Kushite King Piye Conquers Upper Egypt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Piye conquered Egypt and restored its splendor, renewing its cultural traditions as well as increasing its political power.

Summary of Event

The vast expanse of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation in modern times, contains much evidence of advanced ancient civilizations. In northern Sudan, several early cultures exerted influences that spread to Egypt, which eventually dominated the lower half of the Nile River basin. Lured by the region’s gold, the Egyptians conquered the Sudanese kingdom of Kush, the region known later in the ancient period as Nubia. So valued was this colony that one of the highest offices meted out by the pharaohs was that of viceroy (governor) of Kush. As Egypt’s power waxed, Kush’s contributions to its powerful northern neighbor’s civilization were often obscured. Kashta Piye Tefnakht Harwa Taharqa

The New Kingdom period (c. 1570-c. 1069 b.c.e.), the zenith of Egypt’s power, ended when Kush freed itself from Egyptian rule. Around 1087, Viceroy Panehsy of Kush led a rebellion against Egypt and occupied the Upper Egyptian capital, Thebes. Around 1080, Theban high priest Herihor successfully led the priests of the sun god Amen-Ra in a revolt against the Kushites, and Upper Egypt became a theocracy. The Kushites then created an independent kingdom in the south, while the kings of the Twenty-first Dynasty (1069-945) ruled the Nile Delta from Tanis.

By the eighth century b.c.e., Egypt’s glorious achievements had become distant memories. The land of the pharaohs, embroiled in civil strife, had been divided into competing states. By 945 b.c.e., Lower Egypt was overwhelmed by the gradual encroachment of Libyans, many of whom had been mercenaries in the pharaoh’s army. For the next three millennia, Egypt would be ruled by foreigners. The Twenty-second, or Libyan, Dynasty ruled Egypt from 945 to 715. The second half of this dynasty was marked by chaos. To the south in Kush, Alara rose as the ambitious ruler of Napata, a city near the Fourth Cataract. Alara’s brother and heir, Kashta, invaded Upper Egypt, captured Aswān, and took control of Egypt’s gold fields.

In 747 b.c.e., Kashta’s son Piye rapidly completed his father’s conquest of Upper Egypt with help from the Theban priesthood of Amen-Ra. Piye is an elusive figure. His many wives include a daughter and a niece of Alara. No surviving statue or painting shows Piye clearly, and historians are faced with numerous difficulties in dating events in his life. He adopted different throne names during various parts of his reign, including the names of previous rulers, such as Usermaetre (Ramses II). Numerous inscriptions show that he was particularly fond of using the name and titles of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Menkheperre’ Thutmose (Thutmose III). Many scholars have been confused by the mistaken assumption that every inscription that bears the name Menkheperre’ Thutmose was authored by the fifteenth century Thutmose III.

Piye’s campaign in Upper Egypt may have stemmed from a tour to renew oaths of allegiance pledged to his father by his northern vassals. He may also have intervened to protect the cult of Amen-Ra from conquest by Tefnakht of the Delta state of Saïs, which rebelled against the Libyans around 740 b.c.e. Piye’s flotillas and cavalry soon became dominant. To many Egyptians, the Kushites were morally upright liberators who had come to save Egypt from the degenerate petty nobles who had dominated the land of the pharaohs. Others saw Piye as an unsophisticated moralist meddling in Egyptian affairs.

The end of Piye’s conquest of Upper Egypt is the subject of the dark-granite victory stela of Piye, found at the temple of Amen at Gebel Barkal in 1862. This find was the inspiration for Giuseppe Verdi’s 1874 opera Aïda. This inscribed stone shows the defeat of Nimlot of Khemenu (Hermopolis, modern-day Al-Ashmünein) and Peftjauawybast of Nen-nesut (Heracleopolis, modern Ihnasya), whose lands formed the northern third of Upper Egypt. Piye was described as an attacking bull; however, when the fortress of Per-Sekhemkheperre surrendered, the often merciful Piye ordered his men not to kill the surviving occupants.

