Monday, November 19, 2012

An Egyptian Renaissance: The Kushite 25th Dynasty

An Egyptian Renaissance: The Kushite 25th Dynasty

by Dr. Lisa Swart

Far from being a cultural and geographic backwater, the Kushite 25th Dynasty created one of the largest empires along the Nile in ancient and medieval times. A dynasty of charismatic Kushite kings assumed Egyptian titles and postures for over a century. Their sovereignty over Egypt was acknowledged by the Egyptians, all while retaining their own unique identities. The Kushites not only united a previously fragmented Egypt, which had slid into political and economic decline, but reinvigorated Egyptian material culture with a blend of their own distinctive characteristics with Egyptian prototypes.


Extending south, along the Nile River from the First Cataract to the Shubaluqa Gorge (Sixth Cataract), is the land of Nubia. Today, this region is mostly located within the borders of modern Sudan, with a small portion crossing into southern Egypt. Known as Kush by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hebrews and Persians; and Ethiopia by the Greeks, Romans and 19th and early 20th century writers, it is one of only two African civilizations so far to have produced significant archaeological or written records from before 1000 CE (Depuydt, 1996: 531), However, even with rich Kushite archaeological remains along the course of the Nile Valley, compared with other great civilizations of the ancient world, relatively little is known about Nubia. Previously considered a geographical backwater, Nubia has been traditionally viewed with the flawed perception by scholars from within the shadow of the monolithic Egyptian empire. This opinion has its roots in the preconceptions of early African societies prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Confounding matters further, unlike Egypt, there is not an excess of textual artifacts, and of those found, many have been written in the undeciphered Meroitic language.

As ancient as its neighbour in the north, the history of Nubia is deeply interwoven with that of Egypt, a long-time rival, trading partner, colonial master, and subsequent colony. From obscure origins, the Kushite kings conquered and establised their domination over Egypt as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty during the mid-eighth century BCE. They ruled Egypt for over a century, until they were ousted by the Assyrians in the 650s BCE.

"Wretched Kush" - The Egyptian View of the Kushites

Long before the rise of classical maritime trade and Islamic trans-Saharan trade, Nubia provided the ancient Egyptians acces to the interior of Africa, and was therefore an economically strategic area - whoever controlled the middle Nile area, controlled the flow of goods from the south. Moreover, the lands of Kush contained vast mineral resources and good quality stone for building and sculpture. To the Egyptians, the greatest appeal was ivory, and the gold mines in the Wadi el Allaqi and Wadi Gabgaba. Thus, serving to focus the attention of Egyptian rulers southwards for millennia. These resources formed the backdrop, and set the scene for frequent bouts of heated rivalry for control of territory and trade routes. Therefore, the Nubians were considered a traditional enemy of the Egyptian state. In commemorative monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs, Kushites were referred to as "vile" and the land of Kush was known as "Wretched Kush" emphasizing the negative, foreign aspects of the Kushites. The "otherness" of the Nubians was always emphasized in traditional Egyptian artworks, and they were depicted with short, cropped hair, large lips, and dark brown skin. In art, the pharaoh was customarily shown either trampling his Nubian enemies, or smiting his enemies with a mace. A boundary stela of Senusret III from the Middle Kingdom denounces them for, "they are not people one respects; they are wretches, cravenhearted..."

