Art and Archaeology Exhibitions
You are in:  Home > Art > Exhibitions   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

KUSH :
Black Africa's Earliest Civilisation


By Claude Rilly

ARIS - The 4,000 year feud between The Sudan and Egypt still has a promising future. The exhibition currently running at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris until 31 August 1997, "KUSH, Kingdoms on the Nile", highlights some of the rivalries and grievances which have been smouldering since the twilight of time.

An important part of the exhibition, given over to the "Image of the Nubian in Egypt", presents the Egyptians as a bunch of primary racists making few concessions (for example, the Nubian wife of Mentuhotep II) and deliberately overlooks the existence of high dignitaries and black princes during the Old Kingdom, such as Niankhpepi whose remarkably preserved statue is on view in the Cairo Museum, or Maherpra whose book of the dead is one of the finest known examples dating from the New Kingdom.

The height of paradox is reached in scenographer Philippe Kauffmann's staging of the exhibition which groups purely Egyptian or Egyptian-inspired exhibits in the well-lit highly documented central gallery, while typically Sudanese exhibits are relegated to anti-chambers or annexes. One is equally baffled by the use of the crack Egyptian unit from the bas-relief of Deir-el-Bahari to illustrate the official poster for the exhibition, rather than their pendant corps of Nubian archers. Whatever the aesthetic or commercial motivations of such choices, they are clearly in contradiction with the main theme of the exhibition and simply perpetuate the stifling of Sudanese culture by "big brother" Egypt.

Don't, however, let this deter you. The sheer beauty and rarity of the objects themselves, which bear witness to this first-known, yet so unknown, civilisation of Black Africa, the Kingdom of Kush, make this a must. Two hundred items are on loan from the National Museum in Khartoum; given the volatile situation in the Sudan, it is quite possible that they will not be on view again in the West for some time.

A people who will tread everything underfoot
"Woe to the land of shadowing wings which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia; Go, you swift messengers, to a nation who will be plundered and unrooted...to a people who will be dishonoured and trodden down...". Thus spoke the prophet Isaiah (Chap.18 - 1 sqq), referring to a people who left neighbouring nations dumbstruck, despite the fact that invaders of all kinds were almost part of everyday life. Out of the confines of Africa, driven by an irresistible force, having traversed the thousands of miles bordering the Nile, a new power emerged in the Middle-Eastern arena towards 730 B.C. These tall, proud, dark-skinned warriors with wide shoulders and of athletic gait had come to claim their share of the Kingdom of Egypt, promised to them by their infallible god, Amon of Napata. Their distant land "beyond the rivers", according to the prophet, bears different names: to the ancient Egyptians, it was the Land of the Bow (ta-sety), most likely referring to their talents as bowmen for which they were appreciated by the pharaohs. For the Hebrews, it was Kush. For the Greeks, and later the Romans, it was to be Ethiopia, a general term encompassing the whole of Black Africa. We call it Nubia, from the Egyptian word nebou, designating the gold that was mined there. Lying to the north of today's Sudan between the 2nd and the 6th cataracts on the Nile, the land of Nubia was first the scene of a particularly inventive neolithic period. It was later to know three successive kingdoms, each with its own capital: the Kingdom of Kerma (2300 - 1500 B.C.), that of Napata (1000 - 300 B.C.) and finally that of MeroŽ (300 B.C. - 33 A.D.).

The Sudanese Neolithic era
The study of prehistoric sites in the Sudan is just beginning. Recent finds, exhibited in the first hall, point to a civilisation of some refinement capable of producing vases and club heads of incredible finesse in their execution, as well as stylised feminine representations of a high aesthetic level. For the most part, these items have been found in neolithic tombs at Kadero and El-Kadada near Khartoum, and at Kadruka, close to the 2nd cataract.

Herdsmen in the shadow of Egypt
The terms "groups A and C", invented by the American archaeologist George Reisner, describe the different civilisations which flourished between 3000 and 1500 B.C. in lower Nubia, close to the Egyptian border. Subject to periods of expansion and contraction linked to climatic changes or invasions from Egypt, these cultures were those of tribes of herdsmen who during the time of the Old Kingdom in Egypt traded gold, ebony, ivory and skins for finished Egyptian goods. The tombs of group C reveal a people practising rich burial rites; the deceased was often laid on a bed, accompanied by animal sacrifices and human or animal representations. Outside, the mound was decorated with a circle of cattle skulls.

