The 25th dynasty
The Nubian Conquest of Egypt: 1080-650 BC
Egyptian control over Nubia lapsed after the death of Ramesses II (ca.
1224 BC), just as the pharaoh's control over Egypt itself began
to wane. In the early eleventh century BC Egypt split into two semi-autonomous
domains: Lower Egypt was governed by the pharaoh, and the much larger
tract of Upper Egypt was governed in the name of the god Amun by his
high priest at Thebes. Nubia's last imperial viceroy, Panehesy ("The
Nubian") became a renegade by waging war against the Theban high
priests who were themselves military commanders seeking to extend their
authority southward. By early Dynasty 21, most of Lower Nubia had become
a no-man's land. Upper Nubia (the northern Sudan) became independent
under authorities unknown.
From the meager data available, it would appear that those who ultimately
gained control in Upper Nubia were people who had been little influenced
by Egyptian culture. The old centers of the New Kingdom show poor continuity
of occupation, and their temples became derelict.
Not until Dynasty 22 are African products again listed among gifts
dedicated to Amun of Karnak by an Egyptian king. The donor, Sheshonq
I (ca. 945-924 BC), and his successor Osorkon I (ca. 924-889 BC)
are also said in the Bible to have employed Kushite mercenaries and
officers in their campaigns against Judah. Assyrian texts of the later
ninth century further note that the pharaohs were sending African products
to the Assyrian kings. Such evidence suggests that the Egyptians during
this period had re-established trade relations with the far south, but
they never reveal with whom they were dealing. One can only assume that
from the tenth century on one or more dominant chiefdoms had emerged
in Nubia - again, as in the case of Kerma centuries before, beginning
a process of material, cultural, and political enrichment through commerce
The history of Kush begins again with the royal tombs at el-Kurru,
the earliest of which were rough stone circular structures, reminiscent
of C-Group graves. Rapidly, however, these round tombs became small
steep-sided pyramids; the narrow burial pits became spacious chambers;
and the dead were mummified and laid in coffins. Why the chiefs buried
here abandoned their native customs and suddenly embraced the Egyptian
- and the Egyptian Amun cult - remains unclear, but the process was
sure and swift. The possibility that they were being missionized by
expatriate Amun priests from Thebes - refugees from the civil war of
the reign of Takelot II (ca. 850-825 BC) - seems likely.
The first of the el-Kurru chiefs known by name is Alara (ca. 785-760
BC), who seems to have been accorded special status by his descendants
as the inaugurator of a new age. We may suspect that it was Alara who
first united all of Upper Nubia into a single political entity. He was
followed by Kashta (ca. 760-747 BC), who conquered all of Lower Nubia
and first assumed the title of Pharaoh: "King of Upper and Lower
Egypt. " This meant that he ranked himself an equal with the contemporary
co-reigning kings of Dynasties 22 and 23 in Egypt.
Aerial view of the Great Temple
of Amun, Gebel Barkal
Kashta's death brought to the throne one of the most remarkable characters
in the history of the Nile Valley. This was Piye, formerly known as
"Piankhy." His reign (ca. 743-712 BC) is reconstructed primarily
from two stelae set up inside the great temple of Amun (B 500) at Gebel Barkal.
On one he proclaimed himself king of Egypt and "of all
lands" by joint authority of Amun of Thebes and Amun of Napata.
At the top of Piye's monument, however, it is the ram-headed Amun of
Napata who is shown handing Piye the crowns of Egypt and Kush. The accompanying
text reveals that while Piye tolerated the existence of other kings
in Lower Egypt, he considered his own kingship, granted by the god of
Gebel Barkal, to give him emperor status over them all. Soon after his
reign began he was able to install his sister Amenirdis into the office
of high priestess ("God's Wife") of Amun at Karnak, which
gave his family political control of southern Egypt.
Kushite control of the Thebaid was not long to be tolerated by the
ruling families of Lower Egypt. By Piye's 20th year they had formed
an aggressive military alliance, led by a chief named Tefnakht. Piye's
famous second stela, now in Cairo and dated to his year 21, describes
in magniloquent prose his campaign northward to put an end to the "rebellion"
and describes how he achieved an even more remarkable success. After
receiving the surrender of Hermopolis in Middle Egypt, and taking Memphis
by storm, he received oaths of fealty and tribute from all his humbled
adversaries. The stela is especially interesting in revealing some unusual
royal personality traits: he sought to avoid bloodshed; he forgave his
enemies; and he made special devotions to the gods of the northern towns
fallen to his arms. Despite his victory, Piye had no interest in consolidating
his rule over the north; he was content merely to control the Thebaid
and the western desert oases. He thus withdrew again to Napata to proclaim
his triumphs and to memorialize them on the walls of his new temple.
