Kingdom of Kush

From New World Encyclopedia
Meroë, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush from circa 800 B.C.E. is northeast of Khartoum (center right).

Kush or Cush was a civilization centered in the North African region of Nubia, located in what is today northern Sudan. One of the earliest civilizations to develop in the Nile River Valley, Kushite states rose to power before a period of Egyptian incursion into the area established an Egyptian dynasty, the 25th Dynasty, in 775 B.C.E. ruling until 653. These Pharaohs have been called the ‘Black Pharaohs’, or the ‘Ethiopian Pharaohs’. The Kingdom of Kush represents another ancient African civilization about which relatively few people outside of Africa are aware, often reducing Africa’s contribution to civilization to the Egyptian legacy alone. The Kush, however, are referenced in the Bible and were known to the Romans. Women played a key role within the governance of the kingdom, almost unique in the ancient world. A rich and vibrant trading culture, it lived for centuries at peace with neighbors almost certainly due to its role in commerce and in the transportation of goods. This commercially vibrant society may have had a bias towards peace from which lessons might still be learned for the modern world.


The first developed societies showed up in Nubia before the time of the First dynasty of Egypt (3100-2890 B.C.E.). Around 2500 B.C.E., Egyptians began moving south, and it is through them that most of our knowledge of Kush (Cush) comes. This expansion was halted by the fall of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. About 1500 B.C.E. Egyptian expansion resumed, but this time encountered organized resistance. Historians are not sure whether this resistance came from multiple city states or a single unified empire, and debate over whether the notion of statehood was indigenous or borrowed from the Egyptians. The Egyptians prevailed, and the region became a colony of Egypt under the control of Thutmose I, whose army ruled from a number of sturdy fortresses. The region supplied Egypt with resources, especially gold. Although ruled by foreigners from about 1500 until about 780 B.C.E. the people of Kush prospered, enjoying internal and external peace. They greatly benefited from their physical location on important trade routes and appear to have taken full advantage of this by developing a commercial economy.

Kush Kingdom at Napata

With the collapse of the New Kingdom, regional rulers asserted autonomy and a Kush dynasty was established under Alara in the period of around 780-755 B.C.E. uniting the people under his rule. Alara is universally regarded as the founder of the Kushite kingdom by his successors. The kingdom, with Napata as its capital, grew in influence and came to dominate the Southern Egyptian region of Elephantine and even Thebes by the reign of Kashta, Alara's successor who managed in the eighth century B.C.E. to compel Shepenupet I, half-sister of Takelot III and the serving God's Wife of Amen, to adopt his own daughter Amenirdis I as her successor. After this event, Thebes was under the de-facto control of Napata. Its power reached a climax under king Piye, Kashta's successor, who conquered all of Egypt in his Year 20 and established the 25th Dynasty. The 25th Dynasty lasted until 653 B.C.E. when the last native Egyptian dynasty, the 26th, rose to power under Psamtek I.

When the Assyrians invaded in 671 B.C.E., Kush became, once again, an independent state. The last Kushite king to attempt to regain control over Egypt was Tantamani who was firmly defeated by Assyria in 664 B.C.E. Henceforth, the kingdom's power declined over Egypt and terminated in 656 B.C.E. when Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 B.C.E. the Egyptians under Psamtik II invaded Kush, perhaps because Kush ruler Aspelta was preparing to invade Egypt and effectively sacked and burned Napata.[1]

Move to Meroë

It is clear from various historical records that Aspelta's successors moved their capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata. The exact date this change was made is uncertain but some historians believe it was during Aspelta's reign, in response to the Egyptian invasion of Lower Nubia. Other historians believe it was the attraction of iron working that drove the kingdom south: around Meroë, unlike Napata, there were large forests that could fire the blast furnaces. The arrival of Greek merchants throughout the region also meant that Kush was no longer dependent on trade along the Nile; rather, it could export its goods east to the Red Sea and the Greek trading colonies there.

An alternate theory is that two separate but closely linked states developed, one based at Napata and the other at Meroë; the Meroë-based state gradually eclipsed the northern one. No royal residence has been found north of Meroë and it is possible Napata had only been the religious headquarters. Napata clearly remained an important centre, with the kings being crowned and buried there for many centuries, even when they lived at Meroë.

