Out of the level stretches of sand rise the pyramids, row on row. The gray smoke of incense ascends to heaven, and the voices of white-clad priests chant the old sacred hymns to the god. “O Amon-Re, Lord of the Holy Mountain…”
Wait a minute. Amon-Re—and pyramids? An anachronism has reared its ugly head. Pyramids were replaced by rock-cut tombs at about the time Amon began his spectacular rise to supremacy.
No, no anachronism. The pyramids and the great temples to Amon were contemporaneous, but not in Egypt. We must go back now in time, and south in space, to witness the flourishing of a strange hybrid that was to have a significant impact on the dying culture of ancient Egypt. Men of a distant clime and an alien race (I use the word poetically) once again carry weapons into the land of Horus; but they come as saviors, not as conquerors, and represent themselves as the true heirs of the son of Osiris against the degenerates who call themselves pharaohs.
We talked about Nubia when we were discussing the Middle Kingdom, but we have had to neglect the region since for want of space. Other developments of the New Kingdom deserved more attention, for Nubia was not a problem during that period. At the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty the kings of Egypt regained the Middle Kingdom heritage in the south without difficulty, reoccupying the old forts and building new ones. They also built towns and temples; there was no longer any need for the strong defenses Senusert III had erected. The New Kingdom frontier in the south was eventually set at the Fourth Cataract. Trade flourished; Egyptian traders, priests, and craftsmen kept the river crowded. Even during the struggles of the post-Amarna period Nubia remained peaceful, and it may have been the uninterrupted flow of riches from this region that allowed the later kings to maintain their imperial courts and raise their expensive temples, even though their sources of income to the east gradually diminished. These kings built in Nubia as well as in Egypt, and some of the temples are quite splendid. All this activity had its effect on the Nubians. As early as the Second Intermediate Period there are signs that the native peoples of the area were getting interested in Egyptian wares and opening their minds to Egyptian ideas.
Politically, the land of Nubia must have been an increasingly important factor in internal Egyptian affairs. The office of the “king’s son of Cush,” who was viceroy of all the southern lands, was established during the Eighteenth Dynasty. During the Twentieth Dynasty, Nubian strong-men had a hand in the harem conspiracy that ended the rambunctious career of Ramses III, and also in the establishment of Herihor, viceroy of Nubia and high priest of Amon, in control at Thebes.
The collapse of Egyptian unity and prestige in the years that followed—remember poor Wenamon and his journey to Byblos—is reflected in Nubia by a failure of inscriptional and other material. We do not know exactly what was going on down there.
When the curtain does rise, it is upon a scene which we have never observed before in our study of Nubia. The locus is neither town nor Egyptian fort, but a handsome city, with a royal palace and a great temple to Amon at the base of a high, flat-topped hill. The hill is now known as Gebel Barkal, and the ruins of the city of Napata are to be found near the Fourth Cataract, at the far end of the fertile Dongola Reach. To the north is the royal cemetery; the tumbledown pyramids once housed the bodies of the kings of Napata.
The kingdom of which this city was the capital is that which the Greeks later called Ethiopia. We usually apply this term to Abyssinia, but the Greeks evidently used “Ethiopians” to designated any dark-skinned people in remoter Africa. We will avoid confusion by referring to this Nubian nation by its Egyptian name—Cush.
So much for the scenery and the program notes. Now let the play begin.
There is a Prologue, whose details are vague; it concerns a king of Cush called Kashta, whose mission it was to carry regeneration into Egypt. We have no inscription of his, so we do not know when, or even if, he invaded Egypt; but we think he got as far as Thebes, since his daughter was adopted by the God’s Wife as her successor. The real protagonist of act one is Kashta’s son, once known as Piankhi. You will find him referred to, in more recent works, as Piye.
See him as he occupies the seat of Pharaoh—he claims those titles and wears the full regalia of an Egyptian king. The great god Amon extends his protecting hand over Piye, his son; and Piye worships the god devoutly and purely. The petty bickering of the local nobles far to the north keeps them occupied and allows them no time for transgression upon the realms held by Cush.
Then, in the first month of the twenty-first year of Piye, comes ominous news. One has arisen among the dynasts of the Delta, a man named Tefnakhte, of Sais. He has seized the whole west, coming southward with a numerous army, while the Two Lands are united behind him, and the princes of walled towns are as dogs at his heels. Herakleopolis is besieged, and Namlot, prince of Hermopolis, has submitted himself to Tefnakhte as his lord, forswearing his allegiance to Piye.
