The 25th dynasty

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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 with Egypt.

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 gods.

 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 imperfect.

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 and Boston.

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.