Kerma Kingdom Rules Nubia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Independent Nubian polities combined into a single state, with a capital developing at Kerma, while Egypt’s central government weakened during the Second Intermediate Period.

Summary of Event

The portion of the Nile Valley known as Lower Nubia stretches southward from Egypt, roughly between the rocky outcroppings called the First and Second Cataracts. From that point south to the Sixth Cataract is known as Upper Nubia, where the modern village of Kerma is situated, about 430 miles (700 kilometers) from the Egyptian border. Lying on the east bank of the Nile, Kerma stood at the crossing of both river and overland trade routes moving between the African interior and the corridor leading to Egypt. It is believed to be the location of the distant kingdom called Kush that Egyptian inscriptions refer to as a formidable southern neighbor.

What is known about the cultures of early Nubia has been interpreted from material found during excavations and from Egyptian writings. Egyptologist George Reisner referred to the early Nubian culture groups that populated the region around Kerma as the A-Group, which dates from 3100 to 2700 b.c.e., and the C-Group, which extends to around 1550 b.c.e. The observable differences between the groups are in the quality and complexity of their burial objects, which create a picture of the success and development of each society. In 1923, Reisner discovered a cemetery of the C-Group near Kerma that contained several large tumulus graves surrounded by smaller versions. The sizes of these mounded graves seemed to reflect the social status of the person buried there.

The larger of these tumuli, some nearly 295 feet (90 meters) across, incorporated rows of mud-brick corridors that contained skeletons of fifty to four hundred people who appeared to have been buried alive. There were also numerous animal sacrifices, sculptures, and clay vessels found in the many rooms. The central figures in these tombs were placed in a special chamber on a decorative bed. Examples of such beds made of gold-covered wood, blue-glazed quartzite, and slate have been found. The scale of these large tumuli and the number of sacrificed retainers suggests a strong, centralized monarchy.

Similarities among the various Kerma culture burial sites suggest a strong religious tradition lasting generations. Bodies were arranged with legs bent, feet facing west, and heads facing north. They were placed between cowhides or covered and placed on beds that were finely carved and sometimes inlaid with ivory figures. The clothing remains that have been found reveal that men wore goatskin loincloths with beaded belts that held copper daggers. Leather or fabric caps with intricate mica symbols sewn on were common headwear. Headbands with feathers were another popular Kerma style. Pendants in the form of a fly are sometimes found; these were probably awarded for actions in battle. Bows and arrow quivers were also placed close to warriors. Women were buried with jewelry and hair ornaments and wore leather skirts often decorated with hole-punched patterns or beads. Pottery vessels and food offerings were usually included. A distinctive black-topped, red, polished pottery form is an important identifying object in determining the range of Kerma culture.

Another significant site near Kerma that was excavated by Reisner is the Western Deffufa (deffufa is Nubian for “large brick ruins”). What remains of this once-massive structure is primarily solid brick and measures 170 by 85 feet (52 by 26 meters) at its base, while reaching 62 feet (19 meters) in height. The structure stood in the middle of a large village and is now believed to have been a religious center. At ground level are brick foundations of a complex of rooms, where pottery, beads, and raw materials used in the manufacture of ornaments and trade objects were found. Fragments of clay seals that had been attached to Egyptian containers and a quantity of ivory attest to the trading activity at the site. Situated among these rooms were workshops, a foundry, and a marketplace.

The role of Kerma as a trading center is well documented in Egyptian writings. The products of inner Africa were highly prized by the Egyptians as well as the Semitic Hyksos people. The Hyksos, in turn, traded with countries of the eastern Mediterranean, which explains the occurrence of examples of Near Eastern pottery in Kerma graves. Ebony wood, ivory, gold, leopards and their hides, baboons, ostrich eggshells and feathers, incense, and gums were all luxury goods prized by people to the north. Kerma acted as an intermediary in this lucrative trading system. Trade goods from Egypt are often found in the graves and among the ruins of the Kerma culture. The history of this north-south relationship extended back to the Old Kingdom period, when another active Nubian center of commerce flourished further north at Buhen. As trade with Egypt grew, so did the wealth and power of the leaders of Kerma. Excavations by Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet in the 1970’s have uncovered a palace complex just southwest of the Western Deffufa. The king’s residence was built in close proximity to warehouses, which suggests the royal control and supervision of commerce.

