A. Earliest Nubia
B. From Hunting to Gathering to Self-Subsistence
C. A-Group and C-Group Cultures
D. Lower Nubia: 2500-2000 BC
E. Upper Nubia: 2500-2000 BC
F. Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush

 
G. The Egyptian Conquest of Nubia
H. Kushite Resurgence
I. The Napatan State
J. The Meriotic State
K. From Unity to Fragmentation
L. The Nubian Christian Kingdoms
M. Nubia and Islam
 
       
   

H. Kushite Resurgence: The Nubian Conquest of Egypt: 1080-650 BC.

1. The Nubian Dark Age: ca. 1100-800 BC

Egyptian control over Nubia lapsed after the death of Ramses II (ca. 1224 BC) as Egypt itself again destabilized. In the early eleventh century BC Egypt split into two semi-independent domains: Lower Egypt, which was governed by the pharaoh, and Upper Egypt, which was governed in the name of Amun by his high priest at Thebes. By early Dynasty 21 (ca. 1080-945 BC), most of Lower Nubia seems to have become a no-man's land, while Upper Nubia became independent under unknown rulers.

From the meager data available, it would appear that those who ultimately gained control in Upper Nubia were people who had been little influenced by Egyptian culture. The old Egyptian centers show poor continuity of occupation, and their temples became derelict.

Not until the tenth century BC are African products again listed among gifts dedicated to Amun of Karnak by an Egyptian king. The donor, Sheshonq I (ca. 945-924 BC), and his successor Osorkon I (ca. 924-889 BC) of Dynasty 22 are also said in the Old Testament to have employed Kushite mercenaries and officers in their campaigns against Judah. Assyrian texts of the later ninth century BC also describe African products sent by the pharaohs to the Assyrian kings. Such evidence suggests that the Egyptians during this period had re-established trade relations with the far south, but they never reveal with whom they were dealing. One can only assume that from the tenth century on one or more dominant independent chiefdoms had emerged in Nubia - again, as in the case of Kerma centuries before, beginning a process of material, cultural, and political enrichment through commerce with Egypt. Until now, however, no archaeological remains have yet been found in Nubia that shed light on this obscure period.

2. The Neo-Kushite Dynasty of Napata and Its Claims to Egyptian Kingship

The archaeological record of Kush resumes again with the discoveries made in 1918 by George A. Reisner and his team from Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at the site of el-Kurru, about 10 mi (16 km) downstream from Gebel Barkal. Here Reisner found the remains of an ancient walled town, which he could not excavate, and a sequence of ruinous royal tombs, in which the tomb form and the burial customs rapidly changed from traditional Nubian type to Egyptian. The earliest tombs were rough stone circular structures, reminiscent of C-Group graves, in which the dead had been laid in pits lying on beds. The owners of these tombs left no inscriptions, so their names are unknown. The tombs had been badly plundered, but a wealth of gold jewelry was found in the debris. Rapidly the round tombs became square in shape and evolved into small steep-sided pyramids; the narrow burial pits became spacious, roofed chambers; and the dead were suddenly mummified and laid in coffins. The last tombs of the sequence had belonged to the great Nubian kings who conquered Egypt in the late eighth century BC and were counted in history as Egypt's Dynasty 25.

The origin of this family is mysterious; their Nubian roots are obvious, not only from the comments of many ancient writers, who described them as "burnt-faced," but especially by the tombs of their ancestors, the earliest of which seemed to date to the period 900-850 BC. Why this family abandoned their native Nubian customs and suddenly embraced the Egyptian remains unclear, but the process was sure and swift. It seems to have occurred over perhaps not more than three generations. The possibility that these kings were missionized by expatriate Egyptian priests from Karnak and taught to worship Amun of Gebel Barkal is a strong possibility. About the time the early tombs at el-Kurru were being built, there was a bitter civil war in Upper Egypt as a result of the attempt by the Egyptian king Takelot II to force the Amun priesthood at Thebes to accept his son as high priest. Many of the rebellious Amun priests may well have fled to the new court of Kush in southern Nubia to escape a certain death sentence, and once there, sought to restore the old Amun sanctuary at Gebel Barkal. By encouraging the Kushite rulers to work on behalf of Amun, the priests would have assured them of the god's support. Indeed it was from this moment on that the political fortunes of the family soared. It was also at this moment when the kings began to present themselves in the Egyptian style, to use Egyptian royal titles, burial customs, and to write their first inscriptions in the Egyptian language and script.

