They conquered Egypt, battled Assyria and Rome, and ruled the Upper Nile Delta for thousands of years. Meet the pharaohs of Sudan.

You know that feeling when your favorite actor or musical artist makes a mass-market hit — and you realize that’s the one thing they’re going to be remembered for? From now on, no one’s going to care about all their brilliant early albums, or all the great dramatic roles they’ve played. Instead, this complex, talented artist is going to be known for a one-hit wonder, or a brief role in a historical epic.

That’s essentially what happened to the Kingdom of Kush. This civilization (not to be confused with the Kushan Empire of Asia) is remembered mainly as “the Nubian Pharaohs who conquered Egypt” — which they did, it’s true; at one particular period —

In their thousands of years of cultural history.

 

From the very earliest days of Egyptian civilization, the lighter-skinned people of Lower Egypt — the northern part; called “lower” because the land slopes gradually northward toward the sea — had always found themselves at odds with the black-skinned Nubian peoples who controlled the cataracts further up the Nile River (or as the Egyptians called it, simply “The River”).

Statues of Kerma Kingdom rulers
Statues of Kerma Kingdom rulers

The people of those ancient Nubian cultures — beginning with the Kerma Culture (whose own name for itself we don’t know) around 2500 BCE — were heavily influenced, in turn, by Egyptian art and government. The Kerma people built statues of themselves in Pharaonic style; and the upper class, at least, seem to have preferred Egyptian fashions.

Kushite people, as depicted in a painting from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom
Kushite people, as depicted in a painting from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom

These facts — along with the facts that Kushite kings served as vassals of Egypt for centuries, then eventually conquered it — led many well-trained Egyptologists to assume that Kush must’ve been a sort of “subsidiary company” of Egypt: different logo, same CEO.

But modern archaeologists disagree with that idea.

The more we delve into Kushite culture, the clearer it becomes that these people — while there’s no denying they were heavily influenced by Egypt in many ways — considered themselves a fully separate civilization, with their own distinct language, government, economy and religious beliefs.

The Kushite Empire at its greatest extent, circa 700 BCE
The Kushite Empire at its greatest extent, circa 700 BCE

So far, archaeologists have learned relatively little about the Kushite civilization as an entity separate from Egypt— because, for one thing, the idea of studying the Kushites in this way is fairly new. One of the first experts to suggest it was the Cambridge archaeologist David Edwards, who put forth the idea in a 1998 paper. In archaeological research time, 18 years is practically no time at all — it can take years just to organize and fund a single seasonal expedition, let alone find concrete historical evidence and publish it.

What’s more, most of the written records describing Kush come from Egypt, or date from the Kushite Egyptian dynasty. Quite a bit of the evidence we have about independent Kushite culture is archaeological, not written. This means we’re largely limited to reconstructing whatever details we can safely infer from artifacts and ruins — as with so many “lost” civilizations.

A funerary stela for Waleye son of Kadite, written in the Meroitic language
A funerary stela for Waleye son of Kadite, written in the Meroitic language

We don’t know what the Kushites called themselves. The Egyptian name for them was pronounced something like “Kulush,” and this word was also applied to the Kushite land — but that term came from the Akkadian language of the Middle East. We don’t even know, conclusively, what it originally meant.

We do know, however, that the Kushites spoke a language which we today call Meroitic. This language survives only in a few inscriptions. Those sparse texts have left us with a very limited understanding of Meroitic grammar and vocabulary; but it’s clear that this was not the same language the Egyptians spoke.

Linguists aren’t even sure which language family Meroitic belongs to. One popular theory is that it may share a common ancestor both with ancient Egyptian, and with sub-Saharan languages like Luo and Songhay. Other experts have thrown up their hands and said it’s probably not related to any known African language.

Statue of the lion-headed god Apedemak, circle 100 BCE
Statue of the lion-headed god Apedemak, circa 100 BCE

While the Kushites shared some gods with ancient Egypt (especially in later periods) they also worshipped their own distinct pantheon. The male and female heads of this pantheon, originally, were the lion-headed god Apedemak and his wife Amesemi; both of whose names come from the Meroitic language.

Temples — known as “houses of the gods” — seem to have served as the centers of the Kushite state economy. Some researchers have suggested that the economy was a redistributive system, in which everyone contributed goods to the local temple, which distributed them as necessary (this was the system the earliest Sumerian cities used). Other scholars have argued against this redistribution idea — and until we get more evidence, we’re not going to know for sure.

Kushite warriors, depicted in Egyptian Middle Kingdom style
Kushite warriors, depicted in Egyptian Middle Kingdom style

Kushite kings were responsible for maintaining the houses of the gods, and for performing sacred rituals that ensured peace and prosperity for the land. The queen, known as a candace, may have ruled in conjunction with the king. At least one source describes the candace as a fierce female warrior — though this may have been in reference to one specific candace, rather than to all of them. Below the royals, a complex administration of treasurers, seal bearers, heads of archives and chief scribes oversaw the common people, most of whom were farmers and herders.

