How Did the Nubians Impact Ancient Egypt?

Relief Depicting Egyptian King Ramesses II “Smiting” a Nubian Prisoner

Among ancient Egypt’s many neighbors were the Nubians, who inhabited the Nile Valley to the south of Egypt in what is today the nation-state of Sudan. Although the Egyptians and Nubians had many peaceful interactions over several centuries, the two peoples' political leaders had a more acrimonious and contentious relationship. When the Egyptian state was strong, Nubia was usually weak and vice versa. To the Nubians, Egypt was the source of high-culture and civilization that they admired and eventually replicated in many ways. Simultaneously, the Egyptians viewed the lands to their south as a source of resources to be exploited. Gold, ivory, and ebony were commodities that the Egyptians took from Nubia and traded with other Near Eastern kingdoms as far away as Babylon and Assyria.

But the relationship between the Nubians and Egyptians extended far beyond exploitation of resources and ancient forms of colonialism; by the first millennium BC, the Nubians had impacted many aspects of pharaonic culture. In 728 BC, a Nubian king named Piankhy, or Piye, led an army from Nubia north into Egypt and conquered the land, establishing the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Although the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty lasted less than 100 years, its kings were very active in shaping Egypt’s political situation.

The Nubians also influenced the Egyptian culture of the Late Period – the period from approximately 728 BC until the Christian Era – by promoting “archaizing” features in royal ideology and art. Their influence on Egyptian art is perhaps the most noticeable because it reintroduced older styles while putting their own unique stamp on the finished products, especially in reliefs and statuary. They usually depicted themselves with their distinct sub-Saharan racial features instead of as typical Egyptians.

Ancient Nubian Culture

Map of Egypt and Nubia: The Numbers Represent the Cataracts of the Nile River
The Edge of the First Cataract Near Modern Aswan/Ancient Abu

The term “Nubia” is actually a modern word, which may be derived from the ancient Egyptian word for gold – nebu. To both the Egyptians and Nubians, the Nile River was the source of their lifeblood. It brought yearly floods that allowed their crops to grow, so both peoples were geographically orientated along a north-south axis. The Egyptians referred to anything south of the first cataract (cataracts are rocky portions of a river unnavigable by boat) as “Wawat,” and anything south of the second cataract was called “Kush.” Collectively, Wawat and Kush comprise the region that modern scholars generally refer to as Nubia. [1]

The Egyptians were a fairly xenophobic people who often used various names to refer to their neighbors and other non-Egyptians with whom they dealt. They often referred to the Nubians in texts by the fairly neutral term “Nehesy,” but also liked to employ more colorful epithets such as the “wretched Kushites.” [2] The ancient Egyptians were quite cognizant of the differences between them and all of their neighbors, as evidenced by the many “smiting” scenes on New Kingdom temples where the Egyptian king is shown about to club bound foreign prisoners with a mace.

The tomb of the New Kingdom Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian King Seti I (reigned ca. 1305-1290 BC) depicts Egypt’s three major neighbors and enemies: Nubians, Libyans, and Asiatics/Canaanites. [3] Each of the non-Egyptians was depicted wearing his traditional clothing and with his specific skin color and facial features – the Nubian was shown as black, as opposed to the reddish-brown Egyptian, and with clearly sub-Saharan African facial features. Based on the art historical evidence in Egypt, especially from the New Kingdom, one may think there was a clear and distinct line between the Egyptians and Nubians, but this was not always the case.

From a relatively early time, Egyptians and Nubians interacted peacefully with each other in trade, as neighbors in Egyptian held portions of Nubia, and some even intermarried. Egyptian kings were impressed with the Nubians’ martial abilities and often used Nubian bowmen contingents in their armies as mercenaries. Nubian mercenaries would work and live in Egypt and sometimes married Egyptians. Several examples of funerary stelae (offering stones) from Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (ca. 2150-2050 BC) depict Nubian mercenaries with their Egyptian wives. The Nubian mercenaries are dressed in traditional Egyptian clothing, but their skin color and physiognomy show them clearly as Nubian. [4]

In Nubia proper, Nubian cultural life was centered around the city of Napata, which functioned as the capital for most ancient Nubia’s early existence. [5] Kerma grew steadily in size and influence through the late third millennium BC and into the early second millennium BC – which coincided with the first collapse of the Egyptian state, known by modern scholars as the “First Intermediate Period” – until Upper and Lower Egypt were united once more during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975-1640 BC).