The first of the kings known by name is Alara (ca. 785-760 BC), who seems likely to have been the sixth ruler buried at el-Kurru. Alara was accorded special status by his illustrious descendants as the inaugurator of a new age, and it was probably Alara who first united all of Upper Nubia into a single state. It was also he who was said to have "put his trust in Amun" and to have begun restoring the god's temples in mud-brick at the old Egyptian sanctuaries at Gebel Barkal and Kawa (just south of Kerma). He was followed by Kashta (ca. 760-747 BC), who reconquered all of Lower Nubia and boldly assumed the title of "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" - which meant that he ranked himself as Pharaoh and an equal with the contemporary co-reigning kings of Dynasty 22 and 23 in Egypt. Probably, though, he never actually set foot in Egypt.

Kashta's death brought to the throne one of the most remarkable characters in the history of the Nile Valley. This was a king known variously as Piankhy or Piye (ca. 743-712 BC) (The exact reading of his name remains controversial). The name apparently meant "The Living One." Just as the Egyptian pharaohs of Dynasty 18 had recognized Gebel Barkal as an ancient source of Egyptian kingship and had themselves crowned there to affirm their rule, the new kings of Kush rediscovered this tradition and now used it to prove their right to rule Egypt. Since the first to recognize the religious significance of Gebel Barkal had been the Pharoah Thutmose III (ca. 1479-1425 BC), Piankhy sought to emulate him and presented himself as that great king's heir and reincarnation.

3. The Nubian Conquest of Egypt and Dynasty 25

Shortly after his rule began in Nubia about 743 BC, the Napatan king Piankhy (or Piye) achieved control over Upper (southern) Egypt by having his sister Amenirdis appointed to the ancient position of "Divine Wife of the God" at Thebes. In other words, she was symbolically "married" to Amun of Karnak and served as his virtual high priestess, living goddess, and mortal queen. All Upper Egyptian matters thus fell under the control of her office and ultimately to the Kushite king in Napata.

Kushite control of Upper Egypt was not long tolerated by the ruling families of Lower (northern) Egypt, who were then divided into several autonomous kingdoms. By Piankhy's 20th year they had formed an aggressive military alliance, led by a chief named Tefnakht of the Delta city of Sais. Piankhy's famous Victory Stela, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, which is dated to his year 21 and was set up at Gebel Barkal, describes his campaign northward into Egypt to put an end to the "rebellion" and details his ultimate conquest of all of the country except certain parts of the Nile Delta. The stela is especially interesting in revealing some unusual royal Nubian personality traits: the king ever sought to avoid bloodshed; he forgave his enemies; and he made special devotions to the gods of the northern towns fallen to his arms. Despite his stunning victory, Piankhy had no interest in direct rule over northern Egypt; he was content merely to control Thebes and the western desert oases. He thus withdrew again to Napata to proclaim his triumphs and to rebuild the old Egyptian temples.

Upon the death of Piankhy about 712 BC, he was buried beside his ancestors, beneath a modest pyramid at el-Kurru with a subterranean chamber accessed by staircase. It was a tomb type that would remain in use, in one form or another, by his successors in Kush for the next ten centuries. Besides tombs for his major and minor wives, he also provided tombs for four of his horses, which were buried standing up and facing east. Burying horses - sometimes up to eight at a time in separate tombs side by side - was a custom continued by each of Piankhy's successors at el-Kurru.

After Piankhy's death, his northern Egyptian "vassals" again erupted into rebellion, and his successor, a brother named Shabaqo, reinvaded to maintain control. It is Shabaqo rather than Piankhy whom the Greek historians remembered as the founder of the 25th Dynasty, doubtless because he was the first of his line to take up permanent residence in Egypt.

At this point, the kings moved to Memphis; they became fully Egyptianized and cosmopolitanized; and, as far as we know, they returned to Nubia only for burial. If they have traditionally been portrayed by historians as "foreigners" in Egypt, they surely did not see themselves as such, despite their different ethnic, cultural and linguistic origin. In their minds Egypt and Kush were northern and southern halves of an ancient original domain of Amun. These two lands, they believed, had been united in mythological times; subsequently they grew apart, to be united again in historical times only by the greatest pharaohs. As "sons" of Amun, the Napatan monarchs saw themselves as heirs of those pharaohs, who thus became their "ancestors." Shabaqo (ca. 712-698 BC) and his successors Shebitqo (ca. 698-690 BC) and Taharqa (690-664 BC) believed they were the god's representatives - from his southern sphere - chosen to unite and protect his ancient empire and to restore ma'at - "truth, order, and propriety" in the Egyptian sense - throughout the land.

