Passengers on the Paris metro in recent weeks may have been struck by the publicity for this spring’s major exhibition at the nearby Louvre, its eye-catching design emblazoned with the words Pharaon des Deux Terres – Pharaon des Deux Terres – in a reference to the ancient Kushite dynasty of what is now Sudan which for a time united the two countries under one ruler and established the 25th dynasty of ancient Egyptian kings.
It is to be hoped that at least some of these passengers will make the short trip to the Louvre to view this exhibit, which is a welcome opportunity to view documents relating to one of the foreign dynasties that ruled Egypt for a time. Ancient. What makes it special is the fact that this dynasty did not originate in Asia, unlike the provisional Assyrian or Persian rulers of Egypt who conquered the country in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. He was also different from the country’s Greek or Roman rulers who, originating from the Mediterranean, ruled following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and the Roman legions some three centuries later.
Instead, the Kushite dynasty came from what is now Sudan, and among other things, the Louvre exhibit is an opportunity to reflect not only on ancient Egypt’s relationship with the African continent in turning attention south and away from more familiar northern invaders, but also to the influence of ancient Egyptian culture in Africa and particularly its adoption into the Kushite kingdoms that ruled ancient Sudan from around 1000 BC AD to the 4th century AD.
According to exhibition curator Vincent Rondot, the time has come to mount an exhibition on the Kushite kings of ancient Egypt. Recent archaeological work in the region of Sudan once ruled by the Kushites from the Second to Sixth Cataracts of the Nile has revealed new discoveries that greatly expand modern knowledge of this still imperfectly understood civilization. Additionally, the exhibit was designed to complement and extend an earlier Louvre exhibit on the Kingdom of Meroe that once ruled parts of Sudan from the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE.
“The mystery [of the origins and development of the Kushites] has not entirely disappeared, but our understanding of them has grown a lot thanks to archaeological discoveries made over the past 20 years in Sudan and a better knowledge of what was happening in ancient Egypt at the same time said Rondot in a document accompanying the exhibition.
In any case, to understand the Kushites, it is “essential to understand the effects of the Egyptian conquest of the region during the New Kingdom”, he added. “A bit like the ancient Gauls [that once lived in what today is France] “Romanized” after their defeat by the Romans, the Kushites took over the means of expression and to a large extent the relationship to the world of their conquerors, in particular by adopting their gods” and to a certain extent also their language.
This meant that when it came time for the Kushites to conquer Egypt – which they did in the Third Intermediate Period after the end of the New Kingdom when the country was politically divided – they found themselves at the head of what was essentially a common culture. Piankhi (Piye), the 8th century BCE Kushite king who led the conquest of Egypt from his capital at Napata near Jebel Barkal at the fourth cataract of the Nile, was therefore “more Egyptian than the Egyptians”, says the exhibit, the Kushite kings having retained and built upon the New Kingdom culture they had learned under earlier Egyptian occupation.
Piankhi (744-714 BCE) first conquered Thebes in Upper Egypt, the country’s religious capital, before moving to Memphis on the edge of the delta in Lower Egypt, the political capital, thus virtually uniting the country under Kushite rule. He established the 25th dynasty of Kushite kings who then ruled Egypt for the next 70 years until Assyrian invasions in 671 and 667 BCE finally forced the Kushites to retreat to their Sudanese redoubt.
Before doing so, however, the Kushites engaged in major building programs throughout Upper and Lower Egypt. Under the Kushite pharaohs Sabataka (714-705 BCE) and Shabaka (705-690 BCE), major additions were made to the temples of Thebes, the home of the ancient Egyptian god Amun, and large colonnades were were built under the next most important Kushite pharaoh, Taharqa (690-664 BCE).
He ruled Egypt and Sudan for 25 years before being forced to retreat to Thebes by invading forces led by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 667 BCE. His successor, Tantamani, who ascended the throne in 663 BCE, was Egypt’s last pharaoh of the 25th dynasty, as he was driven back to the Kushite capital at Napata by a new campaign that also saw the sacking of Thebes in Assyrian hands.
ORIGINS AND EXPANSION: The exhibition is housed in the main temporary exhibition space of the Louvre and, on entering, the visitor is confronted with an impressive reconstruction of a statue of the Kushite pharaoh Taharqa.
Next to it is a replica of Piankhi’s Victory Stela, erected to commemorate his successful invasion of Egypt at the head of Kushite forces in the late 8th century BCE and discovered during the excavations of the Temple of Piankhi. ‘Amon in Napata.
This stele, now in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, is peppered with references to major works of ancient Egyptian literature, the exhibit says, and was designed not only to affirm Piankhi’s role as pharaoh of Egypt and Sudan, but also to indicate that his would be a period of exemplary reign that fully respected the gods of the country.
