An Introduction to Ancient Nubia and the Kingdom of Kush

Aegis of Isis, Kushite, late 3rd century B.C.E., from Kawa, Sudan (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Kushites were expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians, but their kingdom flourished in Sudan for another thousand years.

By The British Museum


The first settlers in northern Sudan date back 300,000 years. It is home to the oldest sub-Saharan African kingdom, the kingdom of Kush (about 2500–1500 B.C.E.). This culture produced some of the most beautiful pottery in the Nile valley, including Kerma beakers.

Map of Kush and Ancient Egypt, showing the Nile up to the fifth cataract, and major cities and sites of the ancient Egyptian Dynastic period (c. 3150 BC to 30 BC) (map: Jeff Dahl, CC Y-SA 4.0)

Sudan was coveted for its rich natural resources particularly gold, ebony and ivory. Several objects in the British Museum collection are made of these materials. Ancient Egyptians were attracted southward seeking these resources during the Old Kingdom (about 2686–2181 B.C.E.), which often led to conflict as Egyptian and Sudanese rulers sought to control trade.

Kush was the most powerful state in the Nile valley around 1700 B.C.E. Conflict between Egypt and Kush followed, culminating in the conquest of Kush by Thutmose I (1504–1492 B.C.E.). In the west and south, Neolithic cultures remained as both areas were beyond the reach of the Egyptian rulers.

Kushite heartland and Kushite Empire of the 25th dynasty circa 700 B.C.E. (map: Lommes, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Egypt withdrew in the eleventh century B.C. E. and the Sudanese kings grew powerful. They invaded Egypt and ruled as Pharaohs (about 747–656 B.C.E.). At its greatest, their empire united the Nile valley from Khartoum to the Mediterranean. King Taharqo’s sphinx remains a testament to Kushite power and authority.

The Kushites were expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians, but their kingdom flourished in Sudan for another thousand years. Their monuments and art display a rich combination of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and indigenous African traditions which may be seen in the chapel relief of Queen Shanakdhakete and aegis of Isis in the Museum collection.

Kerma Ware Pottery Beaker

Kerma ware pottery beaker, about 1750–1550 B.C.E., from Kerma, Sudan (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The cultures of Kerma flourished between about 2500 and 1500 B.C.E. Their most distinctive products were ceramics. The potters were able to produce incredibly fine vessels by hand, without using a wheel. The pot shown here belongs to the so-called ‘Classic Kerma’ phase, from around 1750 to around 1550 B.C.E. Classic Kerma pottery is characterized by a black top and a rich red-brown base, separated by an irregular purple-grey band. The black tops and interiors are usually extremely fine and have a distinctive metallic lustrous appearance.

Black Polished Incised Ware Cup

Black polished incised ware cup, Late C-Group Culture, 1700–1500 B.C.E., from Cemetery 2 at Faras, Sudan (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The handmade pottery produced by C-Group craftsmen is highly distinctive. Although some forms are comparable to Egyptian types of the same period, others are quite different. These show a strong African influence.

This cup has features characteristic of the African-influenced group known as ‘polished incised ware’. The cup has a round bottom and is bowl-shaped, though it is small enough to be considered a cup. Vessels of this shape were probably designed to hold food and drink. The African influence is shown most clearly in the cup’s decoration. The exterior is incised with diamonds filled in with cross hatching, perhaps derived from designs used in basket work. Other motifs include herringbone patterns and other geometric shapes of smooth and incised areas.

The incised decoration was applied to the pot before the clay was dry. The vessel was fired to leave a black or sometimes a red finish, which was highly polished. Finally, white pigment was rubbed into the incisions to make the pattern stand out. The remains of the white pigment can be seen in some areas on this cup, but most is now lost.

Ornamental Head of a Goddess, Possibly Isis

Aegis of Isis, Kushite, late 3rd century B.C.E., from Kawa, Sudan (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The term aegis is used in Egyptology to describe a broad collar surmounted by the head of a deity, in this case a goddess, possibly Isis. Representations in temples show that these objects decorated the sacred boats in which deities were carried in procession during festivals. An aegis was mounted at the prow and another at the stern. The head of the deity identified the occupant of the boat and it is likely that this example came from a sacred boat of Isis.

The eyes and eyebrows of the goddess were originally inlaid. The large eyes, further emphasized by the inlay, are typical of later Kushite art. The rectangular hole in her forehead once held the uraeus, which identified her as a goddess. The surviving part of her head-dress consists of a vulture—the wing feathers can be seen below her ears. The vulture head-dress was originally worn by the goddess Mut, consort of Amun of Thebes, but became common for all goddesses. The rest of the head-dress for this aegis was cast separately and is now lost, but would have consisted of a sun disc and cow’s horns. The piece bears a cartouche of the Kushite ruler Arnekhamani (reigned about 235–218 B.C.E.), the builder of the Lion Temple at Musawwarat es-Sufra.

One of the Longest Known Monumental Texts in Meroitic

This stela is one of a pair found at Hamadab a few kilometers south of Meroe in Sudan, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. They stood either side of the main doorway into a temple.

Kushite rulers Queen Amanirenas and Prince Akinidad (detail), Meroitic stela, Kushite period, about 24 B.C.E., from Hamadab, Sudan, 236.5 cm high (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

At the top of the stela are the remains of a relief panel depicting the Kushite rulers Queen Amanirenas and Prince Akinidad. On the left they are shown facing a god, probably Amun, whilst on the right they are facing a goddess, probably Mut. Below this is a frieze depicting bound prisoners.

Meroitic stela, Kushite period, about 24 B.C.E., from Hamadab, Sudan, 236.5 cm high (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

An inscription in Meroitic cursive script is carved on the lower part of the stela. Meroitic was the indigenous language of the Kingdom of Kush. It is one of the few ancient languages yet to be deciphered. The alphabet consisted of 15 consonants, four vowels and four syllabic characters but the meaning of the words is not known.

In this inscription, the names of Amanirenas and Akinidad are recognizable. It is thought that Amanirenas was the Kushite ruler during the Kushite conflicts against the Romans in the late first century B.C.E. This inscription may commemorate a Kushite raid on Roman Egypt in 24 B.C.E.

A number of Roman imperial statues were taken during this raid, possibly including a bronze head of Augustus which was found in Meroe and is now held in the Museum’s collection.

Additional Resources

  • Hamadab 3D project
  • Isma’il Kushkush, “In the Land of Kush,” Smithsonian Magazine (Sep 2020)
  • S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)
  • S. Wenig, Africa in antiquity: the arts, Vol II, exh. cat. (Brooklyn, N.Y., Brooklyn Museum, 1978)
  • M.F. Laming Macadam, The temples of Kawa (Oxford, 1949 (vol. I) 1955 (vol. II))
  • S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)
  • Nigel Strudwick, Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt (London, British Museum Press, 2006)

Originally published by Smarthistory, 03.09.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



%d bloggers like this: