Kush and its Pyramids: Sleeping Next to the Elephant

Jebel Barkal Pyramids

What do people from Scotland, Canada, and ancient Kush have in common? They all know, or knew, what it’s like to “sleep next to the elephant.”

This phrase comes from a remark by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, when addressing the Press Club in Washington, DC, in 1969:

Living next to you [i.e., to the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Smaller countries, or countries with considerably less population, tend to feel and be affected this way by a larger, more powerful neighbour. And that, says Gayle Gibson of the Royal Ontario Museum, was exactly the experience of ancient Kush, or Nubia, in what is now northern Sudan. Being Egypt’s southern neighbour over the millenia was often uneasy, and sometimes even fraught with danger. Particularly because Kush had the luxury goods – not to mention gold – that Egypt craved. As a result, Egypt seemed to assume that it had the right to the resources of the land, and often exerted its military might to take them. (Canada and Scotland might again shift uneasily in their chairs, wondering if they’re hearing an echo.)

Gibson recently presented a slide show and a very informative talk, called “The Pyramids of Kush,” in an afternoon session at the Toronto Reference Library. This lecture was the first event in the library’s program to celebrate Black History month. And what a history lesson we got! The topic was indeed the many pyramids that the rulers of Kush, or Nubia, erected for themselves, influenced by what they saw in Egypt. Yet the discussion also encompassed a swift tour of all the great Kushite or Nubian kingdoms.

Meroe pyramids, with shrines

I had known that some of the people of this land had served the Egyptian pharaohs as warriors, since they tended to be physically larger and stronger than most Egyptians. What I didn’t realize was that there were at least three great Nubian civilizations, the second of which had actually invaded and ruled Egypt for a few generations.

Kush, Gibson told us, tended to rise to greater strength during periods when Egypt had become weak for some reason. But while Egypt’s strong periods often meant bad things for Kush, it wasn’t always the other way around. When King Piye of the second powerful Nubian civilization conquered Egypt, he actually brought a renaissance of art and culture into Egyptian society. Unlikely as it seems, said Gibson, the Egyptians liked and welcomed the overlordship of these Nubian rulers.

It was during this period, from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, that the Kushite pyramids first made their appearance. When you examine the caves and chambers carved into Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the mountain around which this civilization was centred, you see paintings and decoration much like that on the walls of Egyptian Pharaohs’ tombs. But the Nubian pyramids had their own character: smaller and steeper than their Egyptian inspirations. And rather than having tombs enclosed inside them, these pyramids sat on top of them as monuments and shrines.

Structure at the Karnak temple complex, built by Taharka

Even after the last Nubian ruler, Taharqa, was finally forced out — not by the Egyptians, but by the invasion of Sennacherib of Babylon — they rose once more in a third powerful civilization in their own land, about 150 years later, now centred at Meroe (pronounced “MER-oh-ay”; located northeast of present-day Khartoum). They continued building pyramids there, finally totalling about two hundred. The result is that there are actually more pyramids in Kush/Nubia/Sudan than there are in Egypt.

The Meroitic civilization was strong enough even to hold back attempted invasions by Emperor Augustus of Rome, and became a great trading nation. The only reason it finally faded was that camels became popular for taking traded goods straight across the desert. Since traders no longer needed to go up and down the Nile – which was the great source of Meroe’s wealth – trade on the river trickled to a fraction of its former volume. And Nubia was bypassed.

Ms. Gibson’s talk was a veritable feast for those of us who love to devour history. As an introduction to Black History Month, it also filled a serious gap in our knowledge of African history, a gap that most North Americans seem tragically to suffer from. And for those of us who sleep next door to a modern-day national elephant, it gave us a feeling of kinship with the Nubians, a fellow feeling that spans the millenia.

Tomb of Nubian King Tantamani, or Tanwetamani, at el-Kurru

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