Sudanese pharaohs at the Louvre

David Tresilian , Tuesday 31 May 2022

A new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris focuses on ancient Egypt’s Kushite Dynasty that originated in today’s Sudan.

Tomb of Huy


Passengers on the Paris Metro in recent weeks may well have been struck by the advertising for this spring’s major exhibition at the nearby Louvre Museum, its eye-catching design emblazoned with the words Pharaon des Deux Terres – Pharaoh of the Two Lands – in a reference to the ancient Kushite Dynasty from what is now Sudan that for a time united the two countries under a single ruler and established the 25th Dynasty of ancient Egyptian kings.

It is to be hoped that at least some of those passengers will make the short trip to the Louvre to see this exhibition, which is a welcome opportunity to see material relating to one of the foreign dynasties that for a time ruled ancient Egypt. What makes it special is the fact that this dynasty did not originate from Asia, unlike Egypt’s temporary Assyrian or Persian rulers who conquered the country in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. It was also unlike the country’s Greek or Roman rulers who, originating from the Mediterranean, reigned in the wake of the conquests by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and the Roman legions some three centuries later.

Instead, the Kushite Dynasty came from what is today Sudan, and among other things the Louvre exhibition is an opportunity to think about not only ancient Egypt’s relations with the African continent by turning attention southwards and away from the more familiar northern invaders, but also about the influence of ancient Egyptian culture in Africa and particularly its adoption in the Kushite kingdoms that ruled ancient Sudan from around 1000 BCE to the 4th century CE.

According to exhibition curator Vincent Rondot, now is a good time to mount an exhibition on ancient Egypt’s Kushite kings. Recent archaeological work in the area of Sudan once ruled by the Kushites from the Second to the Sixth Cataracts of the Nile has revealed new finds that significantly extend modern knowledge of this still imperfectly understood civilisation. Moreover, the exhibition has been designed to complement and extend an earlier Louvre exhibition on the Meroe kingdom that once ruled parts of Sudan from the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE.

“The mystery [of the origins and development of the Kushites] has not entirely disappeared, but our understanding of them has grown a lot thanks to archaeological discoveries made over the past 20 years in Sudan and a better knowledge of what was going on in ancient Egypt at the same time,” Rondot said in material accompanying the exhibition.

In any case, in order to understand the Kushites it is “essential to understand the effects of the Egyptian conquest of the region during the New Kingdom,” he added. “Rather like the ancient Gauls [that once lived in what today is France] who were ‘Romanised’ after their defeat by the Romans, the Kushites took over the means of expression and to a great extent the relationship to the world of their conquerors, notably by adopting their gods” and to a certain extent also their language.

This meant that when the turn came for the Kushites to conquer Egypt – which they did during the Third Intermediate Period following the end of the New Kingdom when the country was politically divided – they found themselves at the head of what was essentially a common culture. Piankhi (Piye), the 8th-century BCE Kushite king who led the conquest of Egypt from his capital at Napata near Jebel Barkal at the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, was thus “more Egyptian than the Egyptians,” the exhibition says, the Kushite kings having retained and built upon the New Kingdom culture they had learned when under earlier Egyptian occupation.

Piankhi (744-714 BCE) first conquered Thebes in Upper Egypt, the country’s religious capital, before moving on to Memphis at the edge of the Delta in Lower Egypt, the political capital, thereby virtually uniting the country under Kushite rule. He established the 25th Dynasty of Kushite kings that then ruled Egypt for the next 70 years until the Assyrian invasions in 671 and 667 BCE eventually obliged the Kushites to withdraw to their Sudanese redoubt.

Before they did so, however, the Kushites engaged in major building programmes throughout Upper and Lower Egypt. Under the Kushite pharaohs Shabataka (714-705 BCE) and Shabaka (705-690 BCE), major additions were made to the temples at Thebes, home of the ancient Egyptian god Amun, and grand colonnades were constructed under the next Kushite pharaoh, the most important, Taharqa (690-664 BCE).

He ruled both Egypt and Sudan for 25 years before being forced to withdraw to Thebes by invading forces led by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 667 BCE. His successor, Tantamani, ascending to the throne in 663 BCE, was the last 25th-Dynasty pharaoh of Egypt, since he was driven back to the Kushite capital at Napata by a further campaign that also saw the sacking of Thebes at Assyrian hands.


The exhibition is housed in the main temporary exhibitions space of the Louvre, and on entering it visitors are brought face to face with an impressive reconstruction of a statue of the Kushite pharaoh Taharqa.

Next to it, there is a replica of the victory stele of Piankhi, erected to commemorate his successful invasion of Egypt at the head of Kushite forces in the late 8th century BCE and discovered during excavations of the Temple of Amun at Napata.

