full of farming villages. The area was also well-situated for trade. Trade routes to central Africa in the south, Egypt in the north, and eastwards to the Red Sea, passed through. Several towns grew up here, the most important being Meroë itself. 

Meroē becomes the capital of Kush

Just before 600 BCE a powerful new dynasty of pharaohs came to power in Egypt. In 595 BCE a strong Egyptian force invaded Nubia, as far south as Napata, sacking the city.

The Kushite court then relocated south to Meroë, which would be the political capital of the kingdom for the next 800 years. Napata remained the religious center for now; new kings and queens had to go there to receive the formal blessings of the gods.

Kush becomes more African

While the Kushite court had remained in Napata, the ruling class probably retained its Egyptian character almost unaltered. For some two centuries after the move, the Egyptianized element seems to have predominated. Under the surface, however, things were changing.

Meroë was much further up the Nile, and hence more distant from Egyptian influences. Moreover, it was set in a different kind of country. The territory around Napata was similar to that of Egypt, albeit on a smaller scale. The population was concentrated in a narrow ribbon of intensively cultivated land along the banks of the Nile, hedged in by desert.

Meroë, however, lay within the tropical rainfall zone, where rain-fed agriculture is possible and irrigation not essential. This allowed farming – of tropical cereals such sorghum and millet, and later cotton – to be practiced across a wide area, not just near the rivers. In addition, the area was adjacent to extensive grasslands, ideal for semi-nomadic pastoralism, and cattle-grazing played an important part to the economy.

A different kind of society…

These conditions gave rise to a society quite distinct from that of Egypt and Lower (northern) Nubia. The population was much more dispersed than further north. Living in mud and reed houses clustered in small villages, the people obeyed local chiefs and clan heads rather than officials representing a strong central authority. The semi-nomadic pastoralists of the grasslands were doubtless even more free from royal authority.

…and a different kind of politics

The Kushite kings had a great deal less control over the local chiefs than the pharaohs of Egypt had had over their officials, and as time went by this aristocracy undoubtedly came to be the dominant element at court. Although the kings of Kush continued to claim the same absolute authority as the pharaohs, they had to rule with a measure of consent from the local chiefs. Monarchs were chosen with their agreement, albeit from amongst the members of a single royal family, and were liable to be removed if they lost their support.

The Africanization of Kush

At some point the local language of the Meroë area ousted Egyptian as the spoken language of the royal court. This must have occurred by the third century BCE, as at that time the hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt was adapted to a flowing alphabetic Meroitic script (as yet not understood by modern scholars) in which to write the local language.

Indeed, the third century BCE seems to have represented a tipping point in the “Africanization” of the Kushite kingdom. The last royal burial to take place at Napata is dated to 300 BCE, and a new sequence of burials immediately starts in Meroë. 

This move may have been linked to a political struggle between the old and new centers of power in the kingdom, culminating in a massacre of the priests of the Egyptian gods at Napata. At around the same time, worship of the Lion God, Aperdemek – a deity unknown to the Egyptians comes to the fore. His temple at Musawwarat dates to the third century. In the royal burials at Meroë, African animals such as lions, ostriches, giraffes and elephants are depicted more prominently in paintings and statues, and the high quality ceramics of Meroë, though based on traditional Egyptian designs, are decorated with local motifs. 

All this indicates the triumph of the local Meroitic aristocracy at court, and of more local “African” traditions. In short, Meroë, being located in a region more typical of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa than Egypt and Lower Nubia had been, gradually gave rise to a more African-style state. This is shown in the greater power of local aristocrats, a recurrent theme in African kingdoms through history.

Powerful royal women

It is also reflected in one notable feature of the political life of the kingdom, the importance of queen mothers. This seems to have reflected a matrilineal line of succession (i.e., through the female line of descent). The son of one of the king’s sisters would be chosen as crown prince, and on his accession his mother would become the Queen Mother (with the title Kandake, which is Latinized to Candace – see below). She seems to have had her own court, supported by its own estates; and if the king was a child, she would rule the kingdom in his place as regent.

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch

An interesting episode dating to the first century CE, and which appears in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, tells of one of Jesus’ disciples called Philip meeting an “Ethiopian eunuch”, who was one of the most important officials at the court of Candace, “Queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8, 26-27).  To the Greeks and Romans, anywhere in Africa south of Egypt was given the label “Ethiopia”; and the term “Candace:, or Kandake, shows a misunderstanding of the word, which actually refers not to an individual but to a title, that of a queen mother. This little passage unwittingly reflects the prominence of some royal women. The fact that an important Nubian official was a Jew (and then was baptized a Christian) shows that Nubia was, to some extent, linked into the Graeco-Roman world of the Middle East.

Nubian Pyramids

Egyptian influences were never given up altogether in Kush. Egyptian gods continued to be worshipped alongside the more “African” deities, and one distinctly Egyptian practice endured to the very end of the kingdom. This was the burying of the embalmed bodies of kings and other important persons under pyramids.

Prior to their conquest of Egypt, Kushite kings had begun to have themselves buried under pyramids. This was centuries after this practice had been given up in Egypt itself. In Nubia, this was to be an enduring tradition. The first kings to do this were the immediate forebears of king Piye, who conquered Egypt. The last one was buried around 300 CE.

Kushite pyramids clearly drew inspiration from Egyptian antecedents, but they had significant differences. For a start, they were far smaller. Secondly, their base was much smaller in relation to their height than were Egyptian pyramids, making their sides much steeper. And finally, most had, in proportion to their size, a much larger portico structure attached to them than Egyptian pyramids had. This probably reflects the greater need for space due to the importance of sacrifice in ancient Nubian religious rites, which was always given more emphasis than in Egyptian ones.

