Shabaka Reunites the Nile Valley Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Shabaka, successor to the Kushite ruler Piye, moved his capital to Thebes and assumed the title of pharaoh over all of Egypt and Kush.

Summary of Event

In the early years of the New Kingdom (c. 1570-c. 1069 b.c.e.), Egypt conquered and annexed all of the Nubian territory to its south down to the Fourth Cataract (rapids) of the Nile River, the land called Kush. Between the eleventh and eighth century b.c.e., rival Egyptian dynasties split up the country while power weakened, resulting in a gradual withdrawal of administration from Nubia. In the region of Napata, near the Fourth Cataract, an influential family of local origin began to emerge. A strong chieftain known as Alara rose as the first in a long succession of Kushite rulers. His reign lasted twenty years, starting around 780 b.c.e. His brother Kashta followed, assuming the title “son of Ra” and embarking on a campaign of territorial expansion. He eventually was able to gain control of Lower Nubia as far north as Aswān. Shabaka Piye Sennacherib

Khasta’s son Piye was faced with competition from Tefnakht, the ruler of Saïs, who, after overpowering Lower Egypt, began to threaten regions to the south. Piye continued the Nubian conquest of Egypt, defeating Tefnakht and capturing Memphis before returning to Napata, calling himself Lord of Two Lands. The campaigns of Piye are recorded on a stela he had installed at Gebel Barkal. Piye nonetheless chose to remain in Napata until the end of his reign, as Kushite control of Egypt slipped. When he died, his younger brother Shabaka ascended to the throne, according to the Kushite custom that allowed brothers, under certain conditions, priority over sons in the royal succession. He was married to a woman who was not a member of the female line of princesses.

Shabaka, having witnessed the rapid growth of the kingdom of Kush, sought to renew the quest to conquer Egypt. Tefnakht’s son Bakenranef attempted to regain the territory captured by his father but was defeated and killed by Shabaka. Expanding on the accomplishments of Piye, Shabaka went on to subdue other rival princes and build a sizable empire that extended some 2,100 miles (3,379 kilometers) along the Nile. After establishing control over all of Egypt, he moved the capital of Kush from Napata to Thebes and assumed the title of pharaoh.

The Egyptian priest and author Manetho (third century b.c.e.) wrote an orderly account of the history of the Egyptian pharaohs that established the numbering of the dynasties. He credits Shabaka as founder of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, although sometimes Piye is regarded as the founder of this dynasty.

The Kushite kings sought harmony between their kingdom and the people of Egypt. They brought an Egyptian style of government to their homeland. They promoted the worship of Egyptian deities, particularly the god Amen, which developed into a state cult. A temple dedicated to Amen was erected at Gebel Barkal and became the center for a powerful priesthood. Because the mountain there was already sacred in local tradition, it made an ideal location for a religious center. The Kushite kings also erected new temples at Meroë and Sanam.

At Kawa, in the northern part of Kush, Shabaka built a small temple near one from earlier times that is attributed to Tutankhamen. In the area around Thebes, he continued a plan of temple restoration and enlargement. The fourth pylon at Karnak bears an inscription describing Shabaka’s restoration of the gate. At the same complex, he began work on the second pylon in front of the temple of Tuthmose III.

Shabaka strengthened his connection to Egyptian tradition and culture through the placement of his family in key leadership roles. His sister, Amenirdis, held an important religious and political position. She was given the title God’s Wife of Amen at Thebes, a virgin princess and chief of the female priesthood. Her installation into this office was an important moment in the Kushite takeover of Egypt. A funerary temple was constructed for her at Medinet Habu near the temple of Ramses III. Shabaka’s son, Haremakhet, became the high priest of Amen of Thebes, a post that had not been active for fifty years.

The desire to restore Egypt’s ancient customs and encourage religious renewal was part of the motive for the creation of an important monument dating from Shabaka’s reign: the Memphite Theology. Sometimes referred to as the Shabaka stone, it is a black basalt tablet measuring 54 by 37 inches (138 by 93 centimeters) that is now located in the British Museum in London. Though portions are damaged, the inscriptions still visible on it present an account describing Memphis as origin both of the creation of the world and of pharaonic kingship. It refers to Ptah, the deity of Memphis, as the creator god. In the first part, Shabaka is quoted as having inspected the temple of Ptah, where he found the most sacred scrolls worm-eaten. He then states how he set out to preserve those sacred words in stone. When completed, the tablet was installed in the temple of Ptah in Memphis, where it gave new prestige to the city’s patron deity. The project may have been designed to create an accord with this important city, which had only recently been conquered by the Kushites.

