Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
As one power falls, another rises. The decline of the Kingdom of Kush was an opportunity for the Kingdom of Axum to take control of the important trade centers along the Red and Arabian Seas, which regulated trade between Rome and India. Axum was a kingdom in modern-day Ethiopia that had started expanding into an empire by the first century AD, conquering several regions that once belonged to Kush. In 350 AD, Axum formally conquered the Kingdom of Kush, incorporating it into an empire that now included Saudi Arabia as well.
Axum was one of the first major African kingdoms to adopt Christianity, which it did in the early fourth century. It developed advanced art and architecture and became one of the most powerful economic centers of the ancient world. Axum was one of the first truly great trading cities, meaning that its economy was almost entirely dependent on export and international trade. At its height, Axum was recognized by scholars of the time as one of the four greatest powers in the world, along with Persia, Rome, and China.
Axum was a Christian kingdom, and after the sixth century and the rise of Islam, it was one of the only Christian kingdoms left in that part of Africa. Islamic and Christian states often clashed, sometimes violently, but Axum was able to maintain a good relationship with Islamic kings. This was largely due to the fact that the capital of Axum had safely harbored Muslim refugees in the first decades of that religion. Nevertheless, Islamic states were growing extraordinarily powerful and soon came to dominate trade in the region. Cut off from the main source of their wealth and power, Axum entered into a quick decline and lost its status by the seventh century. By the tenth century, the last cities of Axum were defeated and the kingdom fell completely, leaving room open for new powers to rise from their ashes.
In Africa, civilization rose early as people settled in the lush areas that sheltered them from the harsh desert. The first major civilization in Africa was Egypt, centered around the lush Nile River delta. Egyptian civilization truly began around 3150 BC when the ruler Menes unified the entire area into a kingdom. By 2700 BC, the Egyptian rulers took the title pharaoh and formed an era of advanced art, architecture, and writing called the Old Kingdom. Egypt later fell into a period of instability, being reunified in the New Kingdom and remained powerful until being conquered by the Persian Empire in 343 BC.
As Egypt went into decline, it allowed one of its colonies, Kush, to gain its independence and form its own kingdom. The Kingdom of Kush rose to power around 1070 BC and became a major power in the region, even conquering Egypt for a little while. However, Kush went into decline as Rome entered the region and formally fell to internal rebellions in the first centuries AD.
And as will happen, the fall of Kush led to the rise of a new power the Kingdom of Axum, who grew to power by taking control of the international trade market that moved along the Red and Arabian Seas. Axum was one of the first major trading cities, with an economy almost entirely dependent on export and trade, but when those economic niches were dominated by new powers in the sixth century AD, Axum, too, fell into decline, leaving the cradle of civilization open to a new dominant power.
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Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons