Ancient Egypt had a long and illustrious history as a cultural, economic, and military powerhouse in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions. But just to Egypt’s south was the often overshadowed yet impressive land of Nubia and its people, the Nubians. The Egyptians and Nubians had a long and complex relationship. The Egyptians and Nubians were often trading partners, but by the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BCE) the Egyptians colonized much of northern Nubia. Eventually, though, the tables turned and the Nubians conquered Egypt. From 728 to 664 BCE, a Nubian dynasty ruled Egypt as true Egyptian kings. The following are the highlights of the most impressive Nubian-Egyptian kings.
Nubia and the Nubians
Before examining how the Nubians conquered Egypt, it is important to understand the background of their land and culture. As with Egypt, Nubia was located along the Nile River, and it was similarly divided into Lower and Upper regions. The Egyptians referred to the land south of the First Cataract of the Nile as Wawat, while they called the land south of the Second Cataract, Kush. The majority of the important Nubian cities were in Upper Nubia, or Kush. The city of Kerma — located between the Third and Fourth Cataracts — was the capital for most of Nubian history. Later Nubian capitals were located in Napata/Gebel Barkal and Meroe. Modern archaeologists began uncovering these cities in the late nineteenth century, helping scholars learn more about the Nubian people.
The term “Nubian” is a modern appellation with enigmatic origins. Some scholars believe it may be derived from the Nuba people who migrated to the region after the power of the ancient Nubians had waned. Others have argued that the term originated with the Egyptian word Nesyu, which was derived from Ta-Nehsey, one of the Egyptian words for Nubia. Another potential linguistic origin may be from the Egyptian word for gold, nebu. Generally speaking, though, the Egyptians referred to their southern neighbors in texts by the demonym “Kushite” and the land of Nubia as the “Wretched Kush.” Nubian-Egyptian relations were often complex, fluctuating between hostility and assimilation, and the Egyptians were always cognizant of their differences.
Nubians in Egypt
The Egyptians viewed themselves as physically and culturally different and superior than their four neighbors – the Libyans, Canaanites/Asiatic, and Nubians. Despite this Egyptian chauvinism, Nubians traveled to Egypt as merchants, slaves, and mercenary soldiers, with many often staying and assimilating into Egyptian society. One Nubian soldier who became notable in the Egyptian society of the New Kingdom was a royal confidant named Mahirper. Although Mahirper may have been one of the best-known Nubians to make it big in Egypt, many had done so long before him. During the First Intermediate Period (c. 2150-2050 BCEE), a number of Nubian mercenaries commonly depicted themselves wearing Egyptian clothing but with Nubian physiognomy on funerary stelae. The Nubians certainly had a long history of living in Egypt, and likewise, the Egyptians also had a history of living in Nubia.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Egyptians in Nubia
The Egyptians were drawn to Nubia from an early period primarily for its valuable commodities. In Nubia the Egyptians quarried diorite and granite for their statues. However, more valuable were the gold and electrum mines. The latter — a natural gold-silver alloy — was even more valuable to the Egyptians. As silver was scarce the Egyptians often used electrum as a finish on the pyramidions of their New Kingdom obelisks. The Nubians were not willing to let these valuable resources go so easily, so conflict between the peoples was common.
The Nubians were able to keep the Egyptians out of their land when the Egyptians were weak during the First and Second Intermediate Periods. This situation rapidly changed, though, when the Egyptians established themselves as a world power in the New Kingdom. A series of martially inclined pharaohs in the Eighteenth Dynasty created an empire that included much of the Levant (Syria-Palestine) and Nubia. Thutmose III (ruled c, 1479-1425) managed to extend Egypt’s direct control to the Fourth Cataract while the indirect influence extended beyond the Fifth Cataract. The mighty king’s campaigns earned him the nickname “Egypt’s Caesar” by modern scholars.
The Nubians Conquer Egypt
Egypt’s dominance over Nubia ended when the New Kingdom collapsed around 1069 BCEE, ushering in the Third Intermediate Period. A number of factors contributed to the collapse of the New Kingdom, but among the most important were the large-scale Libyan migrations. Late in the New Kingdom, Sea Peoples and Libyan attacks on Egypt in the Delta destroyed central authority, with Libyan chieftains quickly filling the vacuum. Several Libyan descended dynasties in Egypt formed, coexisting simultaneously. The Twenty-second and Twenty-third dynasties were started by closely related Libyan tribes, while the Twenty-fourth dynasty was also Libyan descended. Native Egyptians retained power in the southern/Upper Egyptian city of Thebes, developing close ties with the Nubian rulers in Napata.
As Egypt fragmented into anarchy, Nubia grew stronger and more unified under a new dynasty based in the city of Napata. The first two Nubian rulers known by name from this dynasty were Alara (ruled c. 785-760 BCE) and Kashta (760-747 BCE). These two kings laid the foundation for their successors to rule Egypt as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, which sent five kings to the Egyptian throne. Piye (ruled 747-716 BCE), Shabaqa (716-702 BCE), Shebitqu (702-690 BCE), Taharaqa (690-664 BCE) and Tanutamani (664 BCE) all ruled Egypt and Nubia as legitimate pharaohs. For the sake of brevity, this article will focus on the accomplishments of Piye, Shabaqa, and Taharqa.
The Greatest Nubian Kings of Egypt
Piye was on the Nubian throne for some time before he decided to lead an army north into Egypt in 728 BCE. The general disunity of Egypt certainly enticed the Nubian king but other factors also played a role. The Nubians always had a presence in Upper Egypt and when the New Kingdom collapsed, their influence grew. The Nubian kings made alliances with the Egyptian elites of Thebes, using the worship of the Egyptian god Amun as common ground. So when Tefnakht, the Libyan chief of the Delta city of Sais, became hostile to Piye, this gave the Nubian king another reason to march north. Piye’s reasons for the invasion were articulated in religious terms in the “Victory Stela of Piye.”
