History

History Of A Nation: Nubia (Part 1: The Kingdom of Kerma)

c. 2500 BC – c. 1500 BC

And we’re out of the Middle East for a bit. It won’t be too long before we are back there with Neo-Sumeria (which I’ve decided to cover separately and properly after referencing them in my first post on this) and Old Assyria but we’re going to head out around the world of 2500-2000 BC now, picking up a few more states that had emerged during this time period. As well as head back to Egypt to talk on the Middle Kingdom, which is definitely a highlight of what’s coming up. But before we do that, I’m bringing you a post on their southern neighbour, Nubia, under its first period of civilisation proper and a state that defined the southern border of Ancient Egypt at this time, the Kingdom of Kerma. Which is sort of going under the title of Nubia because that’s the same name used for a lot of states in this area but the important thing is that this one, the first kind of unified state that we know had a lot of interaction with Egypt, which is where more of the sources come from, was ruled from Kerma.

Location

Just south of Azwan in Egypt begin the Nile Cataracts, rapids, the first at the new Aswan dam. The second is in modern Sudan and it is there and downwards to the third through sixth is where we believe ancient Nubia had its rough borders, and it is there that the Kerma emerged as a dominant force in the area. They likely stretched further down the Nile but as the name Kerma implies, Nubia at this time was centred around a city called Kerma, which is now a large archaeological site in northern Sudan. We only knew it from that location until very recently, when more archaeological research south of Kerma revealed new sites associated with the same culture. It was probably a loose federation of Nubian tribes with a centre of administration located in Kerma, with a somewhat shared Nubian identity and some very prosperous agricultural regions along their portion of the Nile floodplains, on a size, at least in length of river controlled, as no one except madmen lived out in the dry desert at this time, that would rival the Old Kingdom. And the Middle Kingdom. It would outlast the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom but let’s get to that in…

Timeline

Kerma itself didn’t start out at 2500 BC with dominance over the Nubian tribes, I wouldn’t want anyone learning about Nubia from me to get that impression, rather, it was just one of a number of small cities and tribes that lived upriver from the pyramid builders and were free of them, it got some wealth from trading in luxury resources from further south in Africa, ivory, gold, incense and ebony, and moving those up to the rich Egpytians desiring opulence. Around Nubia, there were C-Group cultures, so named because we don’t know what they call themselves, also probably interacted with Kerma (and some include Kerma in the definition of C-Group, I mean, that’s an archaeological term for the Nubian peoples around this time, don’t read too much into it. I hope I don’t pick up the ire of archaeologists for this, seeing as I’m covering periods in history at the moment mostly defined by archaeology but I’m not a fan of their terms and style. I know it’s all you have for periods like this but defining and naming a culture by its pottery wares or the weapons it uses just… feels really weird. I’ll be happier when I get to more defined periods of history and don’t need to deal with seeing opaque distribution pie charts pop up in my research but I’m doing this now because I want to complete everything).

Anyway, tangent aside, by the end of the period, Kerma probably had control effectively over what was on that map but as a state, it was never an entirely formal affair, on the other end of the spectrum from the Old Kingdom, which is the closest we’ve really had to an organised state so far. Kerma really starts becoming a proper regional power later on, 2000 BC and after, when it starts absorbing some other regional powers, that, like with Akkad’s neighbours, we only really know the name, and those are other Nubian kingdoms like Sai, Setju, Wawat. And during the Middle Kingdom, Egypt expanded downwards up to the Second Cataract, but pulled back its activities from influencing Nubia proper, so we don’t get very many sources for Kerma from the Middle Kingdom. There’s an argument that goes that Egypt stopped trading with Kerma during the Middle Kingdom, which is often argued against, because that seems rather unrealistic and the archaeological distribution (archeao-speak again) doesn’t really show any major interruptions. That’s simplifying the argument, but it’s the main debating point on this kingdom, I might as well mention it. They might have been afraid of attacks from Kerma, as this brief expansion might indicate a threat from there. There’s indications, through some Egyptian inscriptions, that this Second Cataract was a barrier between Egypt and Nubia, with relations seeming on edge at best, so perhaps the Second Cataract indicated a neutral area where trade goods could easily exchange hands.

And this sort of skirmishing and edgy hostile relationship status remains in place for several hundred years until Kerma, the city, sometimes under the name of the later kingdom of Kush, making it three names that we could be calling this state, I don’t know if I’m sticking to anything, managed to achieve some real dominance. It formed an alliance with the Hyksos and helped them invade Egypt and put them on the throne of the Pharoahs, more on that in the next Egypt episode of this series. However, a mere century or so later, Tuthmosis I of Egypt marched south and annexed Kerma around 1504 BC, bringing Kerma and Kush under the rule of the Egpytian Empire for the next half millennium, ending the chapter of Kerma rule.

Although, when Kush emerges from the decline of the New Kingdom later, is it the same kingdom? Hard to say really, there is a lot of continuity and they do use the site of Kerma a lot for ceremonies and important state functions. We’ll talk about it more in that episode. I hope I remember.

Personalities 

Very little. I can’t find the names of any Kerman rulers, even though it was a monarchy. I am going to value this section in the future as it’ll allow me to talk about every famous figure in history at some point but this won’t be utilised today. Kerma spoke a language of the Cushitic branch, not that similar to Ancient Egypt but not too dissimilar.

Culture and Military

Militarily, we believe the Nubian forces of this time were centred around archers, mainly used for sticking in haughty Egyptian aristocrats who wouldn’t pay for Kerma’s African treasures properly. Hey, at least I actually have something to say about the military this time. I like knowing things about the weapons people were killing each other with.

Culturally, a mix of pastoral and agricultural dominance means a rather rural culture with only really Kerma and Sai being decent-sized cities. They shared traits like ritual burial with the Egyptians, Kerma itself has a large cemetery with many royal tombs, mostly from later time periods with Egyptian pyramid styles only showing up later after the Egyptians had declared themselves ‘totally over’ that fad, the earlier Kerma burial tombs being flat slabs of sandstone. Overall it would have been a crossing point between the tribes existing further south in Africa and the Egyptian influences that were unavoidable coming from the north.

So that is what was going on just south of Egypt. Next time, I’m going even further into Africa to a land that we barely know anything about and aren’t even sure where it was but was also a major trading partner of Egypt. Still, we might as well take a punt at it…

(I’m so sorry, that was a bad pun-t. This is my life now, I accept it)

Supporting Bibliography:

Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos, BETWEEN KUSH AND EGYPT:THE C-GROUP PEOPLE OF LOWER NUBIA DURINGTHE MIDDLE KINGDOM AND SECOND INTERMEDIATE PERIOD in Between the Cataracts, 2010

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