On the banks of the Nile River in eastern Sudan, the desert landscape is broken up by an unlikely sight. Towering towards the sky are a series of stone and granite pyramids, some reaching almost 100 feet high. But unlike their counterparts in Egypt, these monuments were largely written out of the history books – and remain relatively unknown to this day.
Located some 120 miles to the northeast of the Sudanese city of Khartoum, these pyramids are what’s left of Meroë – once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. For thousands of years, this great civilization ruled the region of Nubia, stretching out beyond the River Nile. And just like the more famous Egyptians, they constructed great monuments to house and honor their dead.
Looking at the ruins of Meroë, it seems clear that Kush easily rivalled some of its more famous counterparts. In fact, its pharaohs once controlled everything from Khartoum up to the Mediterranean Sea – perhaps the largest kingdom in the history of the region. So why has this civilization been relegated to a footnote in history, while Egypt’s rulers and monuments are studied in every school?
Within the city of Meroë are more pyramids than can be found across the whole of Egypt. But despite their proliferation and grandeur, these monuments – and the people who built them – have been dismissed for generations. Now, after decades of ignorance, archaeologists are finally beginning to unlock their secrets.
More than 1,000 miles to the north, in the city of Giza, millions of visitors flock to gawp at the pyramids built by another great civilization. But Meroë is absent of crowds, its towering monuments home to just a scattering of excavations. So how has the Kingdom of Kush slipped under the radar, while other ancient people remain revered?
The origins of the Kushite kingdom began in the city state of Kerma, which thrived in Nubia between the 25th and 15th centuries B.C. Controlling a vast swathe of territory in the Nile Valley, this civilization grew to rival that of Egypt in the north. And while only around 2,000 people lived in the urban center during this period, many more inhabited the outlying lands.
Initially, the Kush civilization was rural and agricultural, engaging in both hunting and cultivating crops. During this early period, the people built vast structures out of mud bricks where they worshipped and laid their dead to rest. Meanwhile, in the rival kingdom of Egypt, great pyramids were erected in memory of the pharaohs when they passed.
Then, some time around 1500 B.C., the Egyptians moved south and conquered Kerma, bringing their distinct culture to the people of Nubia. Under their influence, new buildings were constructed and a temple was founded at Jebel Barkal, a mountain located on a bend in the Nile. And for five centuries, the pharaohs held sway across the region.
But the arrival of the Egyptians in Kerma did not spell the end for the Kingdom of Kush. Instead, its rulers migrated south and established a seat at Napata, some 120 miles from their original capital. And there, they developed a culture that existed in harmony with their neighbors in the north.
For example, at Jebel Barkal the Kushite people hosted rituals dedicated to Amun, an Egyptian god. Meanwhile, records suggest that there was a degree of intermarriage between the elites of both kingdoms. But the two groups had their differences as well, and they are depicted as racially distinct in contemporary art from the region.
Then, in around 1070 B.C., the era of the New Kingdom came to an end and Egypt’s influence in Nubia began to wane. And in its absence, the Kushites emerged as the pharaohs’ natural heirs. Eventually, in the eighth century B.C., the third king of Napata, Piye, set off to conquer the northern kingdom.
Ultimately, Piye was successful, and Egypt came under Kushite control. Establishing themselves as the 25th dynasty, Napata’s kings dedicated themselves to ruling this new, expanded empire. Today, they are remembered as the black pharaohs, and they reigned for a century – although their history is often overlooked.
During the reign of the black pharaohs, a number of traditional Egyptian practices were revived – including the building of pyramids to memorialize their rulers. Meanwhile, the kingdom went from strength to strength, as the new dynasty expanded the empire as far as the Near East. Then, over time, control of the region passed to Piye’s son, Taharqa.
According to scholars, Taharqa was possibly the most important of the Kushite pharaohs, overseeing large building projects across Egypt. For reasons unknown, he also reestablished the royal cemetery at a site known as Nuri, across the Nile from Napata. Apparently, some believe that he wished to align his pyramid with the sun, while others suspect the move was political.
Eventually, the Kushites were themselves replaced, ousted from Egypt by invading Assyrians in the seventh century B.C. Fleeing his seat in Thebes, the pharaoh Tantamani retreated to Napata. However, even this city was not safe, and its people fought off a succession of assaults from their rival empires.
Over time, the Kushites moved their capital to a third city: Meroë, some 200 miles to the southeast of Napata. But rather than fade away, their kingdom thrived in this new location. Positioned at a crossroads between the Mediterannean and Africa, the settlement quickly prospered thanks to access to trading routes.
You see, at Meroë the waters of the Nile irrigated the dry Nubian soil, opening up further possibilities for agriculture and trade. Moreover, valuable resources such as gold and iron were mined in the region, further boosting the status of the Kushite capital. And over time, a distinct culture began to emerge.
“[The Kushites] took on influences from outside – Egyptian influences, Greco-Roman influences, but also influences from Africa,” Arnulf Schlüter from Munich’s State Museum of Egyptian Art told Smithsonian Magazine in September 2020. “And they formed their very own ideas, their own architecture and arts.”
Like the Kushite pharaohs who ruled from Napata, the kings of Meroë built pyramids inspired by those found in Egypt. Steeper than their counterparts in the north, they also differed in that they were not the exclusive domain of the elite. In fact, anyone with enough wealth would have had the option of being entombed in one of these grand monuments.
Although smaller than the pyramids at sites such as Giza, the monuments at Meroë are far greater in number. In fact, just one necropolis in the city contains more of the structures than can be found in the whole of Egypt. So why isn’t this corner of Sudan brimming with tourists keen to take selfies alongside these ancient landmarks?
