Type of Government
Cush was a monarchy with a unique mix of African and Egyptian features. Power was concentrated in the hands of the king, the local priesthood, and, distinctively, the king’s mother. Succession from father to son was rare; more commonly the crown passed to a brother. The priests of Amon, the Egyptian sun god, crowned the king and bestowed legitimacy on his regime. Day-to-day operations of the government are largely unknown, but the few written records in existence suggest that trade, warfare, and the afterlife were major preoccupations.
The kingdom of Cush lay along the middle stretches of the Nile River in northeast Africa, in the center of a region often called Nubia. The Arab Republic of Egypt controls northern Nubia today, and southern Nubia is part of the Sudan. In antiquity the frontier between the Egyptians to the north and the peoples to the south fell roughly in the area of the First Cataract (waterfall), near the modern dam at Aswan. As early as 2575 BC the Egyptians had established at least one trading post south of the border. What they found there was an old but flourishing civilization. Excavations of elaborate graves at Qustul strongly suggest the existence of a monarchy at least as old as the Egyptian pharaohs. However, what connections these early rulers may have had with the later kingdom of Cush are unclear.
The Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris I (d. 1928 BC) eventually seized control of the region as far south as the Second Cataract. Thus began centuries of intense trade and cultural interaction. Egyptian administrators split the new territory in two, calling the southern half Cush. Even though the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the worship of Egyptian gods spread quickly, the process of Egyptianization was less a matter of copying than of careful adaptation. Cushite pyramids, for example, are smaller and steeper than the Egyptian variety. At the same time, Egyptianization enabled Cushites to rise in the government and especially in the Egyptian army, where they became indispensable.
By about 800 BC a long decline in Egyptian power had brought virtual independence to Cush. The administrator was now a local, not an Egyptian, and power remained in his family’s hands following his death. He was no longer a bureaucrat, but a king.
The organizational framework of the Cushite kingdom is obscure, because few tax receipts or other records of routine operations have been found. However, because many royal tombs have been excavated, archaeologists have pieced together an understanding about the ritual of succession and the theory of government it represented. The Cushites shared with the Egyptians a belief that a king was a king because he was descended from and favored by the gods. As only the high priests could interpret divine will, constant public displays of priestly approval formed the foundation of a king’s power and legitimacy. By far the most powerful priests in Cush were those of Amon. When a king died, the priests of Amon helped choose the successor and orchestrated the extremely important matter of the funeral. Hundreds of retainers were buried alive to accompany the deceased to the afterlife, a grim sign of the loyalty demanded of the king’s subjects.
The new king then received his crown from the priests in an elaborate ceremony designed to emphasize his divine origins. One of his first duties involved a trip to the most important settlements in his kingdom. These visits probably served several functions: to strengthen the loyalty of his subjects, particularly those in remote or rebellious areas; to familiarize himself with his territories; and to meet tribal chiefs and other local leaders. The duties of these lower officials are not clear, but they almost certainly included military service and perhaps the collection of taxes.
Political Parties and Factions
The most powerful groups beneath the king were his family, particularly his mother and his brothers; the priests of Amon; military commanders; and local chieftains. Each of these participated in the selection of a new king, and each continued to pursue his own agenda under the king’s rule. Thus, it was the priests of Amon, resentful of the treatment they had received in the southern Egyptian city of Thebes, who persuaded the Cushite king Piankhi (eighth century BC) to send troops there in 747 BC, an act that set the stage for the reunification of Egypt under Cushite control.
Piankhi’s conquest of Egypt marked the height of Cushite power. For nearly a century, the king of Cush was also Egypt’s pharaoh. In 670 BC, however, the Assyrians invaded Egypt, driving the Cushites back to Cush. Seventy years later, after an Egyptian force destroyed the old Cushite capital of Napata, the king moved south to Meroë. The new capital flourished until its destruction by the city-state of Axum, a rival power, in the fourth century AD.
The Greeks and Romans called Cush “Aithiopia” (Ethiopia), believing it to be a land of vast wealth, natural wonders, and virtuous people. This reputation, though exaggerated, points to an underlying truth: the middle Nile enjoyed centuries of stability, relative prosperity, and continuous cultural development under the Cushite kings. Intense trade made the inhabitants receptive to new ideas from abroad, and both Christianity, in the seventh century AD, and Islam, in the fourteenth, made rapid inroads.
Morkot, Robert G. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. London: Rubicon Press, 2000.
O’Connor, David B. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1993.
Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1998.