[koosh, kuhsh]
Kush: see Cush.

Kush civilization centered in the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, and the confluence of the River Atbara and Nile in what is now the Republic of Sudan. One of the earliest civilizations to develop in the Nile River Valley, the Kushite state was formed before a period of Egyptian incursion into the area. The Kushite civilization has also been referred to as Nubia. It is also referred to as Ethiopia in ancient Greek and Roman records. According to Josephus and other classical writers, the Kushite Empire covered all of Africa, and some parts of Asia and Europe at one time or another. The Kushites are also famous for having buried their monarchs along with all their courtiers in mass graves. The Kushites also built burial mounds and pyramids, and shared some of the same gods worshipped in Egypt, especially Amon and Isis.


The first cultures arose in Sudan before the time of a unified Egypt, and the most widespread is known as the Kerma civilization. It is through Egyptian, Hebrew, Roman and Greek records that most of our knowledge of Kush (Cush) comes.

25 Dynasty

In Egypt, Libyan princes had taken control of the delta under Shoshenq I in 945, founding the so-called Libyan or Bubastite dynasty that would rule for some 200 years. Sheshonq also gained control of southern Egypt by placing his family members in important priestly positions. However, Libyan control began to erode as a rival dynasty in the delta arose in Leontopolis, and Kushites threatened from the south. Around 727 BC the Kushite king Piye invaded northward, seizing control of Thebes and eventually the Delta.. His dynasty, the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt, continued until about 653 BC. The 25th dynasty was based at Napata in what is now The Sudan.

Alara is universally regarded as the founder of the 25th Kushite dynasty by his successors. The power of the 25th Dynasty reached a climax under the pharaohs Piye and Taharka. Starting from the reign of Taharqa onward, the kings of this dynasty were driven back into Nubia, at first by the Assyrians, then by the kings of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. Taharka's successor, the pharaoh Tantamani was defeated by Assyria in 664 BC. Thereafter, the Kushite Empire's power over Egypt declined and terminated in 656 BC when Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 BC the Egyptians under Psamtik II invaded Kush, possibly because Kush ruler Aspelta was preparing to invade Egypt, and effectively sacked and burned Napata. The Kushites then moved their capital city to Meroe, which was more defensible than Napata.

Move to Meroë

It is clear from various historical records that Aspelta's successors moved their capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata. The exact date this change was made is uncertain but some historians believe it was during Aspelta's reign, in response to the Egyptian invasion of Lower Nubia. One reason for the move is that Napata was militarily strategic and lacked natural defenses. Napata was located at the narrowest crossing point on the Nile and was largely a temple and market city.

Other historians believe it was the attraction of iron working that drove the Kushites to move their capital south to Meroë, unlike Napata, there were large forests that could fire the blast furnaces. The arrival of Greek merchants throughout the region also meant that Kush was no longer dependent on trade along the Nile. Instead, it could export its goods to the Red Sea and the Greek trading colonies there.

No royal residence has been found north of Meroë and it is possible Napata had always been the religious centre of the Kushite empire, but was never fortified. However, Napata clearly remained an important center, with the kings and candaces being crowned and buried there for many centuries, even when they lived at Meroë.

In about 300 B.C. the move to Meroë was made more complete when the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. One theory is that this represents the monarchs breaking away from the power of the priests at Napata. Diodorus Siculus tells a story about a Meroitic ruler named Ergamenes who was ordered by the priests to kill himself, but broke tradition and had the priests executed instead. Some historians think Ergamenes refers to Arrakkamani, the first ruler to be buried at Meroë. However, a more likely transliteration of Ergamenes is Arqamani, who ruled many years after the royal cemetery was opened at Meroë. Another theory is that the capital had always been based at Meroë.

Kushite civilisation continued for several centuries. In the Napatan Period Egyptian hieroglyphs were used: at this time writing seems to have been restricted to the court and temples. From the second century BC there was a separate Meroitic writing system. This was an alphabetic script with 23 signs used in a hieroglyphic form (mainly on monumental art) and in a cursive form. The latter was widely used; so far some 1278 texts using this version are known (Leclant 2000). The script was deciphered by Griffith, but the language behind it is still a problem, with only a few words understood by modern scholars. It is not as yet possible to connect the Meroitic language with other known languages.

Strabo describes a war with the Romans in the first century B.C. After initial victories upon Candace Amanirenas attacked Roman Egypt, the Kushites were defeated and Napata sacked. They succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty on favourable terms.

