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Feb 26, 2019

Commerce and Trade in Ancient Africa: Kush

Anoba’s second of three pieces covers Egypt’s powerful southern neighbor(s): Nubia and Kush.

Egyptian Influence in Nubia and the Rise of Kush

The factors that led to the disintegration and eventual decline of ancient Egypt in 2 BCE, enabled the rise of the Kushite kingdom in Nubia. Prior to the decline of Egypt, Nubian territory comprised most of the immediate territories south of Egypt. It spanned farther to the Libyan desert in the west and through Sudan to the Red Sea in the east. Within Nubia, the Kingdom of Kush was located along the Blue and White Niles and River Atbara in areas of modern-day Sudan. It flourished between 785 BCE until its declination in 350 CE and it was one of the most prosperous early African civilizations. Kush has a special place in black history. It was one of the earliest—if not the earliest—black civilizations with complex economic and political processes. It rose to prominence and maintained relevance throughout the ancient world with its exploits in trade and commerce until its destruction by the Kingdom of Aksum—another early African civilization with a fascinating history of trade and religion we shall study in part 3 of this series.

Some economic historians have dated the beginning of complex commercial activities to the ancient Egyptians, which has created the impression that the Nubian kingdoms only became affluent and prosperous after the collapse of Egypt. This is not entirely correct. The Nubians were already a prosperous civilization not only during the existence of ancient Egypt but even farther before the unification of Egypt in 3100 BCE. In his analysis of the discoveries on the A Group period in Nubia,[1]—a Pre-dynastic Egypt culture from c. 3800 BCE to c. 3100 BCE that derived its power from trade—historian N.M. Sherif described evidence that points to a much earlier and  more prosperous civilization in Nubia:

The copper tools (the earliest metal tools so far discovered in Sudan) and the pottery of Egyptian origin unearthed from A-Group graves show the flowering of the culture to have been contemporary with the first dynasty in Egypt (—3100). This culture is denoted, as are also some other Nubian cultures, by a letter of the alphabet because it was nonliterate, no specific references to it exist on the part of literate peoples, nor can it be associated with any particular place of discovery or important centre. Yet it was a period of prosperity marked by a considerable increase in population.”[2]

The A Group benefited from the gold deposit and carnelian from the Nubian desert. They traded with the Egyptians and sailed in large vessels to kingdoms along the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts in ebony, olive oil, ivory, and incense—the dominant commodities in the ancient world.[3] From the early A Group to the foundation of Kush, the Nubians were commercially inferior to the Egyptians while Egypt was their main foreign market. Meanwhile, Kush was a colony of the New Kingdom of Egypt. The abundance of highly sorted resources in Nubian territories (especially gold, semi-precious stones and ebony) always fascinated the ancient Egyptians. It was perhaps the urge to control trade in Nubia that made Egyptian Pharaohs annexed the southern territories. Their dominance soon stretched across almost all aspects of Nubian life. The Pharaohs of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom built imposing and heavily fortified fortresses in the occupied territories across Nubia administered by governors.[4] Despite the mightiness of the Pharaohs, things did not always go their way. When the 20th dynasty of the New Kingdom was in disarray, the southern Nubian kingdom of Kush seized the moment to free themselves from colonial rule and mounted an invasion in 732 BCE. Nubian forces under the command of King Piye of Kush annihilated an allied force of Egyptian Pharaohs and commanders including Tefnakht of Sais, Peftjaubast, Iuput II of Leontopolis and Osorkon IV of Tanis. Following the conquest, Piye became the first Nubian Pharaoh of Egypt, and he established the 25th dynasty. The Nubians created one of ancient history’s largest economy through the unification of Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Kush. Egypt’s’ 25th dynasty of Black Pharaohs lasted less than a century before it was conquered by Assyria in 671 BCE.

This brief interaction left a huge Egyptian influence on Kushite culture. Discoveries such as the engraved gold plaque, unearthed during an excavation of Meroë —capital of Kush from c. 1069 BCE - c.350 CE after the sack of former capital, Napata in 590 BCE—revealed that Meroitic kings worshiped the Egyptian god of the Sun, Re. The Meroitic god of procreation, Sebiumeker, was associated with the Egyptian creator god, Atum, and many of the pyramids in Kush were built along the design of those in Egypt. Besides the cultural similarities, both civilizations also shared trade routes along the Nile River. The Egyptian territories were further north and Kush stretched through the Nubia desert and into southern Egypt. Because the pharaohs refuses to tolerate trade competition from key routes in the South, the south they frequently encroached directly on Kushite lands in Nubian territories to secure strategic routes in the gold trade and the mines in Darahib, Qareiyat, and Umm Nabardi.[5]