In their search for religious and cultural purity, the Kushite kings in Egypt developed a keen interest in all ancient Egyptian ideals, rituals and traditions, especially those that had fallen into disuse, and they tried to revive them, even reinvent them. They attempted to archaize the written - if not the spoken - language. They encouraged the state artisans to draw their inspiration from the masterworks of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They also revived the pyramid as proper royal tomb type. They undertook extensive renovations and renewals of ancient temples the entire length and breadth of their empire, and they poured their energies into making over Egypt's decadent present into the image of her glorious past.

It has always seemed fascinating to us that, for all their Egyptianization, the Kushites made no attempt to conceal their Nubian ethnicity in art or to hide or alter their Nubian names. Quite the contrary, they were proud of their origins, as if their Nubian ancestry imparted to them a special legitimacy. Equally un-Egyptian in appearance was the king's costume. Their preferred crown was a kind of tight-fitting head-cap ("cap crown") to which were affixed two uraei (cobra diadems) rather than the usual single uraeus worn by Egyptian kings. Often, this was accompanied by a distinctive cord necklace, which wound once about the neck and left the ends to fall forward over the shoulders. Ram-head pendants, representing the face of the god Amun of Gebel Barkal, were fastened to it at the throat and from each end. Identical pendants were sometimes worn as earrings.

All of these details now can be explained through the discoveries recently made at Gebel Barkal by Timothy Kendall and his team from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We know that the Egyptian kings seven centuries earlier had identified Gebel Barkal as an important source of their kingship. The Kushites now also identified it as the source of their kingship and, indeed, as the only true source of Egyptian kingship. The reason, as we now know, was that the Gebel Barkal appeared to them in silhouette like a great crown emerging from the ground, with a uraeus on its forehead. The Egyptians and Kushites thus identified Napata as the birthplace of Egyptian kingship and the place where the great god had first brought the crown to earth. The Egyptian kings had seen the crown in the rock and had developed a new type of tight fitting skull cap crown probably to emulate it. The Kushites then modelled their own crown even more closely on the form of Gebel Barkal, probably so that they could present themselves to the world of their day as the possessors of the original kingship, which no other dynasty of their time possessed. This is probably the reason why they were so interested in recreating in Egypt a renaissance of her most ancient traditions. The Nubian ethnicity of the Kushites gave them a great propaganda advantage over any other claimant to the Egyptian throne, for it allowed them to present themselves as authentic children of the great god of the Nubian mountain, where, according to legend, all the other gods had been born as well.

The greatest of the Kushite pharaohs was Taharqa, who ruled twenty-six years. A son of Piankhy by a minor wife, he came to Egypt as a youth. After a distinguished career in the army, he succeeded to the throne of Shebitqo in 690 BC at the age of about 32. In his first decade, he won significant military victories over eastern and western desert peoples, controlled the western oases and established an Egyptian sphere of influence over the Phoenician port cities and Philistia.

He was also the most prolific and original builder of his age. His misfortunes came in the latter half of his reign. His two predecessors had provoked the Assyrian kings (ruling what is now northern Iraq) by conspiring with the petty rulers of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Judah to block their military advance to the east. The effort had been futile. By 674 BC the Assyrians had reached the Mediterranean, had brought all of Taharqa's Near Eastern allies into submission, and now focused their wrath on Egypt itself. They attempted invasions almost annually and finally forced Taharqa in 669 to withdraw ignominiously to Napata, after losing his army, his capital Memphis, his treasure, his chief wife and sons to the enemy. Within five years he was dead, buried in a colossal (but now much ruined) pyramid at Nuri, which is visible from the summit of Gebel Barkal and about 6 mi (10 km) distant on the opposite bank.

Taharqa's nephew and successor Tanutaman (ca. 664-653 BC), a son of Shabaqo, was able to re-enact successfully the achievement of his father and uncle by reconquering Egypt one more time in 663 B.C. However, the Assyrians returned the following year with a vengeance and expelled him and his dynasty from Egypt for the last time. The ensuing Assyrian sack of Thebes was a disaster from which the Egyptian Amun cult never fully recovered. The subsequent seizure of Upper Egypt by the kings of Sais in the Delta - who had collaborated with the Assyrians against the Kushites - must have been perplexing events for the Nubian priests and galling events for the Nubian kings, whose formerly vast kingdom was now restricted to the northern Sudan.

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