Piye received this news with a shout of laughter.
His loyal courtiers wondered if the old gentleman had lost his wits. But Piye was only expressing his nonchalance. The stela describing his reaction and future actions—one of the most remarkable historical documents ever found in Egypt—is a little vague on the subject of precisely how much of Egypt was subject to Cush before Tefnakhte took up arms. That didn’t matter, since Amon was about to bestow the whole country on his devoted Piye. Piye was so confident of the result that initially he did not even take the field himself. The troops he sent to Egypt received noteworthy instructions: they were to conquer, of course, but equally important was their conduct when they came to the sacred city of Thebes, the home of Amon-Re. “Bathe in the river, dress in fine linen, unstring the bow, loosen the arrow; do not boast to the lord of might, for there is no strength without Amon.”
After paying its respect to the god at Thebes, the army proceeded to Herakleopolis and lifted the siege. Among the besiegers were Namlot, the prince of Hermopolis who had cast his lot with his fellow countrymen against the Nubian Piye, and Osorkon III, the last king of the feeble Twenty-third Dynasty; though he has the title of king he is obviously only one prince among a lot of princes.
Piye’s army drove the Egyptians away; Tefnakhte headed for Sais, his hometown, while Namlot escaped to Hermopolis, and shut himself in. The Cushites settled down around the latter city and sent word home to Piye.
Piye was not pleased at the news of victory. He had expected to hear of annihilation, and he must have known that he would have no peace to worship Amon while Tefnakhte and Namlot were still on the loose. He contemptuously ignored “Pharaoh” Osorkon, and with good reason. When Piye, deciding to take matters into his own hands, came north in person, Osorkon hurried to make his submission. Piye had stopped at Thebes on his way, of course, to take part in the great feast of Amon, and when he went out to battle, he was well fortified with the grace of the god. The big battle was at Hermopolis, where Namlot was still holding out, but in great discomfort: “Days passed, and Hermopolis was foul to the nose, without breathable air.” According to Piye’s story, the citizens of the dying city came forth to plead for terms. Piye was stern until the ladies made their appearance. Namlot’s wife and daughter sought out the womenfolk of Piye (what they were doing on a military campaign is never explained), and on their bellies begged the Cushite queens to intercede with their lord, which they did. Evidently chivalry was not dead; perhaps Piye was also moved to clemency by the rich gifts that Namlot sent him.
Piye’s behavior on entering the city in triumph is so pious and austere as to be priggish. First of all he visited the temple—Thoth, the patron of scribes, was in charge at Hermopolis—and only then did he turn his attention to the loot. Among the booty was the harem of Namlot, whose members hopefully “saluted his majesty in the manner of women.” Piye would have nothing to do with them. (This touch of chastity is all very well, but it does not jibe with the fact that Piye could not even fight a war without dragging his own women along.)
Namlot’s horses aroused Piye’s passions, as Namlot’s women had failed to do. When he visited the stables he found that the horses, naturally enough, had suffered from the siege. “It is more grievous in my heart,” said Piye reproachfully to the humble Namlot, “that my horses have suffered hunger than any evil deed that thou hast done.” This is a truly royal “my”; but Piye was being a little unreasonable. The horses were lucky to be there at all, if the city had reached the state of woeful hunger implied by the narrative. Perhaps Namlot tended them with anxious care, knowing of the Cushite king’s major weak spot. Piye’s love of horses is attested by other evidence, notably the fact that he began the custom of burying his favorite steeds honorably near the royal tomb. Whenever a penitent rebel wanted to get in Piye’s good graces, he offered him a horse.
