Kerma Kingdom Develops and Dominates Lower Nubia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Following the collapse of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, Kerma controlled all of Upper and Lower Nubia. The Classic Kerma culture ended roughly when the Hyksos were defeated, and Kerma culture vanished during the political reorganization of Nubia under Thutmose I in the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Summary of Event

The site of Kerma—near the Third Cataract of the Nile in the Dongola Reach area of the modern Sudan—is an area of atypically broad cultivation for the Nubian Nile Valley. Although some believe the ancient Nubian kingdoms of Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju were located in Lower Nubia, the ancient evidence appears to argue more persuasively for Wawat corresponding to all of Lower Nubia, with Kerma itself within the domain of the combined Upper Nubian kingdoms of Irtjet and Setju. Although often repeated, an identification of Kerma with the Egyptian toponym Yam is not certain.

The Kerma culture is divided into Early, Middle, and Classic Kerma phases. Early Kerma and the beginnings of Middle Kerma correspond to the time of the kingdoms of Irtjet and Setju in the south, the kingdom of Wawat in Lower Nubia, and the latter part of the Old Kingdom (c. 2687-c. 2125 b.c.e.), the First Intermediate (c. 2160-c. 2055), and early Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-c. 1650) periods in Egypt. The combined kingdoms of Irtjet and Setju, occupying Upper Nubia, formed a coalition against pharaonic Egyptian influence during the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181). At least for a time, they were able to compel Wawat to join them as well. By the early First Intermediate Period, the Early Kerma culture was well underway, apparently more closely associated with the so-called Khartoum Variant of the far southern Late Neolithic than with the C-Group cultural phase of Lower Nubia.

Toward the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1985-c. 1782 b.c.e.) in Egypt, Early Kerma transitions into the Middle Kerma phase, and nascent forms of most elements of Classic Kerma begin to appear. In Upper Nubia, the Middle Kerma culture appears archaeologically to represent the kingdoms of Kush and Shaat. During the Middle Kingdom, Egypt dominated Wawat (Lower Nubia) and established a series of fortifications there. Following the probable construction of smaller fortifications early in the Middle Kingdom and during the early Twelfth Dynasty, the Egyptians built a number of “plains style” fortresses on the low desert, north of the Second Cataract region. They were well-fortified rectilinear structures with outworks. These early fortresses provide little evidence of contact between the Egyptians and the local Nubian populations.

Later in the Middle Kingdom, roughly coinciding with the appearance of the Middle Kerma culture, Egypt constructed a series of irregularly shaped fortresses atop granite outcroppings in the Second Cataract proper, incorporating spur walls. These architectural features suggest a growing threat from a people whose potential siege ability the Egyptians had grown to fear. The new threat from the south was almost certainly the Middle Kerma kingdom.

With the collapse of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom around the middle of the Thirteenth Dynasty, Lower Nubia was lost to Egypt, and all the lands south of Aswān appear to be within the sphere of Classic Kerma. Evidence of destruction at the fortress of Buhen, once attributed to Kerma, now appears to be the result of the Egyptian counterattack at the end of the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-c. 1570 b.c.e.). The city of Kerma during the Classic Kerma period was quite large, extending for more than thirty hectares. The deffufa, a thick-walled mud-brick temple, towered over the city, and a large, round structure testified to the truly African flavor of much of Kerma architecture. A large fortification wall surrounded the city as well. During the Classic Kerma phase, the elite burials eventually incorporated internal skeleton walls. The bed burials that began in the Middle Kerma period continued, but the funerary beds were now decorated with ivory inlays in the shapes of apotropaic animals. Human sacrifice, also occurring in Middle Kerma, increased along with the tomb sizes during the Classic Kerma Phase.

During the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, a maritime empire—the Hyksos—dominated the Nile Delta. They directly controlled the eastern Delta, centered at Avaris (now Tell el-Babՙa), and extended their influence far to the south. The presence of Tell el-Yehudiya ware juglets in Nubia and at Kerma demonstrates that Hyksos trade passed as far south as Kerma. The Theban-centered Seventeenth Dynasty (1580-1570) appears, however, to have controlled the trade routes passing north and south between Kerma and the Mediterranean. During the late Seventeenth Dynasty, the Thebans began open hostilities against the Hyksos, and at the time of the height of Classic Kerma, Egyptian imports at Kerma declined markedly, apparently as a result of the trade war that almost certainly marked the beginning of Theban hostilities.