In around 300 B.C.E. the move to Meroë was made more complete as the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. One theory is that this represents the monarchs breaking away from the power of the priests based at Napata. Diodorus Siculus tells a story about a Meroitic ruler named Ergamenes who was ordered by the priests to kill himself, but broke tradition and had the priests executed instead. Some historians think Ergamenes refers to Arrakkamani, the first ruler to be buried at Meroë. However, a more likely transliteration of Ergamenes is Arqamani, who ruled many years after the royal cemetery was opened at Meroë. Another theory is that the capital had always been based at Meroë.

Kush continued for several centuries and the kings appear to have continued to style themselves Pharaoh although they did not rule Egypt. However, there is little accurate information about this later period. While earlier Kush had used Egyptian hieroglyphics, Meroë developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered. The state seems to have prospered, trading with its neighbours and continuing to build monuments and tombs. In 23 B.C.E. the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, invaded Nubia in response to a Nubian attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of the region and sacking Napata (22 B.C.E.) before returning north. Alexander the Great is said to have turned back from the city of Meroë when he saw the size of its army. Meroë under the Kushite kings appears to have prospered due to political stability and peaceful trading relations with her neighbors.


At Meroë, in the Sudan, crumbling pyramids recall the vanished glories of the Kushite kings, who were buried inside them.

The civilization of Kush was not merely derivative from Egypt but represented an indigenous culture which also incorporated elements borrowed from deeper into the South of the African continent. While knowledge of Kush begins from contact with Egypt, the culture predates this and can be traced archeologically back as far as 3,000 B.C.E. and may actually have initially stimulated Egyptian culture, not vice versa. Legend has it that the Kush were the oldest race on earth and Nubia is regarded by some as the location of the Garden of Eden.[2][3][4] The Kush developed their own language, and eventually their own cursive script (initially they did borrow hieroglyphics). Their wealth was from mining. Kush kings were often succeeded by their Queens. Kings were chosen or elected by members of the nobility, although from the royal family. The king was not law-maker, but upheld customary law that was interpreted by the priests. Shillington suggests that there was a greater degree of consent between ruler and the ruled than ‘ever existed in Ancient Egypt’.[5]

A succession of female rulers represents an ‘innovation not seen in any other major civilization’ (with the exception, perhaps, of the Hittites) differing from Egypt, where while a few women exercised power this was an exception not a norm.[6] Shillington says that the mother of the King also exercised a significant role, which ‘may have helped maintain stability from one reign to the next.’[5] While the independent Kush kings retained their Egyptian titles, the fact that they did not completely adopt the Egyptian style of governance suggests that an alternative tradition already existed within their culture, and that this was valued. One of the largest of the pyramids built for the rulers of Kush was for a woman, Queen Shanakdakheto (170-150 B.C.E.), and had elaborate carvings.[7]

In the eleventh century B.C.E. internal disputes in Egypt caused colonial rule to collapse and an independent kingdom arose based at Napata in Nubia. This kingdom was ruled by locals who overthrew the colonial regime. The Egyptians ruled Kush, or Nubia, through a viceroy (usually a member of the royal house) who had two deputies. While Egyptian culture dominated at the vice-regal court and close to the center of the Egyptian bureaucracy, away from the center Kush culture thrived. Arts and crafts included pottery and jewelry and there was probably a large number of artisans and generally the Nubian economy was not dependent on agriculture but benefited from being on the trade routes into the African south. To protect this trade, forts were built at strategic points. From the third century B.C.E. the artists and craftsmen created a highly original and independent artistic tradition’.[5]


The decline of Kush is hotly debated. A diplomatic mission in Nero's reign traveled to Meroë; (Pliny the Elder, N.H. 6.35). After the second century C.E. the royal tombs began to shrink in size and splendor, and the building of large monuments seems to have ceased. The royal pyramid burials halted altogether in the middle fourth century C.E. The archeological record shows a cultural shift to a new society known as the X-Group, or Ballana culture.