Piye then went on to Memphis and took it by storm. His first act was to protect and cleanse the temples. During his stay in the city, all the local dynasts came trooping in to offer allegiance and the contents of their treasuries. Piye would have taken the latter anyhow, but it makes a nice gesture, especially when the humble princes proposed to hand over their best horses. Despite Namlot’s neglect of “his” horses Piye dealt mercifully with him and the other rebels he encountered on his northward march. This was a mistake, but an attractive one. Piye was hopelessly old-fashioned in his piety, and perhaps he trusted in the oaths of others because he did not readily break his own word. There is no point in worrying about the moral rights involved in the conquest of Egypt. Piye was in one sense a foreigner and an invader; but the native Egyptians he fought had been squabbling unpleasantly among themselves for four generations, and would squabble again as soon as he left the country. There has been a lot of debate about Piye’s “race,” or ethnic connections; some Egyptologists want to make him a Libyan, others claim he was a descendant of Egyptian emigrants to Nubia. But there is no reason not to take Piye for what he seemed to be, a Nubian—whatever that means. Judging from the most significant factor, that of cultural and religious affinity, Piye was an Egyptian of the Egyptians and considered himself the heir of Egypt’s long, rich past.
Piye had one more little “rebellion” to deal with as he headed south. His success brought a bunch of other would-be rulers to beg for mercy, including the archenemy Tefnakhte, who was allowed to surrender, with solemn vows not to do it again. So Piye sailed happily home to Napata, leaving Tefnakhte, no doubt, rubbing his hands together and chortling like Iago.
When he stopped at Thebes, Piye requested that the current God’s Wife take his daughter under her wing, which she did all the more readily because she herself was the daughter of Piye’s father, who had installed her in the office as the successor to the daughter of the last king of the preceding dynasty.
As soon as Piye left, Tefnakhte was up to his old tricks. We do not know what Piye was doing while his enemy was breaking his solemn vows; he lived long enough to set up a handsome stela, written in good Egyptian, in the temple of Amon at Gebel Barkal, the Holy Mountain. It is from this stela that we get the story of Piye’s conquest. Certain it is, however, that Tefnakhte was successful enough to set up his son as pharaoh. This son, known to the Greeks as Bocchoris, is the aforementioned sole king of Manetho’s Twenty-fourth Dynasty. The Nubians, beginning with Piye, are the Twenty-fifth, a slight confusion chronologically, but that is the least of the confusion that attends upon the last years of Egypt.
Bocchoris did not last long; Manetho says he was burned alive by Shabaka, the successor of Piye. The burning may be apocryphal, but Shabaka did put a premature end to Bocchoris and his dynasty. The Cushite conquered all of Egypt, transferred his capital to Thebes, and ruled as the “king of Egypt and Cush.” He was as pious as Piye; almost every temple in Egypt was enlarged or restored by him, and he was remembered by Greek historians as a righteous king.
At this point we acquire some new sources of information. The most important comes from the kingdom of Assyria, which was fighting its way to world supremacy in a series of bloody battles in western Asia. From this time on we can also see Egypt and Assyria through the eyes of the Israelites. The books of Kings tell of the terror of Assyria and the broken reed of Egypt, upon which the small kings of Judah and Israel tried to lean in their struggle for independence against the fierce warriors of Sargon and Sennacherib. The Egyptians are typically silent on the subject of Assyria.
This is the time of Hosea, when Sargon II carried Israel away captive, and Egypt sent no help. The name given to the Egyptian pharaoh in the biblical account cannot be identified with any of the men ruling in Egypt during this period; it may have been that of a viceroy or general. A few years later, perhaps under Shabaka, came the rebellion of Hezekiah and the first meeting of the two powers—Assyria, young, arrogant, in the early morning of its strength, and Egypt, the tottering wreckage of the colossus that had for thirty centuries towered above the east. The event is described in Kings II, which is more to be commended for its literary style than for historical accuracy; the chronicler may have confused this Assyrian campaign with another one twenty-five years later. For what it’s worth, he says that Sennacherib of Assyria led his armies against the “rebels” in Jerusalem. When the soldiers of Egypt came to defend their ally, the Assyrian king jeered at them, using the familiar analogy of the broken reed. But plague—or the visitation of God—decimated the Assyrian ranks, and the army had to retreat. The crucial meeting between Egypt and Assyria was yet to come.
Shabaka was succeeded by his brother, or perhaps his son, named Shabatka; and he in turn was succeeded by his cousin (?) Taharka, the last of the strong Cushite kings. Taharka built largely in Egypt and at Napata, and left a number of stelae at various places in Nubia, which is one reason why we know more about him than about some of his predecessors. One of the Greek historians accused him of murdering his predecessor, but this may be just a nasty rumor. His pyramid at Napata is the biggest of the lot, but it is pretty pathetic compared with even the Middle Kingdom royal tombs of Egypt. Despite their poor construction, the pyramids of Napata still stand upon the plain near Gebel Barkal. They are in ruinous condition and look peculiar because of their slope, which is much steeper than the standard fifty-two-degree angle of Egyptian pyramids. All of them were robbed in antiquity; in modern times they were excavated by Reisner, whose precise methods allowed him to reconstruct the genealogy of many generations of Cushite kings.
