Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
Who Were the Kush?
The Kush civilization developed beyond the reach of the Pharaoh's administrators, just past the point where the first rapids of the Nile River made communication by boat difficult. The Kush capitalized on their location between Egypt, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, and grew rich from the resulting trade. In the markets of the Kush, jewels, hides, and ivory from southern Africa found the merchants who would eventually take them from Greece to India, including Egypt.
That said, the Kush themselves were not just middlemen and built some of the most sophisticated implements for ironworking in the ancient world. Primary among these is one of the first blast furnaces for smelting iron. Blast furnaces introduce extra oxygen to the reaction between iron and heat, allowing it to become much harder and hold a much finer edge. Beyond ironworking, the Kush also innovated with regards to irrigation. Like the Egyptians to the north, they relied on the annual flood of the Nile to fertilize their crops, but also built irrigation ditches in the event of a weak flood.
Kushite Relationship with Egypt
As you might expect, the Kush and Egypt had a complicated relationship. While the Egyptians were much stronger for much of their history, they were jealous of the wealth of the Kush. Additionally, the Kush were admirers of Egyptian civilization. In fact, one of the most enduring legacies that was left behind by the residents of Kush were their pyramids. These pyramids are obviously modeled on those of the Egyptians, even though they look different. While the Egyptian pyramids had broad bases, the Kush pyramids, also called Nubian Pyramids, were much narrower, and often significantly shorter. Additionally, the Kush borrowed heavily from Egyptian mythology, even though they kept many of their own gods alongside the Egyptian imports.
Despite fact that it was rare for the Egyptians to be able to demonstrate any real political or military power south of the first rapids on the Nile, that did not mean that the Egyptians were content to just push their culture onto the Kush. Far from it, on those occasions when the Egyptians were able to press their rule further south, they capitalized on the opportunity to show the Kush who was boss.
A perfect example of this comes from the time period of Ramses the Great, arguably one of the most important Pharaohs in Egyptian history. His military managed to push Egypt's southern border deep into Kush territory. As a reminder to the Kush that he had accomplished this, he built one of the most massive temple complexes constructed in ancient Egypt at Abu Simbel. Of course, this grandeur as an exercise in control was largely lost on the Kush, who were, as I said before, already quite in love with all things Egyptian.
Kushite Conquest of Egypt
Yet the Egyptians were not always the stronger of the two. From 760 to 656 BCE, the Kush actually conquered Egypt. However, unlike other periods of Egyptian history, where the dynastic chain is interrupted due to 'Sea Peoples Invasion' or some other excuse, the ancient Egyptians seemingly just shrugged their shoulders and decided to refer to the Kush as just another dynasty. This could have been due to the fact that for the past several hundred years, things had not been going well for the Egyptians. The central government was weak and fighting off attacks from Libyan tribal raiders. Simply put, the Kush who conquered Egypt, led by King Piye, had a relatively easy task ahead of them. Once they had succeeded, they changed very little of the methodology used by native Egyptian pharaohs. As such, the time period during which the Kush ruled Egypt is called the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, which gives historians an unremarkable name for a foreign occupation.
Of course, the Kush were quite unlike any other conqueror Egypt would ever know. While other groups either replaced, downplayed, or just ignored the contributions of Egyptian culture, the Kush actively celebrated it. In fact, the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty is less remembered as a time of foreign conquest, but instead more regarded as a period of cultural rebirth. This is a result of the Kush wanting to recreate the grandeur of earlier Egyptian culture, the same aspects that had impressed the Kush in centuries past, in their own reign as Pharaohs of Egypt.
That said, the Kush were not just interested in Egypt for its culture. In fact, the land of the Pharaohs played a very practical purpose for the people of Kush in that it helped to protect them from invasion by the Assyrian Empire, which was conquering much of the Near East. In fact, it was the Assyrians who would eventually force the Kush out of Egypt, as the Assyrians conquered much of Egypt.
In this lesson, we looked at the Kushite conquest of Egypt. We first looked at the Kush as a distinct civilization, especially with regards to metalworking, agriculture, and trade practices. Then we saw how obsessed the Kush were with Egyptian society, and how the Egyptians often tried to prove their superiority over the Kush in ways that really just made the Kush love Egyptian culture even more. Finally, we saw how when the Kush ruled in Egypt. They largely kept things the way that they had always been, as clear evidence for their love of Egyptian culture.
After you've reviewed this video lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the Kush civilization, including its likeness and its distinctness from Egyptian culture
- Recall the impact of Egyptian attempts to express superiority over the Kush
- Explain the time period of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty
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