Hey guys, gals, and non-gendered pals! Today I want to talk about one of my favourite ancient civilisations, (which really doesn’t get enough attention), Kush. It’s also the place where one of the coolest women in history, Queen Candace of Ethiopia, was from, although spoiler alert, she wasn’t called Candace, and she wasn’t from Ethiopia (more on that later). See the Greeks and Romans generally used the word ‘Aetheopia’ to mean the land south of Egypt, or what is now Sudan (so it’s not the same as the present Ethiopia). But just to confuse things even more, the same region was called another name by literally everyone else - Kush, which is how I will be referring to it. But enough with the small talk, let’s get into this!!!
Kush was a kingdom to the south of Egypt, which was pretty much divided in two. The north was dry and barren, while the south was a lot more prosperous. But for a long time, the rulers of Kush actually preferred to stay in the north, not just to keep an eye on the Egyptian border, but also because it gave them control of all of the trade that was coming up from the prosperous southern kingdoms of Africa, to Egypt. In fact, Kush was in a pretty perfect location – it likely also had the kingdom of Punt (a massively wealthy African civilisation) to the East, and so had control of vast amounts of trade. Kush eventually grew so wealthy and powerful, that they actually conquered the Egyptian dynasty, and ruled over it ‘til the invading Assyrians pushed them out around 650 BCE. The Kushites then returned back to their homeland, moving further south to a city called Meroe, which would be used as their royal capital for the next thousand years.
So why are the Kushites so special? I mean there are literally hundreds of reasons. When people discuss ancient Africa, it’s pretty much always limited to ancient Egypt – at least in my experiences in the UK – but that in no way reflects an absence of other ancient African cultures. Ancient Kush in particular is an extremely interesting civilisation to study, with a complex language (that we still haven’t managed to decipher!), incredible art and metal work, alongside monumental temples and pyramids (that’s right, they had pyramids too!!). Their control of the trade routes into Egypt meant that gold, ivory, incense, leopard skins, and all the other must-have items for the Egyptian elite had to come to the Kushites first. And that’s not even the most exciting thing about Kush – they provide us with evidence of some of the most powerful women in the ancient world – the Nubian warrior Queens (I know- it’s hard for me to contain my excitement either!!!!).
So let’s jump right in. The Kush kingdom had this really cool, and pretty rare, practice called matrilineal succession, which basically means that the right to rule passed through the women of the royal family. Now this didn’t mean that it was always a woman who ruled, but that the women were basically in charge of who ruled the kingdom. You can tell how important the Kushite queens were from coronation rituals – hands down the most important ceremony of a king’s life. Now in other patriarchal cultures, the king is pretty much always the star of the show at a coronation – he might've had some lads from the priesthood there with him, but he was definitely the main attraction. In Kush however, the king’s mother was the highlight of the coronation – (kind of like how Batman vs Superman was technically about those dudes, but Wonder Woman was definitely the best part). In the middle of the coronation, the king’s mum announced to a god called Amun that ‘their child’ was ready to take the throne – yep, the queen mother was supposedly pretty tight with the gods. These powerful female rulers were known as Kandakes, leading to some confusion with the Greeks and Romans, who thought they were just all called Candace. (Remember I mentioned Queen Candace? We'll be coming back to her!). Kandake was actually a title meaning “great woman”, used to refer to either the king’s mother, or wife.
As a Kandake, these women were immensely powerful. They could own their own land, conduct their own business, and were basically entirely independent women. Allegedly, their influence was so great that if the ruling king (aka their son) displeased them, they could order him to commit ritual suicide, after which she would promote another successor, or take the power for herself. Because yep, these queens could also rule. In fact, after the Kushite empire moved its capital to Meroe, the surviving dynasty would go on to have five different rulers – three of which were women. So who were these famous Nubian warrior queens? Well we don’t know a lot about too many of them, but we do know their names, which I want to quickly tell you just because hey – if I were them, I’d want my name still shared in weird feminist writing on some magic page I couldn’t even begin to imagine or understand (which to be honest is pretty much how I feel about the internet anyway).
But anyway, back to the incredible African warrior queens of Kush. The independently ruling Kandakes that we know of were: Shanakdakhete, Amanirenas, Amanishakheto, Amanitore, Amantitere, Amanikhatashan, Maleqorobar and Lahideamani. It’s generally agreed that under the rule of the Kandakes, Kush blossomed, and became even wealthier and more powerful than ever before, leading to what is often called the golden age of Kush.
The first independently ruling queen that I mentioned, Shanakdathete, reigned from 170-150 BCE. To put this into the context of other more famous figures, Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE, and died in 44 BCE, so we’re talking around 100 years between her reign, and when Caesar starts getting all political. But anyway, back to Shanakdathete. Most of what we know about her comes from the giant pyramid that was built as her tomb, which was full of inscriptions and artwork celebrating her military campaigns, and all the wealth she acquired.
Her heritage as a super powerful warrior queen was later continued by arguably the most famous Kushite queen, Amanirenas. Now you might hear about Amanirenas with a different name, Queen Candace of Ethiopia (hey look it's her! from the first paragraph!) but by now, we should all know what’s wrong with this translation. Candace is a misunderstanding of the royal title Kandake, and while she ruled what the Romans knew as Ethiopia, it’s actually in modern day Sudan. But if you ever read about Queen Candace, this is the gal they mean!
