The Rise of the Kushite Kingdom

Interior of one of the tombs at el-Kurru, from Foto Sudan web site.
<> (April 2001)

Brian Yare

2nd April 2001

"Consider the evidence for the rise of the Kushite kingdom of Napata (the 'kingdom of Kurru' and the '25th Dynasty') as it has been treated in the literature (such as Bill Adams's Nubia, Corridor to Africa). What are the important factors? Do you think that Egyptologists have interpreted the material correctly? Or have they been too deeply influenced by their own preconceptions of the Egyptian historical framework?"

The End of the 25th Dynasty

Gardiner (1961, 346-350) tells us about the end of the 25th Dynasty in Egypt, the conquest of Lower Egypt by the Assyrians in 664BC and the overthrow of Thebes. This is the earliest securely dated event in Egyptian and Nubian history. At this time Tanuatamun withdrew to Nubia, marking the end of Nubian history as a global power. He was buried, with the other Nubian kings, at el Kurru. Only Taharqa was buried elsewhere, at Nuri.

Earlier 25th Dynasty

The dates of the rest of the 25th Dynasty can be estimated with reasonable accuracy using information from a number of stelae, Apis Bull burials, Biblical and Assyrian accounts, although there is some room for uncertainty even in the order of the rulers.

Morkot (1999) offers several suggestions concerning the genealogy and succession of the Napatan kingdom, but does not reach any firm conclusions. Until further information is forthcoming, we may assume that the succession was partly from father to son and partly from brother to brother. It is not necessary to discuss this further here, although it is important when estimating the average reign lengths when detailed information is not available..

We know of the campaign of the Assyrian, Senacherib, against Hezekiah, king of Judah from the Bible (II Kings, 18-20; Isaiah, 37-38). This was in 701 BC, and Tirhaka is named as king of Kush. There is some uncertainty about the identity of this king, and whether or not Senacherib fought a second campaign against Egypt some 12 years later (Sabbath and Jubilee Cycle, ch. VIII goes into considerable detail before concluding that there was a single campaign and identifying Tirhaka as the same king of Kush as the Taharqa who reigned in Egypt from 690 to 664BC). The bible does not name Taharka as king of Egypt at the time, but as king of Ethiopia.

Whiston (1829), translating Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, X, I, 4), tells us of Sennacherib that:

"He spent a long time in the siege of Pelusium; and when the banks that he had raised over against the walls were of a great height, and when he was ready to make an immediate assault upon them, but heard that Tirhaka, king of the Ethiopians, was coming, and bringing great forces to aid the Egyptians, and was resolved to march through the desert, and so to fall directly upon the Assyrians, this king Sennacherib was disturbed at the news; and, as I said before, left Pelusium, and returned back without success,"

In any case, it is generally agreed that Piankhi ruled in Kush from about 747BC (Clayton, 1994, 190), conquering Upper and Lower Egypt in about 727BC as recorded on his Victory Stele, found at Gebel Barkal in 1862 (Lichtheim, M. 1980, 66-84).

Evidence from Nubia

The burial ground at el Kurru contains not only the burials of most of the 25th Dynasty Kushite kings, but also a number of earlier burials. The earliest of these include pottery of a type seen also in the late New Kingdom (20th Dynasty). Some have claimed that the pottery and other artefacts were from the 18th or 19th Dynasty, but that they were 'heirlooms'.

Morkot (2000a, 138-144) tells of George Reisner's surprise at his discoveries here. Besides the tombs of the 25th Dynasty pharaohs: Kashta, Piye, Shabaqo, Shebitqo and Tanwetamini, there were also 14 earlier burials. These could be placed in sequence by their position within the burial ground, their developing structure and the remnants of grave goods. All had been robbed out in antiquity.

Török (1994, 208-209) considers a long chronology for the cemetery, which allows 14 generations preceding Piye. The earliest tomb would then date to about 1020BC. After 5 generations (say 920BC) evidence of the "breaking the red pots" ceremony was found in the form of hundreds of sherds of redware painted in white with Egyptian funerary scenes.

Morkot (2000a, 142) reports that Kendall had identified a number of finds, principally alabaster and faience vessels, as Ramesside. Even with the long chronology these seem to be some 3 centuries 'old'.

But the style of some of the objects found are similar to those of the late 20th Dynasty. If we assume that all the local Kushite rulers were buried here, and assuming an average reign length of say 20 years and Reisner's short chronology, we can conclude that the earliest burials here were in about 860BC. But this is considerably later than the orthodox chronology date of 1069BC for the death of Ramesses XI at the end of the 20th Dynasty. Before we discuss this further, let us look at how the Orthodox Chronology was derived?

