From Academic Kids


Aerial view of the pyramids at
Aerial view of the pyramids at Meroe

Kush or Cush was a civilization south of Ancient Egypt in Nubia. Though heavily influenced by Egypt, it was a distinct culture and civilization and is often seen as the first civilization to develop in Sub-Saharan Africa.



The first developed societies appeared in Nubia around the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty. The first known Kushite state was the Kingdom of Kerma, which appeared c. 2600 BC and at times ruled all of Nubia and parts of Egypt. Because these peoples had no writings that were found and appeared only infrequently in Egyptian accounts, little is known about them.

Around 2500 BC, Egyptians began moving south (it is through them that most of our knowledge of Kush comes), but this expansion was halted by the fall of the Middle Kingdom. About 1500 BC Egyptian expansion resumed, but this time encountered organized resistence. (Historians are not sure whether this resistence came from multiple city states or a single unified empire. There is also debate over whether the notion of statehood was indigenous or borrowed from the Egyptians.) The Egyptians prevailed, and the region became a colony of Egypt under the control of Thutmose I, whose army ruled from a number of sturdy fortresses. The region supplied Egypt with resources.

In the eleventh century BC internal disputes in Egypt caused colonial rule to collapse and there arose an independent kingdom based at Napata. It is unknown whether this kingdom was ruled by Egyptians prefects who elevated themselves once disconnected from Egypt, or by locals who overthrew the colonial regime. It is clearly visible that this New Kingdom learned much of its technology and culture from the Egyptians, including the building of pyramids and the worship of the Egyptian gods.


This Napata based kingdom became quite potent and under king Kashta and then Piye; it conquered Egypt, establishing the twenty-fifth dynasty.

When the Assyrians invaded in 671 BC, Kush became, once again, an independent state. In 591 BC the Egyptians under Psammetik II invaded Kush, perhaps because Kush ruler Aspelta was preparing to invade Egypt, and sacked Napata before withdrawing north.

Move to Meroe

It is clear from the records that Aspelta's successors had their capital at Meroe, 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. Other historians believe it was the attraction of iron working that drove the kingdom south: around Meroe, 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; rather, it could export its goods east to the Red Sea and the Greek trading colonies there.

An alternate theory is that two separate but closely linked states developed, one based at Napata and the other at Meroe; the Meroe-based state gradually eclipsed the northern one. No royal residence had been found north of Meroe and it is possible Napata had only been the religious headquarters. But Napata clearly remained an important centre, with the kings being crowned and buried there for many centuries, even when they lived at Meroe.

In around 300 BC the move to Meroe was made more complete as 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 based a 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 Ergamenese refers to Arrakkamani, the first ruler to be buried at Meroe. However, a more likely transliteration of Ergamenes is Arqamani, who ruled many years after the royal cemetery was opened at Meroe.

Another theory is that the capital had always been based at Meroe.

Kush continued for several centuries but we have little information on it. While earlier Kush had used Egyptian hieroglyphics, Meroe developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered. The state seems to have prospered, trading with its neighbours and continuing to build monuments and tombs. In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, invaded Nubia in response to a Nubian attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of the region and sacking Napata (22 BC) before returning north.


The decline of Kush is hotly debated. After the 1st century AD the royal tombs began to shrink in size and splendour, and the building of large monuments seems to have ceased. The royal burials halted altogether in the 4th century AD. A diplomatic mission in Nero's reign travelled to Meroe; they reported almost no habitation (Pliny the Elder, N.H. 6.35). The archeological record shows a cultural shift to a new society known as the X-Group, or Ballana culture. Examinations of skeletal remains shows that physically the people remained the same despite these changes.

This corresponds closely to the traditional theory that the kingdom was destroyed by the invasion by Ezana of Axum in around 350. However, the Ethiopian account seems to be describing the quelling of a rebellion in lands they already controlled. It also refers only to the Nuba, and makes no mention of the rulers of Meroe.

Many historians thus theorize that these Nuba are the same people the Romans called the Nobatae. Strabo reports that when the Roman empire pulled out of northern Nubia in 272, they invited the Nobatae to fill the power vacuum. The other new arrivals 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.

By the sixth century, new states had formed in the area that had once been controlled by Meroe. 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. These new states of Nubia inherited much from 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.

The origin of the Nuba/Nobatae who replaced Meroe 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 was one of the sons of Ham who settled in Northeast Africa. In the Bible and archaically a large region covering southern Egypt and parts of Ethiopia were known as Cush. The Bible refers to Cush on a number of occasions. Some contend that this Cush was in southern Arabia. See Biblical Cush for a full discussion.

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.

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