The Kingdom of Kerma: Egypt comes under threat
In parallel with these cultures, and a good way south, a powerful kingdom whose capital was Kerma was developing around the 3rd cataract. Its territorial limits have yet to be properly defined. Known to us since 2500 B.C., it was to reach its height towards 1600 B.C., threatening Upper Egypt whose weak kings of the XVIIth dynasty had a hard time maintaining Egyptian sovereignty in the face of invasions by the Hyksos to the north (XVth and XVIth dynasties) and the ambitious Nubian monarchs to the south, who had invaded Egyptian bastions built during the Middle Kingdom. With the reunification of Egypt and the return to military expansion under the XVIIth dynasty, the Kingdom of Kerma was purely and simply to disappear. Remaining vestiges are derived essentially from the capital's buidings excavated by Reisner and from tombs in which dignitaries were buried together with several members of their entourage, sacrificed to accompany them to the other world. Excavations have also brought to light extremely fine ceramics. Red with a black rim, they constitute one of the artistic pinnacles in African ceramics.

Egypt and Nubia: an often fraught relationship
Three sections of the exhibition are linked to relations between the two neighbours. Naturally, it is the military aspect which is covered in greatest depth. A victory stele of Sesostris III (circa 1820 B.C.) outlines the havoc inflicted on Nubian populations and stigmatises their so-called cowardice. A chain of forts had been created by the pharoahs in lower Nubia, and several items of Egyptian manufacture come from garrison burial grounds. The section devoted to "the Image of the Nubian in Egyptian art", despite the reservations made at the beginning of this article, contains a number of very fine exhibits.

The reign of the Black Pharaohs
Towards 1000 B.C., taking advantage of Egyptian weakness linked to the troubles of the 3rd intermediary period, a new power developed around Napata (4th cataract). Under the leadership of King Alara, and subsequently of his brother Kashta, the whole of Nubia was reorganised. Piye (747 - 716 B.C.) was the first Nubian king to conquer Egypt and to install a Kushite dynasty: the XXVth or "Ethiopian" dynasty. From then on, the "Black Pharaohs" who wore the double uraeus (royal serpent fixed to the head-dress), symbol of their double royalty, were to install in Egypt a period of peace, prosperity and artistic renewal which reached its peak under King Taharqa(690 - 664 B.C.). A vast ensemble of temples was built near Napata, in the Gebel Barkal. But the Assyrian menace was to prove the downfall of the Kushite dynasty and the last king, Tanuetamani, had to withdraw to Napata (664 B.C.). The next four centuries saw a succession of kings who ruled only over Nubia. They nonetheless hung on to their pharaonic titles, worshipped the god Amon, used the Egyptian language and hieroglyphics in their temples and on their monuments, and were buried according to Egyptian rites in small tapered pyramids, surrounded by Egyptian-style funerary regalia.

The Kingdom of MeroŽ: a return to African sources
As from 275 B.C., the capital was moved south to MeroŽ (4th cataract), by King Arkamani I who was buried there. The distancing from Egypt, from both a geographical and temporal point of view, was a means for the civilisation of MeroŽ to give free rein to its African roots: Egyptian gave way gradually to MeroÔtic, a language we can read today, although not understand it. Kings of MeroŽ were frequently succeeded on the throne by queens, the "candaces", strong-minded women quite capable of leading their troops into battle against the Romans. Among them was Queen Amanishakheto whose treasure of jewelry takes up two complete halls in the exhibition. New statuary was created and developed for funerary rites. Originally Egyptian in inspiration, this was gradually to become a typically African art form. Towards the end of the 4th Century A.D., MeroÔtic power was to give way to the Christian sovereignty of Axoum, in Ethiopia; nonetheless, objects such as the Karanog bowlcontinued to be produced, bearing witness to the persistence of MeroÔtic civilisation. The many sites which are yet to be excavated will perhaps, one day, throw light on the mysterious ending to the extraordinary saga of the Kings of MeroŽ, and the heritage they left to Africa.

Fully documented and illustrated catalogue (428 pages) available in French at Frs 295, published by Flammarion, in cooperation with l'Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris and the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich. Illustrations for this article are drawn from the above catalogue, courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe.


Claude Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He is also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and civilisation. Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO (France), and on meroitic phonology in the GŲttinger Miszellen (Germany). He is archaeology editor of Culturekiosque.com.

Visit the Thumbnail Gallery

Visit the Gallery image by image

KUSH ARCHAEOLOGY NEWS UPDATE: 19 JUNE 2007

Gold Processing Center Discovered in the Ancient Kingdom of Kush

If you value our reviews, please tell a friend or join our mailing list!


Back



[ email to Art & Archaeology | Back to Art & Archaeology | Back to exhibitions archives | Back to culturekiosque homepage ]

Copyright © 1997 - 2007 Euromedia Group Ltd.
All Rights Reserved