Senusret I (ruled ca. 1971-1926 BC), the second king of Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty, proved to be an especially warlike pharaoh, which was detrimental to the Kerma state. The Egyptian king led several military campaigns into Nubia. He created a series of thirteen forts from the first cataract just south of Aswan/Abu in the north to the second cataract, near the city of Buhen in the south. [6] Egypt was clearly the stronger state at that point in history and influenced Nubia much more culturally than the other way around. For instance, the early Nubian architecture of palaces and tombs was circular and more traditionally African but was gradually replaced by a rectangular, Egyptian shape. [7]

The Height of Nubian Power

The height of Nubian political power in the region came during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1750-1650 BC), when a foreign dynasty known as the “Hyksos” people were in control of northern Egypt. Though, the Nubians had extended their power from the Dongola Reach region around Kerma all the way north to the first cataract. [8] and were apparently not content with that as they were involved in an alliance with the Hyksos. [9] The Nubians probably had their eyes set on acquiring the region around Thebes, which also happened to be the home of the only native Egyptian dynasty at the time, but quickly had their plans destroyed when the Egyptian King Ahmose (reigned ca. 1552-1527 BC) came to power, initiating the Eighteenth Dynasty and the New Kingdom and putting Nubia once more into an inferior political position.

Nubia during Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1075 BC)

Nubia’s political ambitions took a dramatic turn for the worse when the Egyptian king Thutmose III (ruled ca. 1479-1425 BC) came to the throne. Thutmose III was a particularly active military pharaoh who is often compared to Julius Caesar. Most of Thutmose III’s recorded military campaigns were of his several Levant expeditions. Still, he did leave many textual and pictorial depictions of his campaigns into Nubia. He had a victory stela erected in the Nubian city of Gebel Barkal near the fourth cataract, indicating Egyptian influence, if not outright control, extended that far south during the New Kingdom. [10]

By the Nineteenth Dynasty, the Egyptians had colonized Nubia so thoroughly that a new government office was created known as the “king’s son of Kush.” The king’s son of Kush essentially functioned as a viceroy of the region, overseeing the trade and colonization. [11] But as with hundreds of years of prior Egyptian-Nubian history, Egypt’s primacy would falter once more, and Nubia would be there to take advantage.

The Twenty-Fifth Dynasty

Statue of King Taharqa in the National Museum of Sudan, Khartoum

Egypt’s the New Kingdom collapsed over a long period marked by widespread migrations of Libyans into Egypt, especially in the Delta region. The result was a politically fragmented Egypt: a dynasty of native Egyptian priests temporarily ruled the region around Thebes. In contrast, the Twenty-First through the Twenty-Fourth dynasties were all Libyan in ethnic origins, often ruling different parts of the country simultaneously. [12] This period of political fragmentation and Libyan domination has become known as the Third Intermediate Period (1075-664 BC) by modern historians. Before Egypt politically and socially disintegrated, the Nubians moved their capital farther south to Napata, which was located near the fourth cataract.

Over the course of hundreds of years, the Nubians adopted many of the Egyptians' important cultural attributes, including writing and aspects of their religion. In many ways, by the time of the Third Intermediate Period, the Nubians were more pious followers of the Egyptian pantheon than the Egyptians were. Because of their faith in the Egyptian religion, the Nubian elite developed close ties to the priesthood of the god Amun of Thebes. It was probably under their urging that Piankhy (reigned over Egypt 728-714 BC) decided to invade Egypt to dislodge a Libyan potentate named Tefnakht from power in the Delta. [13]

Piankhy marched north along the Nile with his army, defeating one Libyan potentate after another until they all pledged their fealty to him. [14] After defeating the Nubians, Piankhy returned to the royal palace in Napata and never returned to Egypt, but he did establish a long-lasting political connection. Piankhy’s successors would comprise Egypt’s Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, ruling over both Nubia and Egypt from the Egyptian capitals of Memphis and Thebes.

There was once a consensus among Egyptologists that Shabaqa (reigned 714-702 BC) was Piankhy’s successor and that Shebitqu (ruled 702-690 BC) next, but some scholars have inverted the rules of the two kings in recent years. One source that favors the first chronology is a transmission from the third century BC Hellenized Egyptian historian, Manetho. According to two of Manetho’s fragments, Shabaqa had to invade Egypt to defeat a usurper in the Delta.