The “Victory Stela” is an Egyptian hieroglyphic text that was discovered in Gebel Barkal (ancient Napata) in 1862 by the American Egyptologist George Reisner. The text, which was inscribed on a sandstone stela, describes the route Piye took from Thebes to the Delta, subduing all the Libyan chieftains. Just as interesting as the military elements of the text are the reasons Piye enumerated for the campaign. Piye stated that the campaign was directed against Tefnakht, who was attempting a similar conquest from the north. The Nubian king stressed, though, that he was the true Egyptian king who was upholding order, or maat, and carrying out the will of Amun. After defeating the Libyan chieftains in battle and winning their fealty, Piye returned to Napata from where he ruled both Egypt and Nubia for the remainder of his life. Although Piye never returned to Egypt, his successors would rule both lands from Egyptian cities.
2. Shabaqa Finishes the Conquest
As soon as Piye returned to Nubia, the Delta became a problem for his successor, Shabaqa. Tefnakht’s successor, Bakenrenef, controlled the region around Sais as his personal fiefdom and even declared himself “King of Lower and Upper Egypt.” Based on the transmissions of the late fourth/early third century BCE Egyptian historian Manetho, modern Egyptologists have referred to Bakenrenef’s rule as the Twenty-fourth Dynasty. But as soon as Bakenrenef began making the claims, Shabaqa led an army north to eliminate the threat in Sais. There are two primary sources that document Shabaqa’s 712 BCE (re)invasion of Egypt: a scarab now in the Royal Museum, Toronto, and Manetho’s testimony. Part of the scarab reads:
“He destroyed the rebels who were against him in Upper Egypt, the Delta, and in all the foreign lands. The Sand Dwellers were weak against him, falling from his slaughter. They returned carrying captives who were captured by one of the companions among them. He made profit for (his) father, greatly his beloved.”
The tone and word choice is interesting for its irony. Shabaqa never referred to Bakenrenef by name, but as part of the collective “Sand Dwellers,” likely as a slight to his Libyan ancestry. Despite being Nubian, Shabaqa is portrayed as a legitimate Egyptian ruler, who like Piye, appeased the Egyptian gods by reestablishing order in the land. The other source that confirms Shabaqa’s invasion of Egypt is shorter but a bit more detailed.
Manetho was a high-priest of the god Ptah, a scientist, and also a historian. He is credited with an almost comprehensive list of the kings of Egypt from which modern Egyptologists have based the dynastic system of organization. Manetho lived in Ptolemaic Egypt, working for the first three Ptolemies who ruled Egypt, and wrote in Greek. Unfortunately, though, most of Manetho’s original writings have been lost to the sands of time. What has survived is fragments transmitted by later historians. Two fragments from Manetho’s history of Egypt — Aegyptiaca — relate what happened to Bakenrenef (Greek Bochchoris) at Shabaqa’s hands. Fragments 66 and 67 state, “Sabacôn, who, taking Bochchôris captive, burned him alive and reigned for 8 years.”
After defeating and likely killing Bakenrenef, Shabaqa decided to rule Egypt and Nubia in Egypt, spending time in the cities of Memphis and Thebes. Shabaqa legitimized his rule by adding to existing temples in Lower and Upper Egypt and investing in other public works projects, such as canal construction. The Greeks later viewed Shabaqa’s rule as generally enlightened and productive, as noted by the fifth century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus. Herodotus wrote that instead of sentencing criminals to death, Shabaqa preferred to make an offender “raise the level of the soil in his native town.”
3. Taharqa the Warrior King
The final Nubian king of Egypt to warrant discussion in this article actually impacted Egypt while he was still a prince. Taharqa made his mark on the world in 701 BCE when he led a Nubian-Egyptian army to Israel to do battle in a place called Eltekeh. The Nubian King Shebitqu sent his successor to Israel to oppose King Sennacherib (ruled 705-681 BCE) and the mighty Assyrian Empire.
Shebitqu had entered a military alliance that was truly “biblical,” coming to the aide of none other than King Hezekiah of Judah (ruled c. 716-686 BCE). The Battle of Eletekeh is mentioned in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings 19:9-10, where Taharqa is noted as “Tirhakah king of Ethiopia.” The Assyrian sources mention the battle with a little more detail. The text notes how Hezekiah “called upon the Egyptian kings, the bowmen, chariots and horses of the king of Meluhha (Ethiopia).” Although Taharqa and Hezekiah lost the battle, it seemingly helped the Nubian general consolidate power in Egypt and Nubia.
The first fifteen or so years of Taharqa’s rule were stable and prosperous. He initiated several impressive monument building programs in the Thebes region, especially at the Karnak Temple where he added a pylon. Taharqa also made additions to the Temple of Medinet Habu, where he added a particularly ironic scene on the second pylon. The scene is a formulaic depiction of either Taharqa or Shabaqa smiting Libyans and Nubians. The Nubian kings of Egypt may have hung on to some of their cultural traits, but they increasingly saw themselves as Egyptians first.
Taharqa may have been a strong ruler, but the Assyrian Empire was much stronger. The Assyrian King Esarhaddon (ruled 680-669 BCE) led two attacks on Egypt in 674 and 671 BCE that proved to be costly for the Nubians. Although the first attack was unsuccessful, the second was enough to impose temporary Assyrian rule over Egypt. Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamani continued the fight, but he was likely killed in battle or executed in 664 BCE.