Chapter 8 Early African Civilizations: 1800 B.C.-1235 A.D.

Section 2 Kingdoms in the Sudan: Kush and Aksum

While ancient Egypt flourished in the lower Nile valley, other important states were located in the south. Kush and Aksum were two powerful kingdoms that emerged in the upper Nile valley and Ethiopia.

The Kingdom of Kush

Along the Nile River, south of the major centers of ancient Egypt, lies a region known as Nubia. A source of gold, ivory, ebony, and ostrich feathers, Nubia also thrived as a major trade center.[4] Here, where caravans hauled goods from the Red Sea to barges on the Nile, about 1800 B.C. a trading center called Kerma was established to take advantage of trade with Egypt. Whether Kerma was actually developed by local peoples in response to growing Egyptian demand for their trade goods, or whether it was actually an Egyptian outpost set up to oversee trade in Nubia remains open to question.

Napata. As local peoples became involved in the Egyptian trade, they soon established their own city a short ways upstream from Kerma called Napata. From Napata, local rulers established a kingdom called Kush.[5]  The early history of Kush is bound up closely with that of Egypt. In order to control trade in the region, in about 1500 the Egyptians imposed their own direct control over Kush. Kush became not only a trading center but also a buffer against invaders from among the African peoples further south.[6] Under Egyptian control, the Kushites adopted the basic elements of Egyptian civilization and maintained close economic ties with Egypt.[7]

            During the Hyksos years, the rulers of Kush allied themselves with the invaders against the Theban dynasty in middle Egypt, and for a time they remained independent of Egyptian control. After the rise of the New Kingdom, however, in about 1500 B.C. the Egyptians once again imposed their control over the region.[8] For the next 500 years, Egypt ruled Kush. Along the narrow valley of the Nile Egyptians built new cities and temples, and the local Nubian rulers adopted Egyptian religion, writing, language, and culture.[9] While under Egyptian control, Kush regularly sent large payments of gold to Egypt, which made the New Kingdom wealthy.

The Nubian dynasty. Although Kush became more independent as the New Kingdom declined,[10] the chaos in Egypt cut Kush off from the Mediterranean world.[11] For nearly 300 years, Kush was turned in on itself.[12] By 730 B.C., however, Kush had grown powerful enough to take sweep north and conquer the kingdom of Thebes.[13] Within the next 20 years, Kushite princes conquered all of Egypt. The Kushite ruler Piankhi completed the conquest and recorded one his victory at Memphis on a granite stela which he had erected near Napata:

“When day broke, at early morning, his majesty reached Memphis. . . . There was found no way of attacking it. . . . Then his majesty was enraged against it like a panther; he said: ‘I swear as Re loves me, as my father, Amon (who fashioned me) favors me, this shall befall it, according to the command of Amon . . . I will take it like a flood of water.’ . . . Then Memphis was taken as (by) a flood of water, a multitude of people were slain therein, and brought as living captives to the place where his majesty was.”[14]

Piankhi thus reunited Egypt for the first time since the fall of the New Kingdom.[15] Known as the Nubian dynasty,[16] he and his successors ruled Egypt for another fifty years.[17] 


In the late 600s B.C., the Kushite dynasty fell to invading Assyrian armies. Forced to retreat to their former homeland, the Kushites eventually reorganized their kingdom around a new capital at Meroe, between the Nile and Atbara Rivers. There they began a new period of growth and cultural achievement.[18] So well known was Meroe that the Greek traveler and chronicler Herodotus left an account gathered from other travelers:

“South of Elephantine the country is inhabited by Ethiopians. . . . After the forty days journey on land one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroe, said to be the capital of the Ethiopians [i.e. the black inhabitants of the Kingdom of Kush]. The inhabitants worship Zeus [the same as Amon] and Dionysus alone of the Gods, holding them in great honor. There is an oracle of Zeus there, and they make war according to its pronouncements.”[19]

            Meroe offered tremendous economic opportunities. The area was rich in iron ore and timber to make charcoal. Meroe was one of the earliest centers of iron working in Africa.  Today the remains of huge heaps of slag, the waste from smelting, rise out of the desert, indicating the importance of this ancient activity.

            Meroe was equally good for rainfall agriculture.  Whereas the older capital at Napata could not support a large population, Meroe offered abundant land for such cereals as millet and sorghum and grazing for cattle. A mixed farming economy was therefore possible.

