Dynastic upheavals in the shadow of the pharaohs

The Kingdom of Kush

June 9, 2000

THE KINGDOM OF KUSH: Handbook of the Napatan- Meroitic Civilisation. By Laszlo Torok. Brill, 590pp, E170, $209 - ISBN 90 04 10448 8.

For many years the kingdom of Kush, often known as Meroe from the name of its second capital, was ignored by scholars of ancient Egypt and the Near East. Flourishing from shortly after 800 BC to the mid-4th century AD, it was spasmodically the subject of important research work from the time of Richard Lepsius in the mid-19th century to Francis Llewellyn Griffith, who first read the Meroitic writing, and George Reisner, who by his excavation of royal burials established a chronology for the kingdom. In spite of the work of these scholars, Kush was not considered worthy of attention by the Egyptological establishment. This is surprising in view of the close relations between the two states and the very powerful influence Egypt had on its southern neighbour, as seen in the use of the Egyptian language for many inscriptions, in the worship of Egyptian gods and in art. All these showed strong Egyptian influence, though usually modified to demonstrate that Kush was distinct and not just a copy of the civilisation of Egypt.

Now the situation has much altered, especially since the late 1960s, in part inspired by the activities of the Unesco-sponsored archaeological salvage campaigns prior to the drowning of the northern part of Kush by the building of the Aswan High Dam. From this time on, the study of Kush has become an accepted discipline on its own with, as a marked new feature,the participation of scholars without a traditional Egyptological background.

In this development Laszlo Torok has played a leading part, and the long list of his publications given in the bibliography of this book, 31 in all,are evidence of his important contributions to the subject.

The book under review may be considered to be his summing-up of all the evidence now available for the understanding of Ku****e history and culture and as such is a remarkable example of detailed study and analysis.

Torok is not a field archaeologist and has drawn his information largely from reading both original texts when they were in Egyptian, Greek and Latin and of the works of modern scholars. The Meroitic language, whose first appearance in the Nile valley is not known, was first written in the 3rd century BC but still cannot be translated, though the phonetic values of its signs are known. Torok does his best with our fragmentary knowledge.

The book is accurately described as a handbook since it contains all the available evidence, summarises what information can be derived from this evidence and in the footnotes and bibliography provides the reader with what he will need for further study. The work is rather heavily weighted to the earlier Napatan period when many inscriptions in Egyptian are available for study and interpretation, and the author's use of this material is extremely well done. He is much more summary when dealing with the period that he defines as Meroitic, for which, partly due to our inability to read the Meroitic texts, there is much less documentary evidence.

Torok is less at home with archaeological evidence and is sometimes over-critical of his archaeological colleagues - perhaps does not fully realise the limits of archaeological interpretation on which, virtually alone, one must rely for the last 400 or 500 years of the Ku****e (or Meroitic) state. It is noticeable that in the last chapter of the book the strictly archaeological material is rather summarily dealt with, and the final section "Material culture" disposes of such important aspects of the culture as metal work and ceramics, for which there is now much published material, in four pages.

The value of the book as a source for the study of Kush is great - the author has some brilliant interpretations, on occasion perhaps too speculative for the periods when the texts are not available. This is particularly noticeable in his version of the change of burial place of rulers from Nuri to Meroe and in his view of the violent change of dynasty brought about by King Arqamaniqo (Ergamenes) in about 250 BC. Torok denies that there was a change of capital, that is of royal residence, at this time. He claims a change of dynasty and its cemetery, which seems to be somewhat the same in different words.

Other scholars, including this reviewer, can find many details to disagree with in this massive book, but this is not the place to go into the minutiae of scholarship. Torok's attempt to write a synthesis of what we know of Kush must be considered a triumph and will be of immense benefit to all subsequent workers in this comparatively new field.

Peter Shinnie is emeritus professor of archaeology, University of Calgary,Canada.

The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilisation

Author - Laszlo Torok
ISBN - 90 04 10448 8
Publisher - Brill
Price - Euros 170
Pages - 590

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