The legendary Kingdom of Kush, with its series of capitals in what is now northern Sudan, helped define the political and cultural landscape of northeastern Africa for more than a thousand years. What was the Kingdom of Kush?Kush was a part of Nubia, loosely described as the region between the Cataracts of the Nile. The Cataracts of the Nile are a series of six whitewater rapids that have been used as key waypoints for thousands of years. The first cataract roughly corresponds to the modern area of Aswan, Egypt, while the sixth lies more than 1,100 kilometers (720 miles) south, north of Khartoum, Sudan.Ancient Nubian cultures were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, as the region served as a major trading center for goods from the African interior, Arabian desert, and Mediterranean basin.From sub-Saharan Africa, Nubian communities traded gold, ivory, ebony, and animal pelts. Sometimes, merchants traded the animals themselves. African animals such as monkeys, elephants, antelopes, and giraffes were exported to private zoos across the Mediterranean and the Near East.From Arabia, Egypt, the Maghreb, and the Mediterranean basin, Nubians imported products such as olive oil, incense, timber (mostly acacia and cedar), and bronze. The hazardous Cataracts of the Nile made sailing long distances along the Nile nearly impossible, so many goods from the Levant had to be imported from the Nubian east, through ports on the Red Sea.The Kingdom of Kush is probably the most famous civilization to emerge from Nubia. Three Kushite kingdoms dominated Nubia for more than 3,000 years, with capitals in Kerma, Napata, and Meroë.KermaKerma was the most powerful Nubian city-state between about 2450 BCE and 1450 BCE. It is sometimes considered Kushite, and sometimes pre-Kushite.The Kerma kingdom controlled the Nile Valley between the first and fourth cataracts, making its territory as extensive as its powerful neighbor to the north, Egypt. Egyptian records are the first to identify this Nubian civilization as “Kush.”Kerma culture seems to have been primarily rural, as the city of Kerma only had about 2,000 residents. Nubians of this period practiced agriculture, hunted and fished, raised livestock such as cattle and sheep, and labored in workshops that produced ceramic and metal goods.The artifacts most associated with Kerma culture are probably deffufas, huge mud-brick structures used as temples or funerary chapels. The mud-brick construction material kept the interior of deffufas cool in the hot Nubian sun, while tall colonnades allowed for greater air circulation. The walls of the deffufas were tiled and decorated with elaborate paintings, and some were lined in gold leaf.Napata and the 25th DynastyThe powerful Egyptian military conquered Kush during the period of time known as the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE).From its capital in Napata, Kushite civilization shared many cultural connections with Egypt during this time. For example, ceremonies and rituals honoring the Egyptian sun-god Amun were held at the Kushite mountain Jebel Barkal, where Amun was believed to reside. Records also indicate marriages between Egyptian and Kushite royal families.Despite these affinities, Egypt and Kush maintained discrete cultural identities. In Egyptian art, Kushites are depicted with darker skin and a cropped hairstyle. Kushites depicted themselves wearing animal-skin cloaks, patterned fabrics, and large earrings. Although both cultures valued horses as transportation, Egyptians preferred to use chariots, while Kushites were just as likely to ride the horses themselves.As the New Kingdom ended and Egypt entered an Intermediate Period, power dynamics shifted in Nubia. Around 745 BCE, the Kushite king Piye invaded Egypt, possibly at an Egyptian request to fend off invaders from Libya. Piye became the first pharaoh of Egypt’s 25th Dynasty.Egypt’s century-long reign of Kushite pharaohs was marked by relatively strong, stable government; aggressive attempts at expanding the empire to the Near East; and a major revival of state religion. Pharaohs ruled from the Egyptian capital of Thebes.Perhaps the most influential pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty was Taharqa (Khunefertumre), a son of Piye. Taharqa engaged in enormous construction projects in both Upper and Lower Egypt. (Upper Egypt included southern Egypt and Nubia, while Lower Egypt included the Nile Delta.) Under his leadership, temples and monuments were expanded at Memphis, Thebes, and Jebel Barkal.Statues of Taharqa and other pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty are important artifacts. These pharaohs modified the distinctive headdress to reflect their dual kingship of Egypt and Kush. The traditional