In 70 AD, the ruler of the Kushite Empire was named Amanikhatashan. Kushite cavalry was aided the Romans in the capture of Jerusalem during the Great Jewish Revolt at this time.

The kingdom of Meroë began to fade as a power by the first or second century AD, sapped by the war with the Roman province of Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries.


The decline of Kush is a hotly debated topic. A diplomatic mission in Nero's reign travelled to Meroë; (Pliny the Elder, N.H. 6.35). After the second century AD the royal tombs began to shrink in size and splendor, and the building of large monuments seems to have ceased. The royal pyramid burials halted altogether in the middle of the fourth century AD. The archeological record shows a cultural shift to a new society known as the X-Group, or Ballana culture.

This corresponds closely to the traditional theory that the kingdom was destroyed by the invasion by Ezana of Axum from the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum around 340. However, the Ethiopian account seems to be describing the quelling of a rebellion in lands they already controlled. It also refers only to the "Noba," (in Latin "Nobatae") and makes no mention of the rulers of Meroë.

The last ruler of Meroë was a man known as Sect Lie; his exact name has been lost. Not much is known about him, but a few stories still survive in folk telling. Apparently he was a strongly disliked man, who lusted for gold and women. This possibly helped cause the invasion of Meroë.

Apparently his behavior displeased the people to the point that they rebelled and took control of the area. Also it is not quite sure where his tomb is. Some say that it has disappeared in history, that it has either been destroyed or plundered.

Many historians theorize that these Nuba are the same people the Romans called the Nobatae. Procopius reports that when the Roman empire withdrew from northern Nubia in 272, they invited the Nobatae to fill the power vacuum.

The other important elements were the Blemmyes, likely ancestors of the Beja. They were desert warriors who threatened the Roman possessions and thereby contributed to the Roman withdrawal to more defensible borders. At the end of the fourth century AD they had managed to control a part of the Nile valley around Kalabsha in Lower Nubia.

By the sixth century, new states had formed in the area once been controlled by Meroë. It seems almost certain that the Nobatae evolved into the state of Nobatia, and were also behind the Ballana culture and the two other states that arose in the area, Makuria and Alodia were also quite similar. The Beja meanwhile were expelled back into the desert by the Nuba kings around 450 AD. These new states of Nubia inherited much of Kush, but were also quite different. They spoke Old Nubian and wrote in a modified version of the Coptic alphabet; Meroitic and its script seemed to disappear completely. Unlike their predecessors, they were armed with weapons that far surpassed Kush technology.

The origin of the Nuba/Nobatae who replaced Meroë is uncertain. They may have been nomadic invaders from the west who conquered and imposed their culture and language on the settled peoples. P.L. Shinnie has speculated that the Nobatae were in fact indigenous and were natives of the Napata region who had been dominated by Meroitic leaders for centuries, and that the word Nobatae is directly related to Napata.

In the Bible

The name given this civilization comes from the Old Testament where Cush (Hebrew: כוש) was one of the sons of Ham (Genesis 10:6) who settled in Northeast Africa. In the Bible and at different times in the ancient world, a large region covering northern Sudan, modern day southern Egypt, and parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia were known as "Cush". The Hebrew Bible refers to "Cush" on a number of occasions, though various English translations translate this as "Nubian", "Ethiopia", "Sudan", and "Cushite" (Unseth 1999). Moses wife, Tzipporah, is described as a Kushite in the book of Numbers 12:1. Some contend that this Cush was in southern Arabia. See Biblical Cush for a full discussion. All of this is complicated by the fact that the Septuagint translated "Cush" as "Aethiopia", leading to the misleading conclusion that "Cush" should be equated with the borders of present day "Ethiopia". Cain Hope Felder, in the introduction to his The Original African Heritage Study Bible has argued that "Cush" should always be translated as simply "Africa".

See also



  • Jean Leclant. "The empire of Kush: Napata and Meroe" UNESCO General History of Africa
  • A. Hakem with I. Hrbek and J. Vercoutter. "The civilization of Napata and Meroe" UNESCO General History of Africa
  • P.L. Shinnie. "The Nilotic Sudan and Ethiopia c. 660 BC to c. AD 600" Cambridge History of Africa - Volume 2 Cambridge University Press, 1978.
  • Unseth, Peter. 1999. Hebrew kush: “Sudan”, “Ethiopia”, or what? Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 18.2: 143-159.

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