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Humanities Libertexts

Section 2: Northern Africa

Post-Byzantine Egypt

The Muslim conquest of Egypt took place shortly after Muhammad’s death, but it was three centuries later, under the Fatimid Caliphate, that the region became the center of the Islamic world.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Discuss the effects of the Islamic conquest on Egypt

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • At the onset of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Egypt was part of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, with the capital in Constantinople. The province held strategic importance for its grain production and naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa.
  • In 639, Rashidun troops led by Amr ibn al-As were sent to conquer Egypt. The Rashidun army crossed into Egypt from Palestine and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The Muslim forces eventually defeated a Byzantine army at the 640 Battle of Heliopolis. Alexandria and the Thebaid surrendered shortly after that.
  • Following the first surrender of Alexandria, Amr chose a new site to settle his men, near the location of the Byzantine fortress of Babylon. The new settlement was called Fustat, and quickly became the focal point of Islamic Egypt.
  • The main pillar of the early Muslim rule and control in the country was the military force, or jund, provided by the Arab settlers. These were initially the men who had followed Amr and participated in the conquest.
  • The Fatimid Caliphate conquered Egypt in 969, founding a new capital in Cairo, which was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army. Under Fatimid rule, Egypt became the center of the caliphate.
  • Under Fatimid rule, Egypt flourished economically and and culturally, attracting scholars and thinkers from across the world and becoming the center of intellectual debates and freedom of expression.

Key Terms

  • caliphate: An area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community. During the history of Islam after the Rashidun period, many Muslim states, almost all of them hereditary monarchies, have claimed the right to be defined as such.
  • The Rashidun Caliphat: The Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam, comprising the first four caliphs—the “Rightly Guided” caliphs. It was founded after Muhammad’s death in 632 (year 11 AH in the Islamic calendar). At its height, the caliphate controlled an empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Caucasus in the north, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plateau to Central Asia in the east.
  • Copts: An ethno-religious group situated in North Africa and the Middle East, mainly in the area of modern Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination. They are also the largest Christian denomination in Sudan and Libya. Historically they spoke the Coptic language, a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian spoken in the Roman era, but it has been near-extinct and mostly limited to liturgical use since the 18th century. They now speak Arabic.
  • mamluk: An Arabic designation for slaves.
    While they were purchased, their status was above ordinary slaves, who were not allowed to carry weapons or perform certain tasks. They eventually formed a powerful military caste.
  • Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire: The continuation of the Roman Empire in the East during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, originally founded as Byzantium). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
  • The Fatimid Caliphate: An Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa, and it was under its rule that Egypt became the center of the caliphate. At its height the caliphate included, in addition to Egypt, varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

Egypt in the Byzantine Empire

At the onset of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Egypt was part of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, with the capital in Constantinople.
The province held strategic importance for its grain production and naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa. Shortly before the Muslim conquest, Egypt had been conquered by the Persian Empire (619–629). However, Emperor Heraclius re-captured it after a series of campaigns against the Sassanid Persians, only to lose it to the Muslim Rashidun army ten years later. Before the Muslim conquest of Egypt began, the Byzantines had already lost the Levant  and their Arab ally, the Ghassanid Kingdom, to the Muslims. All of this left the Byzantine Empire dangerously exposed and vulnerable.

Rashidun Conquest

The Rashidun Caliphate was the Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam, comprising the first four caliphs. It was founded after Muhammad ‘s death in 632 (year 11 AH in the Islamic calendar). At its height, the caliphate controlled an empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Caucasus in the north, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plateau to Central Asia in the east. Caliph Umar conquered more than 2,200,000 km² area in less than ten years and is known as the most powerful caliph in the history of Islam.

In 639, some 4,000 Rashidun troops led by Amr ibn al-As were sent by Umar to conquer the land of the ancient pharaohs. The Rashidun army crossed into Egypt from Palestine and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The imperial garrisons retreated into the walled towns, where they successfully held out for a year or more. But the Muslims sent for reinforcements and the invading army, joined by another 12,000 men in 640, defeated a Byzantine army at the Battle of Heliopolis. Amr next proceeded in the direction of Alexandria, which was surrendered to him by a treaty signed in November 641. The Thebaid seems to have surrendered with scarcely any opposition.

Today, the Rashidun Calipate is part of 30 countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

Empire of the Rashidun Caliphate at its peak

The Rashidun Caliphate expanded gradually. Within the span of twenty-four years of conquest, a vast territory was conquered comprising Mesopotamia, the Levant, parts of Anatolia, and most of the Sasanian Empire. Unlike the Sasanian Persians, the Byzantines, after losing Syria, retreated back to Anatolia. As a result, they also lost Egypt to the invading Rashidun army.

Early Islamic Egypt

Following the first surrender of Alexandria, Amr chose a new site to settle his men, near the location of the Byzantine fortress of Babylon. The new settlement was called Fustat. Fustat quickly became the focal point of Islamic Egypt and—with the exception of the brief relocation to Hulwan during a plague in 689, and the period of 750–763, when the seat of the governor moved to Askar—the capital and residence of the administration. After the conquest, the country was initially divided in two provinces, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt with the Nile Delta. In 643/4, however, Caliph Uthman appointed a single governor, resident at Fustat, with jurisdiction over all of Egypt. The governor would in turn nominate deputies for Upper and Lower Egypt. Alexandria remained a distinct district, reflecting both its role as the country’s shield against Byzantine attacks and as the major naval base.

The main pillar of the early Muslim rule and control in the country was the military force, or jund, provided by the Arab settlers. These were initially the men who had followed Amr and participated in the conquest. The followers of Amr were mostly drawn from the Yamani. Although limited in number, they held many privileges and a protected status of prestige.

In return for a tribute of money and food for the occupying troops, the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were excused from military service and left free in the observance of their religion and the administration of their affairs. Conversions of Copts to Islam were at first rare, and the old system of taxation was maintained for the greater part of the first Islamic century.

Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate

The Fatimid Caliphate  was an Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and it was under its rule that Egypt became the center of the caliphate. At its height the caliphate included, in addition to Egypt, varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

The Fatimid general Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969 and built a new palace city there, near Fusṭat, founding a new capital in Cairo in 969. Cairo was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army, though the actual administrative and economic capital of Egypt was in Fustat until 1169. Egypt flourished and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song dynasty, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages. The Fatimid focus on long-distance trade was accompanied by a lack of interest in agriculture and a neglect of the Nile irrigation system.

Unlike western European governments in the era, advancement in Fatimid state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islam, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. Tolerance was extended to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews, who occupied high levels in government based on ability. Religious tolerance was set into place also to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims in order to finance the caliphs’ large army of mamluks (an Arabic designation for slaves)
brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants.
Over time, mamluks became a powerful military knightly caste, not only in Egypt. In some cases, they attained the rank of sultan, while in others they held regional power.

image

An Egyptian Mamluk warrior in full armor and armed with lance, shield, sabre, and pistols; Georg Moritz Ebers (1837-1898), Picturesque Egypt, Vol. II (1878).

In the Middle Ages, soon after the mamluks took up the practice of chivalry, or furusiyya in Arabic, they came to be known as knights (or faris in Arabic), though un-free until after their service. The faris were trained in the use of various weapons and in wrestling. Their martial art skills were to be honed first on foot and then perfected when mounted. They were popularly used as heavy knightly cavalry by a number of different Islamic kingdoms and empires.

Intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid period advanced greatly, with many scholars living in or visiting Egypt and having easy access to sophisticated libraries. Fatimid caliphs gave prominent positions to scholars in their courts, encouraged scholarship, and established libraries in their palaces. Perhaps the most significant feature of Fatimid rule was the freedom of thought, provided that no one infringed on the rights of others. The Fatimids reserved separate pulpits for different Islamic sects, where the scholars expressed their various ideas. They offered patronage to scholars and invited them from all over the world, even when their beliefs conflicted with their own. From the perspective of these developments, the history of the Fatimids is the history of knowledge, literature, and philosophy.
The period is also known for producing exquisite art and architecture.

During the late 11th century and the twelfth century, the Fatimid Caliphate declined rapidly, and in 1171 Saladin invaded their territory. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty and incorporated the Fatimid state into the Abbasid Caliphate.

Islamic Conquest of the Maghreb

The Islamic conquest of the Maghreb region took place largely under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), which at the peak of its influence ruled one of the vastest empires ever to exist.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Discuss the effects the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb had on the area

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632. The conquest of the Maghreb region (more or less west of Egypt) took place largely under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750).
  • The Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan in 661. Syria was the Umayyads’ main power base,  and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, creating one of the vastest empires in human history.
  • The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times. Departing from Damascus, Arab forces marched into North Africa, and in 670 the city of Kairouan (south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations.
  • By 698, the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers. Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708.
  • Arab expansion and the spread of Islam into the Maghreb pushed the development of trans-Saharan trade. Though restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable.
  • The conventional historical view that the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad Caliphate effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries has been recently questioned by historians who found evidence that Christianity persisted in the region for centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest.

