Photograph by: Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic February 2008
Pharaohs ruled Egypt for 3,000 years—from around 2950 B.C. until the death of Cleopatra, in 30 B.C. These all-powerful rulers, most of them indigenous Egyptians, are grouped into 30 numbered dynasties, followed by a Persian Period and finally a Greco-Roman Period, of which Cleopatra was the last sovereign.
But even during the many centuries of native Egyptian domination, a few dynasties from elsewhere held sway intermittently. The 23rd dynasty was a loose grouping of kings of Libyan origin, many of whom ruled in the Nile Delta. The 24th dynasty came to supremacy more or less simultaneously with the 23rd, at a time when parts of Egypt south of the delta were weakly controlled by Egyptians from the heartland.
Into this power vacuum came the 25th dynasty—a family group of strong kings from Nubia or Kush, south of Egypt in what is present-day Sudan. These rulers were dark skinned and bore the distinguishing facial features of sub-Saharan peoples. They swept north to the delta, reinvigorating historic forms of worship as they came, thus gaining the support of the Egyptian priests.
Modern scholars have debated the race of the ancient pharaohs as new courses of study based on Africa’s, particularly black Africa’s, contributions to Western culture and world civilization have arisen over the past three decades. But whatever the skin color of the native Egyptian pharaohs, there’s no dispute that during the 25th dynasty all of Egypt answered to black pharaohs who hailed from deep within Africa.
Aubin, Henry T. The Rescue of Jerusalem. Soho Press, 2002.
Bard, Kathryn, ed. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, 1999.
Bonnet, Charles, and Dominque Valbelle. The Nubian Pharaohs. American University in Cairo Press, 2005.
Breasted, James Henry, ed. Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, Collected, Edited and Translated with Commentary. Vol. 4. University of Chicago Press, 1906.
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Lobban, Richard A., Jr. Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Morkot, Robert G. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. Rubicon Press, 2000.
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By Marisa Larson, National Geographic staff
Afrocentrism is a cultural, academic, and political movement that aims to focus attention on Africa’s contributions to world civilization and history. Afrocentrists view this as a paradigm shift, commonly contending that Eurocentrism led people to overlook or in some cases deny that Africa’s rich achievements existed separately from European influence.
Afrocentricity has its origins in the work of African and African-diaspora intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Afrocentric scholars sought to counter the prevailing view that sub-Saharan Africa had contributed nothing of value to human history that was not the result of incursions by Europeans or Arabs. The Afrocentric movement grew more political during the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s and later was frequently seen as a tool in combating social injustice, improving economic empowerment, and bolstering self-esteem in the African-American community. It also was used in the effort to create a more multicultural, balanced approach to history and sociology.
One way Afrocentric scholars sought to draw attention to Africa’s impact was to state that ancient Egyptian culture was African and its pharaohs black. According to Egyptologist Ann Macy Roth, Afrocentric Egyptology is less a scholarly field than a political and educational movement, aimed at increasing the self-esteem and confidence of African Americans by stressing the achievements of African civilizations, principally ancient Egypt. She describes Afrocentric Egyptology as having four main points: (1) Ancient Egyptians were black, (2) ancient Egypt was superior to other ancient civilizations, (3) Egyptian culture had tremendous influence on the later cultures of Africa and Europe, and (4) there has been a vast racist conspiracy to prevent the dissemination of the evidence for these assertions.
Ancient Egyptians didn’t think in terms of race as we do today. While the Egyptians regularly differentiated themselves from foreigners living around them, they did so in political and cultural terms rather than in racial ones. Foreigners were labeled by their regional or political names, and they were always depicted with distinctive features and dress. Though artwork did differentiate among populations by color, the distinction seems to have been merely descriptive, with no preference ascribed to any particular skin tone.
To describe ancient Egyptians as either “white” or “black” is inaccurate—they were of varying complexions and features. Scientific testing indicates that, just as today, they ranged from the light Mediterranean type to the darkest shade of brown around Aswan and farther south into Nubia. The likely mixing with neighbors due to intermarriage and political alliances created a heterogeneous population. Egypt’s relationships with its neighbors were also based on political concerns, not race or ethnicity.
Berlinerblau, Jacques. Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena, Vol. 1: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation. Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena, Vol. II: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation. Free Association Books Limited, 1991.
Bernal, Martin, and others. Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics. Duke University Press, 2001.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena, Vol. 3: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Linguistic Evidence. Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Lefkowitz, Mary R., and others. Black Athena Revisited. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Snowden, Frank M. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Harvard University Press, 1983.
Diop, Cheikh Anta. “Origin of the Ancient Egyptians.”
Last updated: January 14, 2008
Keywords: Nubia, 25th dynasty, Kush, Afrocentrism, black pharaohs