« Search again     |     Back to AfricaAccessReview.org
Ancient Kushites
Sonnenborn, Liz; Ancient Kushites. : Franklin Watts / Scholastic, 2005. $29.50, ISBN 0-531-16847-6.

Did you know that twice as many pyramids were built by the ancient Kushites - a people also called Nubians - than by the Egyptians? Did you know that a Kushite army once repulsed Roman attack in the first century BCE? Did you know that a Kushite family's empire lasted roughly from the eighth century BCE to the fourth century CE - about 1200 years! - one of history's longest lasting dynasties?

Who are these people and why is so little known about them? If you're interested in knowing more about Nubians then this book is for you. Presented in an eye-catching design and full of well-chosen illustrations, the book covers many topics in an engaging and accessible way, divided into well-defined chapters.

The book begins with an introductory chapter called Studying the Kushites, which serves as a brief history of the archeological work done in the area, and a definition of the term "Kush", the area that begins south of the first cataract of Egypt and today encompasses southern Egypt and northern Sudan up to the sixth cataract, just north of Khartoum.

Chapter one, on the early Nubians, details the geographical surroundings of the area - a much more arid region than Egypt because the cultivable land is significantly narrower than in Egypt - and the history of its earliest inhabitants. These people, called the A-Group by archeologists, flourished from about 3500 to roughly 3000 BCE, when they were essentially harassed out of the area by their northern neighbors, who coveted the local cattle and also wished unimpeded access to the trade goods coming from the south. By the twenty-fourth century BCE, the so- called C-Group had moved into the area  perhaps the A-Group survivors who had simply moved out into the desert and were now back - and were able to engage the Egyptians on equal terms. By the middle of the sixteenth century BCE, the Egyptians wrested control of Nubia away from the local population and established a military and administrative presence there for about 500 years. The Egyptians' primary goals were to dominate the river trade as well as to mine the gold supplies of the eastern Nubian desert. In that respect, it is interesting to note that when Egypt did lose control of the area, around 1100 BCE, their economy, which had been so dependent on an unending source of gold for luxury goods at home and trade abroad, never quite recovered.

The next chapter details the life of the Kushite royal court, from acquiring the throne anddemonstrating it by means of royal regalia, to a description of the king's inner circle and his duties. This is followed by an investigation of the king as a warrior (chapter three). There we learn about the army and its equipment as well as the importance of the use of horses and elephants in combat. A few significant military campaigns are detailed next, notably the Kushite king Piankhy's victory over a severely divided Egypt in the mid-eighth century BCE and the various clashes between the Kushite rulers and the Assyrians in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. Here, one might mention a recent fascinating study, H. T. Aubin's _The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance Between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC_ (Soho Press, 2002). Aubin's thesis is that a nascent Jewish world was saved from annihilation by King Hezekiah of Judah's use of a combined Egyptian and Kushite army against the Assyrians in 701 BCE, and that this important historical fact has largely been obscured by an Old Testament author whose intent was to glorify the might of Yahweh (2 Kings 19:35).

Chapter four presents the religion of the Kushites, detailing its priests and priestesses, as well as its gods. Also described are some of the holy sites, notably the awe-inspiring Jebel Barkal ("sacred mountain") with its free-standing rock formation at one end, which reminded the ancients of a standing cobra, the age-old Egyptian symbol of divine protection. A useful annotated list of Kushite divinities is offered in a sidebar on p. 49. From there, the author goes on to describe the Kushites' burial practices, including their exquisite jewelry.

The mention of jewelry in one chapter allows the author to segue nicely into the world of artisans in the next, recounting the craftsmen's prodigious achievements in gold- and iron-working, their sculptures and paintings, and their delicate ceramics. The chapter ends with a quick account of Meroitic writing, a script and language sadly little understood to this day. The next chapter (six) considers the life of the common people, their farming techniques, herding of animals, housing, and everyday furnishings.

