Human Legacy Course/The Nubian Kingdoms

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Human Legacy Course I
The Nubian Kingdoms
LECTURER: Mr. Blair

Previous Lecture / Course Page / Take The Quiz / Go to Week 4

Hello and welcome to our final lecture of Week 3. In this lecture, we will be looking at the Nubian Kingdoms. Our question for the day is:

How could a man from outside of Egypt become a pharaoh? In about 750 BC, a new king rose to power in Kush, a kingdom in the region of Nubia south of Egypt. His name was Piankhi. For centuries, the Nubians had lived in the shadow of their more powerful northern neighbors, and for much of that time had been ruled by them.

By Piankhi’s time, however, Egypt was no longer so mighty. The powerful pharaohs of the New Kingdom had died, and there was no strong leader to keep order. Various nobles claimed to be the pharaoh and were tearing Egypt apart in their struggles for power.

Sensing an opportunity in this confusion, Piankhi sent a Kushite army north into Egypt. Steadily, this army marched northward, defeating army after army of Egyptians. Piankhi was not content to simply beat the Egyptians, though. He wanted them to know that they had been crushed. As he told his troops: “It is a year for making an end, for putting the fear of me in Lower Egypt, and inflicting on them a great and severe beating!”

Within a few years, Piankhi’s army had reached the Nile Delta. From his capital deep within Kush, he now ruled all of Egypt. A foreigner had become Egypt’s pharaoh.

The Region of Nubia[edit | edit source]

Nubia was located south of Egypt along the Nile. If you look at a map, you will see that two rivers, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, flow together to form the Nile. The point at which these rivers meet—near modern Khartoum, Sudan—may have been the southern boundary of Nubia. The region stretched north to the first cataract, Egypt’s southern boundary.

Like the Egyptians, Nubians depended upon the Nile for its life-giving waters. However, Nubia’s landscape made farming difficult. Unlike the flat riverbanks of Egypt, in Nubia the Nile flows through rocky mountains, making farming almost impossible.

A Wealth of Resources[edit | edit source]

Although Nubia was not blessed with Egypt’s rich farmland, it did have great mineral wealth. Mines in Nubia produced gold, granite, and precious stones that could be exported and sold.

Nubia’s location was also a valuable resource. Goods from central Africa flowed into Nubia to be sent to Egypt, lands on the Red Sea, and elsewhere. Among the goods traded through Nubia were ostrich eggs and feathers, animal skins, ivory, ebony, and slaves.

Nubia's People[edit | edit source]

Most of what we know about the people of Nubia is from Egyptian writings. The Nubians were expert traders and skilled makers of pottery. They were also regarded as expert archers. In fact, the Egyptians called Nubia the Land of the Nine Bows. They were so impressed by Nubian archers that some Egyptian rulers hired them as police and soldiers.

Early History[edit | edit source]

The history of Egypt is so vast and so well documented that it often overshadows the history of its southern neighbor, Nubia. However, recent research into Nubian history has led to interesting findings. About the same time the Old Kingdom began in Egypt, the Nubians formed a kingdom of their own.

With its rich mineral resources, this early Nubian kingdom possessed great wealth and traded with Egypt and other lands. Before long, Nubia and Egypt became rivals, fighting for control of land and resources. During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, the rivalry led to war as Egypt invaded and conquered much of Nubia. While under Egyptian rule, the Nubians adopted some elements of the Egyptians’ culture, including their religion and building style.

The Growth of Kush[edit | edit source]

Although northern Nubia was controlled by Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, a powerful Nubian state began to develop at the same time. This state was called Kush, and it was based around the city of Kerma in southern Nubia, in what is now Sudan.

The Beginnings of Kushite Power[edit | edit source]

When the Middle Kingdom collapsed around 1700 BC, Kush seized the opportunity to grow. During this time, Kush expanded to rule all of Nubia, not just the southern part.

The rulers of Kush made an alliance with the Hyksos, the invaders who had ended the Middle Kingdom and now controlled Egypt. Under the Hyksos, Egyptian trade with Kush increased dramatically, and riches flowed into Kush. The Kushites used their wealth to build magnificent royal tombs in Kerma.

After Egyptian nobles drove the Hyksos out, in about 1550 BC, and began the New Kingdom, they also sought revenge on the Hyksos’ allies. The Egyptians invaded Kush, destroyed Kerma, and added the land to their empire. Egypt ruled all of Kush by 1500 BC. Egyptian rulers, including Ramses the Great, built temples and other monuments throughout Kush.

The Kushites In Egypt[edit | edit source]

Egypt ruled Kush for more than 400 years, but eventually Kush regained its strength and power. This shift in power began as the New Kingdom weakened after the reign of Ramses the Great. By about 1100 BC, Kush was free from Egyptian control. Years of Egyptian control, however, had left the Kushites weak and disorganized.

Several centuries later, around 750 BC, a new Kushite kingdom began to grow and develop strength. The capital of this new kingdom was Napata, south of Kerma. Seeing the weakness that had beset Egypt after the fall of the New Kingdom, Kush’s rulers decided to expand their power to the north.

The ruler who led the Kushites north into Egypt was named Piankhi, also known as Piye. Monument inscriptions from this period describe Piankhi as a compassionate ruler who granted pardons in exchange for loyalty. However, he could also be ruthless, as when he chased down fleeing soldiers after a battle to keep any from escaping.