This corresponds closely to the traditional theory that the kingdom was destroyed by the invasion by Ezana of Axum from the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum around 350. However, the Ethiopian account seems to be describing the quelling of a rebellion in lands they already controlled. It also refers only to the Nuba, and makes no mention of the rulers of Meroë.

Many historians thus theorize that these Nuba are the same people the Romans called the Nobatae. Strabo reports that when the Roman Empire pulled out of northern Nubia in 272, they invited the Nobatae to fill the power vacuum. The other important elements were the Blemmyes, likely ancestors of the Beja. They were desert warriors who threatened the Roman possessions and thereby contributed to the Roman withdrawal to more defensible borders. In the end of the fourth century C.E. they managed to control a part of the Nile valley around Kalabsha in Lower Nubia.

By the sixth century, new states had formed in the area that had once been controlled by Meroë. It seems almost certain that the Nobatae evolved into the state of Nobatia, and were also behind the Ballana culture and the two other states that arose in the area, Makuria and Alodia, were also quite similar. The Beja meanwhile were expelled back into the desert by the Nuba kings around 450 C.E. These new states of Nubia inherited much from Kush, but were also quite different. They spoke Old Nubian and wrote in a modified version of the Coptic alphabet; Meroitic and its script seemed to disappear completely. In the seventh century, a trade-treaty between local rulers and the new Muslim rulers of Egypt enabled commerce to flourish for several hundred years.

The origin of the Nuba/Nobatae who replaced Meroë is uncertain. They may have been nomadic invaders from the west who conquered and imposed their culture and language on the settled peoples.

In the Bible

The name given this civilization comes from the Old Testament where Cush was one of the sons of Ham who settled in Northeast Africa. In the Bible and archaically a large region covering northern Sudan, southern Egypt, and parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia were known as Cush. The Bible refers to Cush on a number of occasions. Some contend that this Cush was in southern Arabia. The Biblical description of the Garden of Eden refers in the Hebrew to the land of Cush, usually translated as Ethiopia; "And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel [Tigris]: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates" (Genesis 2:10-14). Some scholars identify the river Nile with the Biblical Gihon in this reference.


Neglected in the teaching of history and overshadowed by its Northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Kush although for a long period under Egyptian rule also itself came to dominate Egypt for a period, and pre-existed Egypt as a civilization. The role of women especially in providing stability between the rule of male kinds, and the presence of some degree of consent, appears to have mitigated absolute rule. Law, too, was independent of the arbitrary wishes of the king, suggesting some notion that the law was to be protected from manipulation by the most powerful in society.


  1. Agnese and Re, 21-22
  2. David Keys, “Kerma: Black Africa’s Oldest Civilization,” Impressions Magazine Kerma: Black Africa’s Oldest Civilization Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  3. "Who are the Nubians?" Who are the Nubians? Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  4. For reference to Kush as the Garden of Eden, see for example "Nubia" Nubia Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Keith Shillington, “The Economic and Political Organization of Meroe, Nubia” from History of Africa, 1995, p 43, The Economic and political Organization of Meroe, Nubia Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  6. Richard Hooker, “Civilizations in Africa: Kush,” Washington State University Civilizations in Africa: Kush Retrieved November 8, 2007.
  7. ”Women in Power, BCE 500 - CEI,” Wolrdwide Guide to Women in Leadership (includes reference to several Kushite Queens) Women in Power, BCE 500 – CEI Retrieved November 8, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Agnese, Giorgio and Maurizio Re. Ancient Egypt: Art and Archeology of the Land of the Pharaohs. NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003. ISBN 9780760783801
  • Leclant, Jean. Ancient Civilizations of Africa. UNESCO General History of Africa, 1981. ISBN 9780435948054
  • Harkless, Necia Desiree. Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006. ISBN 9781425944964
  • Kendall, Timothy. Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C.E. The Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Nubian Empire. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1996. ISBN 9780965600101
  • Service, Pamela F. The Ancient African Kingdom of Kush. Cultures of the past. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1998. ISBN 9780761402725
  • Török, László. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. Leiden: Brill, 1997. ISBN 9789004104488
  • Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1998 ISBN 9781558761810

External links

All links retrieved April 19, 2018.


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