Kush: The Unknown African Behemoth

Anthony Riches

Only recently have historians written of Kush, the highly advanced civilisation south of Egypt. Anthony Riches, author of River of Gold, gives a brief history.
Rulers of Kush in the early Napatan period.
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In choosing the setting of Roman Egypt and the lands to its south as the setting for River of Gold I found that, unlike my previous books, a quite startling amount of research was required for the author to be able to put together a story set in the Roman province of Aegyptus. In the course of the year it took to write the book, it was necessary to read quite deeply into areas of ancient history which variously encompassed: the province itself, which was quite different to the imperial norm, the great world city of Alexandria, Christianity in the empire, the pyramids, the Red Sea ports, and their trade with what we now call India. However, the most interesting subject for me was the little-known kingdom of Kush.

Historians have belatedly realised that Kush was a major regional power in the ancient world. One of the longest-lived civilisations anywhere, it was highly developed in terms of civil administration, religion and culture long before Rome existed, and predates even the Greek Archaic period. Its major religious monuments dwarfed Greek achievements such as the Parthenon and Acropolis, and at its peak, when its kings ruled Egypt as the 25th Dynasty, their kingdom stretched as far north to Jerusalem and Tyre. Indeed, Kush helped to shape Egypt in much the same way that Egypt influenced Kush. Standing toe to toe with neighbouring powers, Kush managed to maintain its territorial integrity for a good deal longer than the Western Roman civilisation lasted and left a heritage that is gradually entering mainstream historical awareness.

Kush, or Meroë, as it was known by the late 2nd century after the death of Christ, was a power on the edge of decline by the time of this story, but was also a kingdom with a proud history, and indeed a much longer existence than that of its main competitor at that time. Whereas Rome had, according to legend, been founded in the first half of the previous millennium (some 940 years before), Kush had already existed for over 2500 years in four quite distinct guises.

The Kingdom of Kush. Credit: Lumma, Wikicommons.

As the kingdom of Kerma, Kush found its first expression as a unified culture, of sorts, with the earliest urban settlement patterns in Africa to the south of Egypt, as long ago as the Egyptian Early Dynastic Period from around 3000BCE, when Kush and Egypt began their long, intertwined relationship. By 1700BCE the city of Kerma was home to 10,000 people with major buildings, palaces, granaries and storehouses, miles of canals, and all protected by a defensive wall system, and its people were already prolific traders over long distances. After a period of domination by Egypt in Lower (northern) Nubia, the power of the pharaohs waned, and Kerma went on the offensive, but this only served to harden Egypt’s resolve. The kingdom was invaded and conquered, its king displayed hanging from the mast of the pharaoh’s flagship as he sailed back to the north. Becoming increasingly Egyptianised over hundreds of years, inevitable in a lengthy occupation, the people of Kush nevertheless retained enough independence to re-establish their own kingdom when the Egyptian New Kingdom collapsed in 1075BCE. It was from this point that Kush began its rise to greatness.

By 750BCE a Kushite king, by the name of Kashta, had invaded Upper (southern) Egypt and captured Thebes, and his successor Piye went on to finish the job and capture the entire length of the Nile Valley. The so-called ‘Black Pharaohs’ ruled both Egypt and Kush as the 25th Dynasty, seeing themselves as maintaining the classic Egyptian culture and religion in the pharaonic tradition. With a wider influence than just the area of their new domain, they took tribute from Levantine trading states and competed militarily with the Assyrian Empire, but their evident territorial and political ambitions were to lead to disaster. In 671BCE the Assyrians, having been bested in battle more than once by the Kushite King Taharqa, broke a 30-year losing streak against the now aging ruler, invaded Egypt and sacked his northern capital, Memphis. His successor’s brief recapture of the kingdom’s northern territory was in vain, and the Assyrians advanced to capture Thebes in the south and may even have penetrated as far south as the holy city of Napata. It is in this period that the centre of gravity of Kushite authority began to centre more on Meroë, to the south, and Kushite culture began to become more African in nature.

The Assyrians were succeeded by the Persians, ruled by Cyrus the Great, but his successors were unsuccessful in their efforts to take Kush, overcome, it seems by the triple scourge of the huge distances involved, the desert’s inhospitable nature and the Kushite army’s ability to resist. As was often the way in such a stalemate, Kush and Persia exchanged gifts and made peace, with Persian silver being found in elite Kushite burials and ‘Aethiopians’ serving in Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480BCE. Kush, meanwhile, continued to exist despite external pressures, combining Egyptian tradition with their own culture, religion, writing, architecture, aesthetics, trading methods and military organisation, and by 330BCE had consolidated its grip on southern Egypt as far north as Aswan. It was at some point in this period that the seat of governance formally moved south from Napata to the less vulnerable Meroë, where it was to remain until the kingdom’s fall.

