by Luke Pepera
In about 600 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Psammeticus II destroyed the Kushite capital Napata, and drove the Kushites south where they established a new capital at Meroë (in modern-day Sudan). Blessed with heavy rains and located at an enviable position between the societies of the African coast, African interior, Egypt, and the Near East, the Kushites couldn’t have chosen a better place. They gained control of North Africa’s most important trade routes, and soon grew rich supplying the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans with gold, iron, and even monkeys and elephants. But what they liked best of all was that Meroë was now far enough away from Egypt that its pharaohs could no longer interfere with their politics, or continue to influence their way of life. The way the Kushites saw it, this space gave them the opportunity to become both an independent kingdom and develop a culture that was better aligned with their ancient traditions.
In 295 BC, a young man called Ergamenes was crowned king of Kush. Educated in Greek history and philosophy, he was much more skeptical than previous kings of a Kushite religion that had borrowed heavily from Egypt. He took particular issue with the priests at the Temple of Amun who had, over the centuries, grown exceptionally powerful. If they believed a king unfit to rule, they could order him to die, often by suicide, and make way for his son. But when they gave this same order to Ergamenes, his response was to march into their temple with a band of soldiers and slaughter every last one of them. Then the king set about the total transformation of his homeland, loosening the grip of Egypt, and ushering in a new, distinct Kushite culture.
First, Ergamenes ordered that, from his reign onwards, Kushite monarchs would be buried at Meroë, not Egyptian-influenced Napata. He introduced a new script, Meroitic, which has still not been fully deciphered. Rulers immortalised on temple walls were carved with Kushite clothes, jewellery, and weaponry. And, most significantly of all, royal women could now rule independently.
This last reform was most likely the least controversial, and one that might have happened anyway. After all, centuries before Ergamenes was born, royal women were revered in Kush. In the 7th and 8th centuries BC (during which time the Kushites ruled Egypt) the mothers, sisters, and wives of kings were buried alongside him at the royal cemetery in El Kurru. This same privilege wasn’t extended even to the king’s brothers and uncles. And neither was the privilege of investing a newly-crowned king with the power to rule. This, too, was the queen’s prerogative. For when the old king died and his successor was chosen, usually from his sister’s children, the queen’s role in the coronation was to deliver a speech in which she asked the god Amun to bestow rulership on ‘their son’. As is shown on coronation stelae and temple walls, she also poured libations for Amun and shook the sistrum (a kind of ancient, sacred rattle) – rituals that, in Egypt, only the king was allowed to perform.
The myth of Osiris and Isis is quite the romantic story. Osiris’s brother Set murders him, and scatters his mutilated corpse across the land. But mourning Isis travels far and wide, and lovingly collects her husband’s body. She manages, with love and patience, to resurrect him, and together they have a child – Horus. Isis’s healing powers and deep devotion to her husband, son, and worshippers made her the most popular of Kush’s deities. After the Kushites had moved to Meroë, they undertook pilgrimages to Isis’ temple at Philae in the north, and inscribed upon its walls words of thanks and adoration. She was to them the great nurturer, of their land, culture, and king. In saving Osiris and giving birth to Horus, she restored Order to Chaos, breathed new life into the kingdom, and ensured its survival. And because the Kushites believed that their pharaoh was Horus, they also believed that his mother was Isis. The queen blessed her son, the new pharaoh, with the right to rule just as Isis had done for Horus, and without her, her mandate, and her rituals, the king lacked authority and his rulership was incomplete.
Ergamenes simply built upon these ancient beliefs. Kushite queens had once been important, but supportive, characters. After 300 BC, they became leading ladies. And in raising up royal women even higher, Ergamenes rejected as much as he could Egyptian customs, which held women in lesser esteem, and emphasised African traditions that to this day revere female rulers. By the time Meroë collapsed in about 330 AD, there had ruled at least ten Kandakes. From Shanakdakhete (c. 170 to c. 150 BC) to Lahideamani (c. 306 to 314 AD) with brave Amanirenas (c. 40 to c. 10 BC) and Amanitore (c. 1 to c. 25 AD) in-between, these women protected their people, defended their cities, and made Kush one of the most prosperous kingdoms of antiquity.
Lohwasser, K. Queenship in Kush: Status, Role and Ideology of Royal Women. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 38, 2001, S. 61-76 (http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/propylaeumdok/2394/1/Lohwasser_Queenship_in_Kush_2001.pdf)
Mark, Joshua J. The Candaces of Meroë. Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/The_Candaces_of_Meroe/
Baldi, M. Isis in Kush, a Nubian soul for an Egyptian goddess. Journal of Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Archaeology, No 02/2015 (https://www.academia.edu/24078612/Baldi_M_2016_Isis_in_Kush_a_Nubian_soul_for_an_Egyptian_goddess)
About the Author:
Luke is a writer and broadcaster specialising in African history and culture. He studied Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford University, where he developed his passion for ancient and medieval African societies and cultures. Recently, he’s written and presented ‘Africa: Written Out of History’ for Dan Snow’s History Hit Channel and appeared as a panellist on ‘Real Fake History’ (now on Youtube). His writings and stories can be found on his website, https://lukepepera.wordpress.com.