For centuries, the Kingdom of Kush thrived from its capital of Meroë. And as well as great pharaohs, the city became home to a number of warrior queens, such as Amanirenas, who ruled between 40 and 10 B.C. Despite being partially blind, it’s said that she drove off the Roman army and decapitated a statue of Emperor Augustus in celebration.
Over the years, the Kushites developed all of the trappings typically associated with a great civilization. Alongside their pyramids, they built temples where they practiced an adapted version of the Egyptian religions. Meanwhile, they sustained trade routes and developed their own language – which continues to baffle experts to this day.
Then, in the fourth century B.C., the power balance in Nubia began to shift. As the might of the Roman Empire continued to grow, a new rival, the Kingdom of Aksum in what is now Ethiopia, rose in the east. On top of that, experts believe that climate change also played a role in the decline of Kush.
Like many ancient civilizations, then, Kush had its glory days before another empire stepped up to take its place. But why are a people who built more pyramids than the Egyptians so often overlooked? According to experts, the answer lies in the racist attitudes that pervaded academia towards the beginning of the 20th century.
You see, in 1916 George Reisner, an Egyptologist from Harvard University, traveled to Nubia, where he began a seven-year investigation into the Kingdom of Kush. As well as studying Meroë and its pyramids, he visited Napata, where he excavated sites associated with the black pharaohs. Additionally, he also spent time at Kerma, where the great dynasty first emerged.
Despite the impressive archaeology at the three sites, Reisner remained unconvinced that Kush had been a civilization in its own right. Because of his own prejudice, he felt sure that the local race of black Africans could not have built such a complex society. And as such, he concluded that Kerma was merely an outpost of the Egyptian kingdom.
“The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention, and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization,” Reisner wrote in a Boston Museum of Fine Arts bulletin dated October 1918. And for decades, beliefs such as this prevented any serious study of the Kushites from taking place.
Fortunately, Reisner was not the only person interested in the Kingdom of Kush. In the 1960s Charles Bonnet, a Swiss archaeologist, traveled to Sudan to begin excavating the remains of Kerma. And thankfully, he did not buy into the notion that the city was merely an offshoot of the Egyptian empire.
“Western archaeologists, including Reisner, were trying to find Egypt in Sudan, not Sudan in Sudan,” Bonnet explained in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. And for decades, he made it his mission to uncover the truth about Kush. Slowly, thanks to his efforts, evidence emerged that proved Kerma was the heart of a kingdom in its own right.
But although the work of archaeologists such as Bonnet eventually revealed the truth about the Kushites, the damage had already been done. And even today, the black pharaohs have never risen to claim their rightful place in the history books. Currently, work continues to redress the balance.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the Kushites has had to contend with more than just racism over the years. You see, Nubian sites themselves have not proved so easy to access on a practical level. And so, researchers have often overlooked them in favor of easier targets.
Then in 2004 construction began on a huge dam across the Nile River some 220 miles north of the current-day Sudanese capital Khartoum. Located just 20 miles from the ruins of Napata, the structure stands at more than 200 feet tall and is the largest modern hydropower facility in the whole of Africa.
However, such progress has come at a great cost. In the planning stages, it emerged that the project would result in the flooding of a large section of land on the banks of the River Nile. And so, a team of archaeologists sprang into action, hoping to salvage what they could from this historically significant region.
From 1999 onwards, experts from the Sudanese Archaeological Research Society and the British Museum worked to excavate the site of the Merowe Dam. In the process, they uncovered many treasures encompassing some 150,000 years of history in the Nubia region. And among them was a pyramid, believed to date back to the Kingdom of Kush.
According to experts, the pyramid clearly belonged to an individual of some importance, helping to cement the reputation of Kush as an influential kingdom. But despite the discoveries in the region, construction work on the dam continued. Eventually, archaeologists found themselves at the center of a heated debate.
For those living in the path of the Merowe Dam, the project didn’t just mean the potential loss of historical and cultural sights. Eventually, as many as 70,000 people would be displaced by the facility, forcibly relocated from fertile valleys to harsh desert environments. And while activists battled to defend the people of the Nile Valley, some accused the archaeologists of legitimizing this breach of human rights.
Eventually, the dam was completed, and much of the land surrounding the Nile’s fourth cataract was submerged. And although we may never know how many Kushite sites were damaged in the process, some treasures may well have been lost forever beneath the surface. Now, activists are speaking out about additional hydropower projects, hoping to save Nubia’s ancient relics for future generations.
Meanwhile, some archaeologists have remained dedicated to exploring the Kingdom of Kush – despite the fact that much of it is now underwater. You see, in 2018 the archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman visited Nuri, hoping to expand on Reisner’s earlier work. Even in the early 20th century, it seems, the water level in certain tombs had made them difficult to access, but now the situation was even worse.
According to reports, construction projects such as the Merowe Dam – as well as climate change and intensive farming practices – had caused the water levels to rise even further. And as such, Creasman was forced to don diving gear in order to explore the ancient ruins. Eventually, however, his team discovered the tomb of Nastasen, one of the Kushite black pharaohs.
Thanks to its inaccessible location, experts believe, the tomb has remained untouched by grave robbers over the years. And although Nastasen’s coffin hasn’t been opened, archaeologists hope that it will contain fascinating insights into the people who ruled Nubia 2,300 years ago. Perhaps with these revelations, the Kingdom of Kush might get its moment in the spotlight at last.