Khushite Nation

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Aerial view of the pyramids at Meroë

Kush or Cush was a civilization centered in the North African region of Nubia, located in what is today northern Sudan. One of the earliest civilizations to develop in the Nile River Valley, Kushite states rose to power before a period of Egyptian incursion into the area. Cushite or Kushite culture greatly influenced Ancient Egypt. See note on Genesis 2:13. There was also an ancient city of Kish 8 miles east of Babylon. Other ancient sources also indicate that it was to the east of the Holy Land (cf. Yov'loth 9:1). The Targum however, renders it as Arabia (Targum Yonathan; Targum on 1 Chronicles 1:8). This, however, may also have referred to an area in Africa on the upper Nile (cf. Herodotus 2:19). Josephus identifies Cush here with Ethiopia.


The first developed societies appeared in Nubia before the time of the First dynasty of Egypt (3100-2890 BC). The ancestors of the Kemites (ancient Egyptians) originally lived in Nubia. The Nubian origin of Egyptian civilization is supported by the discovery of artifacts by archaeologists from the Oriental Institute at Qustul. On a stone incense burner found at Qustul we find a palace facade, a crowned King sitting on a throne in a boat, with a royal standard placed before the King and hovering above him, the falcon god Horus. The white crown on this Qustul king was later worn by the rulers of Upper Egypt.

Around 2500 BC, Egyptians began moving south, and it is through them that most of our knowledge of Kush (Cush) comes. But this expansion was halted by the fall of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. About 1500 BC Egyptian expansion resumed, but this time encountered organized resistance. Historians are not sure whether this resistance came from multiple city states or a single unified empire, and debate over whether the notion of statehood was indigenous or borrowed from the Egyptians. The Egyptians prevailed, and the region became a colony of Egypt under the control of Thutmose I, whose army ruled from a number of sturdy fortresses. The region supplied Egypt with resources.

In the eleventh century BC internal disputes in Egypt caused colonial rule to collapse and an independent kingdom arose based at Napata in Nubia. This kingdom was ruled by locals who overthrew the colonial regime. It was apparent that Nubia and Egypt influenced each other's culture and technology; for instance, they both built pyramids and they both worshipped Kemetic deities such as Isis and Amun.


This Napata based kingdom was united by Alara in the period of around 780-755 BC; Alara is universally regarded as the founder of the Kushite kingdom by his successors. the Kingdom grew in influence and came to dominate the Southern Egyptian region of Elephantine and even Thebes by the reign of Kashta, Alara's successor who managed in the 8th century BC to compel Shepenupet I, half-sister of takelot III and the serving God's Wife of Amen, to adopt his own daughter Amenirdis I as her successor. After this event, Thebes was under the de-facto control of Napata. Its power reached a climax under king Piye, Kashta's succeesor, who conquered all of Egypt in his Year 20 and established the twenty-fifth dynasty.

When the Assyrians invaded in 671 BC, Kush became, once again, an independent state. The last Kushite king to attempt to regain control over Egypt was Tantamani who was firmly defeated by Assyria in 664 BC. Henceforth, the kingdom's power declined over Egypt and terminated in 656 BC when Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 BC the Egyptians under Psamtik II invaded Kush, perhaps because Kush ruler Aspelta was preparing to invade Egypt and effectively sacked and burned Napata.

Move to Meroë

It is clear from various historical records that Aspelta's successors, moved their capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata. The exact date this change was made is uncertain but some historians believe it was during Aspelta's reign, in response to the Egyptian invasion of Lower Nubia. Other historians believe it was the attraction of iron working that drove the kingdom south: around Meroë, unlike Napata, there were large forests that could fire the blast furnaces. The arrival of Greek merchants throughout the region also meant that Kush was no longer dependent on trade along the Nile; rather, it could export its goods east to the Red Sea and the Greek trading colonies there.

An alternate theory is that two separate but closely linked states developed, one based at Napata and the other at Meroë; the Meroë-based state gradually eclipsed the northern one. No royal residence had been found north of Meroë and it is possible Napata had only been the religious headquarters. But Napata clearly remained an important centre, with the kings being crowned and buried there for many centuries, even when they lived at Meroë.

In around 300 BC the move to Meroë was made more complete as the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. One theory is that this represents the monarchs breaking away from the power of the priests based at Napata. Diodorus Siculus tells a story about a Meroitic ruler named Ergamenes who was ordered by the priests to kill himself, but broke tradition and had the priests executed instead. Some historians think Ergamenes refers to Arrakkamani, the first ruler to be buried at Meroë. However, a more likely transliteration of Ergamenes is Arqamani, who ruled many years after the royal cemetery was opened at Meroë. Another theory is that the capital had always been based at Meroë.

Kush continued for several centuries but we have little information on it. While earlier Kush had used Egyptian hieroglyphics, Meroë developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered. The state seems to have prospered, trading with its neighbours and continuing to build monuments and tombs. In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, invaded Nubia in response to a Nubian attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of the region and sacking Napata (22 BC) before returning north.