The Kushite kings adopted many Egyptian cultural attributes, including its written language, titles, and clothing styles. At the same time, they chose to retain certain ties to their origins. They continued to use their Kushite names and were returned to their homeland for burial. They also combined the royal trappings of Egypt with their own insignia, such as the distinctive skullcap the kings of Kush had always worn. King Piye’s stela at Gebel Barkal shows the god Amen presenting him with both the red crown of Lower Egypt and the skullcap of Kush.

Both the Egyptian crowns and Kushite caps were usually fitted with a diadem (royal headband) and a representation of the sacred asp called a uraeus. The Kushite headdress often had a pair of streamers hung from the back and two uraei above the forehead. The double uraeus became the symbol of the kings’ sovereignty over a united Kush and Egypt.

Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Kushite kings wore wide armbands, anklets, bracelets, and a distinctive ram’s-head pendant. Several of these pendants, depicting a ram with a sun disk between its horns, might be worn around their necks. The symbol probably dated from their ancestral Kerma culture, with its pastoralist history. Because the ram’s head was also the symbol of the state god of Egypt, it served the kings well in both contexts.

Several sculptures and reliefs of Shabaka have survived. They depict him in the Kushite style with southern features. Perhaps the best example is a bronze statuette in the collection of the Athens National Museum. The king is kneeling in an offering pose. He is dressed in a short kilt and patterned belt with a buckle bearing his name. On his head is the traditional Kushite skullcap with the double uraeus in front and streamers trailing from the back. A cord around his neck has three ram’s heads attached. He is shown with the characteristically straight Nubian neck and muscular torso. The face is full, with high cheekbones, prominent lips, and slightly enlarged eyes. Lines running horizontally from the sides of the nose are consistent with a detail found in many Nubian images that is known as the Kushite fold. The bronze figure, with its meticulous detail and modeling, is considered to be the best likeness of Shabaka.

In 701 b.c.e., Shabaka faced an invasion from the powerful empire of Assyria. He assigned the command of the army to his nephew Taharqa, who marched to Palestine in a defensive maneuver. However, an outbreak of the plague stopped the advance of the Assyrian forces under Emperor Sennacherib. Fragments of a clay tablet with Shabaka’s royal seal and that of an Assyrian king indicate that a truce was eventually arranged.

Shabaka, along with other kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty—Piye, Shabataka, and Tanutamuni—is buried in the cemetery at El-Kurru near the Nile, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) downstream from Gebel Barkal. Their Egyptian-style tombs are constructed beneath narrow pyramids measuring between 26 and 36 feet (8 and 11 meters) square. There are also fourteen queens’ pyramids located nearby. The importance that the kings placed on their royal chariot horses was made evident by the discovery of four rows of horse burials, the second row belonging to Shabaka. American archaeologist George Reisner and a team from Harvard University and the Boston Museum excavated the site in 1918-1919.


Following the remarkable triumphs of Piye, Shabaka advanced the dynasty of Kushite pharaohs that endured for more than eighty years. For the first and only time in history, an African power had gained control over all of Egypt. Shabaka and his successors worked to restore the glory of Egypt through traditional government, architecture, and religious orthodoxy. Most important, they brought a period of unity, economic recovery, and peace to a divided Egypt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, William. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. A detailed examination of Nubian history with a discussion of Shabaka’s reign and a chronology of the Kushite rulers. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan. 2 vols. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1978. A study of Nubian arts and history that describes the rise of Shabaka and provides a number of illustrations of Shabaka as he is portrayed in sculpture. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaballa, Gaballa Ai. ed. The History and Culture of Nubia. Aswān, Egypt: Nubia Museum, 1997. A concise history of Nubia divided into significant time periods that describes Shabaka’s place in the succession of Kushite kings.
  • 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 including a description of Shabaka’s pyramid at El-Kurru. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Török, László. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. New York: Brill, 1997. An extensive study of the history and civilizations of Nubia, with detailed information on the Kushite kings, Shabaka’s accomplishments, and his family. Tables, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welsby, Derek. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner, 1998. Welsby explores the archaeology, history, economy, arts, and architecture of the ancient kingdoms of Nubia with Shabaka’s contributions. Index and bibliography.
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Categories: History