pharaonic headdress features the Uraeus, a stylized depiction of a cobra. The Uraeus symbolizes Lower Egypt (northern Egypt) and the Nile Delta. (Many pharaonic headdresses also feature a vulture, symbolizing Upper (southern) Egypt.) Taharqa’s headdress features two cobras, probably symbolizing Egypt and Kush.The powerful Assyrian Empire invaded Egypt around 664 BCE. The Nubian Pharaoh Tantamani retreated from Thebes to Napata, and later to the southern Kushite capital of Meroë.The Assyrians and Egyptians of the Late Period attempted to erase Kushite leadership and the 25th Dynasty from history by destroying their statues, steles, and even their names from the historic record.MeroëThe final period of the Kingdom of Kush is sometimes known as the Meroitic period, after its capital at Meroë. The Meroitic period lasted from about 300 BCE until the 4th century CE.Meroë was ideally positioned as a port city on the Nile, with trade routes to both the Red Sea and African interior. With the Nile making irrigation possible, Meroë was an agriculturally fertile area, and also sat next to lucrative iron and gold mines.The most significant artifacts of Meroitic culture are probably its pyramids. A single necropolis at Meroë boasts more pyramids than all of Egypt. Like Egyptian pyramids, the pyramids at Meroë are tombs. More than a dozen Kushite kings, queens, and other nobles are interred with pyramids. (Although unlike Egyptian pyramids, Meroitic pyramids do not hold the tomb itself. The burial chamber lies beneath the pyramid, making the pyramid less a tomb than an enormous headstone.)Kushite pyramids are notably smaller and steeper than their older Egyptian cousins. Meroitic pyramids stand no taller than about 30 meters (98 feet), while the “step pyramid” of Djoser is twice as tall, and the “Great Pyramid” at Giza is four times that height. The base of Meroitic pyramids is also smaller than Egyptian pyramids—about 7 meters (22 feet) wide, while the step pyramid is about 125 meters (411 feet) and the Great Pyramid is 230 meters (756 feet). The Meroitic pyramids are inclined at about 70°, while the Great Pyramid’s slope is about 50°.The Nubian kingdom of Kush thrived for centuries at Meroë. Kush had its own dynastic leaders, trade systems, adaptations of Egyptian religion, and even its own alphabet and languages.
CandaceThe Kingdom of Kush is often noted for its powerful warrior-queens. Royal women, known as kandakes, led Kush in confrontations with Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus. (The veracity of these encounters is debated.) Ancient writers, such as Strabo, interpreted the title kandake as a woman’s name: Candace.Grave RobbersKushite artifacts have been stolen for centuries. In the 19th century, the Italian grave robber Giuseppe Ferlini ransacked the necropolis at Meroë, destroying more than 40 pyramids and looting the valuable funerary artifacts within. More recently, grave robbers armed with metal detectors have excavated both Kushite sites and the remains of nearby ancient trade routes.Dams and Population GrowthModern Sudan is forced to balance its economic and political growth with its archaeological history. Sudan’s population is growing, with more Sudanese seeking a better way of life. This has resulted in larger urban areas and a much greater demand for electricity to power homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals. At least three dams planned on Sudan’s Upper Nile would drown Nubian archaeological sites. Urban development, meanwhile, has uncovered Nubian sites and artifacts—including mummies.Long Legacy of RacismThe profound legacy of Kush and other Nubian civilizations was historically ignored and even denied until relatively recently. In the early 20th century, American and European archaeologists dismissed evidence that indigenous Africans developed Nubia’s complex culture and stunning architecture, instead attributing these features to Egypt and an unknown “light-skinned race.”ErosionThe harsh Saharan climate threatens the stability of Kushite monumental architecture. Centuries of rain and wind have reduced some deffufas to unrecognizable towering lumps. Powerful sandstorms have blasted the pyramids for centuries, and shifting sand has accumulated around many structures, obscuring and even burying them.
- Undark: In Sudan, Rediscovering Ancient Nubia Before It’s Too Late
- JSTOR Daily: The Forgotten Pyramids of Sudan
- Sudan and Nubia: The Royal Pyramids of Meroe. Architecture, Construction and Reconstruction of a Sacred Landscape
- National Geographic: Explore the Enduring Splendor of the Kingdom of Kush
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abandoned Adjective
to soak up.
natural liking or attraction to something.
forceful or offensive.
