The Kush & Axum Civilizations on the Swahili Coast: Development & Interactions

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  • 0:02 Kingdoms of Kush and Axum
  • 0:37 Kush
  • 3:02 Axum
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the rise and fall of two African kingdoms in East Africa, Kush and Axum, which were both established by utilizing their unique positions to exploit regional trade.

Kingdoms of Kush and Axum

In most things in life the old adage that 'the old gives way to the new' applies: older statesmen retire and are replaced by junior politicians, and more advanced technology fades away in favor of the latest and greatest. History is not immune to this process, and it seems no matter what region you study, one empire or country invariably makes way for another after a while. Such was certainly the case in ancient East Africa, where Egypt was the most influential power for millennia before its power faded and gave way to more powerful southern kingdoms such as Kush and Axum.


The traditional homeland of the Kush Kingdom is in the Nile River valley just like Egypt. However, it began much farther south than Egypt, south of the third cataract. Here, the seasonal floods that made agriculture in the lower Nile sustainable were far less intense, and as such most historians believe it was settled later than Egypt. In addition, the people of Kush built their kingdom on trading, especially with their northern Egyptian neighbors. They served as a gateway of sorts to the goods of central and southern Africa, including ivory, gold, and slaves.

It is not known exactly when Kush was established as a kingdom. Early Kush may have merely been a conglomeration of trading settlements and outposts, more a region called 'Kush' by the early Egyptians rather than a bona fide kingdom or empire. Nonetheless, Kush eventually developed into a sovereign kingdom, and its regional clout often hinged upon the power of the Egyptians to the north. For example, when Egypt was conquered and ruled in the second millennium by the Hyksos people, Kush's regional power flourished until the New Kingdom forced out the Hyksos and colonized Kush.

Kush was not able to completely come out of Egypt's shadow until the fall of the New Kingdom in the 11th century B.C.E. Egypt's collapse signaled the beginning of Kush's greatest influence and power. Kush's rulers moved the Kushite capital further up the Nile to Napata and Kush's rulers conquered large portions of Egypt even further north. As a result, Kush's rulers largely appropriated Egyptian titles, symbols, and customs, seeing themselves as the rightful heirs of the Egyptian Empire. For the next few centuries, their rulers built Egyptian pyramids, adopted Egyptian architectural techniques, and even mimicked earlier Egyptian art.

This golden period for Kush came to an end in the 6th century B.C.E. when the Assyrians invaded Egypt from across the Sinai Peninsula. The Assyrians pushed the Kushites back south, forcing them to move their capital further south and return their attentions to acting as a conduit for trade. Kush was largely cut off from the Mediterranean world after the Assyrian invasion, and as a result Kush developed sophisticated and unique architecture and culture over the following centuries. Despite Kush's domestic resurgence, it never regained the military and political power it held after the fall of the New Kingdom, and over time Kush gradually weakened until internal rebellion and attacks from foreign invaders caused Kush to collapse in the 4th century C.E.


Kush was replaced by several smaller kingdoms along the Nile, though the next powerful civilization to rise in East Africa began further south in Axum. The kingdom of Axum began as a small city in what is today northern Ethiopia in the Ethiopian highlands. Situated near the Red Sea, Axum was perfectly poised to become a major player in international trade. Axum rapidly grew wealthy from this trade, dealing in everything from African goods such as gold, ivory, and slaves to Mediterranean goods and products from the Far East.

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