There is a wonderful irony in the surviving remnants of Piye's art.
Here is a native Nubian prince, whose ancestors were once depicted trodden
beneath the sandals of Egyptian pharaohs, who has now become Pharaoh
himself, a brother king to Thutmose III and Ramses II - whose throne
names he adopted and used interchangeably throughout his reign. He employed
master Egyptian sculptors to depict his conquest of Lower Egypt just
as pharaohs of an earlier age might have depicted a victory over Asiatics,
Libyans, Hittites, Sea Peoples, or even Kushites. The cities falling
to his armies are not in Palestine or Syria but in Egypt. The kings
bowing at his feet are Egyptian, as are the treasures seized from them.
Yet strangely, throughout, Piye presents himself as the reincarnation
of the great pharaohs and the devoted servant of Amun and all the Egyptian
Temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal
One of the walls in B 500 depicts Piye's Heb-Sed, the ancient Egyptian
30-year festival by which the pharaoh was thought to renew his powers.
From these scenes we may suspect that the king ruled a minimum of thirty
years - or at least anticipated doing so. Upon his death, he was buried
beside his ancestors, beneath a modest pyramid at el-Kurru, now with
a subterranean chamber accessed by staircase. It was a tomb type that
would remain in use, in one form or another, by Piye's successors for
the next ten centuries. Besides tombs for his major and minor wives,
he also provided tombs for four of his horses, which were buried side
by side, standing up and facing east. Burying horses - sometimes up
to eight at a time in neighboring individual tombs - was a custom continued
by each of Piye's successors at el-Kurru.
The earliest Dynasty 25 state organization in Nubia is poorly known.
Like the kingship, it was probably set up to mirror the Egyptian. Upper
Nubia was apparently divided into "nomes," ruled by "nomarchs,"
who, like the generals of the army and the religious elite, were probably
all members of the royal family. Already by the reign of Piye, the principal
towns of Upper Nubia were well established - Pnubs, Kawa, Sanam, Napata,
and Meroe - and each would have had its modest shrines to Amun and other
Egyptian deities in their Nubian forms. However, the people, both agriculturalists
and nomadic pastoralists, were only marginally Egyptianized - if Egyptianized
at all. The few excavated cemeteries of this era reveal a population
utilizing both Egyptian and Nubian burial customs simultaneously.
After Piye's death, his Lower Egyptian "vassals" again erupted
into rebellion, and his successor, a brother named Shabaqo, reinvaded
to maintain control. It is Shabaqo rather than Piye whom the classical
historians remembered as the founder of the 25th Dynasty, doubtless
because he was the first of his line to take up permanent residence
in Egypt. At this point, the kings moved to Memphis; they became fully
Egyptianized and cosmopolitanized; and, as far as we know, they returned
to their homeland only for burial. If they have traditionally been portrayed
by historians as "foreigners" in Egypt, they surely did not
perceive themselves as such, despite their different ethnic, cultural
and linguistic origin. In their minds Egypt and Kush were northern and
southern halves of an ancient original domain of Amun. These two lands,
they believed, had been united in mythological times; subsequently they
grew apart, to be united again in historical times only by the greatest
pharaohs. As "sons" of Amun, the Napatan monarchs saw themselves
as heirs of those pharaohs, who thus became their "ancestors."
Shabaqo (ca. 716-702 BC) and his successors Shebitqo (ca. 702-690
BC) and Taharqa (690-664 BC) believed they were the god's representatives
- from his southern pole - chosen to unite and protect his ancient empire
and to restore ma'at - truth, order, and propriety in the Egyptian sense
- throughout the land.
In their search for religious and cultural purity, the Napatan kings
developed a keen interest in all ancient Egyptian ideals, rituals and
traditions, especially those that had fallen into disuse - and they
tried to revive them, even reinvent them. They attempted to archaize
the written - if not the spoken - language. They encouraged the state
artisans to draw their inspiration from the masterworks of the Old and
Middle Kingdoms. They also revived the pyramid as proper royal tomb
type. They undertook extensive renovations and renewals of ancient temples
the entire length and breadth of their empire, and they poured their
energies into making over Egypt's decadent present into the image of
her glorious past.