An Ancient Rivalry - The Relationship Between Kush and Egypt

Interaction between the two civilizations dates to before the First Dynasty in Egypt, and the Egyptians undertook frequent trading trips to Kush during the Old Kingdom. For example, during the reign of Pharaoh Mernera (c. 2200 BCE), Harkhuf records that he made the first of four expeditions south, to a region he called Yam. Harkhuf mentions that on his third trip, he brought back three hundred donkeys laden with incense, ivory, ebony, leopard skins, and other exotic goods. He also brought Kushite warriors back with him from Yam to act as guards, or possibly to act as mercenary soldiers in Egypt (Shinnie, 1996:64). Massive consumer demand in Egypt, trade, and rich mineral reserves served to bolster the economy of the early civilization of Nubia. By the Third Millennium BCE (2400 BCE), a powerful state emerged along the trade routes, with the capital of Kerma, 50 kilometres south of the Third Cataract. It is speculated that this may have been the region called Yam that Harkhuf was describing. Egyptian penetration into Nubia during this era consisted of military raids and trade. However, by the reign of Amenemmes I (c. 2000 - 1970 BCE) in the Middle Kingdom, there were military campaigns and incursions to "overthrow" the Wawat (the Egyptian name for Lower Nubia). Nevertheless, Upper Nubia remained independent, developing into a powerful Nubian kingdom. By the end of the Middle Kingdom (1700 BCE), Egyptian occupation came to an end, and Upper Nubia gained control of Lower Nubia shortly thereafter.

After the consolidation of power after the defeat and expulsion of the foreign Hyksos kings from Egypt, attention was once again focused south, with the Egyptian monarchs determined to take over full control of Nubia. The Kushite Kingdom was crushed by Thutmosis I and Thutmosis III during the New Kingdom. This occupation was done in pure colonial style, by the imposition of direct rule in the form of an Egyptian viceroy for the next five hundred years. Egyptian occupation left a permanent impression on the Kushites, with the inhabitants becoming increasingly acculturated and Egyptianized.

By the end of the New Kingdom, c. 1086 BCE, the Kushite Kingdom saw a reversal in political fortune with the decline in economic and political power of the Egyptian kings. Due to civil strife, famine, and economic depression in Egypt, the rulers of Egypt gradually lost control of their southern territories and abandoned Nubia. After 1000 BCE, Egypt was fragmented into eleven separate states ruled by regional kings many of foreign descent, commonly termed the Twenty-second, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth Dynasties. By 900 BCE, the power vacuum left by the Egyptians was filled by a rapidly growing, strong, centralized Nubian Kingdom, giving rise to the Kushite rulers of the 25th Dynasty. The strength of this dynasty is evidenced by the sheer magnitude of their kingdom, comprising of Southern, Lower and Upper Nubia, and all of Egypt, "creating the largest state ever found along the Lower Nile River in ancient and medieval times" (O'Connor, 1993:71).

Egypt on the Eve of the Kushite Invasion

During the late 20th Dynasty, Egypt sustained persistent incursions from the Sea People, and the Libyan tribes from the Western desert, such as the Mesh-Wesh and the Libu. The Egyptians ultimately defeated the invaders but, during the final years of the Twentieth Dynasty, the country fell into a state of steady decline. The Libyans, especially the Mesh-Wesh had gradually filtered into Egypt, where they were hired as mercenaries in the Egyptian army. Later, they succeeded in accumulating considerable authority within the Egyptian power structure.

Weakened by the influx of the new settlers, Egypt's earlier hold on her neighbours loosened; and the economy appears to have simultaneously deteriorated. At this time, the economy was severely undermined by bad harvests which led to famine and this, in turn, encouraged extensive criminality and corruption. The succeeding rulers, Ramesses IV to Ramesses XI presided over a weakening state after failing to establish a strong central auhority in the face of the ongoing discord both within Egypt and beyond her borders. The reign of Ramesses XI (c. 1098 - 1069 BCE), the last Ramesside ruler, was characterized by a civil war with Panehsy, the viceroy of Nubia, who was vying for control of the Theban area. Ramesses XI responded by sending General Piankh, who waged a succesful campaign against the southern upstart. The conflict weakened the Egyptian economy further, consequently ending the Egyptian occupation of Nubia. Accordingly, the failure to restore Nubia as a colony resulted in the loss of control of important resources from sub-Saharan Africa. By the beginning of the 21st Dynasty, Egypt was politically divided in two, with the legitimate lineage of kings ruling from Tanis and army commanders in the south, who functioned simultaneously as the high priests of Amun establishing their own "line" at Thebes.