Meanwhile, in Kush, the shortage of fertile land caused problems. The winter cultivation season (shitwi) depended on the irrigation from the Nile River and spending enormous resources to create formidable water networks. During the summer (sifi), farmers (who were often women) collected water in buckets to from the shadoof,  a counterpoise lift also used by the ancient Egyptians.[6] This was a major contributor to the growth of commercial communities across Nubia. However, the commercial strength of the Nubians started to decline starting around the fifth century before our era. As noted by A.A Hakem, “this area suffered from droughts and the encroachment of sand, which indicates ecological changes which reduced the grazing area of the hinterland.”[7]

Kush itself had always remained relevant in the international trading system as early as the third century BCE—one century after the sack of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Trade was at the heart of the Kushite state, as was the case in the development of early states across Sudanic Africa. Besides its traditional exchange of gold for Egyptian wheat,  Nubia also served as the melting point and probably the only channel of contact between Egypt and inner Africa. Its merchants controlled the supply of goods including ivory, ostrich feathers, and wood to Egypt. The Kingdom was so prominent that many kingdoms of the ancient world depended on it for the supply of incense and gold.[8] In fact, historians believe that most of the gold mined during this period in human history came from Kush. The Kushites traveled as far as the Persian Empire for trade. These high commercial activities fueled by a great demand for gold inspired the production of commercial grade iron tools in East Africa and perhaps similar innovations throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

Commerce in Kushite Metropolises of Kerma, Napata, and Meroë 

To better understand the centrality of trade and commerce in Kush, it is important to revisit the numerous archaeological discoveries in the three most commercially successful cities in its history—Kerma, Napata and Meroë. Kerma was the first capital of Kush. Prior to the pioneering excavations of Kerma in the 1910s[9] and the remarkable study by archaeologist Charles Bonnet in the late 1970s, most of what we knew about Kerma was from Egyptian records. According to recent archaeological excavations in Sudan, there are strong reasons to peg the economy of Kerma around crop cultivation, pastoralism and gold processing.[10] Pastoralism was the bedrock of Kerma life, and like other Nubian cultures that followed, livestock, bovines, and caprines were important to social life. They served as the primary source of protein and calcium, which were necessary for survival in the warm and temperate Nubian climate. In the Winter, crops like wheat, barley, and millet almost exclusively served for household consumption although, the absence of profitable higher water-intensive crops might be due to the minimal supply of water during this period. Legumes including lentils and peas were easily cultivated for commercial purposes. Kerma probably raised more cattle than most of its neighbors at this time.[11]  Hide from cattle was a profitable commodity and they were also used in the vegetable farms for labor. Traders sold their hides for weapon holster and clothing. Cattle also served other purposes in burial. According to Louis Chaix, the excavations at burial sites in Kerma showed that bucrania—the skull of a cattle often containing the horn—were placed facing the deceased in burial mounds and sometimes in large numbers as part of a departing ritual for the dead.[12] This practice gives more details into the affluence of the Kermise society considering that the practice use was a highly expensive undertaking.[13] There was also an abundant use of pottery, jewelry and rare animals that constituted great wealth and luxury in the ancient world.[14] Gold and precious stones equally formed a great amount of Kerma’s external trade. Its location as the midway city between Egypt, central Africa, and the Red Sea made it the center of the rich trade in ivory and ebony. The Kermise engaged in direct trade in these commodities with communities that stretched deep into central Africa. Kerma had a class of wealthy merchants who served as middlemen between the traders up north from Egypt and those from Central Africa. It was probably through these trade engagements and local agriculture that the Kushites made their wealth. What is more significant here is that despite the centralization of the political structure of Kush and Kermise society under powerful Pharaohs and kings, trade was at the heart of the state and merchants played significant roles. British historian, Michael Brass described Kush as a “segmentary state with a prestige-goods economy, less centralized than Egypt, with direct control by the ruling family.”[15] This prosperity in trade attracted foreign envy and was unfortunately among the primary reasons it was sacked in c. 1500 BCE by the New Kingdom of Egypt. Commerce in  Napata was little different.

Napata was the capital of Kush after independence from Egypt in 1070 BCE. The city was founded by Thutmose III during the 18th dynasty of Egypt. As in most Nubian cities, life in Napata centered around agriculture and animal husbandry, although its economy was based on the trade in gold with Egypt. The number of cattle an individual owned determined his wealth and there is no evidence of royal restrictions that barred the trade of cattle for other commodities. The ownership of cattle was central to Napan life. Entire communities often migrated across Nubia to find better grazing areas for their cattle. According to A. A. Hakem:

the transfer of the royal residence from Napata to Meroe could be explained by the need to be nearer to the main grazing area, for the rainfall zone begins to the south of the new capital. Another reason for the move may be seen in the fact that intensive grazing in the northern parts gradually led to soil erosion on both banks of the Nile. In any case the transfer of the centre of the state in the fourth century apparently gave a new impulse to the development of cattle-breeding.[16]

