Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa: Their Interaction

The relationship between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa has been a difficult subject for archaeology and Egyptology. Unlike the cultures of western Asia, which provide a continuous synchronic matrix of interrelated high cultures across the whole region, Egypt, for the period of its ancient greatness (about 4000 B.C. to A.D. 300), was a lonely eminence of concentrated monumentality on the African continent, with the kingdoms of Nubia and Sudan as her only other native companions in scale. In the past, attempts to explore Egypt's involvement with her own continent had to rely on vague, sometimes contradictory, and often fantastic accounts of Greeks or on comparisons with sometimes unreliable reports of current conditions, none of them filling the scholar's perceived need for a dense network of contemporary evidence. As a result, most scholars avoided the subject, and some, noting the lack of evidence, even denied that the relationship was significant. However, in recent decades, political movements gave energy to the question. Major, detailed epigraphic and archaeological exploration of the Sahara, archaeological research in central Africa, and well-documented studies of modern peoples offer new opportunities to examine the relationship between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa with greater confidence in the results. Nevertheless, there are large gaps in the evidence of all types, and many different opinions will have to be tried and discarded before some prove durable.

Although Egypt is now separated from sub-Saharan Africa geographically by a huge expanse of desert and culturally by large areas dominated by Arabic-speaking peoples, neither condition prevailed throughout ancient times. During Egypt's formative ages, the Sahara was not truly a desert, while the Nile Valley and Red Sea Hills provided well-watered routes for trade and migration at all periods.

The Aqualithic (Early Neolithic) Age

Before the Neolithic era, episodes of extremely hostile climatic conditions left long gaps in Egypt's cultural record. The beginning of continuous occupation was the early Neolithic era. This time period saw the widespread appearance of two cultural types, the multibarbed bone harpoon, which appears in the Paleolithic era in central Africa, and pottery bowls and jars decorated with impressed patterns of dotted, wavy lines. An independent development in Africa, this pottery appeared almost as far west as the Atlantic along the southern fringes of what is now the Sahara and spread north along the Nile. The harpoon spread similarly but much farther north along the Nile and reached into Palestine. It is not always easy to connect deeper cultural life with practical artifacts, but this was also the era when rock drawings in the so-called round-head style first spread across the Sahara, probably reaching the parts of Egypt where sandstone outcrops make rock art possible. The rock art does not give detailed records, but it does clearly indicate that important cultural links spread across the continent.

The Nubian and the Taso-Badarian Cultures

The culture of Egypt as we understand it emerged in Upper (southern) Egypt during the Nagada period. Its cultural forebears actually appeared in Upper Egypt somewhat earlier, in the Tasian and Badarian cultures. In some significant aspects of culture, such as pottery, Egypt maintained important relations with Nubia and Sudan, directly to the south. Vessels with rippled surfaces, produced by burnishing a rocker-incised vessel with a pebble, appear in both places made in related shapes. A distinctive tulip-shaped vessel with incised and white-filled decoration also appeared in Upper Egypt and Sudan. Both of these features could be considered Sudanese. Some other objects, including palettes and the harpoons, were also probably of Sudanese origin, but the culture of Upper Egypt already differed from Sudan. Some differences may have been due to contact with the cultures of northern Egypt and the Libyan Desert (which was not a desert at the time), but others appear to have been due to internal development. Among these are coffin burials and animal representations on ivory spoons and pendants, both significant developments in symbolic life. Nevertheless, Upper Egypt continued to share traditions with Sudan, such as the deposit of rich property in burials, including female figurines, which did not characterize northern Egypt.

The Nagada Period

The Nagada period, called, misleadingly, the predynastic period, represented a vast expansion and elaboration of material culture in almost every sphere and was a clear outgrowth of the preceding cultures in Upper Egypt. Internal coherence, sophistication, and wealth in the Nagada period were such that new ideas and influences from the south were often difficult to detect. By the start of the 1st Dynasty, elements appeared that can be traced into specific hieroglyphic form in Egypt. Rock drawings include boats that later appear as the sacred conveyance of Egypt's pharaohs and gods. Humans and animals appear in hunting scenes in Saharan rock art in its earlier hunting or roundhead style. Some art in early Egypt included composite figures of animal-headed humans, common images in the Sahara. Some southern pottery types do exist, and some burials with distinctive shell-hook ornaments may belong to persons from Lower Nubia, the region between Aswan and the Second Cataract.