Key Terms

  • The Maghreb: Much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition as the region including the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya was later superseded by the inclusion of Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara (mostly controlled by Morocco).
  • the Umayyad Caliphate: The second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. This caliphate was centered on the Umayyad dynasty, hailing from Mecca. The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE/41 AH. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital.
  • caliphate: An area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community. During the history of Islam after the Rashidun period, many Muslim states, almost all of them hereditary monarchies, have claimed the right to be defined as such.
  • Berbers: An ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They are distributed in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. Historically, they spoke Berber languages, which together form the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, a large number of them inhabiting the Maghreb have acquired different degrees of knowledge of varieties of the languages of North Africa.

The Maghreb and Islam

The Maghreb is usually defined as much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of today’s Egypt. It is important to keep in mind, however, that because of the constantly changing borders of the first caliphates in the region, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb is intertwined with the history of the territories east of the border of the region that is today defined as the Maghreb. Consequently, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb and the history of the Muslim conquest of a greater North African region (reaching far into the Middle East) cannot be sharply distinguished.

The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. By 642, the Arabs controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria, had invaded Armenia, and were concluding their conquest of the Persian Empire. It was at this point that Arab military expeditions into North African regions west of Egypt were first launched, continuing for years and furthering the spread of Islam. The conquest of the Maghreb region (more or less west of Egypt) took place largely under
the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), which was the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad.

The Umayyad Caliphate

The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE/41 AH. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Caucasus, Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb, and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles) and 62 million people (29% of the world’s population), making it the fifth largest empire in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population.

The Conquest

The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times.

The years 665–689 saw another Arab invasion of North Africa. It began with an army of more than 40,000 Muslims advancing through the desert to Barca and marching to the neighborhood of Carthage (today’s Tunisia). Next came a force of 10,000 led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and in 670 the city of Kairouan (south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations. This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of today’s western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. After this, Uqba ibn Nafi moved forward until reaching the Atlantic coast. In his conquest of the Maghreb, he besieged the coastal city of Bugia as well as Tingi or Tangier, overwhelming what had once been the traditional Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. However, he was stopped and partially repulsed here. Unable to occupy Tangier, he was recalled from the coast. On his return, a Berber -Byzantine coalition ambushed and crushed his forces near Biskra, killing Uqba and wiping out his troops.

Meanwhile, a new civil war among rivals for the monarchy raged in Arabia and Syria. It resulted in a series of four caliphs between the death of Muawiya in 680 and the accession of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (Abdalmalek) in 685. Strife ended only in 692, which brought about a return of domestic order that allowed the caliph to resume the Islamic conquest of North Africa. It began with the renewed invasion of Ifriqiya, but the Byzantine Empire responded with troops from Constantinople, joined by soldiers and ships from Sicily and a powerful contingent of Visigoths from Hispania. This forced the invading Arab army to run back to Kairouan (today’s Tunisia). The following spring, however, the Arabs launched a new assault by sea and land, forcing the Byzantines and their allies to evacuate Carthage. The Arabs slaughtered the civilians, totally destroyed the city, and burned it to the ground, leaving the area desolate for the next two centuries. After the departure of the main force of the Byzantines and their allies, another battle was fought near Utica and the Arabs were again victorious, forcing the Byzantines to leave that part of North Africa for good.

By 698, the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers.
Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708. After the fall of Tangiers, many Berbers joined the Muslim army. In 740, Umayyad rule in the region was shaken by a major Berber revolt. After a series of defeats, the caliphate was finally able to crush the rebellion in 742, although local Berber dynasties continued to drift away from imperial control from that time on.

The map shows that under Muhammad, the caliphate expanded to cover most of the Arabian Peninsula from 622-632. Under the Rashidun Caliphate, the caliphate expanded west to Libya, north to Russia, and east to Afghanistan from 632-661. Under the Umayyad Caliphate, the caliphate expanded west to Morocco and east to India from 661-750.

Age of the Caliphs: [dark purple] Expansion under the Prophet Mohammad, 622-632; [dark pink] Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661; [dark orange] Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750.

Effects of the Arab Conquest on the Maghreb

Arab expansion and the spread of Islam into the Maghreb pushed the development of trans-Saharan trade. Though restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable. Commodities traded included such goods as salt, gold, and ivory. Slaves were also transferred. Arab control over the Maghreb was quite weak. Various Islamic variations, such as the Ibadis and the Shia, were adopted by some Berbers, often leading to scorning of caliph control in favor of other interpretations of Islam. The Arabic language became widespread only later.

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad Caliphate effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries. The prevailing view is that the church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies, and that this contributed to the early obliteration of the church in the present day Maghreb. However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes these claims. There are reports that Christianity persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700.

