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Reviews of The Kingdom of Kush

“The ancient African kingdom of Kush was one of antiquity’s most expansive empires. Welsby provides a detailed account of its rise and fall. He is an active field researcher in the Sudan and an authority on the subject. The material he presents is primarily archaeological but also contains evidence from classical sources. Although the majority of this evidence represents the remains of projects left behind by the royal classes, the author makes a strong effort to provide insights into the lives of ordinary people. Sections on urbanism include descriptions of rural settlement, and those on religion offer discussions of popular religion, for example. The book also contextualizes Kush ‘on the World Stage’ and its relations with its Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman contemporaries. The book is beautifully illustrated …” — Choice

“The kingdom of Kush is often referred to in discussions of ancient Africa, Egypt, and even biblical Israel, but there are few easily accessible sources for information on the topic. This volume intends to provide a balanced account of the history of the kingdom of Kush and succeeds admirably. The author is honest about the paucity of evidence, the problems with the existing evidence, and the nature of the biases involved in attempting to write such a history. … This volume is useful for scholars and students of ancient Africa and the Near East who need information on Kush.” — Religious Studies Review

“When people think of an ancient African civilization, Egypt usually comes to mind. That reaction is understandable. Even the ancients were fascinated by Egypt’s great dynasties, her towering monuments and her immensely long history that reached back into the mists of time. This enthusiasm for pharaohs and pyramids, however, has obscured the fact that Egypt shared ancient northeast Africa with two other civilizations: Kush (also known as Nubia) and Aksum (an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea). The recovery of these civilizations has been one of the great triumphs of 20th-century archaeology.

“Traditionally, the southern boundary of Upper Egypt was Elephantine, an island in the Nile about 450 miles south of Cairo. South of Elephantine, along the Nile Valley extending well into modern Sudan, lay Kush/Nubia, a region that was dominated by several states from the third millennium [B.C.E.] to the fourth century [C.E.]. The Kushite kingdoms were the earliest civilized states in the interior of Africa. Few in the West knew anything about them until 1772, when the great Scottish explorer James Bruce identified the remains of Meroë, the last of the Kushite capitals. Soon some of the greatest archaeologists and Egyptologists were attracted to the region, including the German scholar Karl Richard Lepsius in the 1840s and the American archaeologist George Reisner in the early 20th century. Then, in the 1960s, Kush received worldwide attention; a dam built near Elephantine at Aswan flooded a southern stretch of the Nile and created Lake Nasser. As the waters rose, about 100,000 people had to be relocated, and the United Nations organized the largest archaeological salvage campaign in history, recovering numerous ancient Kushite monuments and even removing entire temples, block by block, to safer ground.

“The scholarly literature on Kush is immense, but until now the general reader has had no access to convenient and up-to-date summaries of the archaeology and history of this ancient civilization. Derek Welsby’s The Kingdom of Kush and Jocelyn Gohary’s Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser, therefore, deserve a warm welcome.

“Derek Welsby, who oversees the Sudanese collections of the British Museum and has excavated extensively in the Sudan, tells this epic story with clarity and enthusiasm. He highlights the contributions of the Kushite/Nubian 25th Dynasty, particularly its fusion of Egyptian and Kushite religious beliefs and the development of distinctively Kushite architecture and artistic styles. The Kushite pharaohs Piye (747–716 [B.C.E.]) and his brother Shabaqo (716–702 [B.C.E]), for example, built or renovated numerous temples, both in Kush and in the sacred Egyptian cities of Memphis and Thebes. On a large basalt slab (now in the British Museum), Shabaqo inscribed a text describing the Memphite god Ptah’s creation of the world, a text Shabaqo claimed to have copied from an ancient religious document he found at Memphis. Perhaps the greatest Kushite pharaoh, Taharqo (690–664 [B.C.E.]), who is mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), encouraged his artists to model their work on the masters of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2575–2134 [B.C.E.]) and Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040–1640 [B.C.E.]).