At this time, and until the coming of Islam, the area south of Aswan, at least, may be considered part of sub-Saharan Africa, and it was here that the first influences of Egypt on the south appear. The civilization of Egypt, even in this early phase, can be considered Nilotic, and its specific influence was almost always confined to the valley and adjacent regions. In the early, Nagada I period, Egyptian pottery and objects were deposited in Nubian-style round graves just south of Aswan. These objects are convincingly at home, and they were accompanied, as this culture spread southward, by rock drawings that included ships of the same types as found in Upper Egypt. The culture, the A-Group, became more and more distinct from the Nagada culture as it expanded southward, absorbing ideas from the Sudanese cultures nearby, but it nonetheless participated strongly in the development of Nagada period culture and symbolism. (The cultural labels A-Group, B-Group, and so on reflect archaeologists' perception of distinct and discrete cultural assemblages with traits that occur at particular times and places and that distinguish them from other groupings.) Nagada symbolism included the first pharaonic images—images that indicate that the office of pharaoh preceded the 1st Dynasty by some centuries. The earliest evidence of pharaonic figures is rare, but the ships that are a major part of the symbolism are not, and it is no surprise that in the late Nagada period, one of the places where pharaohs were buried was near the southern end of Lower Nubia. Although Qustul shared this distinction with Hierakonpolis, Nagada, Abydos, and probably a few other places in Upper Egypt, there is evidence that the Qustul kingdom was united as far north as Aswan, and perhaps farther, making it the most geographically extensive of the group. It even remains possible that the dynasts (rulers) who ultimately united Egypt were Nubian. There were some Nubian pottery vessels in Upper Egypt at this time, and some A-Group tombs can be identified, one of them of royal type.

The Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom

At the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, Pharaoh Aha claimed the smiting of Ta Seti (Nubia), and settlement all but disappeared in Nubia's northern regions for several centuries. Adopting an apparent antisettlement policy in Sinai and perhaps southern Palestine as well as Nubia, Egypt was effectively isolated, except for overseas contacts with Punt (the Horn of Africa) and the coast of Asia. This did not mean the diminution of Egypt's African substratum, but an elaboration and intense refinement that accompanied the unprecedented concentration of wealth and power in the Egyptian state. When Egypt again confronted its neighbors in Africa directly, it was on dramatically different ground.

At this point, some word about the African substratum is appropriate. As different as a 4th Dynasty pharaoh and a rain king in modern-day southern Sudan might appear, they faced much the same situation. A man who incarnates a god is responsible for maintaining a harmonious relationship between the world of human action and the world of the divine, which controls the forces of nature. As he is more or less successful in this task, so goes his career. His rule is not automatically stable, since it depends, for example, on a productive natural cycle, so success might found a dynasty, while failure would reveal that the incarnation had moved on to others. The latter is sooner or later inevitable. The one great difference between the incarnations of Sudan and Egypt was that in Sudan the incarnations are primarily concerned with rain, while in Egypt the flood was paramount. Some peoples in Sudan have incarnations of spirits that specialize in different types of problems, while in Egypt, the pharaoh was the center of divine activity. To him fell the duty of controlling chaos—relating with the gods through the cult, controlling the animals through mass hunts (the same as campaigns), and defeating enemies and rebels, executing their leaders, hacking up their towns and lands, leading the people off to captivity, and, finally, ensuring the arrival of tribute.

