The Last Pharaohs

By Kahotep

The Persian Shah Artaxerxes III's defeat of the Egyptian Pharaoh Nectanebo II in 343 BC marked the official end of an already declining Egypt as an independent nation. From that point forward, Egypt would be ruled by Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, all of whom would transform Egyptian culture beyond recognition. Yet this did not mean the total extinction of Nilotic civilization any more than the fall of Rome led to the disappearance of Western civilization. Between 300 BC and 400 AD, even though Egypt lay under European yokes, Nilotic culture still thrived, except this time it was centered not in Egypt but in the more southerly kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia).

Kush, once a province of the Egyptian empire, became an independent nation circa 1070 BC. Initially its capital was Napata near the modern Sudanese town of Kuraymah, but between 591 and 300 BC, the capital shifted to Meroe to the southeast. The Greek historian Diodoros claimed that a Kushite Pharaoh named Arkamani, who was influenced by Greek philosophy, made the move after rebelling against a tradition that he must kill himself once his time to rule had ended, but more recent scholarship suggests that the capital change was instead caused by the earlier Pharaoh Aspelta and was motivated by a transition from bronze to iron technology. According to this argument, since Meroe had more trees around it than Napata, it could provide more fuel for blast furnaces.

Whatever inspired the change, Meroe had been a prosperous town since the eighth century BC thanks to its position alongside several river and caravan routes linking central and northeastern Africa. Its wealth would increase to an even greater extent once it became the political center of Kush, with its commercial connections extending not only to the Mediterranean and African lands but also Asian nations as far away as India and China. Particularly important to the Kushite economy during the Meroitic Period was a thriving iron industry and the exportation of gold, jewelry, cotton textiles, and animal products such as ivory and big cat furs. However, the Meroitic Kushites, by making use of an animal-powered water wheel for irrigation, were also able to improve their agriculture.

Kush's many riches funded many construction projects. Among the monuments built by the Kushites were temples, pyramidal tombs (the Kushites actually built more pyramids than the Egyptians before them), palaces, elaborate underground pipe systems, gardens of fruit trees, Roman-style bathhouses and even what appear to be stables for war elephants. Even though the architecture drew heavily upon Nilotic traditions first established by the Egyptians, Greco-Roman influence is apparent in the columns' designs and the measurements used by the architects.

Kush departed from Egyptian traditions in other ways during the Meroitic Period. Beginning around the 2nd century BC, the Kushites replaced the old Egyptian hieroglyphs with a unique cursive writing script that has yet to be fully deciphered. While the Kushite religious pantheon was mostly similar to the Egyptian one, with the creator god Amun being especially important, some new gods, such as the lion-headed warrior god Apedemak, were added. In addition, the Kushites reformed their government so that the Pharaoh, while still an autocratic god-king, had limitations on his power: succession required consent from the nobility and priesthood, an unpopular king could be impeached, and commoners (particularly herdsmen) may have had a degree of political freedom from the central government. Although royal women had always exerted some influence on Nilotic politics, this was particularly evident during the Meroitic Period, which is famous for its powerful Queens and Queen Mothers.

An ancient legend claims that the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great once attempted to invade Kush, but was so terrified by the army of war elephants amassed by the Kushite Queen that he turned back without a fight. Most historians doubt that this really happened, but we do know that the Kushites did fight the Romans centuries later. After Egypt became a Roman province in the first century BC, the Egyptians revolted against Roman taxation policies. The Kushites, ruled by Queen Amanishekhato at this time, took advantage of this by attacking Aswan on the Egyptian border, defeating the local Roman garrison and throwing down statues to the Emperor. The Romans retaliated by sending a legion into Kush, managing to destroy the old city of Napata, but the war concluded with a peace treaty between Kush and Rome that made relations between the two powers generally peaceful until the third century AD.

The 4th century AD saw the decline of Meroitic Kush. Why this happened is not fully known, but conflicts with nomadic desert tribes, erosion of the soil by livestock's overgrazing, and depletion of trees for use in furnaces are among the proposed explanations. The contemporaneous decline of Rome may have also been a factor, for Roman legions could no longer protect Kushite trade routes from raiders. Ultimately Kush was conquered by the Ethiopian king Ezana, who converted the Kushites to Christianity and brought their written and spoken language to an end. From that point onward, Kush would no longer be a major civilization.