Before Taharka concerned himself with his pyramid, he had other problems to face. Thebes was too far south for his tastes; he resided most of the time at Memphis, where, one supposes, he could keep an eye on the activities of the threatening Assyrians. Sennacherib, the scourge of Jerusalem, was dead, but his son, Esarhaddon, was an even more formidable warrior. He had to deal with a number of rebellions among the vassal cities of Phoenicia, in some of which we may see Taharka’s fine Nubian hand. His attempts to distract the Assyrian only delayed the inevitable. In 671, Esarhaddon marched south, driving Taharka’s army before him, until at last he stood before the walls of the most ancient city of Memphis, Menes’s capital. There is a ring of truth in the Assyrian king’s grim record of the campaign; Egyptian records, needless to say, are conspicuously silent on the matter. Esarhaddon gives Taharka his due; the battles he fought were bloody ones, and he claims to have inflicted no less than five wounds upon the person of the Cushite king. Taharka’s valor was in vain. Assyria took Memphis and leveled its legendary walls. Among the captives were Taharka’s brother and the women of his house hold.
In succeeding years the fortunes of life and death turned the struggle between Egypt and Assyria into a deadly seesaw; Esarhaddon’s departure enabled Taharka to recover Memphis for a time, but after the death of the Assyrian king, his son Asshurbanipal returned to quell the stubborn Egyptians. Once again Taharka fled from Memphis to Thebes and then to Napata. This time he stayed there.
Up to this point the Assyrians had committed one important error, which later conquerors did not repeat. They conquered and departed, taking heavy loads of booty with them and extorting great oaths of fealty from the Egyptian vassals they established in office. And as soon as they left, the rumble of rebellion began again. Even in the final throes of degeneration and defeat, the Egyptians were hard to conquer. Like wheat before the storm they bent and were not broken.
When Asshurbanipal left Egypt, after chasing Taharka home to Cush, he left a power vacuum. The various petty princes of the country started their aping of imperial dignity. Taharka died soon afterward; his nephew, Tanutamon, stepped into his place. Again a Cushite king came north, besieged Memphis, and ruled Egypt. But Taharka’s sandals were too big for Tanutamon, and even Taharka had not been able to stop the Assyrians. Asshurbanipal returned, and Tanutamon followed his uncle’s example, retreating first to Thebes and then, when that city was threatened, to Napata. In the far regions of the south the Cushite kings were safe, for no Assyrian wanted to pursue them through the difficult regions of the cataracts. But Thebes, abandoned by its soi-disant king, met the full fury of Assyrian wrath. The sack of Thebes was an effective object lesson to rebels; for over fifty years its fall haunted the memories of men and found an echo in the words of the prophet Nahum when he threatened Nineveh with a similar fate.
Asshurbanipal also left a description of the destruction of Amon’s holy city. “Heavy booty, beyond counting, I took away from Thebes. Against Egypt and Cush I let my weapons rage and showed my might.” The conquest ended the glory of Thebes, and the pretensions of the Cushite dynasty.
If we want to think in terms of national psychoses, we might say that the Cushite kings had developed a trauma about Egypt. Up and down, back and forth; every time they had sallied forth to Memphis, the Assyrians had appeared and sent them packing. Enough was enough. They were safe and prosperous in their own kingdom, and there, from this time on, they stayed. The subsequent history of the kingdom of Cush, which turned its eyes away from Egypt and to the south, is fascinating, and I wish we had time to talk about it in detail. The capital was finally shifted even farther south, to Meroë, and here a version of Egyptian culture lingered for centuries, mixed with various native elements. The last pyramids in Africa were built in Cush, odd little redbrick imitations of the towering monuments of Giza and Dahshur. A new language developed, called Meroitic; temples and palaces were built and maintained. Cush looked to Egypt as the font and origin of its culture, but never again did it contemplate the Two Lands as a field for conquest. The splendor of Egypt, which had dazzled the vision of Piye and Taharka, had blinded Tanutamon.