The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient Nubian kingdom located in modern-day Sudan and South Sudan. The first developed societies had settled in the region before the First Dynasty of Egypt which was founded sometime around 3100 BC. However, we don’t learn a great deal more about the Kushites until the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period when Mentuhotep II underwent campaigns against the Kush during the 21st Century BC.
When Egyptian expansion resumed during the Old Kingdom period, beginning in the 16th Century BC, the Kushites resisted, but the region became a colony of Egypt during the reign of Thutmose I who was Pharaoh from approximately 1503 – 1493 BC. For almost 500 years, the Kushites had to pay tribute to the Pharaoh, but Egyptian control of the region ultimately collapsed during the New Kingdom period. Eventually, the Kush Kingdom became independent and flourished for centuries. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating and relatively unknown empire.
1 – The Formation of the Kingdom of Kush (2100 BC? – 1500 BC)
The Nubian region was known by different names before the formation of the Middle Kingdom by Mentuhotep II in around 2051 BC. The Kush Kingdom gained its independence at some stage during the First Intermediate Period of Egypt which began in 2181 BC. The earliest Egyptian reference to the kingdom occurred during the 29th year of Mentuhotep’s reign which means he probably faced them in the late 2020s BC.
The Kush Kingdom flourished during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (1730 – 1580 BC), and its capital was called Kerma. The leader of the kingdom was known as the Prince of Kush. There is further mention of Kushites in the first stele of the Pharaoh Kamose, the last ruler of Upper Egypt during the Egyptian Seventeenth Dynasty. The stele outlines that the Kush Kingdom’s northern frontier was based at Elephantine in the south and Casae in the north.
While Kamose’s first stele showed an element of satisfaction with the political situation, the second stele suggests that the Pharaoh declared war on the Nubians before Egypt attacked the Hyksos. Ahmose I (1549 – 1524 BC) completed the occupation of Nubia according to the autobiography of Admiral Ahmose who was involved in the mission. The Pharaoh went to a region of Nubia to overthrow the inhabitants after he had dealt with the Asiatics.
However, the total conquest of southern Sudan wasn’t completed until the reign of Thutmose I (1503 – 1493 BC). The result was the end of the Kingdom of Kush’s independence. The Pharaoh arrived in Tumbus in the south and advanced 50 miles south of Abu Hamed where he left an inscription. There is also a suggestion that he also built a fort. Nubia would be under Egyptian control for almost five centuries; a period that left an indelible mark on its culture.
The Kushites did not take Egyptian rule lying down, and there was a revolt after the death of Thutmose I. The revolts were quelled, and there was a period of peace during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479 – 1458 BC); she built a fabulous temple at Buhen which was dedicated to Horus. She also built a temple to the Goddess Hathor at Faras on the Nile’s west bank.
The writings of Thutmose III (1479 – 1425 BC) show that peace continued in the region and that the Egyptians benefitted from taking tributes off the Kushites. The next record of any kind of unrest comes during the reign of Thutmose IV (1398 – 1388 BC). There was a revolt in the eighth year of his reign which was successfully suppressed. Thutmose’s son, Amenhotep III (1388 – 1350 BC), was also forced to campaign against Nubia during the fifth year of his reign.
Egypt managed to maintain the peace in Nubia reasonably well until the reign of Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaton (1351 – 1334 BC). The upheaval caused by his religious movement weakened the empire internally and externally. Horemheb (1306 – 1292 BC) was the last ruler of the eighteenth dynasty and was the leader Egypt needed at that time. He restored an element of stability throughout the kingdom, and during the Nineteenth Dynasty, Ramses II (1279 – 1213 BC) embarked on an enormous building program throughout Nubia which included the remarkable Temple of Abu Simbel.
The situation in Nubia deteriorated rapidly during the twentieth dynasty (1189 – 1077 BC), and a major revolt broke out in the region of Asyut during the reign of Ramses XI (1107 – 1077 BC). By the start of the Twenty-First Dynasty, Pharaoh Smendes (1077 – 1051 BC) only had control of Lower Egypt while Heri-Hor was the master of Upper Egypt and the Viceroy of Nubia. At this stage, the Kingdom of Kush was once again independent with its capital at Napata.
Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period began with the death of Ramses XI in the 1070s BC and is known as an era of decline and instability in the region. Not a great deal is known about the Kingdom of Kush during this timeframe although it was almost certainly growing in power while its former conqueror was beginning to languish. Heri-Hor was the first in a long line of Viceroys of Kush who were, in fact, independent kings of the region.
There are few mentions of these viceroys although historians have uncovered three names. Akheperre ruled the region during the reign of Menkheperre (1045 – 992 BC) according to the el-Hibeh archive. Neskhons assumed the role when Siamun was Pharaoh (986 – 967 BC) while Pamiu I was the Viceroy of Kush during the reign of Osorkon III (790? – 762? BC).
Meanwhile, Egypt was losing historical allies such as the Semitic Canaanites. In 945 BC, Sheshonq I took control of the Ancient Egyptian delta with the aid of Libyan princes and founded the Bubastite Dynasty which would last for around 200 years. He also assumed control of southern Egypt by placing family members in prominent religious positions. The Nubians took full advantage of the instability in Egypt beginning in the eighth century BC.
It was at that time when Alara of Nubia founded the Napatan Royal Dynasty; he was the first recorded Nubian prince. He unified all of Upper Nubia and established Napata as its capital. Alara was succeeded by Kashta, and during his reign, the native Kushites adopted Egyptian traditions, culture, and religion. However, it was Kashta’s successor, Piye, who decided to invade Egypt and establish the relatively short-lived Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.
There are several different dates given for Piye’s invasion of Egypt which range from 744 BC to 727 BC. He personally led the attack which is documented in his âStele of Victory.’ Piye was responsible for bringing back pyramid construction, and the pyramid at El-Kurru was created during his reign. Piye tried to expand his kingdom’s influence in the Near East which was controlled by the Semitic Assyrian Empire. However, his attempt to support a rebellion against Assyria failed.
Shabaka, the brother of Piye, took the throne in 705 BC and conquered the entire Nile Valley as far as the Delta. Initially, at least, he maintained good relations with Assyria, but eventually, he was forced to react when the Assyrians started to make trouble in Asia. Princes of Syria-Palestine and Jerusalem made appeals for help, and the Kushites felt compelled to listen.
By the time Taharqa (690 – 664 BC) became Pharaoh, war with the Assyrians was inevitable. He tried to gain some kind of foothold in the Near East by forging alliances with several Semitic peoples in the southwest Levant; they had been subjugated by the Assyrians and were only too happy to receive assistance. While the Assyrians succeeded in driving the Kush back into Egypt, their king, Sennacherib, was unable to seize the initiative because he was forced to return to his kingdom to deal with several revolts.
However, his successor, King Esarhaddon (681 – 669 BC), renewed the conflict and began an invasion of Egypt in 671 BC. The Assyrians gained control of Egypt for a couple of years, but Taharqa returned from Nubia and regained most of his kingdom. Esarhaddon died before he could launch another attack but the next monarch, King Assurbanipal (668 – 627 BC), easily defeated the Kush and forced Taharqa back to Nubia where he died two years later. His successor, Tantamani, took Thebes but could only hold onto it for a brief period. Nubian control of Egypt probably lasted less than a century (depending on which dates you believe), but the Kingdom of Kush was far from finished.
The Kushites lost any semblance of control over Upper Egypt when Psamtik I (664 – 610 BC) captured Thebes once and for all and unified the whole of the country in 656 BC. The Nubians established a new kingdom at Napata which lasted until 591 BC when Psamtik II ordered the invasion of the land of Kush. With the aid of Greek and Carian mercenaries, the Egyptians were able to capture Napata and force the Kush to flee once more.
At this stage, the Kushites were keen to keep as much distance between themselves and the Egyptians which is one of the reasons why they chose Meroe as the new capital. Unlike Napata, the region around the new capital had plenty of woodlands which provided the fuel the Kushites needed for iron working. Also, it was now possible to transport goods from Meroe to the Red Sea Coast; this meant they were no longer reliant on the Nile for outside trade.
In 525 BC, the Persians, under Cambyses, attempted to invade the Kush Kingdom but had to withdraw after suffering heavy losses when crossing the Batn el-Hagar. Nonetheless, it appears as if the Persians still viewed the Kushites as allies going forward. There were Kushites in the armies of Darius and Xerxes and written accounts of gifts of gold and elephant tusks getting sent to Persepolis.
It seems likely that the kingdom flourished during this timeframe, but despite moving their capital, the Kushites continued to bury their priests at Napata until around 300 BC. There is a theory that the move was an example of power being transferred away from the priests. At one time, the priests were so powerful that they could decide if a monarch should die. Diodorus Siculus claimed that King Ergamenes had the priests slaughtered at this time after he defied them.