Head of King Taharqa
wearing the "cap crown"
It has always seemed fascinating to us that, for all their Egyptianization,
the Kushites made no attempt to conceal their Nubian ethnicity in art
or to hide or alter their Nubian names. Equally un-Egyptian in appearance
was the king's costume. The preferred crown was a kind of tight-fitting
head-cap ("cap crown") to which were affixed two uraei (cobra
diadems) rather than the usual single uraeus worn by Egyptian kings.
Often, this was accompanied by a distinctive cord necklace, which wound
once about the neck and left the ends to fall forward over the shoulders.
Ram-head pendants, representing the face of the Napatan Amun, were fastened
to it at the throat and from each end. Identical pendants were sometimes
worn as earrings. Also distinct from Egyptian custom was the method
by which the royal successor was chosen. In Egypt he was normally the
eldest surviving son of the king; in Kush he was chosen from among the
previous king's living brothers, sons, cousins or nephews - officially
by an oracle of the god. Just as the Egyptian kings seven centuries
earlier had identified Gebel Barkal as the source of their kingship,
so did the Kushites identify it as the source of theirs and so justified
their own rule over Egypt as the continuity of the rule of the New Kingdom
pharaohs. They could prove themselves possessors of the original - and
long-lost - form of kingship, which no other dynasty of their time possessed.
Their era, thus, would be conceived as a renaissance of the First Time,
in which all aspects of the antique had to be revered and revived.
Taharqa's reign of twenty-six years was the most glorious of the dynasty.
A son of Piye by a minor wife, he came to Egypt as a youth. After a
distinguished career in the army, he succeeded to the throne of Shebitqo
in 690 BC at the age of about 32. In his first decade, he won significant
military victories over Libyan and Asian peoples, controlled the western
oases and established an Egyptian sphere of influence over the Phoenician
port cities and Philistia. He was also the most prolific and original
builder of his age.
Taharqa's misfortunes came in the latter half of his reign. His two
predecessors had provoked the Assyrian kings by conspiring with the
petty rulers of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Judah to block their military
advance to the east. The effort had been futile. By 674 BC the Assyrians
had brought all of Taharqa's vassals into submission and focused their
wrath on Egypt itself, invading almost annually and finally forcing
Taharqa in 669, after losing his army, his capital, his treasure, his
chief wife and sons to the enemy, to withdraw ignominiously to Napata,
where he had probably not been since his adolescence. Within five years
he was dead.
Taharqa's nephew and successor Tanwetamani (ca. 664-656 BC), a son
of Shabaqo, was able to re-enact successfully the achievement of his
father and uncle, reconquering Egypt one more time in 663 BC, but
the Assyrians returned the following year with a vengeance to drive
him and his dynasty from Egypt for the last time. The Assyrian sacking
of Thebes was a disaster from which the Egyptian Amun cult never fully
recovered. The subsequent seizure of Upper Egypt by the Saite rulers
- Assyrian collaborators - must have been perplexing events for the
Kushite theologians and galling events for the rulers, who were now
exiled in Napata.
The Napatan State: Nubia as an Egyptian-style Kingdom: 660-300 BC
After the expulsion of the Kushite court from Egypt, the royal family
regrouped in Nubia and consolidated its hold over all their lands south
of Egypt. Although their armies were too weakened to attempt another
assault on the north, the kings merely ignored their new rivals of Dynasty
26 and continued to use all the proper Egyptian royal titles, steadfastly
maintaining that they were still the true kings of Egypt... By the late
seventh century, the continued pretensions of the Kushites to the Egyptian
throne must have become almost intolerable to the new Egyptian kings.
Thus in 593 BC, with an army composed largely of Greek and Carian
mercenaries, the pharaoh Psammeticus II invaded Kush, met and destroyed
a Kushite army at the Third Cataract, and marched on unopposed to Napata,
finally sacking and burning the city and destroying the palace and Gebel
Barkal sanctuary. The Kushite king Aspelta (ca. 600-580 BC) probably
fled to Meroe for safety, but after Aspelta our historical records become
very scarce and our knowledge of historical events in Kush becomes very
The 250 year period in Nubia following the Kushite occupation of Egypt
has traditionally been known as the "Napatan Period," since
it used to be thought that during this period the capital of the kingdom
lay at Napata, beside Gebel Barkal. It is now generally assumed that
Napata may never have been more than the religious center of the kingdom,
while the political capital may always have been at Meroë, about
170 miles to the southeast. Throughout this period, however, all the
royal burials took place in the Napata district - at Nuri, about 6 miles
north-east of Gebel Barkal and within sight of it, and on the opposite
side of the river. The term "Napatan", however, defines the
era of Kushite culture when it looked to Egypt for all inspiration,
rather slavishly followed Egyptian models in art, architecture, and
burial practices, and when royal inscriptions were written only in the
Egyptian language with Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. All of this, in
fact, may have been religiously inspired and dictated by the powerful
priesthood of Amun at Gebel Barkal. During these centuries, in fact,
the entire official state culture may have been held hostage to the
imagined requirements of the god Amun, dictated by the priesthood, and
prevented from any change that departed from the age-old Egyptian norm.
