Historical perspective of Nubia and Kush Egypt and Nubia were culturally linked from earliest times. In fact, there is evidence that Nubia was populated in pre-history by tribes under regional chieftains, much as the earliest settlers in Upper Egypt. The excavation from Nubian tombs of objects of Egyptian origin, such as stone storage vessels, cornelian, amethyst and faience beads, indicate cultural exchange and diffusion from earliest times.
Skirmishes with border tribes were not infrequent, and there is evidence of Egypt taking Nubian prisoners and confiscating cattle. But on the whole relations seem to have been friendly, and a state of mutual respect existed. Nubians travelled across the border into Egypt, even as far northwards as Dendera. They usually helped the Egyptians in the transportation of goods when the noblemen of Elephantine were trading with the south. And they were also recruited, on occasion, to help the Egyptian troops suppress rebellious bedouin tribes in Lower Egypt. In a decree written by Pepi I (c. 2300 BC) he makes several references to ‘the peaceful Nubians’.
Only in the Middle Kingdom (2133-1786 BC) did Nubia lose its independent status. Amenemhet I built a fortress at Semna. Amenemhet II established a trading post as far south as Kerma. And finally Senusert III fixed the southern frontier of Egypt at Semna, just above the Second Cataract. At this point, the Nile thundered through a gap in the granite barrier and provided a natural control point; it also provided a physical environment that closely resembled that just south of Elephantine.
The great fortresses of Semna and Buhen were Constructed on natural elevations; they were two of a possible half dozen other fortresses. Through its domination of Nubia, the Egyptians were not only assured of the produce from this great gold and copper- producing country, but were also in an ideal position to trade for other prized commodities further south.
Generation after generation of Egyptian soldiers and settlers lived in or around the fortress towns of Nubia, slowly spreading their traditions and religious beliefs. During the Hyksos occupation of Egypt many of the fortresses were burned or abandoned, but after the war of liberation, the leaders of the New Kingdom (1567--1080 BC) turned their attention once again towards Nubia and Kush.
Thutmose I pushed the frontier south of Semna to ‘valleys not known to my ancestors’. The territory flourished, and many fine structures were raised on or around the sites of the earlier fortresses. Among these was a temple at Buhen, built by Hatshepsut (later claimed by her successor Thutmose III, who also restored the temple of his deified ancestor Senusert III). Amenhotep III and his Queen Tiy built a splendid temple at Soleb, on the same plan and in the same style as the Temple of Luxor (page 55). At nearby Sesibi Akhenaten built a temple. Viceroys were appointed to govern there and ensure the regularity of the annual tribute to the treasury.
By the 19th Dynasty Egyptian influence had spread southwards to the Fourth Cataract, and Napata became yet another settlement. Lower Nubia (Egyptian Nubia) was by now a mere geographical extension of Egypt and settlement in Upper Nubia and Kush was strongly encouraged. With the establishment of large communities, not only were Egypt’s technological skills introduced far southwards, but its religious tradition as well.
These were peaceful times when even the nomadic desert tribes, usually a problem, were suppressed. The Medjay, who had long been recognised for their fighting ability, helped law enforcement in the Nile valley and even strengthened pharaoh’s armies in Asia.
Ramses II, that most prolific of temple builders, constructed six temples in Nubia between the First and Second Cataracts (Map page 126). Due to the scanty strip of valley, all were hewn out of the rocky outcrops overlooking the river. Some had free-standing statues leading from the cliff face to the river bank. Each must have had a sizeable community to support it. The stress on temples and trade, rather than on fortresses with military garrisons, was a testimonial to the solidarity of Egyptian control of its southern possession, which were by this time totally imbued with the culture of Egypt.
A change only occurred in the status of Lower Nubia in the reign of Ramses XII (1080 BC) when the high priest Hrihor became viceroy of Kush. His control of the south gave him the wealth and military might to usurp the throne of Egypt. He declared himself to be Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt. But, in fact, Lower Egypt was at that time ruled by a strong family in Tanis in the Delta. Divided rule meant weakened rule, and in the confusion following Hrihor’s death, Kush became increasingly independent while, in Egypt, there was a steady decline and almost total disregard for law and order.
During these unstable years a family of Libyan descent acquired power. They were probably the descendants of captured prisoners and voluntary settlers granted land in return for military service. They took over leadership and ruled Egypt for two centuries, from 940 to 730 BC.
Meanwhile, deep in the land of Kush, Napata became the focal point of a new kingdom. It was African in origin but Egyptian in tradition and religious belief. There was a pharaonic-style court; Amon-Ra was worshipped in a magnificent temple built to his glory near Gebal Barkal, a sacred mountain near the Fourth Cataract, and the Kushite kings styled themselves with pharaonic titles.
The Kushite king Piankhy finally saw it as his duty to liberate Egypt from what he considered to be the forces of barbarism and to restore the ancient culture. He marched northwards with a strong army and presented himself to the people of Egypt as a true pharaoh. In fact, during the 25th Dynasty (750-656 BC), Piankhy and his descendants did much to restore to Egypt some of its earlier greatness. Shabako was the first Kushite king of a united Upper and Lower Egypt, and in his reign ancient texts were copied and temples restored. How long a Kushite king might have remained on the throne of Egypt we cannot say. For the Assyrian army marched on the Delta 671 BC, and in the face of their military might, the Kushites were driven back to their own land.
Apart from a short-lived revival in the 26th Dynasty, Egypt’s great civilisation was on the decline. But far to the south, the Kushite kingdom prospered. Around 600 BC the leaders decided to move their capital from Napata to Meroe (Shendi). In the fertile bend in the river, free from invasion, well-placed for trade, rich in iron ore and in wood for iron-smelting, they developed a culture that was at once a continuation of the Egyptian-influenced Napatan culture and a totally individual African culture. (More will soon be known of this civilization, for the Meroitic script, a corruption of the hieroglyphic, is at last on its way to decipherment.)
Egypt succumbed to two Persian invasions while the Meroitic Empire spread northwards. Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, and by the reign of Ptolemy IV (181 BC), a Meroitic king, Argamanic, controlled the Nile to within sight of Elephantine.
When the Romans took over Egypt (30 BC), they signed a treaty with the Meroites, turning all Lower Nubia into a buffer zone. Yet, despite their alliance, there is evidence of conflict between the proud and independent Meroites and the Roman garrisons. On one occasion the Meroites defeated Caesar’s soldiers and actually occupied Aswan. In retaliation, however, the Roman army drove them back to their own land. Their civilization prospered until the middle of the fourth century AD.
With the departure of the Meroitic army, the Nubians were able to enjoy some prosperity once again. During the Roman period, the temple of Kalabsha, dedicated to the Nubian god Mandolis, was completed; and other temples were built at Debod, Dendur and Dakka. Worship of the ancient gods of Egypt in the land of Nubia lingered on until the sixth century, long after Egypt had been converted to Christianity.