The Nile Valley south of Egypt has been described as a “Corridor to Africa” for good reason. For almost five thousand years, it has formed a long narrow oasis stretching more than a thousand miles, slicing through the great desert that extends across the whole of North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Throughout the long history of Pharaonic Egypt, the Valley also provided the most convenient route for the spread of Egyptian influence south into Nubia, and the transportation north to Egypt of numerous African products – including slaves and pygmies, gold and ebony, animal skins and even live animals such as the baboons sacred to Thoth, god of learning – that were essential to Egyptian religion and culture.
Crushing “Vile Kush”
Not surprisingly, for most of antiquity the rulers of Egypt dreamed of gaining direct access to Nubia’s resources by securing control of the whole of the Nile corridor. The rugged geography of Nubia, however, made it difficult to achieve that goal. Only the strongest Egyptian dynasties could establish direct Egyptian rule over Nubia, and then only temporarily. Consequently, most pharaohs had to rely primarily on diplomacy and trade to acquire the African goods they desired. Geography also created the opportunity for the emergence of a series of states in Nubia during periods of Egyptian weakness, whose prosperity was based on the collection and transport to Egypt of African products.
This pattern first appeared during the Old Kingdom. Texts and archaeology provide evidence for extensive Egyptian activity in Nubia in the third millennium BC with a series of incursions during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. Repeated raids decimated the population of northern Nubia, allowing Egyptians to exploit its mineral riches, while emissaries established contact with tribes further south and brought back to Egypt exotic African goods. On one occasion a dwarf (or pygmy) was brought back for the Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Pepy II. During the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2055 BC), during which time the central power of Egypt had collapsed, a powerful Nubian state formed, centred on present-day Kerma, just south of the third cataract of the Nile. Egyptian texts denigrate the Kushites as weak and cowardly, but the network of strong forts built in the region of the second cataract by the pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty (see below) is clear evidence of the power of the first Kingdom of Kush. From their capital at Kerma, the kings of Kush ruled most of Nubia from the First to the Fifth Cataract for almost half a millennium, until Kush was conquered and came under direct Egyptian rule in the early fifteenth century BC. At its peak, Kush controlled trade between Egypt and even beyond southern Nubia, amassing wealth that is still evident in the vast royal burial mounds (tumuli) at Kerma (see opposite). Some of these tumuli are almost a football field in size, filled with hundreds of human sacrifices and lavish funerary goods.
Egypt’s Nubian Empire (c. 1550–1070 BC)
Egypt’s kings began to retake control of Nubia in the early Eighteenth Dynasty (from c. 1550 BC), and by c. 1460 BC (reign of Thutmose III), Egypt had conquered all of Lower and Upper Nubia, including the Kingdom of Kush. Egypt’s Nubian empire lasted for almost five centuries before Egyptian rule there ended in the wake of the collapse of the New Kingdom and the subsequent fragmentation of Egypt during the Third Intermediary Period. While its empire lasted, Nubian tribute in gold and other African products (see left) made Egypt a byword for wealth throughout the ancient Near East.
Controlling this vast territory was difficult, however. Egypt had governed Nubia through a series of temple towns devoted primarily to local forms of the Theban god Amun; these would remain important political and religious centres throughout the rest of ancient Nubian history. Garrisons located at strategic points protected these towns and their Egyptianised local leaders whose collaboration was the key to maintaining Egyptian authority in Nubia.
The Kingdom of Napata (c. 750-542 BC)
The end of Egyptian rule allowed these same local leaders to pursue their own goals. Although the details are lost, George Reisner’s 1920s excavation of the royal cemetery at el-Kurru (near Napata) documented the gradual transformation of a series of regional chieftains into kings ruling the Upper Nile Valley in Egyptian style. The process began in the early ninth century BC with burials in Nubian-style tumulus tombs and ended in the late eighth century BC with Egyptian-style burials in pyramids.
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