The man in question was Bakenranef (reigned ca. 724-712 BC), who was Tefnakht’s successor and the sole king of the Libyan Twenty-Fourth Dynasty city of Sais. One of the fragments states: Sabacôn, who, taking Bochchôris captive, burned him alive and reigned for 8 years.” [15] Shabaqa’s actions put the Nubians in firm control of Egypt once more, which would last until the Assyrians arrived in 671 BC.

Shebitqu’s successor, Taharqa (ruled 690-664 BC), was probably the ablest of all the Nubian kings. Taharqa was active in foreign affairs, siding with the Kingdom of Israel against Assyria, which unfortunately for Egypt eventually brought the Assyrians’ wrath to the Nile Valley. Taharqa’s wars with Assyria began around 674 BC, but before that time, the Nubian pharaoh embarked on ambitious building programs throughout Egypt. [16]

Taharqa was an active builder in the region around Thebes, adding to existing temples through repairs and additions. One of the more interesting additions Taharqa made was a scene he added to the second pylon of the Medinet Habu temple. New Kingdom temples were traditionally built with large gateways, known as pylons, which were decorated with colorful pictorial reliefs of the pharaoh smiting Egypt's traditional enemies. The Medinet Habu temple's second pylon has a somewhat ironic relief depicting King Taharqa smiting Nubian prisoners. [17] Taharqa certainly influenced Egypt’s foreign affairs and architecture to a certain extent, but the greatest impact the Nubians had was in the realm of art.

Perhaps the Nubians' greatest impact on ancient Egypt was to bring back older, more established artistic styles in what modern scholars term archaism. In pictorial reliefs and especially in statuary, the Nubians were influenced by styles from Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms, but they added a couple of their own unique elements. Statues from the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, especially those of the rulers such as Taharqa, often depict the subject in a much more realistic or individual manner than the normally stylized and somewhat generic fashion that was typical of Egyptian statuary.

For instance, although Taharqa is shown wearing an Egyptian king's typical accouterments and clothed in traditional Egyptian garb, he is depicted as taller, more muscular, and with definite sub-Saharan African facial features. [18] dynasties after the Nubians continued the realistic style, eventually evolving to become true portraiture statuary.


The Nubians have been the Egyptians’ southern neighbors since the dawn of civilization over 5,000 years ago. During that time, the Egyptians were usually the dominant people, but the Nubians could impact pharaonic civilization in some ways. When the Egyptians were strong, especially during the New Kingdom, Nubia was a great wealth source for the Egyptians. The Egyptians established forts and colonies that exploited Nubia's rich mineral resources, which they then traded on the international market with other Near Eastern kingdoms.

Later, when the central government in Egypt collapsed, the Nubians conquered Egypt and brought back certain stability. The Nubians then involved themselves in the Near East's affairs, but that ultimately proved detrimental to Egypt. Finally, the Nubians brought back older artistic styles and conventions that gave new impetus to a culture that seemed exhausted of ideas.


  1. Morkot, Robert. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. (London: Rubicon Press, 2000), p. 6
  2. Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. (Princeton, New Jersey: Marcus Weiner, 1998), p. 7
  3. Smith, Stuart Tyson. The Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian Empire. (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 23
  4. Smith, p. 23
  5. Welsby, p. 12
  6. Smith, p. 64
  7. Smith, p. 34
  8. Morkot, p. 62
  9. Welsby, p. 12
  10. Bryan, Betsy. “The Eighteenth Dynasty before the Amarna Period.” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 246
  11. O’Connor, David. “New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, 1552-664 BC.” In Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger, Barry J. Kemp, David O’Connor, and Alan B. Lloyd. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 262
  12. Kitchen, Kenneth. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt: (1100 to 650 BC). Second Edition. (Warminster, United Kingdom: Aris and Phillips, 1995), pgs. 1-377
  13. Spalinger, Anthony. “The Military Background of the Campaign of Piye (Piankhy).” Studien zur Altägypttischen Kultur. 7 (1979) p. 273
  14. Grimal, Nicholas. Le stele tromphale de Pi)ankh. (Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1981), pgs. 130-1
  15. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Fragment 67
  16. Kitchen, pgs. 388-92
  17. Leclant, Jean. Recherches sur les monuments Thébains de la XXVe Dynastie site Ethiopienne. (Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1965), p. 149
  18. Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), pgs. 210-18

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