Egypt's historical records of contacts with southern lands before the end of the 5th Dynasty are few, and they mostly mention campaigns or raids in the dry and compact style of early Egyptian annals. The Egyptians must have feared some power in the south, because they substantially fortified their southernmost city, on Elephantine Island. One significant archaeological find, at Buhen near Wadi Haifa, was a group of fortified factories or workshops for working metal. Seal impressions at the site indicate that many items were imported from Egypt, but there was also local pottery, resembling that of the A-Group produced hundreds of years earlier. Still, it is fair to say that the era contemporary with Egypt's archaic and Old Kingdom periods is poorly represented archaeologically in Nubia and even deeper in Sudan. However, this condition can be deceptive, for much archaeological knowledge depends on pottery, which can be abandoned by mobile people in favor of gourds, baskets, and leather containers, which are light, strong, and capable of being impressively decorated.

By the beginning of the 6th Dynasty, possibly as early as the mid-5th, all this changed. Nubia, at least as far as Dongola and possibly as far south as Khartoum, was intensively resettled, most likely from the south and west. Nubians quickly entered Egyptian service, primarily as soldiers, but they also rapidly founded several principalities or kingdoms on the Nile south of Aswan. These polities are readily recognizable as an African cattle culture, for they often represented cattle in a way that indicated special honor, their tombs frequently contain cowhide garments and wrappings, and cattle horns were deposited with burials. Sometimes at Kerma in the Dongola Reach, important persons had the skulls of hundreds of cattle ringing their tumuli (mound-type graves). The culture of this period has other inner-African characteristics, such as tumulus burials surrounded by stone rings, leather garments decorated with geometric patterns of beads, and black polished pottery with incised designs. Important Nubian features, which must have survived without durable expression in tombs and pottery, continued traditions known in the A-Group, and Nubia rapidly became important to Egypt, and vice versa.

Two groups of Egyptian documents are coupled with this rapid archaeological emergence. The more colorful are a series of tomb biographies of the Egyptian governors of Aswan who were charged with control of the southern lands. These record armed caravans that passed through the emerging kingdoms to trade with the most southern countries known, possibly Punt. They sometimes acted in a high-handed manner, and the princes closest to the Egyptian frontier were sometimes tributary. However, Nubians who went to Egypt became important enough there to be feared, and some 177 of them were cursed in ritual texts. The traffic between Nubia and Egypt already flowed in both directions, but it was in the next period that Nubia's influence became most obvious.

The First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom

By the First Intermediate Period, Nubians deeply penetrated Egyptian life, most prominently as soldiers but also as administrators. At least one Nubian cemetery is known north of Aswan, at Wadi Kubbaniya. Some women rose high in the Theban court during the 11th Dynasty, and the ruler they served, Mentuhotep I, may himself have had a Nubian background. There were some cultural contributions from the south. Women with Nubian-style tattoos were found buried in tombs of good quality and prominent position at Thebes. Chapel paintings at Beni Hasan depict men wrestling in a situation so prominent that a symbolic, rather than merely sporting, purpose is implied, perhaps akin to the wrestling customs of the modern Nuba. These are details, as is the thin man who has a big shock of woolly hair and is shown leading cattle to the owners of tombs at Beni Hasan and Meir. This figure is probably also a Nubian. The difficulty of identifying influences from Nubia, or elsewhere in Africa, is intensified by twin problems: the cultures were closely related enough that innovations from the south appear imperceptibly merged into Egyptian life, and Egypt's vast cultural apparatus rapidly overwhelmed influences from its related neighbors.

The same was not true of Egyptian objects and ideas in the south. Egyptian products had become so distinctive and urbane that they normally stand out from the simpler items produced even by sophisticated cultures elsewhere. Thus beads of Egyptian manufacture appear in large numbers of C-Group tombs in Lower Nubia, and beads of precious metal fashioned into virtually perfect rings appear far more often than in Egypt, reflecting, perhaps, the high rewards of a military career in the north. In some of the richer Nubian cemeteries, there are more elaborate objects, mostly jewelry, and sometimes even stelae (carved or inscribed stone slabs used for commemorative purposes). These were always associated with C-Group tumuli, but there is evidence of even greater influence. A number of inscriptions carved on the rocks record two pharaohs with names characteristic of the period. A third pharaoh, who once called himself Son of Re, had a Nubian personal name. Since he recorded a battle in the north of his kingdom, he must have fought some Egyptians, but he nevertheless used Egyptian titles in an Egyptian way, which shows he had an Egyptian court.

