The Kingdom of Kush, often generalized as Nubia, was an ancient civilization that flourished past the third and fourth cataracts of the Nile.
Often ignored for their more famous neighbors, the Egyptians, the ancient Kushites had a very unique and powerful culture of their own; and, during their height, the Kushites built pyramids, temples, and palaces in their capital of Nuri and (later) Meroe.
So how come there isn’t that much information on them?
For starters, the indigenous language of the Nubians is still undecipherable. Most information on the political and social climate of Kushite culture came from Egyptian texts and are merely supported by archaeological evidence.
Secondly, the interest in Nubia (while growing in attention) is overshadowed by the other ancient civilizations of that time such as Egypt. In-depth study of the archaeological sites didn’t even begin until the twentieth century, when an archaeologist named George Reisner, went on a government-funded expedition to uncover their secrets.
However, despite its seemingly forgotten importance today, the Kushites played a prominent role in the ancient world. They had many unique characteristics that supported other countries and set themselves apart from the rest. One of the most distinct factors of their civilization though was the role women played.
Unlike most ancient kingdoms, the Kushites gave women more political power. Many monarchs of Kush were Queens, and perhaps one of the most famous of these matriarchs was Queen Amanishakheto.
Queen Amanishakheto was a ruler during the Meoritic Period, and accomplished extraordinary tasks that legitimized her rule in a fundamentally patriarchal (male-ruled) society. Buried in the Northern Cemetery of Meroe, Amanishakheto was placed to rest in one of the largest pyramids in the compound. Due to grave robbers in the 1800s however, Amanishakheto’s tomb was dismantled and ultimately destroyed.
When an Italian physician, named Giuseppe Ferlini, arrived at his home town of Bologna with bags of gold and treasure, naturally he caused quite a stir. Skeptical questions of the artifacts origins soon arose, and other treasure-hunters wanted to know how they could get such riches themselves.
Responding to the public, Ferlini proclaimed that he found the treasure in a burial chamber after he and his men knocked off the top of one of the pyramids in Meroe. (Ferlini’s blatant disregard to architecture makes the historian in me cringe.)
However, Dows Dunham, an archaeologist that is renowned as the father of Merioitic Studies, came to the conclusion that Ferlini’s story was in fact false. Having excavated other Meroitic pyramids, Dunham knew that Nubians pyramids don’t have chambers inside them. They’re solid. The real burial chambers are underneath the pyramids, so it was highly unlikely that Ferlini found one while destroying the very upmost point.
The revelation that Ferlini lied came too late though as his fictitious tale spurred many treasure seekers to go to Meroe, and in turn, destroy the tops of most of the pyramids.
Many scholars believed that Ferlini lied so he could throw other fortune hunters off his trail and come back for more gold at a later date. However, despite the elaborate ruse, Ferlini never obtained the chance to return to Meroe, and the display of golden Nubian treasures were denounced as forgeries by people who did not know their true value.
Many thought the pieces were “Fake-Egyptian” frauds Ferlini came up with, but after the treasure exchanged hands a few times it was eventually given to the Berlin Museum and verified to be authentic.
What does this story have to do with Queen Amanishakheto? Well, if you haven’t guessed it yet- it was her tomb that Giuseppe Ferlini plundered.
The discovery of Queen Amanishakheto’s tomb was definitely a unconventional one. And, while there is still remorse that such a leading figure in Nubian history had their tomb plundered in such a way, Ferlini’s discovery also became a factor to George Reisner and Dows Dunham excavating the pyramid in 1921. In turn spurring the search for more knowledge of Nubian studies. 1
Life & Rule
To this day there is still little known about Amanishakheto, and most of what historians and archaeologists know is based on speculation and educated guesses. However, through evidence and careful examination, scholars have a clear idea of the basics.
After becoming the successor to Queen Amanirenas, Queen Amanishakheto ruled from 10 – 1 B.C.E. 2 During her years as the reigning kandake and qore (Nubian word for an independent ruling queen) Queen Amanishakheto became known for her military prowess, the temples she commissioned, and her palace in Wad ban Naqa.
With a such a courageous, strong-hearted ruler like Queen Amanirenas as her predecessor, Queen Amanishakheto certainly had a lot to live up to. She had to make sure the Romans stayed in line with the peace treaty they had signed under Amanirenas’ rule and yet move on to develop new accomplishments for her kingdom.
The woman certainty lived up to her expectations.
When the Romans got too out of hand, Amanishakheto led her armies in battle. With the ferocity of a lion, she helped keep the Romans at bay. And although, they had been pushed to their limits, Rome never obtained control of Kush. Evidence of her skills and power were scattered across her kingdom, such as a graven image of Amanishakheto smiting her enemies that is depicted on the side of a temple pylon (a monumental gateway) in Naqa. 3
Amanishakheto lived a glorious life in battle, but her life at Meroe was impressive as well. She was held with high prestige amongst her people and was surrounded by golden riches.
During the peaceful periods of her reign, the queen left a lasting impact on her kingdom. Not only did Amanishakheto build a plethora of temples at Wad ban Naqa, but she also had commissioned one of the main thing she’s known for: her palace.
The mud-brick palace (excavated in 1959 and 1960 4 ) was a very luxurious and exceptional innovation at the time, and was probably the biggest palace to have been built in Nubia. It held two floors that was suggested to have had an audience hall, lavish living quarters, and perhaps even an atrium. 5
The treasures found in her pyramid also indicated that she had a generous amount of wealth that she wasn’t afraid to spend. Her jewelry and crown still hold fascination to this day, and her land overflowed with gold and iron. Which is fitting as the word ‘Nubia’ translates as, “The Land of Gold.”
Amanishakheto was a fearless leader and is a role-model to every woman out there, that sometimes yes, a woman can indeed rule. And, we can rock at it too!
Until next time: Keep Calm and History On!
(Side Note) And to people like Giuseppe Ferlini, to quote Indiana Jones, “That belongs in a museum!”
1 Majorie Fisher, Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, (Cairo New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012), 48-51
2 Derek A. Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires, (Princeton, N.J: Markus Wiener, 1998), 208.
3 Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, 182-183
4 The Kingdom of Kush: Naptan and Meroitic Empires, 186.
5 Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, 182, 244.
Bob Brier, The Other Pyramids, (Archaeology, Vol. 55, No. 5 September/October 2002), 54-58.
Title Picture Source: The pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto (Beg. N 6) in 1821. From F. Cailliaud, Voyage a Meroe (Paris, 1823-27) pl. XLI.