In their earliest days, the Kushites practiced a mixture of nomadic herding on the savannah and settled farming on the banks of the Nile. As the population grew, local leaders began to accumulate wealth, and city-states like Kerma and Napata took shape — although the Kushite cities would always be surrounded by the transient settlements and camps of peoples practicing older ways of life, as many African cities are today.

Although the Egyptians to the north feared the rising power of the Nubian kings, they couldn’t resist the trade wealth. And even though Egyptian records described the trade as “tribute,” archaeological evidence makes it clear that goods and ideas flowed in both directions.

Egyptians trading with Kushites
Egyptians trading with Kushites

Kushite metalwork was highly advanced; their furnaces and smiths churned out vast quantities of bronze tools and weapons — and later, iron ones — for domestic use, as well as for export to neighboring kingdoms. Kush was so rich in gold that the Egyptian word for gold, nub, seems to be related to “Nubia.” Meanwhile, the Kushites were importing Egyptian inventions like the water wheel; along with gods from the Egyptian pantheon, and Egyptian styles of dress and architecture.

Nubian worshippers, as depicted in an Egyptian Middle Kingdom painting from the city of Luxor
Nubian worshippers, as depicted in an Egyptian Middle Kingdom painting from the city of Luxor

In the 2000s BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Mentuhotep II became the first recorded northerner to raid into Kushite territory. Although Egyptian sources don’t provide much detail on how events unfolded over the next few centuries, it’s clear that by the 1500s BCE, Kush had been “subdued,” and was governed by an Egyptian viceroy.

That situation held fairly steadily for about 500 more years, until the Egyptian New Kingdom disintegrated around 1070 BCE, and the Kushites set up their independent capital at Napata, in modern Sudan — where they built their own pyramids and temples in the Egyptian style. By then, centuries of Egyptian occupation had molded Kushite culture into an undeniably Egyptian cast.

But the Kushites’ adventures were only beginning.

The collapse of the Egyptian New Kingdom was just one effect of an apocalyptic Mediterranean Dark Age that lasted nearly 300 years. This power vacuum made room for an entire new world of aggressive iron-age nation-states, like the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Israel, the Mycenaean ancestors of the Greeks — and the Nubian conquerors of Egypt.

Kushites battling Egyptians
Kushites battling Egyptians

In 945 BCE, the Kushite king Sheshonq I allied with a group of Libyan princes, and stormed the ancient Egyptian cities of the Nile delta. Sheshonq founded the Bubastite dynasty (named for its capital city of Bubastis), and launched a revival of ancient Egyptian culture, commissioning and restoring great works of art and architecture.

The Kushite pharaoh Piye I
The Kushite pharaoh Piye I

But as rival dynasties swarmed into the delta, the Kushite kings moved their bases of operations southward; first to Men-nefer (Memphis), then deep into the Nubian heartland, in the city of Meroë, in modern Sudan, where they built pyramids that still stand today.

Throughout all this, the Kushite kings had managed to hold onto many areas of the Nile — but in the 700s BCE, Neo-Assyrian kings swept downward into Egypt with their legendarily ruthless armies. The Kushite armies fought fiercely, and for many years the outcome was uncertain. But the Assyrians relentlessly pushed the Kushites south —until, in 591 BCE, the Kushite king Aspelta permanently moved the capital to Meroë, declaring Kush an independent kingdom, distinct from Egypt.

The Kushite pyramids of Meroë
The Kushite pyramids of Meroë

By now, the Dark Age had ended, and yet another new world was emerging.

Greece and Rome were on the rise, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire was growing far to the east. From their power base in Meroë, the Kushites built a trading state that became well-known throughout the Mediterranean. They exported gold, and smelted enormous quantities of famously strong Kushite iron; importing goods from all around the civilized world. Kushite kings began to grow rich and powerful again — and when Rome invaded Egypt in the first century BCE —

They saw their chance for another grab at power.

Led by a ferocious candance named Amanirenas, the Kushite army defeated Roman forces at Syene and Philae; but made it no further. The Roman legions pushed the Kushite forces south yet again, sacking the city of Napata and threatening Meroë itself. Amanirenas had no choice but to negotiate for peace; which the Romans granted: the Kushites would keep most of their land along the Nile, aside from a military border zone which the Roman military would hold. In return, they would pay yearly taxes to Rome.

For the most part, both sides held to the terms of the treaty. Romans and Kushites lived in relative peace for the next 100 years or so. But that war with Rome — combined with the taxes — seems to have finally drained Kush of the last of its power by the 100s CE.

After 2,000 years or more of continuous history, these proud Nubian people who’d stood tall against Egyptian armies, Assyrian warlords, rival African kingdoms, and even the Roman Empire, were finally undone by simple economics. Production couldn’t keep up with Roman taxes. People in the cities began to starve and riot, and the final generation of Kushites slipped out into the wilderness, to rejoin their neighbors in nomadic herding and sustenance farming — like drops of water falling back into an eternal ocean.

Part 3: Kingdom of Gold

The pyramids of Meroë in modern Sudan
The pyramids of Meroë in modern Sudan