Adams (1977, 247) tells us that

"Not before the end of the 9th century BC, some 200 years after the vice-royalty of Piankhi, can we perceive clearly the re-emergence of secular authority in Nubia."

Piankhi was the last Viceroy of Nubia under Ramesses XI. He makes no attempt to explain what was happening in the south for two centuries.

O'Connor (1993, 68) seems to accept the short chronology:

"Efforts to date the earliest Kurru tombs to the period just after the New Kingdom have been made, but are unpersuasive."

Shinnie (1996, 95) says that "It is strange to find so little trace of human occupation for the few hundred years between the withdrawal of the Egyptians and the beginning of a native dynasty." He continues, "Whatever the situation during the first two hundred years or so after the withdrawal of the Egyptians from both Upper and Lower Nubia, there is a gap in the archaeological and historical evidence until, in about 850BC, the first burials are found of an indigenous ruling family based on the town of Napata and the sacred area around Gebel Barkal."

Török (1994, 207), referring to Kitchen, tells us that around the 12th year of Ramesses XI the then Viceroy of Nubia, Panehesy, was ordered to pacify the troubled Thebaid. His expedition developed into a rebellion against the Pharaoh, Panehesy uniting Nubia with Upper Egypt under his own sole rule. Panehesy was forced to retreat to Nubia in year 19 of Ramesses XI. This Pharaoh appointed a new Viceroy, Herihor (Kitchen, 1995, §209), who pursued Panehesy to Lower Nubia but was unable to eliminate him. Herihor was succeeded in about his 7th year by Piankh as Commander of Horse, and he also failed to eliminate Panehesy.

Kitchen (1995, §251), tells us that Shoshenq I of the 22nd Dynasty, in about 930BC, opened the way south, to obtain from the land of Nubia all manner of products for Amun of Karnak. He thinks it extremely probable that Shoshenq marched his armies into Nubia. But in the changes for the 2nd edition, Kitchen states unequivocally (§509) that "The supposed Nubian campaign of Shoshenq I is illusory, because the blocks in question can be shown to belong to inscriptions of Taharqa."

Orthodox Chronology

Manetho was an Egyptian priest who was chosen to write a history of Egypt by Ptolemy I in the 3rd century BC (Waddell, 1940). He had access to temple records. He produced a list of rulers, subdivided into 30 Dynasties, going back to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. His work is, unfortunately, lost, but extracts from it survive in the works of Josephus, Diodorus Sicilus and Eusebius. There are considerable discrepancies between these accounts, but they still form the framework on which we place the rulers of Egypt.

Manetho gives 130 years for the 21st Dynasty of 7 kings from Tanis, 49 years for the 22nd Dynasty of 3 kings of Bubastis (although Africanus inserts another 6 unknown kings here, and 44 years for the 23rd Dynasty of 3 kings of Tanis. The sole king of the 24th Dynasty, Bochchôris of Bubastis reigned only 6 years. Shabaka of the 25th Dynasty killed Bochchôris, possibly in 702BC

Later authors have allotted a considerably longer duration to the 22nd Dynasty, and made it parallel the 23rd Dynasty in part. By this means, Clayton (1994, 174-185) places the 21st Dynasty from 1069 to 945, the 22nd Dynasty from 945 to 712, the 23rd Dynasty from 818 to 727 and the 24th Dynasty from 727 to 716.

Revised Chronologies

Velikovsky, in his "Ages in Chaos" series of books, disagreed with the Orthodox Chronology, arguing that as much as 650 years needs to be lost in order to synchronise various events testified to in different civilizations. While his work is largely discredited by professionals, it caused some younger scholars to consider how secure is the Orthodox Chronology.

Velikovsky (1952) places the 25th Dynasty in its generally accepted time, but rearranges the other New Kingdom and Late Period Dynasties around it. He places it between the 18th and 19th Dynasties. This placing of Ramesses II at the end of the 7th Century BC is clearly untenable from the archaeological evidence.

Sothic dating of Egypt

Rohl (1995, 129-132) tells us that Censorinus, in De Dei Natali, noted that a Sothic cycle had begun on 20 July 139A.D. The Sothic cycle begins when Sothis (Sirius, the Dog Star) rises heliacally in July to mark the start of the inundation of the Nile. This cycle repeats about every 1460 years. There is little, if any, evidence from Egypt to show that they used such a cycle. Only the Papyrus Ebers Calendar has a Sothic dating. This would place the start of the New Kingdom at 1575BC, or maybe 1550BC depending on whether the observation was made at Memphis or Thebes. But the Papyrus Ebers appears not to be describing the heliacal rising of Sirius.

