Ancient Sub-Saharan African Civilization & Culture

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

As the great civilizations of Egypt and Greece rose in the Middle East and Europe, many vibrant societies also arose in Africa south of the Sahara desert. These peoples created great states that rivaled their northern brethren. In this lesson, we examine these societies and their impact on history.

Sub-Saharan Africa

During the ancient era, numerous civilizations began to emerge throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. These include such well-known peoples as the Chinese, the Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, Romans, and numerous others. During this same period, a number of civilizations also rose and fell in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is considered to be that part of Africa which is south of the Saharan Desert. During this era, many of these civilizations emerged on the shores of the Red Sea in the east, developing trade relations with the nations of the Middle East and India. As time went on, great cities and states began to emerge around the rivers of western Africa as well. This lesson will examine three such states; the Kush, Axum and Ghana. We will look and their unique cultures and societies and also look at their importance to world history.


One of the first civilizations to develop in Sub-Saharan Africa was the Kingdom of Kush, which was established in 1070 BCE. Kush developed to the south of Egypt along the upper Nile River, in a region known as Nubia. For much of its history, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush was the city of Meroe. Due to its relative closeness to Egypt, Kush adopted many of the same cultural practices. For instance, the Kushites also built pyramids as graves for prominent individuals. However, these pyramids were different than the Egyptian model; the pyramid was built on top of an underground burial chamber, rather than the pyramid itself being the tomb. For a short period, the Kushites also mummified their kings, but this practice died out as time went on. Unfortunately, the Kushites never created their own form of writing and, as a result, much of what we know of them comes from Egyptian sources. Luckily, the Egyptians mentioned them frequently since Kush was renowned for its gold, and Egypt traded with them often. They also had a military rivalry, resulting in countless raids into each other's territory. Eventually, a Kushite king by the name of Alara led a successful campaign that conquered all of Egypt and established the 25th Dynasty which ruled Egypt for almost 200 years. Although Kushite rule of Egypt was eventually overthrown, the Kingdom of Kush would remain a regional power until roughly the 2nd century CE. During this time it controlled the trade networks that reached deep into the interior of Africa, bringing these goods, such as ivory, to Egypt and the rest of the world.

Kushite pyramids in Meroe
Kushite Pyramids


The second civilization that we will examine is that of Axum in modern day Ethiopia. The Axum civilization centered upon the city of its own name and, at its height, from the first through the fifth century CE was a major regional power. It managed to extend its influence over the Kushites, conquering them, and even spread into the Arabian Peninsula in modern day Yemen. The Axumites created Ge'ez, the only written script developed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, the Axumites do not appear to have written any histories of their own and so, once again, much of what we know of them comes from outside descriptions and archaeology. We know that Axum was structured similarly to other societies in the Middle East and Europe at the time. It was ruled by a King and, below him, a noble class. A priestly class also appears to have been important, as were merchants, since Axum generated a lot of wealth through trade. The realm was so rich from trade that it is often thought that it inspired the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba. Not only did it trade through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, but, like the Kush, built a trade network deep into the African interior. One King who we know from history is King Ezana who was converted to Christianity by a Syrian captive in the 4th century CE. Beginning with his reign, Axum was drawn into the Christian world as the southernmost outpost of Christianity which brought it recognition from the Eastern Roman Empire. Axum also possessed a sizable Jewish population which came to be known as Beta Israel; this group wrote in the Ge'ez language and script instead of Hebrew.

Map of Axum and its position on major trade routes of the era. Axum is located north of Somalia and south of Egypt.
Silk Road Map

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