Nubia

Nubia, known also as the Kingdom of Kush, was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa and home to one of the African empires that, because of its proximity to and relations with Egypt, remains a lesser known chapter of ancient history.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Explain some of the sources of wealth that the Kingdom of Kush had access to

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 BCE, and was home to one of the African empires.
  • Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia). With the disintegration of the New Kingdom around 1070 BCE, Kush became an independent kingdom centered at Napata in modern central Sudan.
  • Alara, a King of Kush who is the first recorded prince of Nubia, founded the Napatan, or Twenty-fifth, Kushite dynasty at Napata in Nubia, now the Sudan. Alara’s successor, Kashta, extended Kushite control north to Elephantine and Thebesin Upper Egypt. Kashta’s successor, Piye, seized control of Lower Egypt around 727 BCE, creating the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt.
  • The power of the Twenty-fifth dynasty reached a climax under Taharqa. The Nile valley empire was as large as it had been since the New Kingdom. New prosperity revived Egyptian culture. Religion, the arts, and architecture were restored to their glorious Old, Middle, and New Kingdom forms. It was during the Twenty-fifth dynasty that the Nile valley saw the first widespread construction of pyramids (many in modern Sudan) since the Middle Kingdom.
  • After brief military successes, Taharqa’s successor, Tantamani, was chased back to Nubia, and never threatened the Assyrian Empire again. A native Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus I, was placed on the throne as a vassal of Ashurbanipal.
  • Aspelta moved the capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata, possibly in 591 BCE. In about 300 BCE the move to Meroë was made more complete when the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. Kush began to fade as a power by the 1st or 2nd century CE.

Key Terms

  • the Old Kingdom: The name given to the period in the 3rd millennium BCE when Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization—the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods that mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley (the others being the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom).
  • the New Kingdom: The period in ancient Egyptian history between the 16th century BCE and the 11th century BCE, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth dynasties of Egypt. It followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt’s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power.
  • Kush: An ancient Nubian kingdom situated on the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile, and River Atbara in what is now the Republic of Sudan. It was centered at Napata in its early phase. After its King Kashta invaded Egypt in the 8th century BCE, its emperors ruled as pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt for a century, until they were expelled by the Assyrians under the rule of Esarhaddon.
  • the Twenty-fifth dynasty: The last dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt. It was a line of rulers originating in the Nubian Kingdom of Kush—in present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt—and most saw Napata as their spiritual homeland. They reigned in part or all of Ancient Egypt from 760 BCE to 656 BCE. Their reunification of Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Kush (Nubia) created the largest Egyptian empire since the New Kingdom. They assimilated into society by reaffirming Ancient Egyptian religious traditions, temples, and artistic forms, while introducing some unique aspects of Kushite culture.
  • the Middle Kingdom: The period in the history of ancient Egypt between about 2000 BCE and 1700 BCE, stretching from the establishment of the Eleventh dynasty to the end of the Twelfth dynasty, although some writers include the Thirteenth and Fourteenth dynasties in the Second Intermediate Period.
  • Nubia: A region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 BCE, and was home to one of the African empires. Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, it was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia).

Nubia: Introduction

Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 BCE, and home to one of the African empires. There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504 CE, when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate, resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within the Kingdom of Egypt from 1899 to 1956.

Kush

Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia). Mentuhotep II (21st century BCE founder of the Middle Kingdom) is recorded to have undertaken campaigns against Kush in the 29th and 31st years of his reign. This is the earliest Egyptian reference to Kush. The Nubian region had gone by other names in the Old Kingdom. During the New Kingdom of Egypt, Nubia (Kush) was an Egyptian colony, from the 16th century BCE. With the disintegration of the New Kingdom around 1070 BCE, Kush became an independent kingdom centered at Napata in modern central Sudan.

Control of Egypt

Alara, a King of Kush who is the first recorded prince of Nubia, founded the Napatan, or Twenty-fifth, Kushite dynasty at Napata in Nubia, now the Sudan. Alara’s successor Kashta extended Kushite control north to Elephantine and Thebesin Upper Egypt. Kashta’s successor, Piye, seized control of Lower Egypt around 727 BCE, creating the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt.

Piye was defeated by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V and then his successor Sargon II in the 720s BCE. The power of the Twenty-fifth dynasty reached a climax under Piye’s son, Taharqa. The Nile valley empire was as large as it had been since the New Kingdom. New prosperity revived Egyptian culture. Religion, the arts, and architecture were restored to their glorious Old, Middle, and New Kingdom forms. The Nubian pharaohs built or restored temples and monuments throughout the Nile valley, including Memphis, Karnak, Kawa, and Jebel Barkal. It was during the 25th dynasty that the Nile valley saw the first widespread construction of pyramids (many in modern Sudan) since the Middle Kingdom. Writing was introduced to Kush in the form of the Egyptian-influenced Meroitic script circa 700–600 BCE, although it appears to have been wholly confined to the royal court and major temples.