            Meroe’s rulers maintained the old trade links with Egypt in a shorter route that avoided the perils of the second and third cataracts. In addition, they exploited the outlet to the Red Sea, the trading artery between India, Asia, and the Mediterranean.  Kush was to become prosperous as a result of this trade. It controlled trade routes from the Red Sea to the Nile.  Caravans brought Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian influences that the people of Meroe adapted to their own culture.

            Kush civilization attained its peak from 250 B.C. to A.D. 150.  Meroe developed its own distinctive culture, shedding many Egyptian ones.The people erected impressive pyramids and temples and crafted exquisite pottery and ornaments.  A Meroitic language, with a written form, replaced Egyptian. New gods and shrines were created, the most popular being the Lion God, Apedemek, portrayed as a lion’s head either on the body of a man or snake. Meroitic art and architecture depicted engravings, pictures and statues of tropical animals as lion, giraffe, elephant and ostrich. The king and his mother were both powerful.

            The kingdom of Kush ended after 300 A.D. partly because of decline in trade and the over-exploitation of its environment, especially timber. The land lost its fertility and could no longer support a thriving population. In about 350 A.D., the emerging kingdom of Aksum invaded Kush and brought its  glory to an end.


Situated in the Ethiopian Highlands south of Kush, Aksum straddled the trade routes from the Red Sea into Egypt and the interior of Africa.  Its people had lived here at least since the 6th c. B.C. They developed the Ge’ez language, the predecessor of the modern Amhara of Ethiopia.  By the first century A.D. they had developed the independent kingdom of Aksum and established a thriving sea port at Adulis which became the leading ivory market in northeast Africa. Prosperity followed, and by A.D. 300 Aksum was on the way to becoming a military and economic power.[20] In A.D. 350,  King Ezana (320-350 A.D.) of Aksum inflicted a crushing defeat on Kush and established a thriving kingdom.

Ezana was a powerful king. Like other kings of Aksum, he exercised direct power in the capital. Outside of the center, the king collected tributes from regional rulers. Ezana derived his wealth from the control of foreign trade. At Adulis his officials collected taxes on imports and exports. He and other rulers imported gold, silver, wine and olive oil. Irrigation and terrace agriculture was the main occupation of Ezana’s subjects.

            During his reign, Ezana converted to Christianity. THis may have been a move designed to improve diplomatic and trading connections with the eastern Mediterranean. It may also have been a matter of conscience. After his conversion, he proclaimed his purpose as king in granite inscriptions that still survive:

“I will rule the people with righteousness and justice, and will not oppress them, and may they preserve this Throne, which I have set up for the Lord of Heaven.”[21]

Under Ezana’s rule, Aksum reached the height of its prosperity.       

            Aksum was famous for at least four things. First, it was a center of trade. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, it controlled the African side of the Red Sea trade.  It sent war elephants, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, incense, and spices to the Mediterranean world by way of Egypt. Second, it was a naval power with interests in the Rea Sea. Third, it had skilled craftsmen. By 300 A.D., it was already minting its own coinage, used for transactions at Adulis. Also manufactured were luxury goods such as glass crystal, brass and copper, all exported to Egypt and the Roman Empire. Building in stones reached a high perfection. Temples, tombs and palaces of stones were built. Impressive monuments, known as stelae, stand to this day--these were thin, tall, many storied-houses built to mark the tombs of rulers. Finally, it was one of the earliest African Christian state. The new religion incorporated many elements of the people’s traditional beliefs, and has remained an important influence on the region.

             Aksum declined during the 8th c. A.D. because of environmental deterioration, the loss of trade to the Persians and Arabs, and its invasion by the Arabs.  Long-term cutting down of trees and excessive land use brought about erosion. By the end of the 6th c. A.D., it was expelled from the Arabian Peninsula by the Persians, their trade rival. By the early 700s, Muslim forces controlled both the Arabian and the African sides of the Red Sea. The rise of Islam and its spread weakened the trading role of Aksum, as trade between the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean was diverted to the Persian Gulf away from the Red Sea.  By 800 A.D. Aksum had lost most of its power and external trade. What it was able to retain was Christianity, which survived the Islamic onslaught of the 7th and 8th centuries.