(J. Leclant, UNESCO, General History of Africa) - Napata, the first capital of the Kushite Empire: After the retreat of the Kushites from Egypt
under the assaults of Assyrians, their history is much more difficult to determine; even the chronology is extremely vague. For a millennium a state survived, becoming ever more African, the kingdom of Kush, the name of its own choice from the ancient native name for the territory. In the eyes of conventional Egyptology this represents a long period of decadence during which the Pharaonic influences became progressively corrupted. In actual fact it is a culture out of Africa which alternately entrenches itself in its specificity or seeks to align itself with the Egyptian civilization - itself, for that matter, African properly speaking; from time to time echoes reach it from the Mediterranean, in particular after the foundation of Alexandria.
To begin with, the capital remained at Napata at the foot of the sacred mountain, Gebel Barkal. Later, almost certainly in the sixth century before our era, it was transferred much farther south to Meroe . There is little certainty as to the extent of the Kushite kingdom and so far the differences between its component regions are still unclarified. In the far north, Lower Nubia, a kind of no man's land, remained in dispute between the Meroites and whoever were masters of Egypt: Saites, Persians, Ptolemies and latterly Romans. A zone of silence exists from the end of the Egyptian New Empire (around —1085), and this little-favoured region in the solitude of the tropical deserts seems to have remained largely uninhabited until the opening of the Christian era. Its revival then was probably due to the introduction of the saqia (water wheel) (cf. Chapter 11). In the heartland of the empire, Nubia proper, extending along the river (Napata, Dongola
and Kerma basins), appears always to have been appreciably different from the steppe region of the 'Island of Meroe'. Eastward in Butana there are numerous unexcavated sites, while the caravan routes and the Red Sea littoral are still awaiting exploration.
Archaeological exploration has not been carried far enough for us to be able to indicate the limits of the Kushite kingdom to the south in the savannahs and highly fertile lands of the Gezira; it is accepted, however, that it included the central Sudan and extended at least as far as Sennar on the Blue Nile and Kosti on the White Nile; the objects dug up at Gebel Moya must also be taken into account. Westwards, its influence must have reached Kordofan at least and we can hope for much from explorations carried out across the wide band of the Nilo-Chadian savannahs.
At Napata the tombs of the Nuri cemetery are among the essential elements for determining the history, still very inadequately known, of the kings of the Napatan dynasty. The first few rulers are still very much egyptianized. As in the case of the twenty-fifth dynasty kings, their burial places are surmounted by Egyptian-style pyramids whose form is more reminiscent of those of the high dignitaries of the last days of the New Empire than of the royal pyramids of the fourth dynasty; the decoration of their burial chambers and their solid granite sarcophagi follow the Egyptian style in every particular: religious inscriptions in a tradition going back to those of the pyramids cover their sides, and those items of the grave furnishings which have escaped the tomb robbers - libation jars, ushabtis and figurines - are likewise just as in Egypt.
Of the first two kings barely more than the names are known ; they were Atlanarsa (—653 to —643), son of Taharqa, and the former's o w n son, Senkamanisken (—643 to —623), of whose statues fragments of great beauty have been found in the Gebel Barkal. T h e two sons and successors of Senkamanisken, first Anlamani (—623 to — 593), succeeded by Aspelta (—593 to — 568), are better known . At Kawa a stele of Anlamani ' describes the king's progress through the provinces and his provision for their temples, a campaign against a people w h o could be the Blemmyes , the coming of the queen-mother, Nasalsa, and the consecration of the king's sisters as sistrum-players before the god A m o n in each of his four great sanctuaries.
This king's brother and successor, Aspelta (—593 to —568), left two great inscriptions discovered years ago. T h e Enthronement or Coronation Text dates from the first year of the reign18 and shows the army mustered near the Gebel Barkal, the decision of the leaders to consult Amon of Napata and the god's designation of Aspelta, whose descent through the 'Royal Sisters' is particularly distinguished, the king's assumption of the royal emblems and his thanks to an invocation of the god, his joyful reception by the army and his gifts to the temples. So much for the military and religious bases of the Kushite monarchy. The stele of the Appanaging of the princesses, of the third year of the reign, is preserved in the Musée du Louvre: it is the description of the investiture of a princess as priestess. A further text discovered by G . A . Reisner in the Gebel Barkal narrates the foundation by the sovereign of a chantry in honour, long after his death, of Khaliut, son of Peye. On the other hand, some scholars' attribution to Aspelta of the Stele of Excommunication is more doubtful, the name s of the king having been defaced. The rather obscure text describes how the members of a family which had planned a murder were excluded from the temple of Amon of Napata; the god condemns them to be burned and the king warns the priests against more crimes of this king. The expedition of Psammetik II and the fall of Napata Aspelta was a contemporary of Psammetik II. This is one of the few really secure synchronisms, almost the only one in a thousand years of history. In —591, or the second year of the king's reign, the land of Kush was invaded by an Egyptian expedition, stiffened with Greek and Carian mercenaries, under two generals, Amasis and Potasimto, and Napata was captured. Transfer of the capital to Meroe.