Rohl also disagrees with the orthodox equivalence of Shishak of the Bible (I Kings 14:25-26 & II Chronicles 12:2-9) with Shoshenk I. This would place Shoshenk I at about 925BC He prefers to identify Shishak with Ramesses II, and produces a number of good arguments, not least of them the Genealogy of the Royal Architects in the Wadi Hammamat quarries. Here Ramesses II is found 22 generations before Darius I. Assuming an average 20 year generation for the architects places Ramesses II in the late 10th Century BC Haremsef, the Royal Architect of Shoshenk I, can be found 8 generations, or 160 years, later.

Kitchen (1995) attempts to place in order the rulers and major families of the 21st to 25th Dynasties. He takes as a starting date the end of the New Kingdom, calculated from the disputed Sothic date referred to above. He collected a large body of material and ordered it and sorted it in order to fill the time period from 1100 to 650BC. His work is the foundation for all historians of this period, but it must be emphasised that he was filling a fixed time slot using all the information available. If the given time slot had been shorter, he could probably have created a different chronology.

Bierbrier (1975) admits that there is a dearth of material from the 21st Dynasty, but uses a wealth of 22nd Dynasty material from Thebes. Now there was a greatly increased interest in genealogy, and many coffins and other fragments give genealogies going back as far as 10 generations.

Peter James (1991) and his co-authors argue for a reduction in the length of the Third Intermediate Period of some 230 years. They take evidence from the Aegean, Near East, Egypt and Nubia and produce a logical explanation in which the Dark Ages in these civilizations are eliminated. Their candidate for Shishak of the Bible would be Ramesses III. The evidence from the Apis bull burials in the Serapeum shows 17 burials from year 30 of Ramesses II to year 21 of Psametik. This gives a reasonable lifespan for an Apis of 21 years under James' chronology.

David Rohl (1995) also comes up with considerable evidence supporting a reduction of the Late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period by some 350 years.

Robert Morkot (2000a, 105-112) expands on the chapters he wrote for Centuries of Darkness, to give his views of a shortened Third Intermediate Period.

With a considerable number of authors attempting to promote a reduction in the length of the Third Intermediate Period, attempts are ongoing to reveal synchronisms with other civilizations. The main stumbling block at present appears to be with Babylon and Assyria, but Bob Porter, Wayne A. Mitchell, David F. Lappin and others are working on these. I have been following their discussions and revelations in the New Chronology e-mail list <> which mainly promotes Rohl's theories.

I have only touched on the surface of this fascinating subject. Perhaps the definitive paper at present is by Morkot (2000b) given at a conference at University College, London, in December 2000. The bibliography to that paper gives an extensive coverage of the subject of this essay.

Has the traditional Orthodox Chronology been discredited? Only time will tell, but I find many of the arguments for a revision to be persuasive.


1954The Holy Bible, Authorized Version.
 The Sabbath and Jubilee Cycle. Qadesh La Yahweh Press.
<> (March 2001)
Adams, William Y, 1977:Nubia, Corridor to Africa. London.
Bierbrier, M L, 1975:The Late New Kingdom in Egypt (c 1300-664BC). Warminster
Clayton, Peter A, 1994:Chronicle of the Pharaohs.. London.
Gardiner, Sir Alan, 1961:Egypt of the Pharaohs. Oxford.
James et al., 1991:Centuries of Darkness. London
Kitchen, Kenneth A, 1995:The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650BC), 3rd edition. Warminster
Lichtheim, Miriam, 1980:Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. III: The Late Period. London.
Morkot, Robert, 1999:In Studien zum antiken Sudan, Akten der 7. Internationalen Tagung für meroitistische Forschungen vom 14. bis 19. September 1992 in Gosen/bei Berlin. Wiesbaden
Morkot, Robert, 2000a:The Black Pharaohs. London
Morkot, Robert, 2000b:On the Priestly origin of the Napatan kings. In Encounters with Ancient Egypt, University College London.
O'Connor, David, 1993:Ancient Nubia, Egypt's Rival in Africa. Pennsylvania.

Rohl, David, 1995:A Test of Time. London
Shinnie, Peter, 1996:Ancient Nubia. London.
Velikovsky, Immanuel, 1952:Ages in Chaos. London.
Török, László, 1994:In Actes de la VIIIe Conférence Internationale des Études Nubienne, The Emergence of the Kingdom of Kush and the myth of the state in the first millennium BC. Lille
Waddell, W G, 1940:Manetho. Harvard
Whiston, William, 1829:The Works of Flavius Josephus. Edinburgh