Ancient Kingdoms of East Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

East Africa was home to some of the world's first great kingdoms. In this lesson, we'll talk about the rise and fall of some of those states and see what impact they had on the world.

East Africa

East Africa may well be the birthplace of humanity. The oldest human skeletons are found in modern-day Ethiopia, and there's pretty good evidence that this is where modern humans evolved. This means that East Africa can claim a longer human heritage than anywhere else on Earth, which is pretty cool. So, it's not surprising to learn that some of the world's oldest kingdoms also developed in this area. Not all of them are names we immediately recognize today, but to people of the ancient world, there were few greater powers than those of East Africa.


Let's start with the oldest, and the one most people know the best. Located along the Nile River was the ancient kingdom of Egypt. You've probably heard of the powerful pharaohs, the magnificent pyramids, and the ancient hieroglyphic script, but where did all of this come from? Nomadic tribes developed agriculture along the Nile around 6,000 BCE, forming settled societies that eventually became larger and more complex. Egypt's first true kingdom, however, began around 3150 BCE when a ruler named Menes united these societies under his authority. This eventually led to the creation of a true Egyptian kingdom, which historians call the Old Kingdom. This political and military state dominated the Nile from roughly 2700-2200 BCE.

Egyptian pharaohs sponsored some major building projects, like the pyramids

Around 2200 BCE, the Old Kingdom collapsed and Egypt broke into a series of smaller states. They were once again reunited under the ruler named Mentuhotep II around 2055 BCE. This led to a new period of political unity and power called the Middle Kingdom. This too, however would dissolve into disunity, likely due to a succession crisis that tore the kingdom apart around 1640 BCE. It would be a hundred years before another pharaoh rose who could regain control and consolidate all of Egypt. This was Ahmose I, who founded the New Kingdom around 1550 BCE. The New Kingdom formally dissolved in 1069 BCE, but Egypt and its pharaohs remained. Egypt was a cultural and intellectual center recognized by the ancient Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and continued to play a major role in world affairs.

Nubian Kingdoms

While Egypt was a powerful kingdom of East Africa, it was not the only one. Further south along the Nile, around what is now Sudan, was a region called Nubia. The Nubian people settled there around the 5th century BCE, and started developing trade networks that would later stretch from Egypt to South Africa. By roughly 1750 BCE, the Nubian states coalesced into a true kingdom, called Kerma. Due to the monumental tombs at Kerma and a heavy focus on the afterlife, we can assume that they had a pretty close cultural relationship with Egypt. This was intensified when Kerma grew so powerful that it actually invaded and conquered Egypt after the fall of the Middle Kingdom. However, pharaohs of the early New Kingdom managed to force the Nubians out of Egypt, and went on to conquer Kerma and incorporate it into their own empire.

Nubian kings developed substantial military and economic power
Nubian king

Egyptian lords in Nubia built some impressive administrative centers, creating a functional infrastructure. Around 1070 BCE, the Egyptians had to pull out of Nubia due to instability back home, leaving all of this infrastructure behind. The Nubians easily turned this into their own kingdom, called Kush. Kush quickly became a dominant power, and one of the first major trade empires of the world with trade routes stretching to India and China. Kush's power was so great that they too invaded and conquered Egypt, ruling it from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE. Eventually Kush became so powerful that it caught the attention of other empires, like Rome, who invaded and destabilized the powerful African kingdom.


The decline of Kush meant opportunity for other aspiring kingdoms. One of these was the Aksumite Empire, based in the city of Axum. According to tradition, Axum was founded as a Semitic Jewish kingdom by the son of the Hebrew King Solomon and the queen of Sheba in the 2nd century BCE. Around 100 CE, Axum grew into a true kingdom and empire. By 350 CE, it had taken control of Kush's trade routes, instantly making it one of the greatest economic powers in the world. While Axum is not a name everyone knows today, the people of the ancient world certainly would have recognized it. In fact, the Persian prophet Mani claimed in the 3rd century CE that the four great powers of the world were Rome, Persia, China, and Axum.

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