Thenceforward the Kushites aimed at keeping a greater distance between themselves and their powerful northern neighbors; it is undoubtedly to this Egyptian raid, whose importance has long been underestimated, that we must attribute the transfer of the capital from Napata to Meroe , i.e. much farther south, at no great distance from the Sixth Cataract. Aspelta is in fact the first attested Meroe sovereign. This notwithstanding, Napata unquestionably remained the religious capital of the kingdom: the monarchs continued to be buried in the Nuri necropolis d o w n to the end of the fourth century.
In —525 a Persian danger developed. We know the reply of the Nubian king to the ambassadors of Cambyses (Herodotus, III, 21): 'when the Persians bend, as easily as I, bows as big as this, then let them march against the Ethiopians in superior numbers' . Cambyses did not take this advice: his army was unable to effect a crossing of the Batn el-Hagar and had to retire with heavy losses. For all that, the Persians counted the inhabitants of Kush as their subjects. A shield is set aside for them on the pediment, inscribed with the peoples of the empire, of the magnificent statue of Darius recently brought to light at Susa. It is conceivable that a narrow belt of Nubian territory remained under their sway and there were Kushite contingents in the armies of Darius and Xerxes. There are also references to gifts of gold, ebony, elephant tusks and even children, with the ancient tributes formerly levied by Egypt seemingly going to Persepolis and Susa.
A further possible explanation for the transfer of the capital may have been climatic and economic considerations. At Meroe the steppes were much more extensive than in the basins around Napata, the ammed in by deserts. To livestock were added agriculture, cultivation being perfectly possible in this zone of summer rainfall. Enormous irrigation basins (hafirs) were dug out adjacent to the principal sites. Commerce must have been brisk, as Meroe was an ideal entrepôt for the caravan routes between the Red Sea, the upper Nile and Chad . Above all, the comparative abundance of trees and shrubs supplied the necessary fuel for the working of iron from the ore found in the Nubian sandstone.
The slag heaps evidence the extent of manufacturing activities but the most recent authorities condemn the description of Meroe as the Birmingham of Africa as exaggerated.
For long centuries, which remain obscure, historians have little more to go on than royal tombs. Their excavator, G . A . von Reisner, set about matching the list of attested royal names which the pyramids brought to light, with chancy results which have undergone m a n y revisions since then and m a y be still liable to amendment. The last king buried at Nuri was Nastasen (a little before —300). Thereafter royal and princely internments took place in the Meroe cemeteries. Nevertheless a number of kings did go back to the Gebel Barkal, which m a y have been why some historians have believed in the probable existence in northern Nubia of two dynasties parallel to the Meroe dynasties, one of them immediately after Nastasen, and the other in the first century before our era.
Only a few major inscriptions provide some light, and that patchily, to say the least. The Egyptian used degenerates; more accurately perhaps, behind the hieroglyphic symbols, which m a y take on aspects bordering on the fantastic, we need to look for 'notes' of the contemporary state of the language - in point of fact Demotic - and also echoes of Meroitic, the Kushites' own language. We have several inscriptions of King Amannoteyeriké (a little before —400). The best describes the election of the king, a 'strong m a n of 41' , and for the most there are accounts of military expeditions, religious festivities, a torchlight tattoo, the visit of the queen-mother, restoration work on buildings and donations to sanctuaries.
Next we get Harsiotef, whose famous inscription is devoted partly to ceremonies and partly to campaigns against a multitude of different enemies. It is the same with the stele of Nastasen carried off by Lepsius to Berlin. This stele may , incidentally, give us a synchronism if one of the inscriptions is indeed the n a m e of Khababash, fleetingly kinglet of Egypt (second half of the fourth century). In one of his campaigns Nastasen captured 202 120 head of cattle and 505 200 of small livestock.
One would like to be able to 'place' all the peoples mentioned in the inscriptions; the spoils are often enormous and quite obviously we need to look in the Nilo-Chadian savannah for certain ethnic groups. The
engraving of the stele is of high quality and evidences the subsistence or renewal of direct Egyptian influence.