Black Kings on Pharaohs Throne – by Jill Kamil

By JILL KAMIL
EGYPTOLOGY is constantly enriched as new evidence comes to light, and every discovery provides food for thought One of the most important finds of recent years has been a cache of statues found in 2003 by the University
of Geneva’s archaeological mission in the ditch of a temple compound at ancient Kerma (today’s Doukki Gel, a Nubian term meaning red mound”) near the Nile’s Third Cataract. Among them were magnificent statues of five rulers of Egypt’s 25th Nubian orKushite Dynasty, which lasted from 750to 656BCE

Two are masterpieces ranking among the greatest in art history. The discovery transforms our understanding of Egypt and Africa in the ancient world. Nubia was important to Egypt’seconomy from early times because the requirements of a highly developed civilisation demanded raw materials and minerals that were unavailable in Egypt. They were imported from many sources, including the agriculturally impoverished land of Nubia, between Egypt’s southern border at Aswan and Sudan, in exchange for grain, oil and honey. In the Middle Kingdom, between2133 and 1786BCE,  Egypt colonised
Nubia  as far as the Second Cataract,where powerful pharaohs built a series of impenetrable fortresses.

Each was defended by a massive mud-brick wall and was surrounded by dry moats and walls with bastions and loopholes for archers. Through its domination of Nubia, Egypt was assured of the produce from this great gold and copper-producing country and was also in an ideal position to trade for other prized commodities. Generation after generation of Egyptian soldiers and settlers lived in or around the fortress  towns that bore names like “Warding off the Bows” and “Curbing of Foreign Lands”. The people of these lands were the vigorous and courageous Medjay of Kush (Sudan), who strongly resisted Egyptian occupation of Nubia and were finally suppressed by Pharaoh Senusert III. During the Hyksos occupation many of the
fortresses were burnt or abandoned, but the leaders of the New Kingdom (1567 to 1080BCE) again turned their attention to Nubia and Kush, and established a trading post in Kerma. The first excavations carried out there by George Reisner of Harvard University  between 1913 and1915, he  regarded the site from a colonial perspective – a mighty state occupying and exploiting backward and  impoverished peoples.

Since 1973, however, excavations carried out by Charles Bonnet and his team have provided an Afrocentric take on ancient history, enabling scholars to face questions that have previously been overlooked. Their main goal was to reconstruct the evolution of society from the last hunter-gatherers up to the emergence of the civilisation of Kerma,the capital of the first Kingdom of Kush, whose peoples lived on the edge of theEgyptian empire and who were already in contact with the populations of central Africa and the Red Sea coast.

Far from being destitute, this population was well aware of the requirements of the pharaonic civilisation and of the advantages of trade. While allowing Egyptians to satisfy their mineral requirements, they themselves acted as entrepreneurs, opening up markets in Sudan and facilitating trade in precious items, including ivory, diorite, gold and supervised shipments to the north. They developed a protected area, a central city, where spacious homes were built for the dignitaries who monitored the trade in merchandise from far-off lands,and they protected their storage areas and administrative buildings with buttressed walls and rectangular and semi-circular bastions, even moats.Within this protected area, the team unearthed a palace and religious sanctuary as well as about 200 houses. The palace evolved from a large, round building about 12m in diameter to a rectangular structure more than four times as large. The Kushite king’s audience chamber (rebuilt at least 10times on the same spot) bears no resemblance to any Egyptian building.

On the contrary, most ancient architecture of Kerma clearly revealed roots in an African heritage, both in construction techniques and the
materials used. Indeed, the king’s chamber might be seen as a prototype for the large princely and royal huts discovered in Africa south of
the Sahara in the last 100 years. It was within a temple compound,then known as Pnubs (literally “the cityof the jujube tree”),  that Bonnet
and his team found the cache containing monumental black granite statues, magnificently sculptured and excellently preserved.