Due to the growing military and political efficiency of the Libyan settlers towards the end of the New Kingdom, the Libyan chiefs were able to secure positions of local influence, as they had been rewarded with land for their services and were promoted to high positions within the government. The initial decentralization of government during the 21st Dynasty also contributed to the growth of provincial power bases. As a result, local dynasties of Libyan chieftains, the descendants of the settlers of the Late New Kingdom, were able to increase their autonomy. Consequently, a number of principalities developed, each based at an important town, and at each strategic point controlled by a Libyan chief.

Consequently, it was no surprise that shortly after marching his army into Thebes, Shoshenq I (c. 945 - 924 BCE) a powerful Libyan dynast from the north, proclaimed himself pharaoh with the divine approval of the oracle of Amun. Thus, successfully founding the 22nd Dynasty, also known as the Bubastid Dynasty after the city of Bubastis, which functioned as the principal centre of the goddess, Bastet.

Under the Bubastid Dynasty, Egypt was united once again, and the title "Lord of Two Lands" once more applied to the ruler. The reunited Egyptian empire developed into a strong political and military power. However, after nearly a century of stability, new generations of Libyan commanders sprang up in the important administrative and religious centres, each vying for a piece of the crown. The successors of the 22nd Dynasty tried to unify the realm, but the regrowth of the provincial power bases increasingly weakened royal control, and once again led to the division of the country. By the eighth century, there were numerous kings in the country, with the 22nd to the 25th Dynasty ruling simultaneously. The deteriorated state of kingship and the priesthood of Amun paved the way for the subsequent Kushite invasion into Egypt.

The Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty Kings and the Renaissance in Egypt

The Kushite Dynasty comprised of some forty kings ruling in succession from the vicinity of Napata, hence the designation "Napatan" to describe this time period. The initial kings, buried in the el Kurru cemetery near Napata, were shadowy figures originating from murky origins that have been lost to time. The first king mentioned by name and known only from later texts is Alara. His descendants invoked his name as the founder of the royal dynasty of Kush in their royal inscriptions, most likely as a means of conferring legitimacy to their own reigns. Not much is known about Alara himself, and it is postulated that he was possibly the brother of Kashta, a better attested Kushite king, and successor to the Kushite throne. Congruently, Kashta's successors also recorded his name in their inscriptions as the founder of the Kushite Empire extending from Upper Egypt to Butana. This tantalizing claim is maintained by three artifacts, which record his name in a royal cartouche (the Egyptian convention of designating royalty in written form): a fragment of an offering table, a stela fragment from Elephantine, and a metal aegis with counterweight. On the stela, Kashta claimed to be the "King of Upper and Lower Egypt... Son of Re, Lord of the Two Lands". This traditional Egyptian royal epithet referred to the union of Upper and Lower Egypt in the early Dynastic Period, and was still utilized by the Kushite kings centuries after the Kushite occupation of Egypt had ended.

It is not known whether this incursion into Egypt was an aggressive undertaking or peaceful undertaking on Kashta's part. Torok (1995:50) has put forward a possibility that Kashta was encouraged by some elite Theban citizens to come to Upper Egypt, and offered him kingship of Egypt (this is not a rare event and is attested to more recently in the Glorious Revolution in England). Kashta's claim to the Egyptian throne is evidenced on the iconography of the counterweight. Here, Kashta is depicted as being suckled by the goddess, Mut. Known to scholars as the "allaiment royal", this scene was employed exclusively by the Egyptian rulers in their enthronement rites and legitimization of kingship.

Whatever inroads Kashta made into establishing control over southern Egypt, authority of Egypt was firmly cemented under Kashta's son, Piye, some twenty years later. For posterity, Piye recorded his military conquest of Egypt in hieroglyphs on his granite "Victory Stela" at Gebel Barkal, and had reliefs carved in the second court of the Temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal. The records state that in the twentieth year of his reign, he crushed an incursion led by Prince Tefnakhte from Lower Egypt. He led his army north to Thebes, stopping to worship at the temples of Amun, and advanced further to Hermopolis where he captured the town and its ruler, Nimlot. Piye, a Kushite and traditionally one of the enemies of the Egyptian state, now ruled over a vast kingdom. It appears that he viewed his conquest, not as an invasion of a foreign country, but as a campaign to restore Egypt back to the status quo.