They apparently believed that by following rigidly the antique practices
and rituals of Egyptian-style kingship, supposedly granted by the gods
to both Kush and Egypt in the mythological past, the kingdom would continue
to be favored by the gods and would one day resume its rightful hegemony
over the entire Nile Valley. Although the royal inscriptions of the
period are not many, and little or nothing is known of most of the kings,
the surviving texts are interesting in revealing that the kings travelled
to Napata for their coronations and to consult the famous oracle of
Amun there on the affairs of state; they also made periodic journeys
of state to visit and make offerings to all the sanctuaries in the kingdom.
Additionally, the kings also waged wars against the nomad tribes of
the desert and the peoples of the south. Most of the time, the kings
dwelt in a god-like seclusion at Meroe and upon their deaths, they were
brought to Nuri and buried in huge pyramid tombs.
Pyramids at Nuri
The most important surviving monuments of the Napatan Period are the
royal pyramids at Nuri. The cemetery was founded by Taharqa, and it
was used by nineteen of his successors and fifty-four queens. Only five
of the rulers after Taharqa are known by any lengthy historical documents;
the rest remain shadowy figures known only by the names found associated
with their tombs. The pyramids were erected on a pair of parallel ridges
about 1 1/2 km from the Nile, about six miles north-east of Gebel Barkal
on the opposite bank. Taharqa was the first king to use the site, and
the special honor in which he was held among all future generations
of his dynasty is revealed by the fact that his pyramid was enlarged,
almost certainly after his death, and always remained more than twice
the size of any of those of his successors. It was 100 Egyptian cubits
(171 ft.) on a side, had a 69 degree angle, and stood originally about
260 ft. high. Generally the other kings' pyramids were half that
size at the base. Their angles varied, and stood between 65 and 130
ft. high. The queens' pyramids averaged about 30 ft. on a side,
although near the end of the period the pyramids of the primary queens
reached 56 ft, attesting to their increasing political importance. Small
chapels were built on the eastern sides of the pyramids (facing away
from the river toward sunrise); and within these chapels offerings of
food and drink were made to the deceased.
The tombs were cut in the bedrock beneath the pyramids, which were
of solid masonry. The kings' tombs regularly consisted of three
interconnecting chambers; the queens tombs, only two. When well-finished,
these rooms were completely painted and carved with Egyptian texts from
the "Book of the Dead." Each was entered by a long flight
of stairs cut in a descending trench in the rock ledge, far out in front
of the chapel entrance. After the burials, the stairway was filled in
and camouflaged from the ground. This, however, did not deter tomb robbers.
Although the tombs were all thoroughly plundered in antiquity, much
remained in them that revealed what the burials had been like. All but
two of the tombs were excavated in 1917-18 by George A. Reisner of the
Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, expedition. Many of
the finds are presently on permanent exhibition at the Museums in Khartoum
Typically Napatan royalty were mummified according to Egyptian fashion;
their bodies were wrapped holding gold crooks and flails, and green
stone heart scarabs and gold pectorals were placed over their chests.
Their fingers and toes were capped with gold, and their faces were covered
with gold masks (although the only existing examples were found in queens'
tombs, where the masks were only gilded silver). The viscera were removed
and placed in large canopic jars. The royal mummies were encased within
carved wooden anthropoid coffins covered with gold foil, and inlaid
with colored stones set in designs of falcons or vultures with outstretched
wings. The eyes were inlaid with gilded bronze, calcite, and obsidian.
These coffins were then placed within larger anthropoid coffins, covered
with gold leaf. In two cases the kings' outer coffins were placed within
huge fully decorated granite sarcophagi. Around the walls of the burial
chambers shawabti figures of stone or faience, numbering between several
hundred to over a thousand, would be arranged standing. Evidence suggests
that the kings were also buried with chests of valuable jewelry, perfume
and unguent vessels, and other personal possessions. The first chamber
also contained large numbers of storage jars containing food and drink
for the afterlife.
Nuri was abandoned as a royal cemetery in the late fourth century BC.
Subsequent kings initially built their tombs at Gebel Barkal, but by
the mid-third century BC the royal cemetery moved to Meroe.