The Kingdom of Kush: Sub-Saharan African Rulers of the Nile

Western Deffufa in ancient city of Kerma, Nubia, Sudan
Western Deffufa in ancient city of Kerma, Nubia, Sudan. Lassi

The Kushite Kingdom or Kerma society was a cultural group based in Sudanese Nubia and an active and dangerous adversary to the pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdom Egypt. The Kushite Kingdom was the first Nubian state, situated between the fourth and fifth cataracts of the Nile River in what is now Sudan, with waxing and waning power over the Nile between about 2500 and 300 BCE.

Key Takeaways: Kushite Kingdom

  • Established by cattle pastoralists between the 4th and 5th cataracts on the Nile river beginning about 2500 BCE
  • Kingdom arose to power about 2000 BCE, with a capital city at Kerma
  • Trading partner and adversary to the Middle and New Kingdom pharaohs
  • Ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate period, shared with the Hyksos, 1750–1500 BCE
  • Ruled Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period, 728–657 BCE

The roots of the Kushite kingdom emerged near the third cataract of the Nile River in the early 3rd millennium BC, developed from cattle pastoralists who are known to archaeologists as the A-Group or pre-Kerma culture. At its height, Kerma's reach extended as far south as Mograt Island and as far north as the Egyptian fortress of Semna in Batn el-Haja, on the second cataract of the Nile.

The Kushite kingdom is mentioned as Kush (or Cush) in the Old Testament; Aethiopia in ancient Greek literature; and Nubia to the Romans. Nubia may have been derived from an Egyptian word for gold, nebew; the Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Sety.

Chronology

Meroe Pyramid of the Kushite Kingdom
Royal city of Meroe, ancient capitol of Kushite Kingdom and Royal Cemetery also known as al Ahram or "the pyramids" with tourist couple heading towards pyramid, Meroe, Shendi, Sudan. Dawie du Plessis / Getty Images

Dates on the table below are derived from the known age of Egyptian imports recovered in archaeological contexts at Kerma and some radiocarbon dates.

  • Ancient Kerma, 2500–2040 BCE
  • Middle Kingdom Egypt (Kerma Complex Chiefdom), 2040–1650 BCE
  • Second Intermediate Egypt (Kerman State) 1650–1550 BCE
  • New Kingdom (Egyptian Empire) 1550–1050 BCE 
  • Third Intermediate Period (Early Napatan) 1050–728 BCE
  • Kushite Dynasty 728–657 BCE

The earliest Kushite society was based on animal herding, with occasional hunting of gazelles, hippopotami, and small game. Cattle, goats, and donkeys were herded by Kerma farmers, who also grew barley (Hordeum), squashes (Cucurbita) and legumes (Leguminosae) as well as flax. The farmers lived in round hut dwellings and buried their dead in distinctive circular tombs.

Rise of the Kush Kingdom

At the beginning of the Middle Phase about 2000 BC, the capital of Kerma emerged as one of the major economic and political centers in the Nile Valley. This growth was at the same time as the rise of the Kush an important trading partner and an intimidating rival to pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. Kerma was the seat of the Kushite rulers, and the city developed into a foreign trade-based society with mud-brick architecture, dealing in ivory, diorite, and gold.

During the Middle Kerma phase, the Egyptian fortress on Batn el-Haja served as the boundary between Middle Kingdom Egypt and the Kushite kingdom, and it is where exotic goods were exchanged between the two governments. 

Classic Period 

The Kingdom of Kush reached its peak during the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, between about 1650–1550 BCE, forming an alliance with the Hyksos. The Kushite kings seized control of the Egyptian fortresses at the border and the gold mines in the Second Cataract, sacrificing control over their lands in lower Nubia to the C-Group people.

Kerma was overthrown in 1500 by the third New Kingdom pharaoh, Thutmose (or Thutmosis) I, and all of their lands fell to the Egyptians. The Egyptians took back Egypt and much of Nubia 50 years later, establishing great temples in the region at Gebel Barkal and Abu Simbel.

Establishment of the Kushite State

Statue of Taharqa, Kushite Pharaoh
Statue of Kushite / Egyptian Pharaoh Taharqa, at Tombos, 25th dynasty, Sudan, 8th-7th century BC. C. Sappa / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

After the collapse of the New Kingdom about 1050 BCE, the Napatan kingdom arose. By 850 BCE, a strong Kushite ruler was located at Gebel Barkal. About 727 BCE, the Kushite King Piankhi (sometimes referred to as Piye) conquered an Egypt divided by rival dynasts, founding the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Egypt and consolidating a territory that extended from the Mediterranean to the Fifth Cataract. His rule lasted from 743–712 BCE.

The Kushite state vied for power in the Mediterranean with the Neo-Assyrian empire who finally conquered Egypt in 657 BCE: Kushites fled to Meroe, which flourished for the following thousand years, and the last Kushite king's rule ended about 300 BCE.

The City of Kerma

The capital city of the Kushite Kingdom was Kerma, one of the first African urban centers, located in the Northern Dongola Reach of northern Sudan above the 3rd cataract of the Nile. Stable isotope analysis of human bone from the Eastern cemetery indicates that Kerma was a cosmopolitan town, with a population made up of people from many different places.

Kerma was both a political and religious capital. A large necropolis with approximately 30,000 burials is located four kilometers east of the city, including four massive royal tombs where rulers and their retainers were often buried together. Within the precinct are three deffufas, massive mud-brick tombs associated with temples.

Kerma Necropolis

The Eastern Cemetery at Kerma, also known as the Kerma necropolis is located 2.5 miles (4 km) east of the city, towards the desert. The 170-acre (70 ha) cemetery was rediscovered by archaeologist George A. Reisner, who conducted the first excavations there between 1913 and 1916. Additional research since that have identified at least 40,000 tombs, including those of Kerma's kings; it was used between 2450 and 1480 BCE.

The earliest burials in the Eastern Cemetery are round and small, with the remains of a single individual. Later ones more elaborate larger burials for higher status individuals, often including sacrificed retainers. By the Middle Kerma period, some burial pits were as large as 32-50 feet (10-15 m) in diameter; the Classic Period royal tombs excavated in the early 20th century by Reisner measure up to 300 ft (90 m) in diameter.

Ranking and Status in Kerma Society

The largest tumuli in the cemetery are located on the central ridge of the cemetery and must have been the burial places of generations of Classic Phase Kushite rulers, based on their monumental size, the high frequency of human sacrifices and the presence of subsidiary graves. The ranked burials indicated a stratified society, with the highest late Classic Phase ruler buried in Tumulus X with 99 secondary burials. Human and animal sacrifices became common in the Middle Phase and sacrifices escalated in numbers during the classic phase: at least 211 people were sacrificed for the royal burial called Tumulus X.

Although the tumuli were all heavily looted, bronze daggers, razors, tweezers and mirrors, and pottery drinking cups were found in the cemetery. Most of the bronze artifacts were recovered in seven of the great tumuli of the Classic Phase Kerma.

Warrior Cult

Based on the large numbers of young men buried with weapons beginning in the earliest Kerma period, many of them exhibiting healed skeletal trauma, Hafsaas-Tsakos has argued that these individuals were members of the most trusted elite warriors in the personal guard of the ruler, sacrificed during the funerary rituals of the dead ruler, to protect him in the afterlife.

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