Deaths on the Nile

The Black Pharaohs
December 1, 2000

The catchy title of this book suggests that it is going to be a contribution to the discussion of Afro-centrism and the role of Africans in developing Egyptian civilisation. Those hoping to find new arguments for or against the Afro-centric position will be disappointed as it turns out to be a serious, Egyptologically oriented and very detailed discussion of Sudanese, or as the author usually calls it Nubian, history and to some extent archaeology, which does not begin to describe the Sudanese rulers who became the Egyptian 25th dynasty — “The Black Pharaohs” — until page 129.

Robert Morkot’s book is of a high scholarly standard and though it may have been designed, as the title suggests, for the increasing numbers of public interested in the ancient history of Egypt and the Sudan it is so written as to limit its appeal to those already familiar with the main themes of Egyptian-Sudanese relations throughout ancient times. For those with the background to understand the scholarly arguments, the book provides much material for further discussion and, though somewhat aggressively critical of others, in the main the differing interpretations of history and particularly of chronology are well explained.

When, in chapter ten, the beginning of the line of Ku****e (Kush being the term used anciently for the northern Sudan) rulers who conquered Egypt and ruled there for nearly 100 years is reached, the main theme of the book emerges as a detailed discussion of the chronology of these rulers and their obscure origin and of the way in which the transformation of these local chiefs into Egyptian pharaohs was achieved and how they integrated into Egyptian social, administrative and religious life.

One of the main arguments of recent years has centred on the apparent “dark age” of Nubia after the end of Egyptian imperial rule and the first appearance of the line of native rulers who, after their rule in Egypt had come to an end, continued as the kings of Meroe. The evidence is mainly to be found in the Sudan at the royal cemetery at Kurru, downstream of the Nile from the sacred hill of Barkal where first the Egyptians and later the Ku****es erected many temples and palaces. At Kurru is a series of tombs, changing from time to time in design from simple mound graves to pyramids. These tombs were excavated by George Reisner of Harvard 70 years ago and have been subject to much discussion ever since. For many years the work remained unpublished but since 1950, when Dows Dunham made it available in detail, two views of the chronology of the tombs have emerged. The dates of the known pharaohs from Piye (Piankhy) to Tanwetamani, the last of the Ku****es to reign in Egypt, are known within close limits, but there are 14 tombs, assumed with reason to be earlier than those of the pharaohs and to be the burial places of their ancestors. Discussion has centred on the length of time covered by these tombs — what has become known as the “long” or “short” interpretation.

The arguments for one or the other are all strictly archaeological and based on differing views of the dating of objects found in the tombs and of whether the tombs themselves are those of kings and their wives or only of the male rulers. The skeletal evidence was not sufficiently explicit to show, in most cases, whether those buried were male or female. The point at issue is whether the tombs should be regarded as a single series dating back to before 1,000 BC or a group, some of which are contemporary and therefore covering a much shorter period. This argument still continues and Morkot sets out the different views fairly and makes the point that perhaps the dates for the Egyptian New Kingdom, on which much of the argument hinges, may need revision.

Ku****e rule in Egypt came to an end as a result of two major invasions by Assyria, the first in the reign of Esarhaddon, who died in 669 BC when leading an invasion force, and the final one led by Assurbanipal in 663 BC. Morkot has an advantage over many scholars of the period in having a good command of the literature covering the history of Assyria and gives a clear account of the campaigns fought between the Ku****es and the invaders.

This latter part of the book is extremely valuable and is easier going for the reader than some of the densely argued earlier parts. Morkot shows a very high standard of scholarship; some of his views will not be agreed with by others working in the same field, but they will need careful refuting and as detailed an argument as is given in their support. This book is heavy going but worth the effort.

P. L. Shinnie is emeritus professor of archaeology, University of Calgary, Canada.

The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers

Author - Robert Morkot
ISBN - 0 948695 23 4 and 24 2
Publisher - Rubicon Press
Price - £29.95 and £19.95
Pages - 342

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