By the beginning of the third century BC, it was apparent that the Kushite kings were styling themselves as Pharaohs even though they didn’t have any control over Egypt. While they used hieroglyphics at an earlier stage, the Kushites moved on to a different form of written communication. It is called the Meroitic language and has yet to be fully understood although the actual script has been deciphered.
At this stage, the Kushite’s authority probably extended to approximately 1,500 kilometers from the Egyptian frontier in the north to the south; they probably had control over certain sections in the east and west as well. There is a suggestion that the Kushites were so powerful that even Alexander the Great did not attack them in the fourth century BC. Apparently, he decided not to launch an invasion after seeing the size of the army at Meroe.
Not a great deal is known about the Kushites in the third, second and early first centuries BC. We know that there was a Queen Shanakdakhete from around 170 – 160 BC and King Taniydamani who reigned towards the end of the second century BC. Otherwise, there is a high level of uncertainty about the Kingdom of Kush at this point although it appears as if it was absolutely thriving.
As we reach the end of the first century BC, it seems as if the Kushite civilization at Meroe was practically at its peak as seen by the remains of buildings created during the era. The palace at Ouad ben Naga was probably built during the reign of Queen Amanishakheto, and her tomb is still visible at Meroe’s Northern Cemetery. At the end of the first century BC, Rome had its first emperor, Augustus, and he was keen to expand his empire. As a result, it was inevitable that the Romans would eventually meet the Kushites.
According to the Roman historian Strabo, there was a war between the Kushites and Rome in the 1st century BC. After the Kushites sacked Aswan and captured the statue of Augustus, the Romans retaliated by sending the prefect of Roman Egypt, Petronius, on an expedition into the heart of the kingdom. He captured Napata in 23 BC and soon, a permanent garrison was established at Primis which was strong enough to hold off the Kushites.
Although Napata was in Roman hands, the Queen of the Kushites, Teriteqas (50 BC? – 1 BC?) was not intimidated by the enemy and continued to fight. Within a few years of the capture of Napata, the Kushites sent a large force towards Primis with the intention of attacking and defeating the Romans. Petronius learned of the invasion and bolstered the garrison with a strong force. There is no record of the ensuing battle, but ancient sources say that the Kushites sent ambassadors to Petronius to negotiate a peace treaty.
Whatever happened during the battle, Petronius wasn’t keen to engage the enemy in another fight, so the Kushites were able to negotiate a settlement on favorable terms; this fact suggests that they caused the Romans a lot of problems. By the end of the first century BC, trade between the two increased and historians such as Theodore Mommsen believe that Nubia was a client state of the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Augustus when Amanitore was the queen of the Nubians.
However, the Romans continued to be intrigued by Nubia and during the reign of Nero, two centurions were sent up the Nile, but they concluded that the land was too poor to be worth conquering. Had they decided that the land was fertile enough, it is probable that Nero would have launched another invasion in the 60s AD. The fact that the land was seemingly infertile suggests that the Kush Kingdom has already begun its decline.
8 – The Fall of the Kush Kingdom (100 AD – 550 AD?)
The economic cornerstones of the Kush Kingdom were the routes between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea, and it clearly became increasingly difficult to control and maintain those routes. By the second century AD, royal tombs became smaller and less expensive while the creation of large monuments had practically ceased. By the middle of the fourth century, there were no more royal burial pyramids created.
The fall of the Kush Kingdom is shrouded in mystery with several theories. One such theory suggests that it was destroyed after an invasion by the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum in 350 AD. However, historians have found Ethiopian accounts of the event, and they suggest that Axum was merely quelling a rebellion in territory it already controlled.
There is also a suggestion that the Nuba were the people known as the âNobatae’ by the Romans. According to Strabo, the Romans invited the Nobatae to move in when the empire pulled out of northern Nubia in 272 AD. David Welsby suggests that the Kushites were still a major force in Lower Nubia as late as 336 AD. He mentioned that the Kushites were part of a joint embassy with the Blemmyes that met Emperor Constantine. Welsby rejects the notion that the Aksum Kingdom destroyed Meroe.
The last known ruler was Teqerideamani, who died in 253 AD, but there are royal pyramids from as late as 339 AD; some scholars believe there were at least seven rulers after Teqerideamani. By the middle of the sixth century AD, three kingdoms had consolidated their power in what was formerly Kushite territory. The rulers and citizens of these kingdoms adopted Christianity, and this signaled the end of Kushite culture. To this day, there is a great deal we don’t know about the kingdom that once briefly ruled Ancient Egypt.