Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 51.

Derek A. Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush. The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998. Pp. 240, incl. twelve colour illustrations, 81 black-and-white illustrations, and an appendix. ISBN9781558761827. US$35.55.

Sakkie Cornelius,
Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch.

There has been an upsurge in the study of the early cultures of the region between Aswan and Khartoum, that is southern Egypt and the northern Sudan (between the first and sixth Nile cataracts). This can be seen from new running exhibitions and publications, and the book under review.[[1]] Some museums even changed their names to reflect this new trend, e.g. the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which now has a Department of Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art. The Sudan Archaeological Research Society[[2]] operates from the British Museum with David Welsby as honorary secretary. A colourful journal, Sudan & Nubia, is published by the society and edited by him. There is a similar society in Germany.[[3]] In South Africa very little worth has been done on this subject.[[4]]

The region under discussion was known in ancient times as Kush (Egyptian Kash), the Ethiopia ("burnt-face people") of the classical tradition, but not to be confused with the modern state. Sometimes it is called Nubia, but this refers to the region and not the modern language nor modern tribes with the same name. Incidentally, the Egyptian word for gold is nub. Because the name kash is used in Egyptian inscriptions, this is perhaps the most appropriate term to use, as is done by the author.

Kushite studies go back to the explorations of the German Lepsius (1842-44) and the American Reisner (1907-8). The study of Nubian artifacts in southern Egypt was given a great impetus in the sixties with the building of the Aswan high dam which submerged many of the monuments. For this reason the famous colossi of Ramses II at Abu Simbel were moved as well as the Philae temples (most notably the temple of Isis), now on Agilkia. The study of ancient Kush is somewhat hampered by the lack of written sources from the Kushites themselves and because the indigenous writing system Meroitic has been deciphered, but is not yet readable. One therefore has to rely on archaeology and iconography. There are Egyptian sources, references in the Bible and in classical authors like Herodotus, Diodorus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder (their descriptions of Kushite culture are a study in itself). But these sources are biased and written by outsiders. New sources have come to light and there has also been a paradigm shift in the way in which the unique contribution of Nubian civilization is judged. In the past, Kushite civilization was sometimes made out to be nothing more than a copy of Egyptian ideas, but it was indeed Egypt's rival in Africa.[[5]] The Afro-centric approach has also been replaced by one which values Kushite/Nubian civilisation in its own right.

Kushite civilisation is very old and has produced some of the world's oldest pottery (6000 BCE). An impressive period was the Kerma civilisation (early second millennium BCE). This was followed by the period of Egyptian domination under the New Kingdom pharaohs (c. 1500-1085 BCE).[[6]] Welsby deals with the so-called "second kingdom of Kush", that is between 890 BCE to 300 CE. The terms Napata and Meroe in the subtitle also refer to the capitals used for the subsequent empires.

The book is divided into nine parts and ends with an Appendix on Kushite chronology, which is always a much debated issue in Kushite and Nubian Studies. There are references to the scientific literature, an academic bibliography (unfortunately the German journal ZÄS [Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde] is abbreviated as ZAS), and an index of terms.

The introduction discusses the terminology and sources, four chapters (1-3 and 9) deal with the history, and the second major part (4-8) looks at lifestyles with regard to religion and funerary ritual, architecture, settlements, the economy, and arts and writing. The large number of illustrations [in total 81 black-and-white and 12 colour illustrations in a book which is just over 200 pages - I personally like the one of the 1912 Liverpool excavations on p. 123] gives the reader a feeling of a fairly unknown civilisation.

Some gleanings from the book might give an indication of the greatest contributions of Kushite civilisation, which should be given its rightful place amongst the other ancient civilizations of the world:

Writing: Meroitic (with an alphabet of 23 signs written in both hieroglyphs and a cursive form) was the second writing system developed on the African continent. In spite of many attempts, scholars are still not able to fully understand the texts.

Art: There are many analogies with Egyptian art, and Egyptian motifs and symbols continue to dominate, but there are also indigenous Kushite elements. The sphinx of Taharqa in the British Museum (Fig. 76) shows definite Kushite features. Kushite statuary is know for its "brutal realism" (p. 178), a realism lost in the subsequent Saitic or 26th dynasty. The ba ('soul' bird) statue is an Egyptian idea, but the art form is unique (Fig. 34 with pp. 97 and 182). Mention has already been made of the pottery which maintained its high standard throughout Kushite history.

International politics: The Kushites ruled as the 25th dynasty "Black Pharaohs".[[7]] In the end the Kushite dynasties outlived those of Egypt. They clashed with the major powers - Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.

Religion: The Kushites worshipped traditional Egyptian deities like Amen (some scholars are of the opinion that the tradition of the ram-headed Amen had its origin in Nubia) and Isis, but a fully indigenous Kushite god is the wargod Apedemak, depicted with the head of a lion in his Kushite iconography. Welsby (p. 182) refutes the hypothesis that the image of Apedemak with three heads and four arms is due to Indian influences (it is depicted in Fig. 69; perhaps a cross-reference could have appeared on p. 160 to the longer description on p. 182). According to Welsby it is merely an indigenous artistic solution to solve the problem that arose because the deity is receiving two parties - from his right and left. (Nel[[8]] argues that the joining of the figures can also be seen to symbolise the fact that most of the traditional functions of the Napatan-Merotic religion had by the time of the construction of the Lion Temple at Naqa been incorporated into one great god, namely Apedemak. The artistic concept of performing two actions simultaneously would rather have been expressed in a multitude of forms, as illustrated by a study of the so-called Mahes motifs at the same temple and other important temples such as the Isis temple of Philae and the Amen temple at Naqa. The multiplicity of forms was replaced by a multiplicity of function.)

Technology: Great temples have been excavated at Napata and Meroe, and the Kushites built more pyramids and over a longer period than the Egyptians: 223 in all, the last one dated to 370 CE. These are not as high (the best preserved one at Jebel Barkal is 12,9 m), but much steeper (max. angle of 77%). Much has been written on Kushite metallurgy. They were master-craftsmen in gold, as the treasures discovered by Ferlini attest to, but the Kushites did not mine the ore themselves. Meroe has been called the "Birmingham of Africa", but this is now in doubt (p. 170).

Of interest to students and scholars in the Classics might be the following statement describing the greatness of Kushite civilization: "At the time when Rome was a small village on the banks of the Tiber and the Greek city states held sway over miniscule territories, the Kushites ruled an empire stretching from the central Sudan to the borders of Palestine" (p. 9). A part of this book is devoted to the Graeco-Roman periods, notably in the time of the Meroitic rulers who clashed with the Ptolemeans and Roman caesars (esp. pp. 66-71). An international treaty was agreed on when Augustus was at Samos. A bronze head of Caesar Augustus was found by Garstang at Meroe,[[9]] presumably taken there as booty.

Meroitic art is known for its combination of Kushite, Hellenistic and Roman art (p. 181). Some reliefs have a strong classical element (p. 182 and Fig. 78, cf. also Fig. 68). On the other hand, inscriptions in Greek and Latin are rare (pp. 194f.).

The book is well written by someone who is thoroughly familiar with his subject matter, obtained through years of experience in the field. The author is extremely careful about drawing hasty conclusions and does not hesitate to admit that in some cases we just do not know. This book can be recommended as a balanced general introduction to the second phase of the greatest of the ancient inner-African civilizations of which the peoples of Africa can be proud.


[[1]] Cf. the beautiful catalogue edited by D. Wildung, Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile (Paris 1997). Of a more specialized nature is L. Török, The kingdom of Kush. Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic civilization (Leiden 1997) and 'Geschichte Meroes' in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.10.1 (Berlin & New York 1988) 107-341. The book by Welsby replaces the now outdated book by the old master of Nubian studies, P.L. Shinnie, Meroe: a Civilization of the Sudan (London 1967); but cf. now also his Ancient Nubia (London 1996).

[[2]] Cf.

[[3]] For more information see

[[4]] There is a Stellenbosch dissertation by C. Nel, Visuele voorstellings van geselekteerde Nubiese gode: 'n Ondersoek na die reliëfs by die leeutempels van Naqa en Musawwarat met spesifieke verwysing na die rol van die leeugod Apedemak (D.Phil. 1999) and his review of Törok [1] in Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 25.1 (1999).

[[5]] D. O'Connor, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa (Philadelphia 1993).

[[6]] Cf. the book by T. Kendall, Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C.: the Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Nubian Empire (Washington, D.C. 1997).

[[7]] Cf. the very creative representation of Taharqa by the SA artist W. Brunton, Great Ones of Ancient Egypt (London 1929) 160.

[[8]] Nel [3].

[[9]] Unfortunately not illustrated in the book, but cf. J. Taylor, Egypt and Nubia (London 1991) Fig. 58.