Initially ejected from southern Egypt by the resurgent Ptolemaic Egypt, ruled by the descendants of Ptolemy, the king who had arisen from the Macedonian leadership with the death of Alexander the Great (who had conquered Egypt and founded Alexandria), relations between the two great states normalised into co-operation, with joint hunting expeditions in search of war elephants on the steppe to the south of Meroe, and Kush became somewhat Hellenised in the process, just as did Egypt to an even greater degree. But, by 200BCE, the Ptolemaic kingdom had declined so far that Rome, seeing an opportunity, stepped in to prop up the failing state and secure the valuable grain supply. It was an inevitability that, in the fullness of time, the first emperor, Augustus, would declare its annexation as his own province, to be governed by his chosen representative in order to safeguard this critical role as Rome’s breadbasket. In the process of securing the province, Rome re-established control of the long-disputed area of southern Egypt, land which had been Kush’s for a century, with the unwelcome effect for Kush of depriving its southern neighbour of lucrative tax income, thus setting the scene for the war to come.

Meroitic prince smiting enemies

As evidenced by the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (the Deeds of the Divine Augustus), the emperor’s funerary inscription which detailed his illustrious achievements, a war duly took place, with Rome deeming itself victorious over enemies in both Ethiopia and Arabia – although the reality was a little more nuanced than the simple statement that ‘very large forces of the enemy of both races were cut to pieces in battle and many towns were captured’. In his book Geography, the contemporary scholar Strabo recorded the events of the Kushite-Roman war, which in simple terms were these: the Kushite King Teriteqas invaded Upper Egypt in 27BCE, taking border towns and pulling down statues of Augustus wherever they were to be found, a grave insult and clear signal of intent. Rome counter-attacked with, it seems, only 10,000 men to face 30,000 Kushites, but these were battle-hardened legionaries fresh from the Civil War that had put Augustus on the throne, and their equipment and tactics were probably also superior to those of their enemies in addition to their high level of motivation and experience. They sacked Napata, the Kushite holy city, and both the king and his son Prince Akinidad were killed at some point in the campaign. His wife, the Queen Amanirenas, took up the fight with vigour, pursuing the withdrawing Romans back to Premnis, a fortified hill-top city which has (just) barely survived the flooding brought about by the Aswan dam. A stalemate resulted from the Roman use of massed legion artillery to cancel out the Kushite numerical advantage on the empty ground before the fortress, and Augustus’ general Petronius, probably acting on orders from above, sent a diplomatic party from Kush north under escort to meet with the emperor on the island Samos. The resulting peace terms seem to have been highly generous to Kush, perhaps understandably so given Augustus’ need to end the war and avoid being forced to fight on too many fronts. Rome and Kush chose to co-exist, and even became military allies to some degree, and the presence of a trade-hungry neighbour seems to have invigorated Kush for some time. Intriguingly, however, while most of the statues of the emperor which had been taken were returned, at least one was not. Its head (now in the British Museum) having been buried under the steps of a temple in Meroë in perpetual insult and defiance, would be discovered almost 2000 years later.

Meroë was still close to the peak of its magnificence at this time, the city’s crops irrigated by the Nile and bordered by forests, a classical city whose broad thoroughfares were lined with statues, but the seeds of its downfall had already been planted. But the deathblow came not from the north, the traditional source of competition, but from the south. Around CE330 Kush’s southern neighbour the kingdom of Axum invaded and sacked Meroë, a blow that would leave it deserted within 20 years, but even before this (and probably at the root of the weakness that allowed such an invasion), Kush had been approaching the end of its sustainability. Its forests denuded by the amount of wood needed to create charcoal and power the iron industry, its fields overgrazed and overcropped, the city had already been at significant risk of collapse. Interestingly, it was during this period of decline that the religion which the kingdom had shared with Egypt began to face competition from the upstart faith that was sweeping the ancient world around the Mediterranean, Christianity. Whether this was a factor in the fall of Kush is impossible to say, although the collective opinion is that Kush’s successor, Axum, became Christianised from the 4th century onwards, and such religious disruption might have been a factor in Kush’s slide into disaster.

The pyramids of Meroe. Credit: Demartis, Wikicommons

After centuries of scholarly neglect, and indeed some racism in the historical writing of previous centuries – such as statements that the amazing pyramids of Napata and Meroë (sadly despoiled, in some cases with explosives, by Europeans in search of burial treasure in the late 19th century) must have been built by ‘whiter’ North Africans, the kingdom of Kush is emerging into the general consciousness of the ancient world. I can thoroughly commend those interested to read into the depth of knowledge available with regard to this vibrant regional empire. A unique polity that underwent several phases of existence, variously as both conquered and conqueror, with distinct religion, culture and trade, well known to and respected by its neighbours, it is very much worth knowing more about.

Recommended reading on the subject has to include the Wildfire Games website, searching for ‘The Kingdom of Kush’ (and yes, I realise that this is a hostage to fortune given it might not exist in years to come) – if you can visit, for as long as it exists, you’ll find it is a visual and historical treat. Its author, Malcolm Quartey, has done a truly magnificent job of providing not only wargamers but also the rest of us with the most magnificent – and stupendously compendious – account of Kush’s history, complete with illustrations. Just read it, you’ll thank me! And if you’re looking for a book on the subject, try The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization, by László Török. And I hope you enjoy delving into this relatively unknown jewel of history as much as I did.

Anthony Riches is the writer of the acclaimed Empire series, the latest of which, River of Gold, is set in Roman Egypt. He has also written the Centurions series, set in Germania amongst the Batavi rebels.