Napata Kingdom Flourishes in Kush Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Kushites, centered in Napata, gained power over much of Egypt and created a great civilization that produced many monuments and temples before losing Egypt to the Assyrians.

Summary of Event

Dominating the Nile’s cataracts south of Egypt, Kush was one of Africa’s great civilizations. Much modern scholarship suggests that the ancient northern Sudan, later known as Nubia, contributed greatly to the Nile’s cradle of civilization. However, Kushite political, religious, and cultural contributions were overshadowed by Egypt’s hegemony, and archaeological finds in the region have often been attributed to Egypt. Piye Taharqa

Immediately south of Upper Egypt lay Wawat, known later as Egyptian Nubia. The limited agricultural potential of the Nile’s stony, high banks in this region separated the rich lands of Egypt from the Dongola Reach, Kush’s fertile heartland between the Third and Fourth Cataracts. Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs enviously cast their eyes south of Wawat. Thutmose III (r. c. 1504-1450 b.c.e.) penetrated south of the Third Cataract, conquered Kerma, and established forts at Sai and Tombos. Later Thutmose III conquered the Dongola Reach. By 1400 b.c.e., the pharaohs’ empire reached from the Fourth Cataract in Kush to Syria in the north. After several unsuccessful rebellions, the Kushites acquiesced to Egyptian occupation. Forts dotted the region. Egyptian-influenced script, iconography, and religion followed. Amenhotep III erected a temple at Soleb. Farther south at Sesibi, others were built by Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV). Major settlements south of the Third Cataract included Kerma, Kawa, and Tabu on Argo Island.

By the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (1295-1186 b.c.e.), Kush was an integral part of the Egyptian empire, ruled by a viceroy who collected tribute and delivered it to the pharaoh personally. This viceroy’s titles included King’s Son in Kush and Overseer of the Gold Lands of the Lord of the Two Lands. Renowned as skilled horsemen, the thoroughly Egyptianized Kushites exported gold, ebony, gum, ivory, ostrich feathers and eggs, perfumes, cattle, and exotic animals to their powerful northern neighbors. Often keeping Egyptian traditions more faithfully than the Egyptians themselves, they worshiped the same gods, particularly the sun god Amen-Ra (Re, or Amen). Kush’s rapid adoption of Egyptian culture is unique in ancient times and suggests that much that underlay Egyptian civilization must have been already present in Kush.

Kush slipped out of Egyptian control in 1087 b.c.e., when Viceroy Panehsy rebelled and marched on Thebes. This incident effectively marked the end of the zenith of Egypt’s power. Around 1080, Theban high priest Herihor led a coup that defeated the Kushites, who created an independent kingdom in the south. Upper Egypt was a theocracy ruled by the priests of Amen-Ra, and the kings of the Twenty-first Dynasty (1069-945) ruled the Nile Delta from Tanis. Meanwhile, the Kushite capital, Napata, became a center of power.

Situated west of the modern Sudanese town of Karima on the Nile’s right bank, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) downstream from the Fourth Cataract, Napata was a major river crossing for overland routes linking the Sixth Cataract with the Third. However, its strategic value was overshadowed by its religious importance, which derived from Gebel Barkal, the later Arabic name of a nearby sandstone butte. Although at least one military outpost lay farther up the Nile, near the Fifth Cataract, this isolated mountain marked the southern limit of Egypt’s New Kingdom and was the pharaoh’s most remote religious sanctuary.

The Kushites and later the Egyptians attached sacred significance to Gebel Barkal, possibly because of its odd flat shape. Calling the mountain Dju-wa’ab (pure mountain), the Egyptians believed it was the original home of their state god Amen-Ra, who dwelt behind the mountain’s sheer southern cliff, hidden from mortal view. Two great temples were built there, dedicated to Amen’s northern and southern aspects, a situation similar to Thebes, some 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) downstream, where the Luxor temple is dedicated to Amen’s southern aspect and Karnak to his northern. The Karnak and Napata temples were both called Ipet-sut (sanctuary of the thrones). Known as the Thrones of the Two Lands, the mountain was possibly the source of Karnak’s name. Gebel Barkal was the primary center of Kushite royal coronations and religious ritual. Early Kushite monarchs were buried at el-Kurru, 10 miles (16 kilometers) downstream from Napata, and at Nuri, upstream on the opposite bank from the capital, a pyramid field marks the tombs of later rulers.