Piye's younger brother, Shabaqo succeeded him on the throne, fought campaigns against the factious Saite kings of northern Egypt, and installed himself as king in Memphis, the capital of Egypt at the time. The Kushite sovereignty of Egypt was clearly recognized as legitimate in the international arena, with the Kushites establishing diplomatic and trade relationships with the Assyrian Empire in the East. Assyrian cylinder seals bearing Shabaqo's name from the time of Sargon II have been excavated in Assyria. His successor, Shebitku, is also mentioned in an Assyrian inscription of Sargon II. Monument building reached great heights under Taharqa, who became the next ruler in c. 690 BCE. His building projects approached the scale of Ramesses II and he constructed monuments all over Kush and Egypt; fragments of his statues have also been found in Assyria.

Not only did the new Kushite rulers have political bonds with Egypt, they enthusiastically revived the religious, intellectual, and cultural achievements of the Egyptians. "Piye's successors left behind many constructions in Egypt, especially in the Theban region, where they renovated and enlarged existing temples, and built new structures of a smaller size" (Brooklyn Museum, 1978: 45). The vision and undertakings of these rulers in Nubia and Egypt exhibit the features of a renaissance after a long period of stagnation. In this case, due to the dissolution of a centralized Egyptian state at the end of the New Kingdom.

Emulation and Innovation

Throughout their history, the Kushites had turned to Egypt for inspiration. Twenty-fifth Dynasty Kushite architecture, artworks, ritual practices, and worship of Egyptian deities followed the same time-honoured Egyptian practices laid down centuries before. To this point, it has been argued by a few scholars that the Kushites did not conquer Egypt as barbarians, but as champions of the age-old traditions of the pharaohs. With direct access to an artistic tradition dating back two millennia, they also had the wealth and skilled artists at their disposal (Wellsby, 1996: 177). The Kushite rulers judiciously edited and sewed together texts and iconography, in a style distinguished by archaizing tendencies. The tendency to draw inspiration from the Old Kingdom's artistic tradition has often created confusion on the dating of certain artworks on stylistic grounds. Why they turned to the Old Kingdom for inspiration is not known. The early Kushite kings, Piye, Shabaqo, Shebitku, Taharqo and Tanwetemani, created archives of Egyptian writings that were regularly augmented in Napata, and most likely other major temples in the country. The process of selection of aspects of the Egyptian civilization points to a discerning and innovative attitude toward Egyptian culture.

It is not known how much indigenous Kushite culture was changed by their occupation of Egypt due to the lack of knowledge about the earlier material culture of the Kushites. The Kushite pharaohs are credited with bringing back a renewed vigour to Egyptian art, and inspiring the development of a new and more humanistic style. In a style termed "brutal realism", the portraits of individuals are depicted realistically in a "warts-and-all-approach"with balding heads, wrinkles, and bags under the eyes. The amalgamation of reality with the traditional Egyptian canon of representation led to a lack of stylistic unity, local variations dependent upon the artists' interpretation of a wide selection of themes at their disposal. However, a distinct Kushite-type representation was developed in the rounded face, high cheekbones, pronounced folds, at the corners of the nose (the Kushite folds), thick lips, and often coupled with an emphasis on the musculature of the body.

The Kushite rulers stayed true to their southern origins, integrating and clothing them in Egyptian structures. They seemed to revel in their foreignness, and had their southern features naturalistically depicted. In paintings, their skin tone was depicted darker than that of the Egyptians and in sculpture, the lips are frequently represented thick and swollen, with a thick cylindrical neck characteristic of Kushite art. Employing Egyptian symbols of kingship, they intermingled their own indigenous iconography, and while adopting Egyptian titularly and postures. In royal representations, most notably, the skullcap crown was a typical Nubian symbol of authority. The Nubian cap was depicted as encircled by a headband, with a pair of streamers hanging from the back. Two uraei (spitting cobras) were often hung from the back.