Piye put an end to Egypt’s chaotic decline. He maintained direct control over the theocratic state of Thebes by promoting his sister Amenirdis as divine adoratrice (high priestess and governor). His coronation as pharaoh in 742 b.c.e. marked the beginning of the Twenty-fifth, or Kushite, Dynasty (742-c. 656). He then returned in triumph to his beloved Napata, with the spoils of his campaigns and tributes from his new vassals.

When Piye conquered Upper Egypt, a priest named Harwa embraced the Kushite cause, and his subsequent loyalty to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty led to his appointment as grand steward of the divine adoratrice, a position he held for some forty years. Portrayed in statues as a fat, bald man with a large face, almond-shaped eyes, and thin lips, he was from an elite family of Theban priests. The number of statues made in his image and the vastness of his funerary monument and inscriptions found by Italian archaeologists in Luxor in 1997 suggest that Harwa, called the Great of the Greats, was the de facto governor of at least Thebes and possibly all of Upper Egypt during the reign of Piye and his three successors, Shabaka, Shebitku (Shabataka), and Taharqa. Only the pharaohs ranked above him. His elaborate tomb later become the center of the Assassif necropolis, which suggests that his powers were more than just priestly.

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Tefnakht of Saïs ruled the northern half of Egypt very briefly before it was fragmented into numerous feuding states. Lower Egypt languished under the control of five different kings, each reigning over a limited area but each claiming to be the sole pharaoh. Around 725 b.c.e., they formed an unsuccessful coalition against Piye, who captured Memphis and Heliopolis three years later. Tefnakht and his son Bakenranef, whose reigns are listed as part of the Twenty-fourth Dynasty (730-715), were the last to be conquered. With the defeat of the Lower Egyptian kings, Piye united the Nile Valley from Meroë to the Mediterranean Sea. He generously appointed four of the former kings to rule on his behalf as governors of their territories.

Noted for his devotion to Amen-Ra, Piye showed great reverence for traditional New Year’s celebrations and Thebes’ Opet Festival. A just ruler, he sought to restore Egypt to its past splendors, and Egypt and Kush experienced a cultural revival.

Having ruled over a united empire on the Nile for almost a decade, Piye died in 716 b.c.e. His great love of horses, a common Kushite trait, was demonstrated by his having eight horses buried near his tomb. The Kushite throne tended to pass from brother to brother, and Piye was succeeded by his brother, Shabaka, who moved his capital from Napata to Thebes. On his death c. 702-698, Shabaka was succeeded by Shebitku, who in turn was succeeded by his nephew Taharqa (the biblical Tirhakah) in 690. A prolific builder and capable administrator, Taharqa ruled for twenty-six years. However, the final decade of Taharqa’s rule was dominated by a series of invasions by three successive Assyrian emperors, who had already conquered Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Palestine. Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamuni, failed to hold Egypt, and his reign marked the end of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

After its rise to world power under Piye and his successors, Kush was isolated from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations to the north. The ironworking center of Meroë, Nubia’s medieval Christian kingdoms of Nobatia, Makouria, and Alodia and the Muslim Funj Sultanate of Sennar were the geographical heirs to Kush but hardly displayed the brilliance of Piye’s glory.

Significance

Piye’s conquest of Egypt and his establishment of the Twenty-Fifth, or Kushite, Dynasty ushered in a renascence of the ancient Egyptian civilization. It brought about a hopeful revival of eons-old political and religious norms. However, conquest by the more advanced and more ruthless Assyrians heralded Egypt’s subjugation and Kush’s isolation for many centuries to come.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Although later findings have changed much of the body of scholarship on Nubia, this work remains the most thorough reference on the archaeology and history of Kush.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kendall, Timothy. Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 b.c.: The Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Nubian Empire. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Africa Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997. Kendall surveys the archaeological work that has been conducted on the earliest periods of Kushite history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morkot, Robert G. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. London: The Rubicon Press, 2000. A good work on the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Focuses on the roles of the Kushites (Nubians) during Egypt’s conflicts with Libya and Assyria.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Török, Lásló. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. New York: Brill, 1998. Török provides a good reference on ancient Kush, from its emergence to the Meroitic period. Contains a genealogy of the kings of Kush.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. New York: Flammarion, 1997. This large, illustrated work concentrates on artifacts from ancient Sudan but also provides a good chronological survey.

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