At its peak, the Kushite Empire extended from modern-day Lebanon, southwest to the Nile river delta, and south to modern-day Sudan

The Kushite Empire: A map showing the full extent of the Kushite Empire in 700 BCE.

Between 674 and 671 BCE the Assyrians began their invasion of Egypt under King Esarhaddon. Assyrian armies had been the best in the world since the 14th century BCE, and they conquered this vast territory with surprising speed. Taharqa was driven from power by Esarhaddon and fled to his Nubian homeland. However, the native Egyptian vassal rulers installed by Esarhaddon as puppets were unable to effectively retain full control for long without Assyrian aid. Two years later, Taharqa returned from Nubia and seized control of a section of southern Egypt as far north as Memphis from Esarhaddon’s local vassals. Esarhaddon’s successor, Ashurbanipal, sent a Turtanu (general) with a small but well-trained army that once more defeated Taharqa and ejected him from Egypt, and he was forced to flee back to his homeland in Nubia, where he died two years later.

Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamun, attempted to regain Egypt. He successfully defeated Necho, the subject ruler installed by Ashurbanipal, taking Thebes in the process. The Assyrians, who had a military presence in the north, then sent a large army southwards. Tantamani was routed, and the Assyrian army sacked Thebes to such an extent that it never truly recovered. Tantamani was chased back to Nubia, and never threatened the Assyrian Empire again. A native Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus I, was placed on the throne as a vassal of Ashurbanipal.

Move to Meroë

Aspelta,
a ruler of the kingdom of Kush from c. 600 to c. 580 BCE, moved the capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata, possibly in 591 BCE. It is also possible that Meroë had always been the Kushite capital. Historians believe that the Kushite rulers may have chosen Meroë as their home because, unlike Napata, the region around Meroë had enough woodlands to provide fuel for iron working. In addition, Kush was no longer dependent on the Nile to trade with the outside world. They could instead transport goods from Meroë to the Red Sea coast, where Greek merchants were now traveling extensively.

In about 300 BCE the move to Meroë was made more complete when the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. One theory is that this represents the monarchs breaking away from the power of the priests at Napata. Kushite civilization continued for several centuries. In the Napatan period, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used; at this time writing seems to have been restricted to the court and temples. From the 2nd century BCE there was a separate Meroitic writing system. This was an alphabetic script with twenty-three signs used in a hieroglyphic form (mainly on monumental art) and in a cursive form. The latter was widely used. So far, some 1278 texts using this version are known. The script was deciphered, but the language behind it is still a problem, with only a few words understood by modern scholars.

Kush began to fade as a power by the 1st or 2nd century CE, sapped by the war with the Roman province of Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries. Christianity began to gain over the old pharaonic religion, and by the mid-6th century CE the Kingdom of Kush was dissolved.

Nubia: The Forgotten Kingdom, Julie Anderson and Salah Ahmed (2003), Dicovery Channel

Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the Twelfth dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.

The eventual influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom around 1504. A major part of the modern Nubian population became totally Arabized, and some claimed to be Arabs. A vast majority of the Nubian population is currently Muslim, and the Arabic language is their main medium of communication in addition to their indigenous old Nubian language.

On account of the Kingdom of Kush’s proximity to Ancient Egypt—the first cataract at Elephantine usually being considered the traditional border between the two polities—and because the Twenty-fifth dynasty ruled over both states in the 8th century BCE, from the Rift Valley to the Taurus mountains, historians have closely associated the study of Kush with Egyptology. This is in keeping with the general assumption that the complex sociopolitical development of Egypt’s neighbors can be understood in terms of Egyptian models. As a result, the political structure and organization of Kush as an independent ancient state has not received as thorough attention from scholars, and there remains much ambiguity, especially surrounding the earliest periods of the state.

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The Nubian region today: With the end of colonialism and the establishment of the Republic of Egypt (1953) and the secession of the Republic of Sudan from unity with Egypt (1956), Nubia was divided between Egypt and Sudan. During the early-1970s, many Egyptian Nubians were forcibly resettled to make room for Lake Nasser after the construction of the dams at Aswan. Nubian villages can now be found north of Aswan on the west bank of the Nile and on Elephantine Island, and many Nubians now live in large cities, such as Cairo.

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