The recorded history of ancient Egypt between 2900 and 1500 b.c.e. shows that relations with Nubia alternate between cooperation and hostility. Nubian warriors are known to have been employed by the Egyptian pharaohs as mercenaries. Egypt had occupied Lower Nubia and exploited its natural resources, including granite for use in pyramid complexes, semiprecious stones, copper, and gold. Fortified towns were established as Egyptian administrative centers and garrisons. There were occasional raids into Upper Nubia as well. Gradually, however, large numbers of seminomadic herdsmen from the western desert began to settle in the region, forcing the Egyptians to pull back north of the Nile’s First Cataract.

Bronze Age Nubia was composed of a loose confederacy of small chiefdoms. Egyptian textual records sometimes mention these population centers by name. During Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty it was recorded that Pharaoh Merenre directed the governor of Upper Egypt to lead expeditions to Aswān, the First Cataract, and purchase acacia wood for boats from the chiefs of Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju. At that time Wawat was the northern part of Lower Nubia, Irtjet was in the vicinity of Tomas, while southward to the Second Cataract was the area known as Setju. Another group mentioned was the Medjay, a nomadic people of the eastern desert. Further south lay the chiefdoms of Kaau and Yam. At Elephantine, an inscription on the tomb of an Egyptian official named Harkhuf describes his recruiting and trading expeditions to the land of Yam, in Upper Nubia. On one he reported the chief of Yam to be at war with the chief of Themeh. Inscriptions document his return from another of these journeys along the oasis routes with three hundred donkeys loaded with exotic products from the interior of Africa.

The power of the regional chiefs began to increase during the Sixth Dynasty. Harkhuf recorded that on his second journey there were separate rulers for Setju and Irtjet. By the time of his third journey, both of these regions, and Wawat, were ruled by one man.

The remains of an extensive Kerma culture town and large cemetery have also been found on the island of Sai. Ancient texts mention an Upper Nubian center called Sha’a(t) with its own king. It is believed that the ancient and modern names are for the same location. In comparison with the Kerma cemetery, the smaller scale of even the largest grave sites and an absence of sacrificial remains suggest that the ruler of Sai was a subordinate to the king of Kush. Sai appears to have served as the northern border of the kingdom and the gateway for a caravan route into the Kerma basin.

The growing power of the kings of Kush is illustrated by the appearance of their names on a number of Egyptian artifacts. Two inscriptions (with alternate spellings believed to refer to the same person), “The King of Kush, Awa’wa . . .” on a pot now in the Berlin Museum and “The King of Kush, Utratrerses, born of Teti, his mother, and Awa’a, his father” on a figurine in Cairo, indicate a hereditary ruling dynasty. Two stone stelae found at the fort at Buhen have inscriptions by Egyptian commandants claiming allegiance to the king of Kush. These declarations show that the kings of Kush had taken control of the Egyptian fort at this strategic location near the Second Cataract.


During the Thirteenth Dynasty, Egypt weakened, forcing it to abandon its forts in Nubia and withdraw its southern border back to Aswān. The Hyksos invaded and seized control of Lower Egypt while Upper Egypt was ruled by the Theban Seventeenth Dynasty. The Nubians took advantage of this development and by about 1650 b.c.e., all Lower Nubia came under the rule of the kingdom of Kush. With its center at Kerma, the domain now extended from the First to the Fourth Cataract. This period when Upper and Lower Nubia were united as a state is known as the Classic Kerma period.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, William. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London: Penguin Books, 1977. A comprehensive examination of the Nubian people, their customs and environment with a history of archaeological work in Nubia. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan. Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1978. A two-part volume examining the Nubian culture that traces the history and arts of the region. Index, catalogue and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kendall, Timothy. Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush: 2500-1500 b.c. Washington: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997. In this exhibition publication, Kendall discusses the history and customs of the people of the Nubian territory known to the Egyptians as Kush. Catalogue and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Conner, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1993. O’Conner provides a close look at the archaeology and history of ancient Nubia and details its cultural practices and objects. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Török, László. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. Leiden, The Netherlands: Konninklijke Brill, 1997. An extensive study of the history and civilizations of Nubia, the environment of the region and archaeological expeditions. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trigger, Bruce. Nubia: Under the Pharaohs. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1976. An overview of the archaeology and anthropology of the region, its prehistory, environment, and culture. Index and bibliography.

Categories: History