Napata was the first center of Nubian pyramid-building, but from c. 300 BCE Meroë became the location for the pyramids.

The Iron Industry of Meroë

One of the most notable features of the Meroë period of Nubian history is the development of the iron industry around the city of Meroë itself. Large slag heaps of waste from ancient times still rise above the rail tracks, evidence of the importance of the industry.

Ancient iron smelting required not only iron ore, in which the Island of Meroë was rich, but also huge quantities of timber for charcoal. The locality had an abundance of hardwood forests, ideal for this purpose. What made the industry important, however, was the introduction of iron weapons into Middle Eastern armies.

Iron had begun being smelted in the Middle East some time in the second millennium BCE, but only became widespread in the region centuries after 1000 BCE. The Assyrian forces which pushed the Kushites out of Egypt had been armed with iron weapons, and the newly-independent Egypt which came to power just before 600 BCE would have needed iron weaponry to put its armies on a level with those of Assyria and its successor, Babylon. Egypt, however, did not have extensive tree cover, and therefore had difficulty smelting iron in sufficient quantity for its own need. Iron would have been a valuable trade item between Nubia and Egypt at this time.

Iron weaponry would also have been important in Kush’s own armies, not only in defending their borders from powerful potential enemies to the north (but with whom they had generally good relations – see below) but also in raiding peoples further south, for slaves. 

Iron was important in agriculture. Iron axes and hoes must have been of great assistance in clearing forest for fields (and providing the timber for iron-making) and for growing crops. 

Modern historians have stressed the importance of Meroë’s role in passing on iron technology to Sub-Saharan Africa. This view has been modified in recent years by the realization that traditional iron-making techniques vary in different parts of the continent.

Meroë as a center of international trade

Expanding markets

The traditional exports of Nubia, such as slaves, gold, ivory and ostrich feathers, which the Kushites had monopolized for millennia, found an ever-expanding market in the Middle East and the Mediterranean world.

The kings of Kush on the whole maintained good relations with a succession of northern neighbors. In the late sixth century BCE, Egypt, after a brief period as an independent kingdom, came under the rule of the huge Persian Empire, along with most of the Middle East.

Then, in the wake of Alexander the Great‘s conquests (late fourth century BCE), she came under the control of a Greek-speaking dynasty, the Ptolemies. The country thus became part of the Hellenistic world, which straddled the whole of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean.

This opened up a large market for luxury goods from the east. The Ptolemies and Kushites soon concluded a trade treaty, to their great mutual benefit.

Finally, the Roman Empire took over Egypt (31 BCE). A little later, the Romans attempted a conquest of Kush, invading as far as Napata, which they sacked (23 BCE). However, they soon realized that maintaining trading relations was a lot more advantageous, and signed a treaty which restored normal commercial and diplomatic contacts. In fact it was in the first two centuries CE, when the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire allowed the Roman economy to prosper almost undisturbed, that Kush reached the height of its wealth.

Exports and trade routes

In addition, Nubian exports were finding a growing market in India and the East. Under the Persians, trade across the Indian Ocean began to flow up the Red Sea. This sea-borne trade became much more important under the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, and even more so under the Romans. The Kushites were able to gain a share of this market with the export of their traditional exports, which found as ready a market in India as they did in the West.

Wealthy kings

The capital city, Meroë was only one amongst several towns in Upper (southern) Nubia. It was in these that traders, craft workers, temple priests and royal officials lived. The royal court was the primary center of wealth and power. The wealth of the kings came mainly from their control of trade. The products of slave raids, hunting and mines were under the direct control of the king – indeed the hunters and raiders formed the nucleus of the standing army. Royal raiding and hunting expeditions roved over a wide area to the south of Meroë in the search for slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers and leopard skins. Elephants were also captured alive, to be trained for used in war – and, when the Ptolemies ruled Egypt, for export for use in the Egyptian army as well. 

Kush at its Height

The kingdom of Kush reached its peak under king Netekamani (reigned 12 BCE to 12 CE). The kingdom had expanded to take in all the territory between the First Cataract in the north to the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands in the south, and probably from the Red Sea in the east as far west as Darfur, in present-day western Sudan. At home, Netekamani and his successors were noted for adorning their capital with palaces and temples. 

Economically, the kingdom flourished. In the north, the narrow but fertile ribbon of land along the banks of the Nile benefitted from new crops and from the introduction of the saqia-based irrigation (based on a ox-powered water-wheel). The backbone of the kingdom’s wealth, however, remained in the broad farming region around Meroë, with its sorghum, millet, cotton and cattle.

The Decline and Fall of the Kingdom of Kush

The kingdom of Kush seems to have entered a period of decline at some time in the third century CE. A major factor was probably the turbulence which the Roman Empire experienced at this time, which disrupted Kush’s trade. By the time order was restored in the empire, Kush had lost its hold on the Red Sea trade to the new power of Aksum, located to the south-east of Meroë and nearer the coast.

Another factor may have been over-exploitation of the land. Some modern scholars have suggested that the iron industry, using a huge amount of wood for charcoal fuel, may have led to a loss of tree cover and had an adverse impact on the fertility of the soil.

Whatever the causes, the long history of the kingdom of Kush came to an end in the early 4th century CE. Royal burials ceased in those years, and the city of of Meroë was abandoned. In around 350, the kingdom of Aksum invaded the Island of Meroë and found no city and no kingdom.

Further Study

For the later history of Nubia, see the article on Ancient and Medieval Nubia.

External link:

In the Land of Kush