The bidirectional communication was perhaps emphasized by the birth of the founder of the 12th Dynasty to a woman from Nubia or Aswan. Amenemhat rose to the vizierate under the last pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty, whom he ultimately replaced. For important political reasons, however, he moved the government back from Thebes to Memphis, and the south was, for a time, eclipsed. His successors embarked on a career of expansion in Nubia. Fortresses were built to keep the population of northern Nubia under control and those outside away. Migration into Egypt, which had filled private armies with capable southern soldiers, was severely restricted. All of this took place in part because Egypt wanted ready access to resources in the north. However, more important was the rise of a considerable southern power, Kush (or Cush). The rise of this power and the Egyptians it employed illustrate a major mode by which Egypt influenced its neighbors, in Africa and outside.

As shown in the records or representations of every era, Egyptian administrators used elements of force and exaction. They invited strangers from outside to serve the Egyptian powers in their various projects. At the same time, they encouraged Egyptians to seek their fortunes in freer, but possibly more hazardous, climes. From some records, it is clear that many expatriates had skills confined to cultivation, but others included professionals, such as the soldier Sinuhe, who fled to Asia, and ship captains, who worked at Kerma, the capital of Kush, in Sudan. Also at Kerma, metalworkers erected a great box-shaped oven with subterranean fire boxes and long flues, part of a large and complex metal factory located in front of the main temple of the city. The skills these metallurgical craftsmen brought from Egypt later provided Kerma with some of its most impressive objects, some of military significance. Late in the Middle Kingdom, this outpouring of skill and population so enhanced the wealth and power of western Asia and Sudan that immigration to Egypt was again common, and ultimately, Egypt fell under the domination of these powers.

The Asiatic invaders of the 17th and 16th centuries B.C., the Hyksos, have received most of the attention, but Kushites, centered on Kerma in Sudan, conquered Lower Nubia as far as Aswan and allied themselves with the Hyksos. Egyptians remained in charge of the old fortress communities in northern Nubia, where they even acknowledged the Kushite ruler as a pharaoh on their monuments. There is reason to believe that the Kermans shared this attitude toward their ruler, for he was otherwise surrounded by attributes of the pharaonic office, although his tomb was a tumulus and his temples were heavy brick towers with small chambers that seem almost to be artificial caves. Other Nubians, the Medjay, entered Egyptian service, and their distinctive pottery and burials are known almost as far north as the Nile Delta. The pottery occurs commonly in all debris of the period. Egypt, dominated politically by Asiatics and Nubians, not surprisingly displayed many new foreign features in the early New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom

The expulsion of the Asiatic invaders of Egypt also entailed the reconquest of northern Nubia by the start of the 18th Dynasty. The rulers of Kush, who had been begged by their Hyksos ally to strike at Egypt, found themselves hard-pressed, for Egypt, reversing a long-standing policy of avoiding far-flung conquest, conquered and absorbed Kush as far as the Fourth Cataract of the Nile. The Egyptians made use of both their own administrators and subordinate local rulers, but they came to impose more and more of the temple-based economy that dominated Upper Egypt. While Kushites went north primarily to present tribute to the Egyptian court or to serve as pages, Egypt entered into its greatest age of direct influence on southern regions. With the temple estates came large temples and temple towns, often dedicated to Nubian aspects of Egyptian deities. Most prominent of these was the Amun-Re of Napata, whose temple was located just before the huge rock of Gebel Barkal, in which he was thought to reside. Although the people of Nubia hardly disappeared, the Egyptian influence was so strong that burial and religious practices appear Egyptian. On the other hand, there were a number of new influences from Nubia, including, perhaps, even some imagery of the national god Amun-Re, newly prominent after centuries of limited recognition.