By the eighth century b.c.e., Egypt’s glorious achievements had become distant memories. Embroiled in frequent strife, the land of the pharaohs was divided into competing states. By 945, Lower Egypt was overwhelmed by the gradual encroachment of Libyans, many of whom had been mercenaries for the pharaohs. Three millennia of foreign occupation followed, and no Egyptian would rule all of Egypt again until Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise in 1952 c.e. The Twenty-second, or Libyan, Dynasty (945-715 b.c.e.) maintained order for about a century, when two chaotic dynasties ensued.

In the south, Kushite ruler Kashta (r. c. 783-747 b.c.e.), invaded Upper Egypt, captured Aswān, and took control of the gold fields. His son Piye completed his father’s conquest of Upper Egypt and annexed Lower Egypt to a vast empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Fifth Cataract. Piye sought to restore Egypt to its past splendor. He was succeeded by his brother, Shabaka (r. 716-c. 702/698 b.c.e.), who moved the capital from Napata to Thebes. Shabaka was succeeded by Shebitku (Shabataka; r. 698-690 b.c.e.), who encouraged the Hebrew king Hezekiah of Judah to resist the rising Assyrian Empire.

Following Shebitku’s death, his nephew Taharqa became pharaoh. A prolific builder and capable administrator, he ruled for twenty-six years, the first sixteen of which were filled with great achievements at a time when heavy Nile floods brought record harvests. Taharqa built Kawa’s gilded sandstone temple and a huge colonnade at the temple at Karnak. He restored the columns of Gebel Barkal’s temples. His pyramid in the royal field at Nuri was the largest of his dynasty. The greatest of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaohs, he is the only Kushite ruler mentioned by name (Tirhakah) in the Bible.

Around 674 b.c.e., Taharqa unwisely provoked war with Assyrian ruler Esarhaddon (r. 680-669 b.c.e.) and faced a series of invasions by the Assyrians, who had already swept through western Asia. Armed with superior iron weapons, the all-conquering Assyrians under Esarhaddon captured, lost, and recaptured Lower Egypt. Taharqa fled to Napata, after Esarhaddon’s successor Ashurbanipal (r. 669-627 b.c.e.) took Upper Egypt in 669. However, Ashurbanipal’s hand-picked vassal Psamtik I was not recognized in Upper Egypt, which remained loyal to Kush. Priests continued to record events as if Taharqa’s rule continued, and in Taharqa’s name, Prince Mentuemhat of Thebes restored temples damaged by the Assyrians. However, Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamuni, failed to recapture Egypt, and his death in 656 b.c.e. marked the end of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

In 591 b.c.e., Psamtik II sent a punitive expedition south. Following their king Aspelta, the Kushites withdrew to Meroë, a city between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, beyond the reach of invaders. The seat of a branch of the Kushite royal family, Meroë became the new capital. Adopting the technologies of the Assyrian invaders, it became a major ironworking center and transmitted knowledge of ironworking throughout Africa. Furnaces and slag heaps stood beside Egyptian-style palaces and temples. Although a huge temple, known as the Table of the Sun, was dedicated to Amen-Ra, the most important Meroitic deity was the lion-headed Apedemak. Eventually, a distinct Meroitic civilization arose with its own still undeciphered script.

In 24 b.c.e., Napata was destroyed in a Roman raid. The Meroitic royal couple Natakamani and Amanitare oversaw the last major restoration of its temples in the first century c.e. After the establishment of the Christian kingdom of Makouria, Napata faded from history. Western travelers first saw Gebel Barkal in 1820, and Piye’s famous victory stela was found in 1862. Much of Napata was excavated by archaeologists in the twentieth century.


Enriching each other throughout ancient times, Kush and Egypt were intertwined, sometimes in conflict, but usually in peace. As Egypt spiraled into its slow decline, Napata’s rulers rose to give the empire on the Nile one last era of glory. Although Kush’s successors, the ironworking Meroitic civilization and medieval Christian Nubia, would rise as flourishing cultures, northern Sudan would never again be the focus of power it was during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Despite many later findings, this work remains the most thorough reference on the archaeology and history of Kush/Nubia.
  • 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 African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997. Kendall surveys the archaeological work 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. Focuses on the roles of the Kushites (Nubians) during Egypt’s conflicts with Libya and Assyria.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Török, L. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997. 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.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Akhenaton; Ashurbanipal; Piye; Psamtik I; Thutmose III. Napata

Categories: History