22 Kushite Civilization

Kush was a kingdom in northern Africa in the region corresponding to modern-day Sudan. The larger region around Kush (later referred to as Nubia) was inhabited c. 8,000 BCE but the Kingdom of Kush rose much later. The Kerma Culture, so named after the city of Kerma in the region, is attested as early as 2500 BCE and archaeological evidence from Sudan and Egypt show that Egyptians and the people of Kush region were in contact from the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE) onwards. The later civilization defined as ‘Kushite’ probably evolved from this earlier culture but was heavily influenced by the Egyptians.

While the history of the overall country is quite ancient, the Kingdom of Kush flourished between c. 1069 BCE and 350 CE. The New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1570-1069 BCE) was in the final stages of decline c. 1069 BCE, which empowered the Kushite city-state of Napata. The Kushites no longer had to worry about incursions into their territory by Egypt because Egypt now had enough trouble managing itself. They founded the Kingdom of Kush with Napata as its capital, and Kush became the power in the region while Egypt floundered.(20)

Kushite kings became the pharaohs of Egypt’s 25th Dynasty and Kushite princesses dominated the political landscape of Thebes in the position of God’s Wife of Amun. The Kushite king Kashta (c. 750 BCE) was the first to establish himself on the Egyptian throne and appointed his daughter, Amenirdis I, the first Kushite God’s Wife of Amun. He was followed by other great Kushite kings who reigned until the Assyrian invasion of Egypt by Ashurbanipal in 666 BCE.

In c. 590 BCE Napata was sacked by the Egyptian pharaoh Psammeticus II (595–589 BCE) and the capital of Kush was moved to Meroe. The Kingdom of Kush continued on with Meroe as its capital until an invasion by the Aksumites c. 330 CE which destroyed the city and toppled the kingdom. Overuse of the land, however, had already depleted the resources of Kush and the cities would most likely have been abandoned even without the Aksumite invasion. Following this event, Meroe and the dwindling Kingdom of Kush survived another 20 years before its end c. 350 CE.(20)

The City of Meroe

Meroe was a wealthy metropolis of the ancient kingdom of Kush in what is today the Republic of Sudan. It was the latter day capital of the Kingdom of Kush (c. 1069 BCE–c.350 CE) after the earlier capital of Napata was sacked in c. 590 BCE. Prior to that date, Meroe had been an important administrative center south of Napata. The city was located at the crossroads of major trade routes and flourished from c. 750 BCE to 350 CE. Meroe is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

As no one yet has been able to decipher the Meroitic script, very little can be said for certain on how Meroe grew to become the wonderous city written about by Herodotus in circa 430 BCE, but it is known that the city was so famous for its wealth in ancient times that the Persian King Cambyses mounted an expedition to capture it.

Aerial view of the pyramids at Meroe, Republic of Sudan, 2001.

Pyramids at Meroe, Republic of Sudan
B N Chagny | CC BY-SA

The city was also known as the Island of Meroe as the waters flowing around it made it appear so. It is referenced in the biblical Book of Genesis (10:6) as Ethiopia, a name applied to the region south of Egypt in antiquity meaning “place of the burnt-faces”. Although there is evidence of over-grazing and over-use of the land, which caused considerable problems, Meroe thrived until it was sacked by an Aksumite king in c. 330 CE and declined steadily afterwards.

While there was a settlement at Meroe as early as 890 BCE (the oldest tomb discovered there, that of ‘Lord A’, dates from that year), the city flourished at its height between c.750 BCE and 350 CE. The Kingdom of Kush, founded with its capital at Napata, was ruled by Kushites (called “Nubians” by the Egyptians) who, early on, continued Egyptian practices and customs and, though they were depicted in art as distinctly Kushite, called themselves by Egyptian titles. In time, however, these practices gave way to indigenous customs and the Egyptian heiroglyphs were replaced by a new system of writing known as Meroitic.(21)

A depiction of one of the Queens of Meroe known as Kentakes (or Candaces) the Candace Amanitore (c.50 CE).

Candace Amanitore of Meroe
Sven-Steffen Arndt | CC BY-SA

Ergamenes (also known as Arkamani I) was the first king to institute burial outside of Meroe (instead of following the practice of burying the dead at Napata according to Egyptian custom) and passed the laws which would make Meroe a culture distinct from that of Egypt. Egyptian language, writing, and art disappear from the archaeological evidence after this time, roughly 285 BCE.

The ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Amon-Ra were melded into the worship of Nubian deities like Apedemak the lion god, and queens, rather than male pharaohs, shared the political power in the land with the king. The title of the queen was Kentake, commonly rendered as ‘Candace’ (which most likely meant ‘Queen Regent’ or ‘Queen Mother’), and there were at least seven Candaces between c.170 BCE and c. 314 CE.

The Candace Amanishakheto is depicted as extremely fat, a towering figure conquering her enemies who are all rendered as smaller and helpless in her grasp, and the Candace Amanitore is shown in the same way, on the Lion Temple at Naga, clearly illustrating the power and prestige women rulers had in the Meroitic culture.(21)


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