In addition, early New Kingdom rulers have been connected with Nubia by some scientists, but among the other imports, the famous blue crown of New Kingdom rulers closely resembles a beaded miter crown once used in Cameroon. If it was an import, its symbolic importance would link the pharaonic office with the more recent rulers in southern Sudan. Another detail of symbolic importance from Nubia was the golden fly amulet, which became an Egyptian military decoration. In other cases, Egypt served as a conduit for spreading innovations from outside Africa more widely across the continent. For example, the horse-drawn chariot, a light car with four spoked wheels and pulled by two horses, is first clearly seen on stelae from the shaft graves at Mycenae. It is mentioned by Kamose and depicted in a rock drawing from Lower Nubia with a figure who carries an ax of late 17th Dynasty type. Pictures of the same type of vehicle and showing horses at a flying gallop, spread across the Sahara as far as Tassili-n-Ajjer. The occurrence of chariot tracks confirms the vehicle's prevalence and widespread distribution. This influence rebounded on Egypt when Libyans, in the late New Kingdom, attacked the Nile Delta using chariots of Egyptian type. Such a prominently displayed institution as chariotry must represent some influence on other aspects of life as well. The chariot remained important in the central Sahara, particularly among the Garamantes of Fezzan down into Roman times when their quadrigae (chariots drawn by four horses abreast) were famous.

The Kushite Centuries

At the end of the 2nd millennium and the beginning of the 1st, new powers rose to the south of the ancient world's fertile regions. Midian and South Arabia to the east, Kush along the Nile, and Garma in Fezzan emerged to mediate trade between the economic powers near the Mediterranean—the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and Carthage—and regions to the south.

At the beginning of this period, Nubia fell away from Egyptian rule after its last viceroy, himself apparently a Nubian, intervened in the government of the high priest of Amun-Re in Upper Egypt. Although the adjacent regions of Africa are almost unknown in the centuries between 1100 and 900 B.C., once Nubia emerged again culturally and historically, it rose rapidly to lead Egypt to a new era of greatness. The first written records show us Pharaoh Piye on the march north of Thebes to settle the scandalously disordered state of Egypt and restore the proper regime of Amun-Re. Preceded by four generations of rulers interred under Nubian tumuli, he was buried under a pyramid, a type of tomb that was no longer used in Egypt. His burial in this way shows, first, that the Kushites viewed the pyramid as the equivalent of a tumulus and, second, the manner by which Kushites incorporated Egyptian culture into their civilization. Piye and his successors were in many respects Egyptian in dress and religion. They wrote in Egyptian but kept their Kushite names, mode of succession, and elements of dress or regalia. They had an especially high regard for horses, which were sacred to the sun god Re in Kush. Although they set up or restored pharaonic institutions, such as temples and nomes, in Kush, they clearly did so in a spirit of adaptation. In Egypt, they were regarded well enough that most of the country supported them against Assyria, although the Libyan-dominated north was often in revolt. However, the Assyrians prevailed, and Taharqo, the great builder, and his successor, Tanutamani, were finally driven from Egypt.

In their brief century of rule in Egypt, the Kushites had not merely pushed the country toward greatness, they had truly renewed pharaonic culture in Sudan. In a bold geographic initiative, they expanded the culture across a barren desert to the Isle of Meroe. There Kushite civilization blossomed in the last centuries B.C. with monumental cities scattered well away from the Nile. Kushite civilization became the key source of "Egyptian" influence in sub-Saharan Africa at that time.

The greatest city of Kush was Meroe, with a great royal walled compound, temples, pyramid cemeteries, and even a nymphaeum (public fountain and pool) and observatory. It also contained a thriving iron industry, one of the oldest in Africa, which may have played an important role in the spread of ironworking in the continent. The Meroites developed a method of gathering water into reservoirs for irrigation that is used in Sudan to this day. Although Meroitic culture preserved its pharaonic heritage and even imported some new fashions from Egypt, it increasingly went its own way, with new styles in art, local deities, and its own written language. Although its political power seems to have been concentrated along the Nile in the Dongola Reach and near the Nile in the Isle of Meroe just north of Khartoum, Meroitic goods and some influence— in both directions—can be traced at least as far south as Gebel Moya and Senaar in Sudan and as far east as Aksum.