The actual exposition begins with the first major Ancient Egyptian involvement in Sudan for which there remains substantial evidence when the New Kingdom pharaohs Amenhotep I (1525-1505 BCE) and Thutmose I (1505-1493 BCE) era) led military campaigns to the Fifth Cataract of the Nile with a view not only to securing Egypt’s southern borders but also to establish a colonial administration in the country.
Ancient Egypt lacked wood, ivory, and gold, and these and other materials had to be sought from abroad. A famous mural from the tomb of Huy in Luxor, viceroy of the Kushite Empire of Egypt during the reign of New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun, shows a tribute paid to the pharaoh from his African territories, and a copy of it- this is included in the exhibition.
But whereas earlier Egyptian expeditions to the south had largely been aimed at gathering raw materials or securing the country’s southern borders, the New Kingdom invasions were more explicitly colonial. Egyptian garrisons and an Egyptian administration were established, and the country over time adopted the religious and political institutions of Egypt, even adopting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and not developing a distinct script for the native language.
The exhibition includes statues and other objects testifying to these developments, but it perhaps only really comes into its own in its second section, which presents the modern rediscovery of the region at the beginning of the 19th century. In the decades following the French expedition to Egypt in the late 18th century, and particularly after the installation of the country’s outward-looking ruler, Mohamed Ali, more and more archaeologists and travelers Europeans have visited Egypt. Many of them were tempted to cross the southern borders of the country, sometimes in search of the source of the Nile, and some brought back material attesting to the civilization of the ancient Kushite kings.
Among the most important of these early visitors was the magnificently named Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, later Linant Pasha, who, although French, was recruited by the wealthy English adventurer William Bankes to lead an expedition to the Sudan in search of monuments. Kushites. Some of the designs he returned with are on display in the exhibition, although most are so faded it can be hard to tell them apart. Linant de Bellefonds later became chief engineer of Egyptian public works and founder of the Suez Canal Company.
Easier to read are the accounts of a later expedition, also on display in the exhibition, led by the Prussian explorer Karl Richard Lepsius in the early 1840s. This focused on the monuments of Egypt and the Sudan and seems to have been carried out with extraordinary meticulousness. Lepsius visited Kushite sites in the Sudan from the Second to the Sixth Cataracts of the Nile, traveling south to Khartoum. His Monuments of Egypt and Ethiopia, a 12-volume compendium of ancient Egyptian monuments, was published in 1849.
The following sections of the exhibition examine the main urban centers of Kushite Sudan, including Kawa, Sanam and Napata, as well as what is known of the building programs carried out by the Kushite pharaohs in Thebes and Memphis in Egypt. There is a reconstruction of what the Temple of Amun at Karnak might have looked like under Kushite rule as well as a stele found at the Serapeum of Saqqara recording the birth, death and burial of the sacred bull which can be used to confirm the dates of the reign of the pharaohs.
The final sections of the exhibit address the Assyrian invasions that ended Kushite rule in Egypt and the military expedition led by the 26th Dynasty pharaoh Psamtik II against the Kushites in 592 BCE that pushed the Kushite king Aspelta to move the country’s political capital south to Meroe. , a city near the Sixth Cataract of the Nile. This was the first major expedition since the 25th Dynasty Kushite pharaoh Tantamani was driven from Egypt in 663 BCE, and the campaign was probably waged to forestall any aspirations the Kushites might have had to reconquer Egypt.
The campaign is also significant for the exhibition, first because it ushered in an important new phase of the Kushite civilization based in Meroe and second because it led to the dismemberment and concealment in so-called ” hiding places” of statues of the Kushite kings. to prevent their destruction at the hands of the Egyptian invaders. One such hiding place, discovered at the Doukki Gel site in 2003, contained 40 fragments of seven statues of Kushite kings, including Taharqa and Tantamani. These have now been reconstructed and put on display at the Kerma Museum in Sudan, the Louvre exhibit by commissioning beautiful dark resin replicas.
An equally important result of the Egyptian military campaign was the transfer of the Kushite capital to Meroe and the flourishing there of further centuries of Kushite civilization. This was the subject of an exhibition at the Louvre in 2010 and is perhaps best known for the Egyptian-style pyramids used to mark the tombs of the kings of Meroe. Similar pyramids were built earlier in the Al-Kurra and Nouri necropolises near the ancient capital of Napata, as the exhibit reveals, with the latter site containing around 50 royal pyramids including one originally more than 60 meters high.
Pharaoh of the Two Lands, the African epic of the kings of Napata, Louvre, Paris, until July 25.
* A version of this article appeared in the June 2, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.