email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Black Pharaohs
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Egyptologists of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries would interpret this as a sign of weakness. But they had it wrong: The Nubians had a gift for reading the geopolitical tea leaves. By the eighth century B.C., Egypt was riven by factions, the north ruled by Libyan chiefs who put on the trappings of pharaonic traditions to gain legitimacy. Once firmly in power, they toned down the theocratic devotion to Amun, and the priests at Karnak feared a godless outcome. Who was in a position to return Egypt to its former state of might and sanctity?

The Egyptian priests looked south and found their answer—a people who, without setting foot inside Egypt, had preserved Egypt’s spiritual traditions. As archaeologist Timothy Kendall of Northeastern University puts it, the Nubians “had become more Catholic than the pope.”

Under Nubian rule, Egypt became Egypt again. When Piye died in 715 B.C., his brother Shabaka solidified the 25th dynasty by taking up residence in the Egyptian capital of Memphis. Like his brother, Shabaka wed himself to the old pharaonic ways, adopting the throne name of the 6th-dynasty ruler Pepi II, just as Piye had claimed the old throne name of Thutmose III. Rather than execute his foes, Shabaka put them to work building dikes to seal off Egyptian villages from Nile floods.

Shabaka lavished Thebes and the Temple of Luxor with building projects. At Karnak he erected a pink granite statue depicting himself wearing the Kushite crown of the double uraeus—the two cobras signifying his legitimacy as Lord of the Two Lands. Through architecture as well as military might, Shabaka signaled to Egypt that the Nubians were here to stay.

To the east, the Assyrians were fast building their own empire. In 701 B.C., when they marched into Judah in present-day Israel, the Nubians decided to act. At the city of Eltekeh, the two armies met. And although the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, would brag lustily that he “inflicted defeat upon them,” a young Nubian prince, perhaps 20, son of the great pharaoh Piye, managed to survive. That the Assyrians, whose tastes ran to wholesale slaughter, failed to kill the prince suggests their victory was anything but total.

In any event, when the Assyrians left town and massed against the gates of Jerusalem, that city’s embattled leader, Hezekiah, hoped his Egyptian allies would come to the rescue. The Assyrians issued a taunting reply, immortalized in the Old Testament’s Book of II Kings: “Thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed [of] Egypt, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: So is Pharaoh king of Egypt unto all that trust on him.”

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