“The only failing of The Kingdom of Kush is that Welsby gives the Meroitic period, when Kush was smaller than it was during the 25th Dynasty, but nonetheless a substantial kingdom, somewhat short shrift. But this flaw is more than compensated for by Welsby’s vivid, up-to-date and highly readable account of the history, social institutions and cultural life of the oldest civilized state in sub-Saharan Africa. If you have to pick one book, make it The Kingdom of Kush.” — Archaeology Odyssey

“Students and teachers who want to sense the full grandeur of Kush … need … a reliable, up-to-date guide to the archaeological evidence. This purpose is well served by Derek A. Welsby’s Kingdom of Kush, originally published in 1996, now in 1998 appearing in its first American edition … The archaeological remains are indigenous silent testimonies to a culture that flourished in its own right for well over a thousand years. Welsby’s book presents the archaeological evidence extensively in illustrations and plates; many of them, especially site photographs, are based on original photos by the author. The landscape backgrounds are hauntingly bleak. Welsby’s early and concluding chapters (1–3, 9) trace the rise, greatness, and ‘fall’ of the Kushite kingdom in great detail and with frequent reference to points of scholarly disagreement. The beginnings of the Kushite state are set in the ninth century B.C.E., as evidenced by the royal burials excavated by George Reisner at El-Kurru in 1918. The ‘heyday’ of the Kushite state essentially alludes to the time when Kush was on ‘the world stage,’ its kings ruling Kush and Egypt as the latter’s [25th] Dynasty, ca. 747–656 B.C.E. Welsby is disinclined to see the Kushite state as having ‘fallen.’ He is rather inclined, despite some evidence for military defeat in the fourth century C.E., to see a continuity in Kushite history and a melding of antiquity into the middle ages with the conversion of Kush to Christianity in the late sixth century.

“The book’s middle chapters (5–8) treat a variety of topics: Religion and Funerary Ritual (Chapter 4), Architecture (5), Urban and Rural Settlement (6), the Economy (7), and the Arts and the Art of Writing (8). They rely heavily on architectural remains and plans and on [artifacts] excavated in temples, palaces, towns, and cemeteries. Prominent are Kushite pyramids and tombs (and their grave goods), inscribed stelae, statues, reliefs, skeletons, and pots. Also to be found are such objects of daily life as clothing, musical instruments, toys, and cosmetics.

“The aim of all this is to ‘provide a balanced account of the history of the Kingdom of Kush and the lifestyle of its inhabitants throughout its thousand-year history’ (p. 8). In this The Kingdom of Kush admirably succeeds … In its format and in its lavish illustrations (including twelve beautiful color plates), the book seems aimed at a popular audience, but a fairly dry writing style and an apparent aim to be comprehensive rather than selective perhaps points to a more specialized readership. The chapter on architecture, covering especially tumuli, pyramids, temples, and palaces, is particularly detailed and seems to presume the reader’s familiarity with some technical architectural terminology and, as with other chapters, with the archaeological shorthand for Kushite site and building identifications. Other problems for the reader have nothing to do with the book, but rather with the very enterprise of attempting a full description of a civilization whose accessible written evidence is so limited.

“The lack of evidence leads to frequent surmise and speculation, all verbally cued or frankly indicated, and to a reliance on the modern geography and ethnography of the Sudan for structural filling. … In these circumstances, it is hard not to agree with the author that (p. 9) ‘[s]tudying the Kingdom of Kush is like a detective story’ full of ‘intriguing problems’ for the historian and for the archaeologist. At the end of that story, Welsby’s linking of the decline of Kush with ‘[t]he increasing poverty of Roman Egypt’ (p. 204) is a view now open to debate (see Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton, 1993); but there is no doubt that the conversion of Nubia to Christianity in the late sixth century ushered in a new era, providing an appropriate terminus for the history of ancient Kush and a beginning for that of medieval Nubia.” — Classical Bulletin