Meet the Kush Kingdom

As a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilization. Enormous pyramids, hieroglyphs, statues… So many incredible things were done and showed off to the world millennials after they have happened. But did you know that Egypt doesn’t have the most pyramids? Surprisingly, it’s Sudan, the southern neighbor or Egypt. The Kingdom of Kush, also known as Nubia, once thrived in the region that is now Sudan, a testament to its rich past. Established around 2500 BCE, the Kushite kingdom was known for its culture, sophisticated society, and advanced government, economy, and religion. The Kushites were skilled farmers, craftsmen, traders, and their kingdom was home to many important cultural and technological innovations. Despite its many accomplishments, the Kingdom of Kush has often been overshadowed by its more powerful neighbor, ancient Egypt. It’s possible that this is due, at least in part, to the fact that the Kushites were seen as racially different to the Egyptians, which elicited disinterest by the European archeologists. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Kingdom of Kush lives on today in the vibrant cultural traditions of the Sudanese people despite the fact that most of the archeological sites are threatened by water.

Home to one of the oldest languages in Africa, the Kushite Kingdom was an advanced and complex society that was well-known for their raw materials such as gold, ivory orebony. They had an economy based on trade and industry as they knew how to melt gold and bronze or work with wood and ceramics. The proud and glorious Egyptians always wanted to conquer and colonize this region. They entertained a weird relationship with their Egyptian neighbors as they traded with them, married each otherand fought at the same time. The border was open and everything showed that they could pass freely from one state to another. The Kushite Kingdom ruled over Egypt for one century between the VIII and the VII century BC and at its highest, it was twice as big as Egypt and their territory went from what is known now as Khartoum all the way to the mediterranean sea. They created an urban society with an uniquely high level of female participation. Progressively, women played a very prominent role, and as Claude Rilly (a CNRS expert) says: “In the Nubian society, women embodied prestige and passed it on. The lineage is matrilineal, they occupy a central place and can even become pharaohs”. This shows the difference to Egypt, because even though Egypt had female leaders, they never had the same status or the same powers as in the Kushite society.

However, we were close to never appreciate this precious patrimony. When George Reisner discovered pyramids and temples in Sudan in 1907, he immediately thought it was made by the Egyptians, even though there were paintings inside of them showing black people. In his words: “The native negroïd race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention”, which is a completely false and racist statement. At the time of the discoveries, archeologists and western society in general believed in a system of ranked races and they couldn’t recognize the fact that the Kushites created a society that deserved as much attention and respect as the Egyptian one. Today, the complex political state of Sudan and the civil war restrained archeologists to do further studies of the different sites. But the war ended recently and they are now able to slowly get back to those monuments and study them. 

Nowadays, the different sites are in danger as the creation of dams all along the Nile river caused its overflowing and some sites recorded a rise of +5 to +7 meters of water. Some even started to fall apart and crumble upon themselves. Even though there are people fighting for the preservation of those monuments, it is very unlikely that it will work as the dams constructions are still going, financed by foreign companies.

In conclusion, the Kushite society was a powerful and influential civilization that played a significant role in ancient history. They were known for their complex urban system, metalworking skills, and having their own writing system. Their society was unique in that it was matrilineal, with women occupying central roles and even becoming pharaohs. Despite the fact that today this society is not as well known as some of the others from the ancient world, their achievements and singularity made them a very important part of history and their treasures are still a subject of interest for researchers and historians around the world.

Hugo Lhomedet


* ” Le Royaume perdu des pharaons noirs “, documentaire de David Starkey (Irlande, 2019, 1 h 33mn). Disponible sur Arte jusqu’au 11 mars.

VIAF: George Andrew Reisner

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