National Geographic : 2008 Feb
ancient Egyptians, from King Tut to Cleopatra, were black Africans. Nonetheless, the saga of the Nubians proves that a civilization from deep in Africa not only thrived but briefly dominated in ancient times, intermingling and sometimes intermarrying with their Egyptian neighbors to the north. (King Tut's own grandmother, the 18th-dynasty Queen Tiye, is claimed by some to be of Nubian heritage.) The Egyptians didn't like having such a pow erful neighbor to the south, especially since they depended on Nubia's gold mines to bankroll their dominance of western Asia. So the pha raohs of the 18th dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.) sent armies to conquer Nubia and built garrisons along the Nile. They installed Nubian chiefs as administrators and schooled the children of favored Nubians at Thebes. Subjugated, the elite Nubians began to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs of Egypt-venerating Egyptian gods, particularly Amun, using the Egyptian language, adopting Egyptian burial styles and, later, pyramid building. The Nubians were arguably the first people to be struck by "Egyptomania." Egyptologists of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries would interpret this as a sign of weak ness. But they had it wrong: The Nubians had a gift for reading the geopolitical tea leaves. By the eighth century B.C., Egypt was riven by fac tions, the north ruled by Libyan chiefs who put on the trappings ofpharaonic traditions to gain legitimacy. Once firmly in power, they toned down the theocratic devotion to Amun, and the priests at Karnak feared a godless outcome. Who was in a position to return Egypt to its former state of might and sanctity? The Egyptian priests looked south and found their answer-a people who, without setting foot inside Egypt, had preserved Egypt's spiritu al traditions. As archaeologist Timothy Kendall of Northeastern University puts it, the Nubians "had become more Catholic than the pope." UNDER NUBIAN RULE, Egypt became Egypt again. When Piye died in 715, his brother Sha baka solidified the 25th dynasty by taking up 44 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2008 residence in the Egyptian capital of Memphis. Like his brother, Shabaka wed himself to the old pharaonic ways, adopting the throne name of the 6th-dynasty ruler Pepi II, just as Piye had claimed the old throne name of Thutmose III. Rather than execute his foes, Shabaka put them to work building dikes to seal off Egyptian vil lages from Nile floods. Shabaka lavished Thebes and the Temple of Luxor with building projects. At Karnak he erected a pink granite statue depicting himself wearing the Kushite crown of the double urae us-the two cobras signifying his legitimacy as Lord of the Two Lands. Through architecture as well as military might, Shabaka signaled to Egypt that the Nubians were here to stay. To the east, the Assyrians were fast build ing their own empire. In 701 B.C., when they marched into Judah in present-day Israel, the Nubians decided to act. At the city of Eltekeh, the two armies met. And although the Assyr ian emperor, Sennacherib, would brag lustily that he "inflicted defeat upon them," a young I -- NUBIANMUSEUM,ASWAN,EGYPT An indigenous Nubian cattle-herding culture created thisfemale clay figurine, now headless, in about 1700 B.C.