Following the Achaemenid conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE, Napata lost its economic power in the trade of gold to another Kushite city, Meroë. Napata’s eventual decline was a result of a 23 BCE invasion by the Governor of Roman Egypt—either Gaius Petronius or Publius Petronius. The Kushites moved to Meroë. The new metropolis played a significant role in trade along the Nile river having evolved out of the preceding Napatan culture. Perhaps due to its location on the edge of the river Nile—with the Sennar Dam serving as an outpost right on the Blue Nile, Meroë became a key metropolis that attracted merchants across the ancient world. Like Kerma, it served as a trade city to merchants from Persian Egypt. It was in commercial contact with kingdoms and empires along the Indian Ocean. There are reasons to believe the economic importance of Meroë was felt as far as the Greek empire. Herodotus’ Histories, the earliest known source with an extensive account on Africa, made reference to Meroë as a great city.[17] Meroë remained an economic centerpiece in Nubia from about 890 BCE till it was abandoned in 350 CE. But what made this city under Kush in Nubia the toast of the ancient world was its great dependence on commerce, not military might. Its economy was based on agriculture and an iron production—Meroë’s iron products were among the best in the history of the ancient world. They leveraged this comparative advantage as far as Rome, which capitalized on the trade in exotic animals like leopard and elephants, which were important to warfare during this period. Meroë traded with the Ptolemies of Egypt—a Macedonian Greek royal family, that ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt during the Hellenistic period (305 BCE to 30 BCE). The Romans were also influenced by the supremacy of Meroitic ivory and hardwood. The city was abandoned following the conquest of Kush by Aksum. It had already started to decline many years earlier due to environmental factors. Its decline affected the economy of Egypt, which was dependent on Meroë for its supply of luxury goods and basic commodities listed earlier.

In part 3 of this series, we shall examine the Aksumite civilization. Aksum is probably the most well known early African civilization after Egypt, probably owing to its connection with the development and propagation of Christianity. But the marvel of Aksum is beyond the story of its legendary King Ezana or its imposing obelisks and temples. The kingdom pioneered some of the most enduring legacies in banking while it dominated the Horn of Africa.


[1] Despite what archaeologists know of the A-group culture, their true name remains unknown. Historians believe this culture was most likely the earliest Nubian culture known to science and that it was developed through Neolithic cultures along the Nile valley. Significantly, the A-Group society was characterized by strong leadership and there is evidence that its people had strong trade relations with predynastic Egyptian kingdoms.

[2] N.M. Sherf, ‘Nubia Before Napata’ General History of Africa Volume II, Ed. G Mokhtar (California: University of California Press, 1981) pg. 245-248.

[3]Jane Roy, The Politics of Trade: Egypt and Lower Nubia in the 4th Millennium BC (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011) Pgs. 42-27, 201, 294-297.

[4]Ibid. pg. 258.

[5] I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, The Cambridge Ancient History: Early History of the Middle East. Vol. 1 P. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) pg. 350.

[6] The shaduf was invented by the ancient Egyptian. It consists of a long pole suspended to a cross bream and basket often made of skin. The bucket is attached to the pole and used to lift water from the river or reservoir. It is among the key inventions that transformed agriculture in the early African civilizations.

[7] A. A. Hakem, ‘The civilization of Napata and Meroë,’ General History of Africa Volume II, Ed. G Mokhtar (California: University of California Press, 1981) pg. 308.

[8] O’Connor David, ‘Egypt, 1552-664 BC’ The Cambridge History of Africa: From the Earliest Times to c. 500 BC. Eds. J. D. Fage, Roland Oliver and J. Desmond Clark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 830-940.

[9] The chronology of Kerman culture was established based on the work of American archaeologist G. A. Reisner between 1913 and 1916, in an area not far from the Third Cataract and about 150 miles south of Semna. He later led a joint mission of the Harvard and Boston Universities for 25 years in Egypt.

[10] The importance of gold in kerma culture was well captured in G.A Reisner’s chapter, Excavation at Kerma Parts IV and V, in Volume VI of the Harvard African Studies published in 1923—see pg. 281-285. In Pastoral states: Toward a Comparative Archaeology of Early Kush (University of Rama, 2014) pgs. 28 and 31, Geoff Emberling comprehensively argued the importance of pastoralism in Kushite culture.

[11] Edwards David N., The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (London: Routledge, 2004) pgs. 42, 57.

[12] Role of Burcania in nubia and louis chaix Louis Chaix, Cattle, a major component of the Kerma culture (Sudan)  in The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology. Edited by Umberto Albarella, Mauro Rizzetto, Hannah Russ, Kim Vickers, and Sarah Viner-Daniels. (2017) p. 61-66.

[13] 11 Ibid pgs. 56, 84, 91.

[14] Timothy Kendall, Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C. (Washington D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997) pg. 42-59.

[15] Brass Michael, ‘Interactions and Pastoralism Along the Southern and Southeastern Frontiers of the Meroitic State,’ Sudan Journal of World Prehistory (New York: Springer, 2015) pg. 255.

[16] 9, Ibid.

[17] Herodotus, The Histories Ed. Carolyn Dewald (Massachusetts: Oxford 1998) pg. 618.

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