Africa's First Civilizations: Egypt, Kush & Axum

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  • 0:02 Why Africa?
  • 0:57 Egypt
  • 3:10 Kush
  • 5:34 Axum
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of three of the first great civilizations of Africa: Egypt, Kush, and Axum. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Why Africa?

Africa has been called the cradle of civilization. Nice image, right? Civilization as a baby, sheltered in a cradle made of lions, poisonous snakes, and vast expanses of unforgiving desert. That doesn't exactly sound like a nurturing environment. So, why Africa?

The harsher environments of Africa surrounded a few areas that were lush, fertile, and prosperous. This caused the people of the harsher environments to move there. Many people living in one area spelled a need for governments and complex societies. Being surrounded by the deserts and jungles of Africa also made these populations think about their resources, and they relied on their creativity and ingenuity to control the production, trade, and defense of important goods. Some of Africa's first major civilizations developed this way, including Egypt, Kush, and Axum.


Egypt is located in Northeastern Africa, right on the Nile River. This gigantic and abundant river provided for the people since the dawn of humanity. In the tenth millennia BC, the nomadic hunter-gatherers were replaced by the first culture to grow and harvest grains, introducing early agriculture to the region. By around 6000 BC, these people developed a Neolithic society, meaning they lived in solely one place, relied on agriculture, and had complex societies with rulers and professional labor. These people developed continually more complex cultures, leading to inventions, like writing, around 3200 BC.

Around 3150 BC, a ruler named Menes unified several societies and formed the first kingdom of Egypt. This first kingdom set the stage for the rise of a highly advanced civilization that controlled Egypt from roughly 2700-2200 BC, called the Old Kingdom. During this time, the kings of Egypt first adopted the title pharaoh, a name derived from the royal palace.

Egypt was consolidated and expanded into a large kingdom that controlled the Nile and several provinces around it. With the rise of more complex civilization, the Egyptians developed new forms of art and architecture, creating ornate golden palaces and massive pyramids. They traded with other kingdoms for precious metals and resources, assembled a powerful army with metal weapons, and ruled as gods.

After a period of instability at the end of the Old Kingdom era, the pharaoh, Ahmose I, reunified the kingdom and started the New Kingdom, lasting from roughly 1550-1070 BC. During the New Kingdom period, Egypt became a truly international power, expanding its empire as far south as Nubia and directing complex trade networks. Egypt remained a strong power throughout the history of the ancient world, although in 343 BC, it was conquered by the Persians, and later the Greeks and Romans. Even as parts of these other empires, Egypt remained an intellectual, political and economic center where trade, philosophy, art, and religion were exchanged.


In an area full of people competing for power and resources, each culture affected the rise and fall of others. On Egypt's southern border was another powerful state, the Kingdom of Kush, located on important tributaries of the Nile near modern-day Sudan. The people of Kush developed complex societies by at least the 21st century BC, when the Egyptian pharaoh, Mentuhotep II, decided they were large enough to be worth invading. Throughout Egypt's New Kingdom period, Kush was a colony of Egypt. This helped them develop the infrastructure of a kingdom, but it kept them politically- and economically-subjugated to the pharaoh. However, around 1070 BC, the New Kingdom was severely weakened and in sharp decline, and the Kushite people were able to gain their independence and form their own Kingdom of Kush.

As Kush grew in power, the eyes of their kings turned on the still-wealthy Egypt. King Kashta of Kush managed to insert his daughter into Egyptian politics, giving him a chance to establish garrisons of troops in major Egyptian cities, and essentially bringing Egypt into the Kingdom of Kush through peaceful assimilation. His son, King Piye, expanded this control through a series of military victories, formally conquering the entire kingdom of Egypt. Kush controlled Egypt from 760 BC until 656 BC, when the Egyptian ruler, Psamtik I, conquered the Egyptian capital. As rulers of Egypt, the Kush adopted many Egyptian practices and advanced their own writing, art, and architecture.

After losing control of Egypt, the kings of Kush moved the capital city and began a new era as a powerful trading center. However, new powers were also entering the region in this time. One of them was Rome, a powerful Italian republic starting its transition into empire. Rome invaded the Kingdom of Kush in the first century BC, achieving major victories before the Kushites signed the Romans' peace treaties. In some ways, this helped Kush, and their trade with Rome greatly increased. However, by the first century AD, Kush was in decline and open to invasion from other local kingdoms. They effectively lost all power by the fourth century AD as internal rebellions tore the government apart and were formally dissolved in the sixth century.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Africa's First Civilizations:

Geography Prompt 1:

Devise a map of Africa and draw in exactly where the civilizations of Egypt, Kush, and Axum were located. Be sure to not only label the locations of the civilizations, but write in the years of their existences as well. You might also want to list the names of some of the notable rulers, as well as a unique cultural fact for each empire. Color coding might be useful for your map.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs that describes the similarities and differences between Egypt's Old Kingdom and its New Kingdom.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs that explains the similarities and differences between the Kingdom of Kush and that of Egypt. Be sure to explain what kinds cultural practices and methods of governance the rulers of the Kingdom of Kush borrowed from Egypt, as well as ways in which Kushite culture was unique.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs that describes the culture and religion of Axum.

Discussion Prompt 1:

Either in class or in an online discussion forum, answer the following questions: What accounted for the rise of the civilizations of Egypt, Kush, and Axum? What accounted for their downfalls?

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