When the Theban ruler Kamose launched an offensive against the Hyksos capitol at Avaris, the Hyksos ruler Apophis wrote to “the son of the [recently deceased] ruler of Kush [Kerma].” The Thebans intercepted the letter on the oasis road, probably a route passing through Kharga. Rather than indicating close ties, as is sometimes suggested, the letter demonstrates that Kerma had little direct contact with the Hyksos: The Hyksos ruler was only vaguely aware of a change of ruler in Kerma and appears not to know the name of the new ruler. The Hyksos Apophis suggested that the Theban successes against the Hyksos and the current Theban offensive in the north at that time offered an excellent opportunity for a combined Hyksos-Kerma operation against Thebes. If the Kerma ruler answered the summons, he was unsuccessful. Kamose, after destroying the Hyksos merchant fleet beneath the walls of Avaris, if not even earlier, reoccupied the old fortress of Buhen, and the end of Kerma drew near.

The Classic Kerma phase ended around the time of Kamose’s campaign against Nubia (apparently before the end of his third regnal year), and the rarely attested and disputed Post-Classic Kerma phase began. The true Kerma culture disappears around the time of Thutmose I (r. c. 1493-1481 b.c.e.), third ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, with whom much of what is considered classic New Kingdom Egypt began. On the basis of an inscription from the reign of his successor, Thutmose I appears to have divided Nubia into five districts, each governed by a local chief, all under the administration of the Egyptian viceroy of Kush.


The rise of Kerma in the south influenced Egyptian approaches to frontier control and fortification in the area of the Second Cataract. The power of Kerma, based on trade, posed a serious threat to Egyptian long-distance trade with the south and ultimately threatened the existence of the Seventeenth Dynasty. Although Kerma did extend its influence through Lower Egypt to Aswān, the magnitude of any offensive operations it may have mounted against the Seventeenth Dynasty at Thebes is still uncertain. Not all of the Kerma population was uniformly inimical to the Upper Egyptians, and people of Kerma cultural affiliation appear to have replaced the Pan-Grave Medjay—who supplied the most skilled desert fighters of the Upper Egyptian armies since the First Intermediate Period—as Nubian military recruits. The demise of Kerma led to a return of Egyptian control over the gold mining regions of the southeastern desert, contributing greatly to the increased strength of the New Kingdom in Egypt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonnet, C. Kerma, territoire et métropole. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1986. A useful overview of the city by the modern excavator most recently involved in uncovering the ancient metropolis. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourriau, J. “Nubians in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period: An Interpretation Based on the Egyptian Ceramic Evidence.” In Studien zur altägyptischen Keramik, edited by D. Arnold. Mainz: Philip von Zabern, 1981. A useful archaeological study focusing on the interrelationship of the C-Group, Pan-Grave, and Kerma cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourriau, J. “Relations Between Egypt and Kerma in the Middle and New Kingdoms.” In Egypt and Africa: Nubia from Pre-History to Islam, edited by W. V. Davies. London: British Museum Press, 1991. Pages 129-144 provide an archaeological study of the interrelationships between Kerma and Egypt, particularly focusing on the Second Intermediate Period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kemp, B. J. Ancient Egypt, Anatomy of a Civilization. New York: Routledge, 1995. Pages 166-178 contain a stimulating discussion of the Second Cataract fortresses and their wider Egyptian social context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacovara, P. “Egypt and Nubia During the Second Intermediate Period.” In The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, edited by E. D. Oren. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1997. Pages 69-83 provide an accessible and clear summary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacovara, P. “The Internal Chronology of Kerma.” Beiträge zur Sudanforschung 2 (1987): 51-74. A useful summary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia, Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1993. A well-illustrated overview of Nubian history, although it does not recognize the Western Desert/Libyan origin of the C-Group.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryholt, K. S. B. The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period, c. 1800-1550 b.c. , Carsten Nibuhr Institute Publications 20. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997. Pages. 326-327 contain a refutation of the idea that the Hyksos thought of Kerma as a vassal state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, S. T. Askut in Nubia. London: Kegan Paul, 1995. An examination of the Second Cataract Fortresses, focusing primarily on their economic functions.

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