This stele, now in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, is larded with references to major works of ancient Egyptian literature, the exhibition says, and was designed not only to assert Piankhi’s role as pharaoh of Egypt and Sudan but also to indicate that his would be a period of exemplary rule that fully respected the country’s gods.

The exhibition proper begins with the first major involvement of ancient Egypt in Sudan for which substantial evidence remains when the New Kingdom pharaohs Amenhotep I (1525-1505 BCE) and Thutmosis I (1505-1493 BCE) led military campaigns as far as the Fifth Cataract of the Nile with a view not only to securing Egypt’s southern borders but also to establishing a colonial administration in the country.

Ancient Egypt lacked wood, ivory, and gold, and these and other materials had to be sought abroad. A famous wall painting from the tomb of Huy at Luxor, viceroy of Egypt’s Kushite empire during the reign of the New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun, shows tribute being delivered to the pharaoh from his African territories, and a copy of this is included in the exhibition.

But while earlier Egyptian expeditions southwards had been largely intended to gather raw materials or secure the country’s southern borders, the New Kingdom invasions were more explicitly colonial. Egyptian garrisons and an Egyptian administration were established, and the country over time adopted Egypt’s religious and political institutions, even adopting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and not developing a separate script for the native language.

The exhibition includes statues and other objects attesting to these developments, but it perhaps only really comes into its own in its second section, which presents the modern rediscovery of the region in the early 19th century. In the decades following the French Expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, and particularly following the installation of the country’s outward-looking ruler Mohamed Ali, more and more European archaeologists and travelers visited Egypt. Many of them were tempted to cross the country’s southern borders, sometimes in search of the source of the Nile, and some of them brought back materials attesting to the civilisation of the ancient Kushite kings.

Among the most important of these early visitors was the splendidly named Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, later Linant Pasha, who, though a Frenchman, was recruited by wealthy English adventurer William Bankes to carry out an expedition to Sudan in search of Kushite monuments. Some of the drawings he returned with are on display in the exhibition, though most are so faded it can be difficult to make them out. Linant de Bellefonds later went on to become chief engineer of Egypt’s public works and a founder of the Suez Canal Company.

Easier to read are the records of a subsequent expedition, also on display in the exhibition, carried out by the Prussian explorer Karl Richard Lepsius in the early 1840s. This took in the monuments of both Egypt and Sudan and seems to have been carried out with extraordinary thoroughness. Lepsius visited Kushite sites in Sudan from the Second to the Sixth Cataracts of the Nile, travelling southwards as far as Khartoum. His Monuments of Egypt and Ethiopia, a 12-volume compendium of ancient Egyptian monuments, was published in 1849.

Subsequent sections of the exhibition look at major urban centres in Kushite Sudan, among them Kawa, Sanam, and Napata, along with what is known of the building programmes implemented by the Kushite pharaohs at Thebes and Memphis in Egypt. There is a reconstruction of what the Temple of Amun at Karnak might have looked like under Kushite rule along with stele found at the Serapeum at Saqqara recording the birth, death, and burial of the sacred bull that can be used to confirm the dates of the pharaohs’ rule.

The final sections of the exhibition take in the Assyrian invasions that ended Kushite rule in Egypt and the military expedition led by the 26th-Dynasty pharaoh Psamtik II against the Kushites in 592 BCE that caused Kushite king Aspelta to move the country’s political capital south to Meroe, a city near the Sixth Cataract of the Nile. This was the first major expedition since the 25th-Dynasty Kushite pharaoh Tantamani had been driven out of Egypt in 663 BCE, and the campaign was probably carried out to forestall any aspirations the Kushites might have had to reconquer Egypt.

The campaign is also important for the exhibition, first because it ushered in the development of an important new phase in Kushite civilisation based in Meroe and second because it led to the dismemberment and concealment in so-called “cachettes” of statues of the Kushite kings to prevent their destruction at the hands of the invading Egyptians. One such cachette, discovered at the site of Doukki Gel in 2003, contained 40 fragments of seven statues of Kushite kings, among them Taharqa and Tantamani. These have now been reconstructed and put on display at the Kerma Museum in Sudan, with the Louvre exhibition commissioning magnificent dark resin replicas of them.

An equally important result of the Egyptian military campaign was the transfer of the Kushite capital to Meroe and the flourishing there of further centuries of Kushite civilisation. This was the subject of an exhibition at the Louvre in 2010 and is perhaps best known for the Egyptian-style pyramids used to mark the graves of the Meroe kings. Similar pyramids were built earlier at the Al-Kurra and Nouri Necropolises near the previous capital of Napata, as the exhibition reveals, with the latter site containing some 50 royal pyramids including one originally more than 60 metres high.


* Pharaon des Deux Terres, l’épopée africaine des rois de Napata, Louvre, Paris, until 25 July.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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