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Rare Nubian King Statues Uncovered in Sudan

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 27, 2003
 
Statues from a highly advanced African civilization that thrived for 1,200 years along the banks of the Nile River have been uncovered by a team of archaeologists working in Sudan.

"The statues are sculptural masterpieces and important additions to our knowledge of the history of the region," said Charles Bonnet, an archaeologist with the University of Geneva in Switzerland who led the team.

The statues were found in a pit in Kerma, south of the Third Cataract of the Nile.

"The general public is familiar with Egypt and the pharaohs, but it is not so aware that there was a highly important, sophisticated, and independent ancient civilization in Nubia, which is now the northern Sudan," said Tim Kendall, a Sudan archaeologist and visiting research scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.



The seven statues, which stood between 1.3 to 2.7 meters (4 to 10 feet) tall, were inscribed with the names of five of Nubia's kings: Taharqa, Tanoutamon, Senkamanisken, Anlamani, and Aspelta.

Taharqa and Tanoutamon ruled Egypt as well as Nubia. Sometimes known as the "Black Pharaohs," Nubian kings ruled Egypt from roughly 760 B.C. to 660 B.C. [see sidebar]

The land the Egyptians called Kush was situated at the nexus of important trade routes between central Africa and Egypt. The kingdom—which extended from what is today southern Egypt to northern Sudan—had a long and tangled history with ancient Egypt, a history that see-sawed between periods of warfare and occupation, and peace and prosperity.

The Kingdom of Kush

Archaeologists have found evidence of several early cultures in Nubia beginning about 3500 B.C. Central African products found in Egypt suggest to scholars that these early kingdoms traded with one another and that Nubia provided a connection along the Nile between central Africa and Egypt.

"When the Egyptians originally started exploring Nubia, which at that point consisted of many different tribes, the people of northern Sudan were very friendly with the Egyptians, and the rulers had good relations with the Egyptian pharaoh," said Kendall. "But that didn't last."

The Egyptians, feeling threatened, invaded and conquered Kush.

"Between about 1500 B.C. and 1100 B.C., Kush was administered as a province of Egypt," said William Y. Adams, a noted archaeologist from the University of Kentucky, who has spent many years excavating in Sudan.

This allowed the Egyptians to control its trade, and especially to control its important gold mines, which made Egypt the richest nation on Earth between about 1500 and 1100 B.C.

"What's interesting is that in military endeavors in other countries, the Egyptians let the conquered peoples maintain their own traditions and modes of worship," said Kendall. "With Kush there was much more give and take, and the Egyptians tried to incorporate or combine Nubian religious beliefs with their own. They seem to have combined their own state god, Amun, with the Nubian god and promoted the idea that these two gods were the same. This allowed the pharaohs, who claimed to be the sons of Amun, to claim to be the legitimate rulers of Nubia also."

When the Egyptians withdrew from Nubia around 1100 B.C.—for unknown reasons—a group of powerful local rulers arose. These kings of Kush also claimed to be the sons of Amun, and therefore the legitimate kings of Egypt.

Nubian Rule Over Egypt

The Nubian kings came to rule Egypt as the result of a power struggle between the reigning Egyptian kings in northern Egypt and the powerful priests of Amun in Thebes, a powerful city-state in southern Egypt.

"The priests in Thebes realized they couldn't stop the fighting themselves, so they invited the Nubian king to come to Egypt and restore order," said Adams. "One of the main reasons why Kashta [the Kush king] was willing to take on this role was that he was a puritan; he felt that Egypt had fallen into corrupt and decadent ways, and he had a real mission to restore the worship of Amun.

"He didn't stay long but his successor, Piankhy, came to Thebes, received the blessings of the priests, proceeded north and conquered and reunified the warring states," said Adams.

In addition to reunifying Egypt, the Nubian kings sought to bring back the glory days of Egypt and began a cultural renaissance. They produced beautiful sculptures and other art objects, in addition to building many superb temples and other monuments, said Kendall. The Nubian period in Egypt is known as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

"Just as Egypt was reaching a new Golden Age [under the Nubian kings], the Assyrians invaded Egypt, and brought destruction as far as Thebes," said Kendall. "They butchered the people, and the Nubian kings fled with the remnants of their army and court south to Kush, barely escaping with their lives."

The Nubian kings were much weakened at this point, but remained quite vocal about their claims to the kingship of Egypt. Meanwhile a new dynasty formed in northern Egypt and established control over Egypt.

"Around 593 B.C., the Egyptian king, named Psamtik II, had had enough of the Kush kings claiming his throne. He invaded Nubia with Egyptian troops, Greek mercenaries, and a fleet of ships," said Kendall.

Bonnet believes the statues he found were pulled down and smashed during this invasion.

"They were broken by the king Psamtik II [who ruled Egypt from 595 to 589 B.C.] during his military campaign," said Bonnet. "Later, they were buried into the pit, probably by the king Aspelta." Aspelta ruled Kush from around 600 to 580 B.C.

"After the statues were destroyed, we know that Aspelta ruled a long time afterwards and expanded his empire to the south," said Kendall.

Psamtik II's invasion was the last successful incursion by Egypt into the kingdom of Kush.

"Ironically," said Kendall, "less than 70 years passed before Egypt was conquered by Persia, then by Macedon, and finally by Rome, all of which put an end to native rule. The kingdom of Kush, however, continued to flourish under an unbroken line of kings until the fourth century A.D."
 

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