See Amanirenas ruled at a really significant time, right at the moment of the Roman conquest of Egypt. And what do we know about the Roman Empire? Well, like many empires, they just loved conquering things, and soon they set their eyes on the riches of Kush. The first time the Romans ever came in contact with Amanirenas was when the Roman guy that had been put in charge of Egypt was off fighting someone else way over to the east in Arabia. He basically left the doors unlocked, with a big sign up saying it’s all empty over here if you want to rob us! And you know what, Amanirenas did. She took advantage of the leader-less state of Egypt, and launched an attack, capturing a whole series of Roman forts. She even found a statue of the emperor Augustus, and took its head, carrying it with her back to Meroe, where she buried it under the front steps of a temple dedicated to her victory so that every time someone entered, they’d literally be wiping their feet on the Roman emperor. He was below every single Kushite citizen. Now that’s a pretty badass move. And Amanirenas was a pretty badass lady. Roman sources describe her as a strong and brave warrior queen, blind in one eye, but who fought ferociously alongside her soldiers. One Roman even called her ‘man-like’, and said her spirit ‘was beyond her gender’ - basically the highest compliment those misogynists could give.
Unfortunately the Romans didn’t take Amanirenas’ campaign too well – Augustus always was a sore loser. But this is actually where the historical record gets really interesting. See, according to the Romans, they drove out the Kushite forces from Egypt, and forced them all the way into Kush, where they captured their capital of Napata. But as we now know, Napata hadn’t been the Kushite capital for hundreds of years at this point – it was old news. In fact, the Kush monarchy had deliberately left because it was so arid and barren, whereas their new capital Meroe to the south was full of wealth. Think that sounds suspicious? Well buckle up buttercup, it gets worse. The Romans also maintained that after they defeated the Kushite armies, the people of Kush were forced to negotiate a peace treaty with them. Sounds legit right? Except these apparently conquered people got the best deal in history, where the Romans would leave their territory, and the Kushites would never have to pay them tribute. Yeah you read that right. Let’s just go over what the Roman sources say once more:
1) They defeated the Kushite armies and invaded Kush, capturing their capital of Napata (which definitely was the capital okay no matter what every piece of historical evidence tells us, the Romans are definitely right and definitely believable)
2) The Romans won and so forced the Kushite people to agree to a peace treaty
3) That peace treaty meant the Romans had to leave Kush alone and never collect any money or tribute, just leave immediately, but the Romans definitely won okay, that was their decision
I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to say fake news on this one. Let me tell you, this is an unprecedented peace treaty – it’s basically like if you beat your mate at Mario Kart, but then had to give them the best seat on the sofa, and you still had to get up to close the door even though YOU WERE THE ONE THAT WON. Sorry Augustus, but I’m just not buying it.
And what happened to our heroine Amanirenas? Well, thanks to the incredible deal she got herself from the Romans, she spent the next eleven years of her reign in peace, in one of the most prosperous times of Kushite history. After her death in 10 BCE, the crown passed to another woman, Amanishakheto, who was probably her daughter. Amanishakheto would later continue the successes of her mother, and the Kandakes before her, to become one of the wealthiest rulers that Kush had ever seen.
So I think it’s pretty clear that Kush was an incredibly interesting civilisation, worth a whole lot more studying. But why aren’t we studying it? We have historical evidence of a dynasty of warrior queens – WHY IS THAT NOT MAJOR NEWS? Every kid in the UK is taught about ancient Egypt in primary school – why is Egypt as African as our history is willing to get? Firstly it must be acknowledged that as a civilisation, the various Egyptian dynasties lasted longer, so we do have more evidence about them. But, in my opinion, that isn’t sufficient reason to explain it. The Kushites ruled in Africa for roughly three thousand (3000!!!!) years. To put this in context – the Romans considered their city to have been founded in 753 BCE, and the Western Roman Empire finally fell (after a long period of decline) in 476 CE. That means the kingdom of Kush was around and kicking for at least twice as long as the Romans (and that’s the most generous timeline). So what’s the motivation behind their exclusion from Western education and scholarship? While this may be inflammatory, I fully believe that if the Kushites had been of European descent, we would have all heard about them by now, but they weren’t, they were Black, and so they have been erased.
You see Ancient Egypt has been at the centre of debate for many years over the extent of its African identity. When pupils are taught ancient history, that generally comes in the form of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, propounding the idea that Egypt had more in common with its Mediterranean neighbours than the rest of Africa. Bernal’s Black Athena raised an interesting point about this –Egyptian civilisation has often been white-washed, both in modern scholarship, and antiquity, with its position on the borders of the Mediterranean and the rest of continental Africa resulting in them being viewed as ‘in between the two’. Or, to put it simply, ‘not really black’. This racial ambiguity allowed for the celebration of ancient Egypt to be separated from its African heritage, a fact easily witnessed in illustrations of white royal Egyptians (interestingly with black slaves?). The people of Kush however, were not so easy to whitewash. From the first Graeco-Roman accounts of the people of Aetheopia (literally ‘the burnt-faced’), to the monumental frescoes of Kushite rulers, their race has been impossible to ignore. Far from the debate surrounding the ethnicity of the Egyptian queens, the Kushite rulers were Black. Undoubtably. This was a kingdom of powerful African rulers, whose wealth, control, and influence spanned three thousand years. It’s been a long time coming, but let’s finally give Kush the celebration and attention it deserves. Amanirenas, like the powerful Kandakes that came before her, was a Black warrior queen, who threatened the most famous leader of the Roman Empire, and succeeded in protecting her country from him. She deserves to go down in history as a feminist icon, and an unforgettable example of black history and excellence.
If time travel is ever invented, I know who I’m going to meet.