In the end, Piankhi conquered all of Egypt. However, Kushite rulers only held power in Egypt for about a century. In the mid-600s BC, the Assyrians from Mesopotamia swept into Egypt. Unable to stand up to the Assyrians, the Kushite pharaohs fled back into Nubia, to their old capital at Napata.

Kushite Culture[edit | edit source]

Although they were not Egyptian, the Kushite pharaohs saw themselves as guardians of Egyptian tradition, and they tried to preserve Egyptian traditions. For example, they had their bodies mummified and buried in pyramids like Old Kingdom pharaohs, even though New Kingdom rulers had usually been buried in temples. (Kushite pyramids were smaller than Egyptian ones, though.) In addition, the Kushites adopted Egyptian hieroglyphics as their own writing system.

The Kushites did not abandon all their own customs when they ruled Egypt, however. For example, they did not adopt the Egyptian style of dressing to try to make themselves look Egyptian. Statues of Kushite pharaohs show distinctly Nubian features and clothing. These statues also show the pharaohs wearing a crown with two cobras, symbolizing the union of Egypt and Kush.

Later Kush[edit | edit source]

The period immediately following the Kushite expulsion from Egypt by the Assyrians is a mystery to historians. There are few records from this period.

Our knowledge of Kushite history resumes in the mid-200s BC. At that time, the Kushites moved their capital to Meroë, a city farther south along the Nile from Napata. No one is certain what led to the move, or even exactly when the move took place. However, it appears that Kushite culture changed substantially after the capital’s move. In fact, the scope of the change was so great that some people refer to later Kush as a separate culture entirely from the earlier period.

The City of Meroë[edit | edit source]

The new capital of Kush was located near the junction of two rivers. Because the city was near so much water, ancient writers often referred to the area as the island of Meroë, though the city did not actually lie on an island.

The area in which Meroë was built was not as dry as some parts of Nubia. The city’s inhabitants used wood from nearby forests to build their homes and to obtain valuable trade goods such as ebony. In addition, the area was home to many species of wild animals:

“In the cities the dwellings are made of split pieces of palm-wood woven together, or of brick. And they have quarried salt, as do the Arabians. And, among the plants, the palm, the persea, the ebony, and the ceratia are found in abundance. And they have, not only elephants to hunt, but also lions and leopards.”

Iron Industry[edit | edit source]

One advantage to Meroë’s location was the abundant mineral resources found nearby. In addition to copper, gold, and precious stones, iron was plentiful. The Kushites used the iron ore they found near Meroë to build a large and profitable iron industry.

Iron quickly became Kush’s most valuable product. Archaeological evidence suggests that iron goods from Meroë were shipped throughout the Nile Valley. Rulers used the wealth they made from this trade to support building programs and the expansion of their kingdom.

Later Kushite Culture[edit | edit source]

With the move to Meroë, Kush’s rulers abandoned many of the elements of Egyptian culture they had adopted. They continued to build pyramids, but they no longer used hieroglyphics for writing. Instead, they created their own alphabet and writing system. Unfortunately, historians have not yet managed to translate their language, so many mysteries remain about later Kush’s culture.

One of these mysteries is the role that women played in Kushite society. Based on carvings found on tombs, women appear to have enjoyed a fairly high status in Kush. In addition, the fact that many pyramids were built for women suggests that female rulers may not have been uncommon. However, historians have not yet been able to learn anything about the lives of these women. For example, they do not know whether they ruled Kush in their own right or as regents in the name of their children.

The Decline of Meroë[edit | edit source]

As long as trade thrived and its economy stayed strong, Meroë prospered. However, a decline in trade in the AD 200s contributed to the kingdom’s downfall. The decline in trade was caused by several factors. Increased competition for goods reduced the demand for Kushite exports. In addition, hostile peoples continually raided the Nile Valley, disturbing the trade routes that linked Meroë to the outside world. Environmental issues were also a factor. The Kushites needed wood for their forges in order to smelt, or refine, iron from its ore. Centuries of iron-making had taken a toll on Nubia’s forests, and eventually the Kushites could no longer work iron to make the tools they needed to survive as a kingdom.

As Meroë’s economy declined, so did the kingdom. The weakened Kush was an attractive target for invaders. Finally, in about AD 350, the kingdom of Aksum, located in present-day northern Ethiopia, invaded and destroyed Meroë. With the collapse of the capital and nearby towns, Kushite civilization faded.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  • Question #1: Where was the region of Nubia? What were the land and resources there like?
  • Question #2: Why and how did the early Nubians come into contact with the Egyptians?
  • Question #3: How did Nubia’s location eventually lead to the growth of a wealthy civilization?
  • Question #4: What was Piankhi’s major accomplishment?
  • Question #5: How did Egypt influence Kushite culture after the Kushites conquered Egypt?
  • Question #6: What were two ways in which Meroë’s location was beneficial to Kush?
  • Question #7: How was Kushite writing during the later Kushite kingdom different from what it had been in earlier Kush?
  • Question #8: In the long run, do you think the mass production of iron was good or bad for Kush? Explain your answer.

Helpful Resources[edit | edit source]