They portray five pharaonic rulers including Taharqa and Tantamani, the last members of Egypt’s Kushite dynasty,  powerful leaders from
modern-day Sudan who governed a combined kingdom of Egypt and Nubia, an empire stretching from the Delta to the upper reaches of the  Nile. It was an era of pharaonic history that has been categorised as a period of decline, but which was, in fact, a renaissance. Under the last of the Ramesside pharaohs, about 1000BCE,  the country fell increasingly under the control of the priests of Amun. As their power grew, they demanded blind conformity to a system that gave them control and wealth, and a struggle for power ensued.

The internal disorder was such that Hrihor,  High Priest of Amun, was able to usurp the throne and the country became divided; a local dynasty in Tanis ruled the Delta, and Hrihor UpperEgypt. The latter declared himself Viceroy of Kush. Meanwhile, a powerful Kushite chieftain named Alara – who was credited by his descendants with the foundation of a line of distinguished
kings – instigated an active policy of territorial expansion. One of the most famous of this line was Piye (Piankhi),who erected a granite stela in the temple at Kerma describing Egypt’s decline and political breakdown due to disputes among its princes.

He records how his army marched northward into Egypt, fought battles with Tefnakht, ruler of Sais, and his allies, and that one by one he gained control of the cities until the whole country was under his control. Piankhi did not come to Egypt as an invader but as a liberator; he felt bound to free the country from decline. Having seized the ancient religious capital of Thebes, he marched on the state capital of Memphis where he stormed the fortifications. Tefnakht, anticipating the attack, had heightened and reinforced the battlements, but he neglected the east side of the city which was protected by flood waters. The  Egyptian fleet floated high enough to fasten the bow ropes, and it was here that Piankhi struck.

He captured Tefnakht’s fleet and combined it with his own, using it as a landing base. His army surged over the ramparts, and within the city walls a great slaughter ensued. The  inhabitants were finally forced to repudiate Tefnakht and recognise Piankhi, a black man, as king. In a demonstration of respect and protection Piankhi made offerings to temples and other sanctuaries in the city before returning to Kush, where he died, only to be succeeded by an equally powerful leader — his brother Shabako, it being the custom in Kush for brothers of a ruler to have priority over sons in succession. Shabako succeeded in uniting Egypt and Nubia under his rule in 747BCE, becoming the first Kushite king of both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Internal stability returned. Trade and commerce were revived, and grand temples were built in which the pharaohs were portrayed as black,
adorned in Egyptian royal costume and the Double Crown of Upper and LowerEgypt. They adopted the burial rites of the pharaohs, but retained
their Nubian names.

How long Kushites might have remained on the throne of a united Egypt and Nubia, is difficult to say, because the Assyrians marched on the Delta in 671BCE and, although Shabako’s younger brother Taharqa made plans to meet his rival, his forces – composed of local militia and recruits from the Nile Delta – was no match for the mighty Esarhaddon. The black pharaohs were finally vanquished in 656BCE and withdrew to a new capital at Napata, south of Kerma. About 600BCE, when this was no longer considered safe, or suitable for the expanding economy, they transferred the capital to Meroe (Shendi) on the east side of the Nile between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts. In this newly chosen location,  rich in mineral wealth (especially iron ore and wood for iron-smelting), a new and distinctly African culture developed. While African, it was at once a continuation of the Egyptian-influenced Napatan culture, and its main phases of the development rival the great
ancient civilisations.

The significance of the discovery in Kerma, and of monumental granite statues of such African kings as Taharqa and Tanutamun, reveal them as tough individuals with strong features and powerful bodies. Such able leaders ruled pharaonic Egypt for half a century.And when they were driven out by the Assyrians and withdrew to their own land, their leaders continued a policyof expansion through  northern Sudan and Upper Nubia. Once-powerful Egypt succumbed to two Persian invasions (in 525 and 345BCE), while the Meroitic Empire  flourished. By the reign in Egypt of Ptolemy IV (222 to 204BCE), King Argamanic of Kush controlled the Nile to within sight of Elephantine Island on Egypt’s southern border.

SHEMU October 2009

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