Kush, Assyria's rival in the Levant

The second half of the 8th century BC saw the kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia) rise to a new prominence as its rulers gradually extended their control into Egypt. Their new-found power enabled them to play an influential role in the politics of the Near East, particularly vis-à-vis the Neo-Assyrian empire, whose military expansion brought them within striking distance of the Kushites.

View of Jebel Barkal, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2003: the sacred mountain with the ruins of the temple of Amun below. Photo by Aluka Digital Library. View large image.

Sudan in the early 1st millennium BC

Traditionally, the boundaries of the kingdom of Kush stretched southward from the first Nile cataract (a rocky, unnavigable stretch of rapids) at Aswan in southern Egypt, while its heartland lay between the 3rd and 6th cataracts and was centred on the city of Napata at Jebel Barkal in modern-day Sudan. The region's geographical proximity to Egypt was reflected in many shared links - cultural, political, economic and religious - with documented interaction going back to the 4th millennium BC.

Kush was a source of (as well as a gateway to) a number of prized commodities from the south, including gold, ivory, ebony, exotic animals and slaves. The Egyptians sought to exploit this and gradually absorbed Kush into their own territory: by the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, Nubia was governed as two separate provinces under the control of a Viceroy of Kush. However, with the end of the New Kingdom (1552/1550-1069 BC), Egypt's grip on the region was loosened and Kush reverted to local control. Capitalising on Egypt's internal instability, the Kushite kings eventually went on to reverse the historical balance of power and to rule Egypt as pharaohs (the 25th dynasty in Egyptian chronology) until the Assyrians' conquest of Egypt in 672 BC.

From Sudan to the Mediterranean coast

Piye's daughter, the God's Wife of Amun Shepenwepet I, in front of her royal uncle, Piye's brother and successor Shabako, in the relief decoration of the chapel of Osiris Neb-Ankh at Karnak. Photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

At the time of the conquest by Kushite kings, political power in Egypt was fragmented among a number of Delta dynasts, many of whom were also tribal chiefs of Libyan origin. Parts of Lower Egypt (the northernmost part of the country down to Memphis, approximately 24 km south of Cairo) had been absorbed into the territory controlled from the Delta, while the area south of Hermopolis (near the modern town of Mallawi) in Upper Egypt was under the control of the city of Thebes, itself subject to Kush following the initial expansion by king Kashta (c.760-747 BC) around 750 BC.

Some twenty years later, Kashta's son and successor Piye (747-716 BC) embarked on a military campaign through Egypt, prompted by the increasing power of the Delta rulers, particularly Tefnakhte of Saïs whose march on Memphis had shown a great deal of political and military ambition.

Piye's successful campaign was commemorated in the so-called Victory Stele, set up in the temple of Amun at Napata. Copies of it were also displayed at Thebes (Karnak temple) and Memphis, the religious centres of Upper and Lower Egypt. His victories extended Kushite control into Lower Egypt, although it seems that he was content to leave most subjugated local rulers in place. It was left to his successor Shabako (c.721-707/706 BC) to consolidate Kushite control throughout Egypt, including the Delta.

A people of horse lovers

Horses formed an important part of Kushite culture in the 8th century. In one of its most famous passages, Piye's Victory Stele records the great distress felt by the king on discovering starving horses in the stables of a conquered city in Egypt:

"His Majesty then proceeded to the stables of the horses and the quarters of the foals. When he saw [that] they were starved, he said: 'As I live, as Re loves me, as my nose is rejuvenated with life, how much more painful it is in my heart that my horses have been starved than any other crime that you have committed at your discretion'." (R. K. Ritner, The Libyan Anarchy, Atlanta 2009, no.145)

Piye's inscriptions were accompanied by images of horses and a team of horses was buried near his own tomb in a pyramid at el-Kurru near Napata, a practice adopted by several of his successors. The prominence accorded to horses seems to be closely linked to military developments in the 1st millennium BC: chariotry, which dominated armed warfare in the New Kingdom, gradually gave way to cavalry - a technique which necessitated a much closer physical relationship between the rider and his horse.

Detail from the top ("lunette") of king Piye's Victory Stele (Cairo Museum, JdE 48862+) showing a horse being led before the seated ruler. From E. A. W. Budge, Annals of Nubian Kings, London 1912, pl. LI. View large image.

