artistic recreation of Assyrian and Nubian soldier
Around 750BC, the city of Napata (around 400 km of modern day Khartoum in Sudan) rose to prominence. The city was part of an ancient kingdom, named after the Egyptian word for gold—"nub"—hence Nubia. The inhabitants however had called it different names, the first of which was Ta-Seti, "Land of the Bow." At the height of Napata's power however, most called the kingdom Kash or Kush. During this time the Napatan rulers would extend their control beyond the land, conquering Egypt and declaring themselves rulers of a vast empire stretching almost the length of the Nile.
King Alara (785-760BC) is regarded as the founder of the Napatan royal dynasty, unifying all of Upper (Southern) Kash from Meroe to the Third Cataract. It was King Alara who established Napata as the religious capital of a rejuvenated Kash, which was throwing off centuries of Egyptian domination. As ruler, Alara embarked on several architectural projects at numerous sanctuaries including the construction of a temple at Kawa, and another at the holy site of Gebel Barkal—dedicated to the ram-headed god Amun/Amani. Alara would be remembered by later rulers of Kash, as "the unifier."
King Kashta would be the next in line to the throne. Inheriting the kingdom, he used his power to extend its power, launching an attack on Upper Egypt and demanding submission by its cities. Ruling from Napata, he exerted his influence—though not full control—over Upper Egypt by installing his daughter, Amenirdis I, as the God's Wife of Amun in the holy city of Waset (Thebes). A stela from his reign has been found in modern day Aswan, Southern Egypt, at the local temple dedicated to the God Khnum, attesting to his power and control.
King Piye would next inherit the throne of the Napatan dynasty, and set about extending the control of the kingdom far beyond his predecessors. Taking advantage of a disunited and squabbling Egypt, and an appeal for help from Upper Egypt, Piye assembled an army and marched north, conquering the cities of Henen-nesut and Men-Nefer among others, and receiving the submission of the kings of the Nile Delta. Satisfied with his triumph, Piye sailed back to Naptata, never to return to Egypt. Despite his successful military campaign, the Delta region remained troublesome, with rebellious rulers. It would be up to Piye's successor to rectify this matter.
King Shabaka, successor of Piye, who would consolidate the unification of Egypt and Kash
King Shabaka would take the throne in 721BC, consolidating his control over all of Egypt, from Kash in the south to as far as the Delta region in the north. Under his control Egypt saw an architectural and artistic renaissance. An enormous amount of building work took place throughout the kingdom, especially at the holy city of Waset (Thebes). The most famous item from Shabaka's reign that survives today is the Shabaka stone, which recorded several Old Kingdom documents that he, the king, ordered preserved. Today it is considered one of the most valuable resources on ancient Egyptian culture.
Shabaka's reign however was one of constant threats, emanating from the rising power in Western Asia—Assyria (modern day Iraq). Under Sargon II the Assyrian war machine had conquered much of the region, demanding submission by numerous smaller kingdoms. Shabaka would become embroiled in this political intrigue, by supporting rebellions and coups against the Assyrians. This meddling in Assyrian affairs would result in a lasting source of conflict between the two empires.
Following the reign of Shabaka, King Shebitku would take the throne. An able ruler, Shebitku responded to the Assyrian threat by first embarking upon a policy of conciliation. This policy was most profoundly seen in the formal extradition of Iamanni, a rebellious mid-east ruler who had found refuge in Egypt, back into the hands of Sargon II of Assyria. However, as the Assyrian threat intensified under a new king, Sennacherib, Shebitku set upon a policy of resistance.
bust of Napatan Pharaoh Shebitku
In the summer of 701 BC the city Jerusalem, capital of a small disunited mid-east kingdom once called Israel, sent out a plea for help, facing a siege from Assyria's massive armies. Shebitku would answer, sending out an army led by himself and his brother, Taharka, to defend the Jewish city. Though it is uncertain what actually occurred in the battle, Jerusalem was saved, Kash was victorious, and the Assyrian army turned and fled.
Biblical scholars have identified a Tirhakah (Taharka), king of Ethiopia (Kash), who waged war against the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9). Though the accounts are accredited to Taharka, probably then only a military commander in his brother's army, it was Shebiktu who was king at the time.
In 690BC, Shebitku died and was succeeded by his brother Taharka—who would be the last king to rule a fully unified Egypt and Kash. In line 15 of Kawa Stela V, Taharka states: "I received the Crown in Men-Nefter after the Falcon (Shebitku) flew to heaven." Typical of Napatan kings, they saw themselves as the rightful inheritors to ancient Egypt, and divine god-kings on Earth. To this end, the restoration of holy sites was a top priority. During Taharka's reign he set about rebuilding the temple at Kawa and other holy sites in Kash, as well as embarking upon a massive work at the temple of Karnak in Egypt.
It was during Taharka's reign that the Assyrian threat finally reached the strength to attack Egypt. Assyria under the king Esarhaddon led a military campaign against Taharka, invading Egypt around 674BC. Taharka responded to the attack, marshalling an army made up of fighters from Kash and Egypt. Through a series of battles, he defeated the Assyrians—then the most powerful military in the region—pushing them back to the mid-east and retaining his control over Egypt.
However, by 671 the Assyrians regrouped with a much larger force, and attacked again, this time using new iron weaponry which outmatched the bronze favored by Egypt and Kash. The Assyrians this time were victorious, taking Men-Nefer, and in a bitter blow to the king, capturing one of Taharka's wives and his children. Forced to retreat back to Kash, Taharka abandoned Egypt which fell under Assyria's rule. When the Assyrians began to pull out however, Taharka returned, rallying allies and capturing Egypt again. But his rule was brief as the Assyrians once again invaded Egypt in 667, driving further south, and threatening Kash itself.
Unable to mount an effective military response, Taharka retreated to Napata for good. From then on, Kash and Assyria engaged in a type of "cold war" over Egypt—with either side gaining the support of Egyptian princes, rulers, priests and military commanders. Little by little however, the Assyrians crushed those Egyptians who supported Taharaka—carrying out a murderous campaign against an insurrection plot led by allies of Kash. A successor, King Tanwetamani, would be the last Napatan ruler to attempt to retake Egypt militarily. His attempt was unsuccessful, and the Assyrians would place a hand-picked ruler on the Egyptian throne.
Mask of Queen Malakaye, Napatan Period, reign of Tanwetamani, 664-653BC
Napata's fate would be tied to Egypt again in 591BC, when a king Aspelta began forming an army in hopes of retaking the kingdom as his predecessors had done. Learning of this, the Egyptians under king Psammetikhos II, the dynasty whom the Assyrians had put on the throne, launched a pre-emptive attack, destroying Aspelta's army, sacking Napata, and setting it ablaze. Forever giving up on recapturing Egypt, Aspelta would move his kingdom south, to another city that would rise to power—Meroe, ushering in an age of temple and pyramid building throughout Southern Kash.
Though the powerful conquering kings of Napata would go into eclipse, Meroe would eventually be ruled by a series of warrior queens known as Kentakes—Queen Mothers—and enter into conflict with both the newly emerging Mediterranean states of Greece and Rome.
But that is another story....