At the end of the Meroitic period, in the 4th century A.D., the Isle of Meroe and the Nile Valley far to the north fell under the control of the Noba-Noubadians, people whose nearest relations are in Darfur. They returned to many non-Egypto-Kushite ideas and practices but used many Meroitic items and elements and adapted crowns and weapons to a new style. At least the weapon, a great, sword like spear, continued in use, through various modifications, to become the spear of southern Sudan and the lion spear of the Maasai.

General Themes

Relations between Egypt and Africa were mediated on the Nile side by the peoples of Kush. In the Eastern Desert, the Medjay (Bedja) separated Egypt from inland Punt, while on the Red Sea, the Puntites were the contact point for Egypt with the Horn of Africa and perhaps the coast beyond the Straits of Hormuz. Egypt, despite the contracted circumnavigation of the continent by Phoenician sailors for Psammetichos, pharaoh in the 7th century B.C., did not attempt to reach central Africa until the 1820s, but it initiated wider contacts than most African states before the Middle Ages, and they were certainly more wide ranging than the contacts of such famous entities as the Kongo kingdom, the Asante, and the Zulu.

Scattered through Egyptian history were periods when Egypt had particularly intense contacts with her neighbors in Africa, which included Punt on the Horn. In addition to the phases of contact and individual items of interchange, some objects and representations in Egypt have strong similarities in sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, it is difficult to decide when the item was exchanged or how. Nevertheless, a number of elements, such as musical instruments, certain weapons, and ritualized contests, are similar enough to postulate that they originated in Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, or someplace between, but that they could not have had a completely independent origin or one outside the continent. Future research may show that other elements—the composite beings of Saharan and Egyptian art, sacred sites and structures, including tumuli and pyramids, and decorated rock faces or clefts and Egyptian rock stelae and temples—also have a close relationship.

A major problem in tracing the flow of influence between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa is that despite insistent attempts to prove the identity of some aspects of Egypt with some aspects found far across the continent, the cultural matrices are not mutually coherent. Relationships exist on a relatively diffused level, elements passed through many intermediaries, and some elements derived from traditions of remote origin, possibly in the Neolithic Sahara. Closer at hand, we can see actual relations more convincingly. If we accept the cultures of Neolithic Sudan as sub-Saharan, they played a strong, and possibly decisive, part in the original development of Egypt. In the 3rd millennium B.C., new cultures of sub-Saharan type came to dominate the Nile from the Fourth Cataract to Aswan and played a significant role in Egypt down to about 1600 B.C. Finally, Kush, in the 1st millennium B.C., may have had an immediate origin near the Nile, but the ancient Sudanese sub-Saharan culture was visible in its early phases and became more pronouced as the center moved to Meroe, which is almost as far south as Tombouctou.

The period when sub-Saharan Africa was most influential in Egypt was a time when neither Egypt, as we understand it culturally, nor the Sahara, as we understand it geographically, existed. Populations and cultures now found south of the desert roamed far to the north. The culture of Upper Egypt, which became dynastic Egyptian civilization, could fairly be called a Sudanese transplant. Egypt rapidly found a method of disciplining the river, the land, and the people to transform the country into a titanic garden. Egypt rapidly developed detailed cultural forms that dwarfed its forebears in urbanity and elaboration. Thus, when new details arrived, they were rapidly adapted to the vast cultural superstructure already present. On the other hand, pharaonic culture was so bound to its place near the Nile that its huge, interlocked religious, administrative, and formal structures could not be readily transferred to relatively mobile cultures of the desert, savanna, and forest. The influence of the mature pharaonic civilizations of Egypt and Kush was almost confined to their sophisticated trade goods and some significant elements of technology. Nevertheless, the religious substratum of Egypt and Kush was so similar to that of many cultures in southern Sudan today that it remains possible that fundamental elements derived from the two high cultures to the north live on.

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Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa, by Joseph O. Vogel, AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, California (1997), pp. 465-472
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