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture air circulation Noun
natural or artificial movement of air in a closed environment. Also called ventilation.
system of writing in which each symbol ideally represents one sound unit in the spoken language.
large peninsula in southwest Asia, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, including the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
(~2500 BCE-609 BCE) kingdom or empire of northern Mesopotamia (what is today parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon) with its capital in Nineveh (what is today Mosul, Iraq).
a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.
Encyclopedic Entry: basin bronze Noun
metal made of the elements copper and tin.
city where a region's government is located.
Encyclopedic Entry: capital cataract Noun
waterfall or section of whitewater rapids.
Cataracts of the Nile Plural Noun
series of six shallow, whitewater rapids on the Nile River between Khartoum, Sudan (sixth cataract) and Aswan, Egypt (first cataract).
cows and oxen.
made of clay.
small place of worship or prayer.
vehicle with two or four wheels and pulled by horses.
independent political state consisting of a single city and sometimes surrounding territory.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
Encyclopedic Entry: civilization cloak Noun
loose outer garment worn over the shoulders, such as a cape.
series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof.
to overcome an enemy or obstacle.
familiar or comfortable all over the world, or to people from all over the world.
cultural landscape Noun
human imprint on the physical environment.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
mud-brick temple or funerary structure unique to the ancient kingdom of Kerma, northern Sudan.
the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.
Encyclopedic Entry: delta depict Verb
to illustrate or show.
individual or distinct.
unique or identifiable.
to overpower or control.
tree native to Africa that produces dark, hard timber.
complex and detailed.
to develop or come into view.
group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.
good or service traded to another area.
fend off Verb
to repel an attacker.
able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.
having to do with ceremonies surrounding a funeral or burial.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
danger or risk.
substance that produces a sweet odor when burned, often used in religious ceremonies.
to display or show.
to place a body in a tomb or burial site.
to enter and attack.
watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.
Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation kingdom Noun
type of government with a king or queen as its leader, or the land ruled by that king or queen.
Encyclopedic Entry: kingdom Kush Noun
(~1000 BCE-350 CE) kingdom in northeast Africa (Nubia, what is today parts of Sudan and Egypt), with its capitals in Kerma, Napata, and Meroë.
famous, heroic, or celebrated.
area bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including the nations of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.
livestock noun, plural noun
animals raised for sale and profit.
Lower Egypt Noun
northern Egypt, including the Nile Delta.
profitable or money-making.
region in North Africa made of five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.
place dug in the earth where ores are extracted.
large structure representing an event, idea, or person.
Near East Noun
imprecise term for countries in southwestern Asia, sometimes including Egypt.
cemetery or burial ground.
region in northeast Africa (northern Sudan and southern Egypt), loosely defined as between the Cataracts of the Nile and the Red Sea.
animal skin or fur.
ruler of ancient Egypt.
power dynamics Plural Noun
the way different groups of people interact and influence each other.
three-dimensional shape with a square base and triangular sides that meet in a point.
areas of fast-flowing water in a river or stream that is making a slight descent.
Encyclopedic Entry: rapids reign Verb
to rule as a monarch.
a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.
to go back to a familiar or safe place.
series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.
Roman Empire Noun
(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.
Roman Empire Noun
(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.
having to do with a monarchy.
having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.
important or impressive.
slant, either upward or downward, from a straight or flat path.
knowledgeable or complex.
upright stone slab or column decorated with figures or inscriptions, commonly used as a commemorative monument in ancient times.
sub-Saharan Africa Noun
geographic region located south of the Sahara Desert in Africa.
to represent an object, idea, organization, or geographical region.
building used for worship.
land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.
covered with decorative or protective building tiles.
wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.
enclosed burial place.
trade route Noun
path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.
trading center Noun
settlement or business area where goods and services are exchanged.
Upper Egypt Noun
southern Egypt, stretching roughly to Aswan and sometimes including northern Sudan.
upright snake (usually a cobra), often represented on a royal headdress, used as a symbol of power and authority in ancient Egypt.
a set of GPS coordinates used for navigation.
Encyclopedic Entry: waypoint