The decline of Kush is hotly debated. A diplomatic mission in Nero's reign travelled to Meroë; (Pliny the Elder, N.H. 6.35). After the 2nd century AD the royal tombs began to shrink in size and splendour, and the building of large monuments seems to have ceased. The royal pyramid burials halted altogether in the middle 4th century AD. The archeological record shows a cultural shift to a new society known as the X-Group, or Ballana culture. Examinations of skeletal remains shows that physically the people remained the same despite these changes.

This corresponds closely to the traditional theory that the kingdom was destroyed by the invasion by Ezana of Axum from the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum around 350. However, the Ethiopian account seems to be describing the quelling of a rebellion in lands they already controlled. It also refers only to the Nuba, and makes no mention of the rulers of Meroë.

Many historians thus theorize that these Nuba are the same people the Romans called the Nobatae. Strabo reports that when the Roman empire pulled out of northern Nubia in 272, they invited the Nobatae to fill the power vacuum. The other important elements were the Blemmyes, likely ancestors of the Beja. They were desert warriors who threatened the Roman possessions and thereby contributed to the Roman withdrawal to more defensible borders. In the end of the 4th c. AD they managed to control a part of the Nile valley around Kalabsha in Lower Nubia.

By the sixth century, new states had formed in the area that had once been controlled by Meroë. It seems almost certain that the Nobatae evolved into the state of Nobatia, and were also behind the Ballana culture and the two other states that arose in the area, Makuria and Alodia were also quite similar. The Beja meanwhile were expelled, back into the desert by the Nuba kings around 450 AD. These new states of Nubia inherited much from Kush, but were also quite different. They spoke Old Nubian and wrote in a modified version of the Coptic alphabet; Meroitic and its script seemed to disappear completely.

The origin of the Nuba/Nobatae who replaced Meroë is uncertain. They may have been nomadic invaders from the west who conquered and imposed their culture and language on the settled peoples. P.L. Shinnie has speculated that the Nobatae were in fact indigenous and were natives of the Napata region who had been dominated by Meroitic leaders for centuries, and that the word Nobatae is directly related to Napata.

In the Bible

The name given this civilization comes from the Old Testament where Cush was one of the sons of Ham who settled in Northeast Africa. In the Bible and archaically a large region covering northern Sudan, southern Egypt, and parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia were known as Cush. The Bible refers to Cush on a number of occasions. Some contend that this Cush was in southern Arabia. See Biblical Cush for a full discussion.

Other sources

Josephus gives an account of the nation of Cush, who is the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah: "For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Chus; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Chusites." (Antiquities of the Jews Numbers I:6.) The wife of Moses was a Kushite, according to the Book of Numbers.

The locality of this area has been questioned, with some believing it refers to countries south of the Israelites, and others stating it refers to part of Africa, such as Ethiopia, in ancient inscriptions written as Kesh. Samuel Bochart maintained that it was exclusively in Arabia, while Friedrich Schulthess and Heinrich Gesenius held that it should be sought in Africa.

Others like Johann Michaelis and Rosenmuller have proposed that the name Cush was applied to tracts of country on both sides of the Red Sea in the Arabia (Yemen) and in Africa. In the 5th century A.D., the Himyarites in the south of Arabia were styled by Syrian writers as Cushaeans and Ethiopians, and it is certain that the present-day areas of Yemen and Eritrea were both ruled together by one dynasty at that time (See Aksumite Kingdom).

The existence of a historical Kush between Egypt and Nubia(Sudan) cannot reasonably be questioned, though the term may be employed in the Old Testament with some latitude. The African Kush covered Northern Sudan,Upper Egypt, and extended southwards from the First Cataract. In addition, the Cushitic peoples who live around the Horn of Africa and today comprise the Somali, Afar, Oromo and several other tribes, are traditionally the offspring of the Biblical Cush.

Genesis also suggests that the Biblical term was also applied to parts of Arabia. Cush is the eponymous father of certain tribal and ethnic designations that tend to point to Arabia (though Sheba may be an exception, held by some to refer to Shewa in Africa.)

Babylonian inscriptions mention the Kashshi or Kassites, and it was once held that this signified a possible explanation of Cush, the ancestor of Nimrod in Genesis chapter 8.

Although decisive evidence is lacking, it is still alleged by some that the several references to Cush in the Old Testament do not refer to Ethiopia; however, its frequent inclusion with Libya and Mizraim (Egypt) strongly suggests that it was at least considered to be African. Views on their precise location generally depend on how willing certain scholars are to concede that Ethiopia could have enjoyed the prominence claimed for it by others.

It is logical to assume that the indigenous African Cushites of East Africa, including the Aksum in Ethiopia, branched out and settled in Arabia or elsewhere, thus forming an extra-African civilization, since one can find references to "Cushites" outside of Africa. It seems fairly certain that many Cushites intermingled with other African peoples, both at home with Semitic African peoples from Yemen and in other lands where they settled.

The rhetorical question "Can the Cushite change his skin?" in Jeremiah 13:23 implies people of a markedly different skin color from the Israelites, probably an African race; also, the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament made by Greek-speaking Jews between ca. 250 BC and 100 BC uniformly translates Cush as "Ethiopia."