Nubian Pharaohs

Militarily the Kushites primary weapon was the bow. The Kushites used a composite longbow. Most composite bows are short, and make up for their small size by being more powerful due to the composite materials, and inversely most longbows are a single piece of wood and get their strength from their length. The Kushite bow was both, this made it extremely powerful, with a very long range. Though not all Kushites were archers, citizens would be levied into units of spearmen, and the rural citizens would fight like more traditional warriors. Cavalry wasn’t too common but still saw use, and war elephants were used as well. In general the Kushites were very light on armour, only the Royal Guard would use full armour, the majority would use no armour, and those wealthy enough would have simply scale armoured tops or front cuirasses, helmets were quite rare as well. Padded caps and clothing seem to have been moderately common. The swords which they used seem to have been inspired by Greek or Roman designs, but many of the less civilised Kushites would simply use wooden clubs. The throwing club was also a popular hunting weapon which could be used in warfare, taking the place of the javelin. The Kushite military was quite organised, citizens would be levied into spear or archer units, and an elite Royal guard of infantry and cavalry was maintained. Kushites from the rural less civilised areas were also raised to fight if needed. Beyond that, the Kushite influence extended south into the African interior, and they would have been able to recruit these much more primitive but fierce African warriors. Overall the real Kushite are a far cry from the simple topless tribal spearmen that are usually portrayed, and instead an organised civilised force with a rich cultural history.

The Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BC) was a time when Egypt broke into smaller quarrelling kingdoms or succumbed to foreign invaders. Technically Egypt remained united under the Twenty-first Dynasty (1069–945 BC) with its capital at Tanis in the Delta. In reality, the priests of Amun-Ra in Thebes and various local rulers exercised independent control over Upper Egypt. During the latter part of the New Kingdom, many Libyans settled in the Delta and large numbers of Nubians moved into Upper Egypt. The previous ethnic homogeneity of Egyptian society ended even though the newcomers tended to assimilate themselves into the predominant Egyptian culture. Some of the Libyans in the Delta assimilated so well that they took control of Egypt from the Twenty-first Dynasty in 945 BC. The new Libyan king, Sheshonq I (945–924 BC), began the Twenty-second Dynasty (945–715 BC) and continued to use Tanis as his capital. Under Sheshonq I, the fortunes of Egypt briefly revived. The priests at Thebes found that their independence was curtailed. Even more dramatically, Sheshonq I invaded Palestine and restored Egyptian control over the region by defeating the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He was, in all probability, the Shishak of 1 Kings 14:25–8 and 2 Chronicles 12:1–12, who carried away treasure from Jerusalem during the reign of King Rehoboam of Judah. In popular culture, this would also make him the Shishak of the Indiana Jones adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), who supposedly carried off the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to his capital at Tanis (but who almost certainly did no such thing). Unfortunately for Egypt, the successors of Sheshonq I were nowhere near as capable. By 818 BC a rival Twenty-third Dynasty had arisen in a section of the Delta, along with eventually a very brief Twenty-fourth Dynasty and other regional rulers. Political authority had become so badly fragmented by 750 BC that Egypt was exceptionally vulnerable to foreign invasion.


The foreign invaders who established the Twenty-fifth Dynasty over Egypt were the kings of Kush in Nubia. King Piye of Kush (747–716 BC) invaded Egypt in about 728 BC, and reached as far north as Heliopolis but then withdrew without establishing permanent control. Shabaqo (716–702 BC) succeeded his brother Piye as king of Kush and proceeded to invade Egypt and make it part of his kingdom. The Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty was undoubtedly black. It made Memphis its Egyptian capital and, although they never completely stamped out all locally autonomous rulers in Egypt, the Nubian pharaohs attempted to extend Egypt’s control into Palestine and Syria as Sheshonq I had done. This action brought the Nubians into conflict with the Assyrian Empire at the height of its power. In 701 BC Shabitqo (702–690 BC), the nephew and successor of Shabaqo, attempted to thwart Sennacherib of Assyria’s invasion of Judah. He was defeated, and furthermore he managed to draw Assyrian attention to Egypt. A series of Assyrian attacks on Egypt began in 674 BC in which control of the country see-sawed back and forth between the Nubians and the Assyrians. Finally in 663 BC Ashurbanipal of Assyria invaded Egypt and sacked Thebes, ending Nubian authority in Egypt for good.

The Kushite state was originally centered around their capital of Napata in what is today the central Sudan, south of what is known as Nubia. In the late 8th c. B.C. the Kushite King Piye, fed up with the degeneracy he claimed was rampant in Egypt proper, led his army north against the disunited Egyptian princes. After several sieges (including amphibious operations) and battles he was able to take control of all of Egypt, founding the 25th dynasty. The Kushite state, especially under King Taharqa, intervened against Assyrian interests in the Levant. This led to several battles in the area of southern Israel. Eventually Taharqa’s forces were driven back into Egypt, and were eventually expelled from Egypt completely when Assyrian armies captured Thebes in 663 B.C. The kingdom of Kush was famous for its horses at this time.

“After capturing city after city along the Nile River in 730 B.C., troops commanded by King Piye of Nubia storm the great walled capital of Memphis with flaming arrows. Piye modeled himself after powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, claiming to be the rightful ruler of Egypt. His triumph over the northern chiefs would unite all Egypt under Nubian rule for three-quarters of a century.”  Art by Gregory Manchess

The Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was Egypt’s powerful southern neighbor, located south of the Third Cataract of the Nile River in upper Nubia (present-day Sudan). The history of Kush spans more than 1,000 years (from approximately 1000 BCE to 350 CE) and is divided into two periods, the Napatan period (ca. 1000-310 BCE) and the Meroitic period (ca. 275 BCE-350 CE). Each period is sometimes called a dynasty, a kingdom, or an empire.

