HIS 311 Lecture on regions south of Ancient Egypt

by Jim Jones (Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved)

This file contains notes for the September 5 lecture, based on reading from Kevin Shillington's HISTORY OF AFRICA, 2nd edition, pages 14-29.
Overview of the week
Sep 3: geography, political chronology of Ancient Egypt
Sep 5: religion, society, Nubia, Kush, Meroe

Egyptian religion underwent many changes in 2000 years.  The
earliest religion in the Nile Valley (pre-unification) was based
on belief in forces present in natural objects.  Each community
had its own gods, but the two gods common to all communities were
sun and river.

In the Old Kingdom following unification, like political power,
religion was also centralized.  In fact, the focus of government
appears to have been the organization of Egyptians to serve the
gods in exchange for regular Nile floods and good agriculture.

The principal Old Kingdom deity was Ra (also Re), the sun god. 
The idea of opposition was expressed in terms of a rival power,
Osiris, the river god.  Over time, the concept of Ra developed
and changed, so that by the time of the Middle Kingdom, Re was
god of the world of the living, while Osiris controlled the land
of the dead.  (Note: Isis was Osiris' wife.)

The pharaoh was the intermediary between Re and humans.  In the
Old Kingdom, salvation was only available to the pharaoh, whose
spiritual function was to intercede with Re to insure a good
harvest.  (The Egyptian notion of paradise contained leafy trees,
birds, running water, and good hunting.)  

In the Old Kingdom, Egypt's common people had no hope of personal
salvation, but if they behaved correctly (by helping the pharaoh
to intercede with Re), they could insure that their children
would have a good world in which to live.

In the Old Kingdom, Egyptians believed that elaborate tombs were
necessary to insure that the pharaoh reached Re.  These tombs
(pyramids) were stocked with supplies for a royal journey (food,
slaves, a boat) and gifts for Re (gold, gems, etc).

By the time of the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian religion became more
"democratic."  Temples allowed many people to share in religious
rituals, and salvation became available to people who lived
according to the rules laid down by Re (ethics).  Osiris, the
deity of the land of the dead, controlled access to paradise.  

The democratic" nature of Middle Kingdom is shown by the
construction of huge temples, like that at Karnak, which provided
room for ordinary people to participate (1300 feet long; St.

In the New Kingdom, Egyptian religion changed again, following
the introduction of war to Egyptian civilization (Hyksos,
Egyptian imperialism).  Egyptians began to seek magical
"shortcuts" to salvation, such as spells and potions, instead of
relying on ethical behavior.  One example was the Egyptian Book
of the Dead.  Another was the ritual worship of lesser gods who
could intercede with Re.

One pharaoh, Amenhotep IV (1375-1360BC), tried to reform Egyptian
religion.  He may have been motivated by the need to sustain tax
revenues, since the search for religious shortcuts undercut
government taxation by reducing the offerings to official state
temples.  Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton, closed down
the lesser temples and built a new capital city (at El-Amarna),
in an attempt to restore the religion of the Old kingdom.

Akhenaton's religion was a monotheism under Aton, the sun god. 
It offered no afterlife for the masses, and faced opposition from
nobles who feared the loss of revenues from local temples under
their control.  Akhenaton's successor, Tutankaton, changed his
name to Tutankhamen and restored the old religion.

                             SOCIAL STRUCTURE
In the Old Kingdom, Egyptian society contained the pharaoh,
priests, nobles, artisans and peasants.  To peasants along the
Nile River, priests and nobles represented central and local
political authority respectively.  By the time of the New
Kingdom, two new social classes appeared: slaves and professional

Egyptians traded with neighbors to the south and east.  The chief
exports were gold, linen and wheat, while the chief imports were
ivory, silver and lumber.  Egyptians of the New Kingdom used
copper and gold coins for currency, and they developed writing
and accounting early.

Egyptians built irrigation projects that relied on techniques
still in use today.  Thy also figured out how to use sails on
boats, understood geometry, and applied it to architecture.  They
also debated human behavior and provided pioneering work in

                             EGYPT'S NEIGHBORS
Prior to the Hyksos invasion, Egypt's contact with the outside
world was limited.  From archaeological evidence, we know that
traders operated between the Nile Delta and Mesopotamia as early
as 4000BC, but the desert prevented contact by larger groups of
people (armies, pilgrims).  There was more contact to the south,
beyond the First cataract, with the land known to Egyptians as
Nubia ("land of the blacks").  Note that "Punt" was the Egyptian
name for the coastal region, while "Kush" was the interior of

Egyptians believed that their ancestors came from Punt, so they
were very curious about it.  In the Old Kingdom, we have Egyptian
sources for several expeditions upriver to Nubia.  During the
5th and 6th dynasties (6th: c2423-2242BC), expeditions by way of
the Nile and the Red Sea Coast reached the "land of Punt,"  as
the Egyptians called it.  They returned with myrrh, ebony, a few
"dwarfs" and a sample of metal that was probably electrum, a
naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver.  

As Egyptian control stretched south of the first cataract in the
24th century BC, they appointed Egyptian governors for the region
and pressed Nubians into the royal army for service in the north. 
The Egyptian governor Harkhuf launched four of his own
expeditions around 2300BC further south, each taking 7-8 months
to return with caravans of loot.  They obtained ebony, ivory,
frankincense, and on the fourth expedition, a dwarf to be offered
as a present to the pharaoh.

In the Middle Kingdom, trade between Egypt and Nubia became more
regular.  In the 20th century BC, Seti I occupied Nubia as far
south as the third cataract.  The Hyksos invasion interrupted
Egyptian expansion to the south, and it only resumed in the New
Kingdom during the same period when Egypt conquered land in
Palestine.  For example, Pharaoh Tutmosis I led an army south to
the fourth cataract about 1525BC and left an inscription near
Dongola.  Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt in 1460BC (on the
Somalia Coast) is recorded on the walls of a temple at Luxor with
pictures showing the ruler of Punt, his wife, and lists of goods
including gold, ostrich feathers, ivory and ebony.  The Egyptians
built temples along the Upper Nile Valley.  

Kush was culturally Egyptian, although it was ethnically Nubian. 
Even after Kush expelled its Egyptian governors around 1000BC,
Egyptian culture continued in the kingdom of Kush (centered north
of Khartoum).  Later, in 730BC, pharaohs from Kush established
control in the lower Nile Valley for more than a century, where
they were known as the 25th or "Ethiopian dynasty," until the
arrival of the Assyrians in 670BC.  After the Kushites were
expelled from Egypt, they retained control from a power center at
Napata, near the 4th cataract of the Nile.  For reasons that are
not known (may have been threat of invasion from Egypt), the
Kushites shifted their power center farther south from Napata to
Meroe around 500BC.

From the list of trade goods mentioned in the Middle and New
Kingdom expeditions, Nubia must have been connected to regions
farther south, and possibly as far as Darfur, Lake Chad and the
Red Sea.  Many African peoples have oral traditions of origins
from Egypt.  For instance, the Yoruba of Nigeria are thought to
have migrated from Nile Valley between 650-750AD.  The
Peul/Tukolor of Senegal and the western Sahel share last names
and metaphysical beliefs with Nubians.  There are other examples
of similar titles & tribal names in East & West Africa, such as
the Kanda (Quenne) of Gao and the Candace of Nubia; the Kare-Kare
of Nigeria and the Ka-Ra of Egypt; the Gule (Nile) and Gulaye

Ancient Egyptians and later Africans have a number of common
ideas: divine priest-king, sun or nature gods, migration of
mythical ancestors to found a people.