The Kushites' interest in horses was shared by the Assyrians. Technological innovation had turned their chariotry and cavalry into formidable weapons of war and greatly increased the Assyrians' need for horses, which was met through tribute and booty as well as trade. References to Egyptian and Kushite horses in official and administrative texts from Assyria highlight these regions' importance in the international horse trade. Kushite horses in particular were valued for their strength and size and sought after all over the Middle East, including by the charioteers of Israel and Assyria, as was the corresponding expert knowledge: the Nimrud Wine Lists, records of wine ration distributions at the royal court of Kalhu, attest to the presence of Kushites in Assyrian service as early as 732 BC.

Kush and Assyria as rivals

At that time, under the leadership of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC), Assyria greatly expanded its western borders. The Kushite rule over Egypt provided the opportunity to try and revive Egypt's political and military heritage in the Levant: increasingly under pressure from Assyria, the kingdoms of the region welcomed Kush as a supporter and alternative overlord.

In retrospect, the scene seemed set for direct conflict between the two powers. But during the reigns of Tiglath-pileser, Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC) and Sargon II (721-705 BC), relations were peaceful: diplomatic gifts were exchanged and, in 711 BC, Kush even volunteered to extradite an important refugee, the rebel king of Ashdod, to Assyria.

This changed after the death of Sargon II. An anti-Assyrian coalition was formed in the southern Levant which the Kushite ruler Shebitku (707/706-690 BC) supported openly. Sargon's successor Sennacherib (704-681 BC) launched an invasion of the region. In 701 BC, the allied forces met the Assyrian troops in battle near the Philistine city of Eltekeh. While the outcome of the confrontation is a matter of debate, it marked an important watershed in the relations between Assyria and Kush.

Shebitku's clash with Assyria at Eltekeh signalled openly hostile relations which would eventually, from 672 BC onwards, lead to the Assyrian invasion of Egypt, its conquest and the end of Kushite rule over the region.

The challenge of reconstructing Kushite history

View of the relief of Sargon II of Assyria at the rock cliff of Tang-i Var as seen from below. The inscription covering the depiction of king Sargon mentions his interaction with Shebitku, king of Kush, and the extradition of Yamani, rebel king of Ashdod. Photo by Michael Roaf. View large image.

Trying to reconstruct the events of the late 8th century BC presents a particular difficulty. The corpus of contemporary evidence consists of royal monuments from both Kush and Egypt; in addition, funerary and other texts from Egypt (notably from the religious centre of Thebes) help illuminate the Kushite kings' strategies for political control and administration. These included a revival of the function of God's Wife of Amun, a religious office held by a celibate female relative of the king who adopted her successor. The sparse nature of available sources is probably the result of the random survival of evidence: because perishable materials such as papyrus, used for correspondence and administration, generally survive only in the dry conditions of the desert, texts on durable materials dominate the record.

As a result, we must look to sources from outside Egypt to fill in the gaps. One such source is a rock relief of the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II from Tang-i Var, located in the mountains c. 85 km northeast of Kermanshah in modern Iran. The publication of its inscription by Grant Frame in 1999 shed new light on the identity of a previously unidentified Kushite king who had sought to establish diplomatic contact with the Assyrian king by extraditing a Philistine fugitive (see Philistia). This forced scholars to re-evaluate their understanding of the highly problematic chronology of the Kushite dynasty, and serves as a reminder of the importance of an inter-disciplinary approach to ancient Near Eastern history, especially for periods such as the late 8th century BC in Egypt and Kush - so poorly documented that a single text from a geographically remote region can dramatically alter our understanding of contemporary events.

Further reading:

Archer, 'Chariotry to cavalry', 2010.
Heidorn, 'The Horses of Kush', 1997.
Kahn, 'The inscription of Sargon II at Tang-i Var and the chronology of Dynasty 25', 2001.
Morkot, 'The Black Pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian Rulers', 2000.
Radner, 'After Eltekeh: royal hostages from Egypt at the Assyrian court', 2012.
Zamazalová, 'Before the Assyrian Conquest in 671 B.C.E.', 2011.

Content last modified: 12 Sep 2012.

Silvie Zamazalová

Silvie Zamazalová, 'Kush, Assyria's rival in the Levant', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 [http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/essentials/countries/kush/]

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