The last chapter, on The End of Kush, describes the denouement of Kushite history in the third century CE, with the shift in trade routes from the Nile Valley east to the Red Sea. At this time, a powerful kingdom based in Aksum, in northern modern Ethiopia, took over the lucrative trade into the Mediterranean and eventually struck against the Kushite kingdom, which was also under attack by local tribes. Kush never survived these assaults and its long and glorious history ends around 400 CE. By the mid-sixth century CE, Nubia had become Christianized, only to be conquered yet again by Muslim invaders in 642 CE.

The book ends with a time-line that begins in 6000 BCE and ends in 1961 CE; a biographical dictionary, which offers a brief description of a few important kings and queens; a glossary of words used in the book (which are presented in bold characters throughout the book, a useful device); a helpful bibliography, which contains both printed books and electronic web sites; and an index.

In conclusion, although full of valuable information, two of the book's chapters - two and three, on Kings and Queens, and on Warriors - are a good example of my only real quibble with the book. Although a number of famous kings are enumerated along with their accomplishments, it is sometimes difficult to place the various players in their historical context because no continual linear narrative of the area's history is given anywhere. For this, one has to rely on the biographical dictionary offered at the end of the volume or peruse the index to find the sundry references to a given personage. While fully realizing that standard chronological history as it used to be taught -with its lists of kings and dates and battles - has fallen out of favor today, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate the forest from the trees in a strictly cultural and social approach to historical narrative. To use an example from the sports world, it is important to know where Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds fit in the history of baseball to fully appreciate their respective accomplishments.

Thus, the full sweep of the story of the indigenous Nubian population is not easily witnessed, from the arrival of the A-Group in the mid-fourth millennium BCE to its dispersal a few centuries later and its re-appearance as the so-called C-Group in the twenty-fourth century BCE; from the military occupation by the Egyptians in the sixteenth century BCE to the Kushites' eventual reclaiming of their own land in the late twelfth century BCE; and through the triumphs and losses of the powerful Kushite kingdom during its twelve centuries of rule. This is magnificent history, which should be truly appreciated for its longevity and impact on the region. But perhaps it is unfair to impose one's approach to history upon another author, so I will let readers decide for themselves whether they prefer the full sweep of a people's history or snippets of it presented piecemeal as part of - admittedly fascinating - social and cultural history.

Here, for the benefit of the book's users, are a few minor corrections to missteps introduced into the text:On p. 6, the Kushites' trade network stretched from north Africa to south-west, not south-east, Asia.Still on p. 6, the word "Kush" used by the ancient Egyptians to describe the people south of the first cataract is first seen in the twentieth, not the sixteenth, century BCE. P. 39, for Muswwarat es-Sufra, read Musawarat es-Sufra (correctly [but slightly differently] written on the map on p. 21).P. 44, Alexander the Great did not "... [install] his general Ptolemy as Egypt's new ruler." Alexander died in 323 BCE and Ptolemy did not claim the throne of Egypt until 305 BCE; Ptolemy inherited Egypt as part of the division of Alexander's great empire among his generals after Alexander's death.

For a certain usage seen on p. 15, I permit myself a technical comment. The use of the word "pharaoh" - from Egyptian per-aa, meaning "great house", a reference to the royal palace that eventually came to stand for the ruler himself (compare the modern use of the expression "White House" to refer to the American government) - to allude to the Egyptian ruler of the fourth millennium BCE is slightly anachronistic. The Egyptians themselves only began to refer to their king as the "Great House," i.e. pharaoh, in the sixteenth century BCE.

But these are minor quibbles, which in no way detract from the book's usefulness. This is a wonderful little volume that will hopefully help many realize the importance of early African history in general world history. May it fill many libraries' shelves.


Copyright © 2005 by Africa Access, all rights reserved. Africa Access permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and Africa Access Review. For any other proposed use, contact AfricaAccess@aol.com


Rating: HR Grade: E / M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Ronald J. Leprohon, ronald.leprohon@utoronto.ca, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations

Subject: North Africa / Kush / CABA Honor