Very little remains of secular architecture, so no formal analysis can be conducted. Temple architecture was often based on Egyptian prototypes, but with variations in their decoration. In Taharqo's temple built at Qasr Ibrim, fragments of wall paintings were excavated. This in itself is unique, as temples were typically decorated in relief sculpture. Aspects of royal and elite mortuary culture were heavily impacted by Egyptian traditions during this time. All the 25th Dynasty kings were buried beneath steep sided pyramids connected to a small mortuary temple, and Piye and his descendants were all buried in Egyptian-style coffins. Piye's funerary ensemble consisted of a wooden coffin with Egyptian-style shabtis and dummy-canopic jars, all contemporary with Egyptian non-royal funerary customs. However, it must be noted that all Kushite kings were buried in Nubia.


The reign of the great Taharqa saw the beginning of the end of Kushite domination of Egypt, when the Assyrians advanced towards Egypt, ending all diplomatic relations.

With the advent of war, the Kushites won but a brief respite, and renewed fighting broke out against King Esarhaddon of Assyria after three years. This time, the Assyrian army took control of Memphis, and Taharqa withdrew to the south, however, members of his family were captured and taken hostage. The provincial rulers who had been suppressed by the Kushites became vassals of the Assyrians. After two campaigns to take back Memphis, Taharqa was driven out and died. After a brief stint in Napata to establish his newly gained authority in Kush, Tanwetamani, Taharqa's successor, launched a campaign and successfully recaptured Memphis, albeit for a short time. In 661 BCE, Assurbanipal, the new Assyrian king, sent a new military force against him, recaptured Memphis, and annihilated Thebes. A new vassal pharaoh was subsequently installed at Sais. From this point, Tanwetamani's actions and responses become murky, and not much more is known about him. It does appear that there was a Kushite presence in Upper Egypt until at least the 590s BCE when conflict between the Kushites and Saites broke out and all connections were dissolved. The Kushite culture continued uninterrupted for the next few centuries and continued to produce great monuments and works of art in Nubia. Thus, it can be seen that the intellectual and cultural achievements of the 25th Dynasty were abundant, with the Kushite rulers blending their own indigenous style with that of Egyptian exemplars.

With the rise of the Kushite Dynasty, Egypt was once again united, politically and culturally. Through the integration and implementation of Egyptian culture, Egypt gained a fresh stimulus, and experienced a renaissance in arts and architecture.

Further Reading:

Brooklyn Museum. Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan. Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum. (1978)

Depuydt, L. Review of Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. By David O'Connor. Philadelphia: The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 1993. Journal of the American Oriental Society 116.3 (1196). 531-532.

Edwards, D. The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan. London: Routledge. (2004).

Mysliwiec, K. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt, First Millennium BCE. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (2000).

O'Connor, D. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (1993).

Redford, D. From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press. (2004).

Tyson Smith, S. Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt's Nubian Empire. London: Routledge. (2003).

Shinnie, P.L. Ancient Nubia. London: Kegan Paul International. (1996).

Török, L. The Birth of an African Kingdom: Kush and Her Myth of the State in the First Millennium BC. Lille: Université Charles-de-Gaulle. (1995).

Wellsby, D. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: The British Museum Press. (1996).

Source: ANCIENTPLANET, Vol. 3, 2012


  1. Im' a self proclaimed Historian. I don't claim to know all. But I can without a dout profess to being the go gracies of my ancestoral heritiage. All those who were murdered dont' cry out for revenge or justice. Their spirits lives in those of US who are willing to fight kill and die for human dignity. WE in The Kingdom Of Kush are SOUL-DIER and a SOUL-DIER NEVER DIES. Amun-YAH. Thank you for being a SOUL-DIER. I'm Poppa-P

  2. You are obviously a westerner interpreting Egypt and africa through your clouded conflict ridden mentality. Your world is built on violence and so can't imagine a harmonious africa where people lived in Harmony before the dawn of the dark Ages of European Greed, War and Destruction. Your thesis professes to the insanity that you have inherited and continue to propagate.

  3. why is the 25th dynasty not shown at the C
    airo museum?