After the withdrawal of the ancient Egyptian administration, which had controlled most of Nubia during the New Kingdom (ca. 1540-1075 BCE), a local Nubian chiefdom emerged at the turn of the millennium. This new political power was centered at Napata, the city at the foot of the so-called Pure Mountain at Gebel Barkal near the Fourth Cataract. Very little is known of the formative years of the Kingdom of Kush. Archaeological evidence is scant and written documents nonexistent, because at the time the Nubians did not have a writing system of their own.

Around 785 BCE a local chief known as Alara united upper Nubia. He is acknowledged by later kings as the founder of the Napatan dynasty of Kush and is believed to be the one who restored the cult of the god Amun in Nubia at the sacred site of Gebel Barkal. The Kushites also adopted ancient Egyptian and the hieroglyphic writing system as the administrative and religious language of their kingdom. Kashta, Alara’s successor, united upper and lower Nubia into a single political entity, and he called himself “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” as mentioned on his small stele at Elephantine.

However, it was Piye (formerly known as Piankhy) who actually conquered and took control of Egypt and annexed it to the Kingdom of Kush (747-716 BCE) during the third year of his reign. Piye founded the Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt, and his successor Shabaka (Shabaqo) established the capital at Memphis. The Kushite kings held sway over all of Egypt for almost a century, following traditions established by earlier Egyptian kings. In honor of the god who granted them kingship, they added new monuments to the architectural complex of the Temple of Amun at Karnak (Thebes), the religious center of this god in Egypt. The Kushites remained active in their homeland, erecting new temples to the god Amun and refurbishing ruined ones built by the Egyptians during the New Kingdom. The Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty was expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians, who sacked Thebes in 663 BCE. King Tawetamani had already taken refuge at Napata.

An Assyrian and a Kushite in combat, in one of many battles fought during the Assyrian invasion of the Levant and Egypt. Art by Angus McBride.

Most of what is known of the remainder of the Napatan period comes from Kushite royal documents, which were still written in Egyptian using hieroglyphs despite the fact that the Kushites had lost control over Egypt. These documents-stelae and wall inscriptions-come mostly from temples and royal burials and concern mostly the north of the kingdom. Very little else is known of this period, especially regarding the local general populace. Few village settlements dating to this period have been discovered and excavated by archaeologists. As for Meroe and the south of the kingdom, practically nothing is known. From what can be gleaned from the archaeological record and literary documents, the Kushites kings continued managing affairs of the state, building and renovating temples, and mounting military expeditions. The Kushites were defeated by the Egyptian king Psammetichus II, possibly during the reign of Aspelta (ca. 593 BCE) at a battle near the Third Cataract. However, beliefs that Psammetichus II reached the Fourth Cataract and sacked Napata are unsubstantiated. This might have encouraged the Kushites to move farther south.

Although there is archaeological evidence that Meroe had been occupied since at least the eighth century (notably as the Napatan royal residence since the fifth century), the focus of the Kushite kingdom had been until then on Napata and the north. The Meroitic period begins shortly after 300 BCE with the relocation of the royal cemetery from Nuri to Meroe, the first pyramid there being that of King Arkamani I (ca. 275-250 BCE).

From that moment on, Meroe became the center of the Kingdom of Kush. Important cultural changes occurred during the Meroitic period as the Kushites gave their own traditions and customs prominence over many borrowed from Egypt. The most significant change is that of the language. For the first time in Kushite history, the native language, Meroitic, became the official language of the kingdom, and a hieroglyphic alphabet derived from Egyptian signs was created to write it.

Napata in it’s full glory around the 1st century BC, infront of the holy mountain, Jebel Barkal. King after King commissioned restorations and new temples. Even after the move to Meroë, many kings continued to be crowned here. This illustration stays true to archaeological reports on the site. Art by Jean-Claude Golvin

Temples were built not only to the Egyptian god Amun but also to the indigenous lion-headed god Apedemak (the best known of the Kushite gods). The architecture favored for the lion temples is much simpler than Egyptian temples (although inspired by it) and generally consists of a single room with a large pylon (main gate). Even the relief decorations on temple and tomb chapel walls changed to suit the Meroitic idea of beauty, power, and fertility. The qore (Meroitic word designating the king as commander) and the kandake (ruling queen) wore a different royal costume, which was modified from that of Egyptian kings. The Kushites used centuries-old pharaonic influences and ideas from the Mediterranean world and incorporated them with their ancestral customs to create something different and truly their own: Meroitic culture.

Queen Amanirenas and Prince Akinidad, possibly her son, watch the burning of the fort housing the Roman garrison in 27 BCE, during their invasion of Upper Egypt. The inspiration for the attire of the royals being depicted was taken directly from various temple reliefs. Art from “Splendors of the Past: Lost Cities of the Ancient World, National Geographic Society, 1981.

At the time when Egypt had become a province of the Roman empire, the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush was a force to reckon with. The wrath of the Meroites was provoked when the Romans tried to take over Lower Nubia. Led by mighty leaders, the Kushites sacked Aswan, Elephantine, and Philae. The Romans retaliated by sacking Napata, but both parties eventually worked out an agreement. The great kandake who held strong against the Roman Army is believed to be Amanishakheto.

The Meroites still held power over lower and upper Nubia until the mid-fourth century CE. Military campaigns by Ethiopian rulers of the Kingdom of Aksum as well as the decline in wealth and political power of the royal family appear to have brought the Kingdom of Kush to an end.

Bibliography O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Shinnie, P. L. Ancient Nubia. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: British Museum Press, 1996. Wildung, Dietrich, ed. Sudan Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997

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