Ask most people to name the most famous ancient civilization in African history and they will be quick to answer with Egypt. But to understand ancient Egyptian civilization as a long, unbroken line of Pharaohs ruling the banks of the Nile for millennia is a mistake.
Aside from anything else, there were three periods where Egypt can truly be considered a united kingdom, known as the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Between these kingdoms can be found centuries of infighting and confusion known as the Intermediate Periods.
Even the three great kingdoms of Egypt did not enjoy total control over the Nile. The Middle Kingdom, in particular, faced significant competition from a southern neighbor, one who outlasted this line of Pharaohs: Kerma.
Named for their capital city, the Kerma culture was located in modern day Sudan, arising some 5,500 years ago. These were not some desert rabble troubling Egyptian frontier towns: Kerma is one of the largest archaeological sites in ancient Nubia.
There has been a plethora of excavations and research around the area, resulting in the discoveries of various tombs, graves, and the residential quarters of the main city. More recent discoveries of other Kerma settlements show this civilization, at its height, was at least the size of ancient Egypt.
Kerma, the most powerful of all Nubian states, controlled over 200 miles (322 km) of the upper Nile, from the 2nd cataract to beyond the 4th cataract. Their great capital, with a huge temple at its heart, saw an outpouring of cultural artifacts which could rival anything produced by Egypt at that time.
The Origin of Kerma Culture
Before the rise of the Kerma, this region was ruled by the kingdom of Naqada. The Naqada kings, precursors to the first Egyptian pharaohs, harbored ambitions to conquer Nubia and rule over the entire length of the Nile.
In this they were broadly successful, founding the Egyptian Old Kingdom and controlling much of the Nile until around 2,400 BC. But with the fall of the Old Kingdom control over the southern section of the Nile was weakened, and then lost.
Much of the records relating to the periods between the great Egyptian kingdoms is fragmentary, but it seems that the Kerma moved into the abandoned sections of the upper (southern) Nile. By the time Egypt had stabilized in 2,000 BC, they faced a powerful southern rival.
Faced with the reality of the situation, the Pharaohs of the new united Egypt had to accept Kerma as their neighbor. Trade links were established and cultural goods, in particular ornaments and jewelry in blue faience, poured out of Kerma along the length of the Nile.
But the memory of their lost lands was never forgotten by the Egyptians, and they saw the lands to the south as occupied territory which was rightfully theirs. The Kermites were not just peaceful neighbors, but dangerous rivals.
Border clashes were not infrequent, but both sides avoided pitched battles, each fearful of the other’s power. Neither the Kermites nor Egyptians could make significant inroads into the other’s territory.
Kerma and the Hyksos
The Kerma, with its trade routes and access to the resources of sub-Saharan Africa, experienced a cultural boom during this period. But the threat of an aggressive Egypt was a constant presence to the north. Luckily, they had a plan.
The Middle Kingdom of Egypt was also the shortest-lived of the three golden ages of Egypt, coming to an end around 1,800 BC. In the decades and centuries that followed, Egypt was weakened by dynastic infighting, and the Kerma sought to take advantage.
In doing so, they allied themselves with a people who were alien to Egypt but who rose to become the strangest dynasty in Egyptian history, the Hyksos. In 1,650 BC, Kerma proposed this alliance with the Hyksos, surrounding Egypt with enemies.
The Hyksos and Kerma were triumphant and for the first time, Egypt was ruled by foreign pharaohs. While the Hyksos ruled the Nile delta and the northern part of Egypt from their new capital at Avaris, the Kerma Kingdom took all of the southern Nile for themselves.
The authority of the leftover and independent Egyptian kings was crippled, minimized to a small territory around their previous capital of Thebes. The people of Upper Egypt accepted the control of the Kermites without any obstruction, ushering in a golden era for the Kingdom of Kerma.
The Control Imposed by the Kerma Kingdom
For such a great civilization, it is strange that nearly no internal records survive to tell us about these people. Much of what is known of Kerma comes from the Egyptian records, who identify the Kermites as Nubians. It seems like the Kerma culture was primarily rural and only a limited amount of the population lived in the city.
The most visible archeology that survives of the Kerma people and their culture are the deffufas. These are huge mud-brick structures that are used as funerary chapels and temples, and show a degree of sophistication in their design: the mud-brick construction makes the interior of these deffufas cool despite the Nubian sun.
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The walls of these deffufas were decorated and tiled with clear paintings, and some of them also had inlays of gold leaf. The largest, the huge temple in the center of the city of Kerma, was named the Western Deffufa. The royal burials which are associated with this site indicate the complex social hierarchy which was in place.
By the time of 1,700BC, the city of Kerma’s population had increased from 2,000 to 10,000. Their artifacts were different in terms of composition and theme than the ones in Egypt, showing exceptional skill in the working of blue faience.
The uniqueness of the designs show that the Kerma people developed new techniques for working upon artifacts without the influence of Egypt. Kerma artifacts demonstrate architectural inlays and glazed quartzite, techniques developed in isolation and not found elsewhere along the Nile.
The Kermites, with their fearsome archers, were also great warriors. However here a problem is encountered: most of the Kermite military victories were at the expense of the Egyptians. And so, although we know from artifacts looted from Egypt that the Kermites were successful in their invasions, the Egyptian record is suspiciously quiet on the matter.
The Three Phases of the Kingdom of Kerma
The Kerma kingdom can be conveniently divided into three phases, known as Early Kerma, Middle Kerma, and Classic Kerma. The Early or Ancient Kerma was from around 2,500 BC to 2,050 BC, and very little is known about this period.
Middle Kerma was from around 2,050 BC to 1,750 BC, during which Kerma was the great rival to the Egyptian south. And the Classic Kerma, their golden age following the Hyksos conquest of Egypt, existed from around 1,750 BC to 1,500 BC.
During this final period of Kerma, the rulers managed to successfully take control of the Egyptian fortresses and the gold mines in the 2nd cataract of the southern Nile. The kingdom then kept expanding into Egyptian territory until finally, in 1,500 BC, they met their match in Pharaoh Thutmose I.
Thutmose was the third Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, the first dynasty of the last and greatest of the Egyptian unified kingdoms: The New Kingdom. Leading a revitalized and powerful Egyptian army south, he entered Kerma territory and destroyed their kingdom, taking it for his own. Egypt had recovered her lost lands and the Kermites, Egyptian rivals for centuries, were no more.
But the Kermites did not capitulate quietly. For two hundred years the Egyptians faced rebellions from these proud people, who refused to allow their culture to be absorbed into their great northern neighbor.
The Kermites were eventually extinguished, but their successors lived on in the region, known as the Kush. And the Kushites, centuries later, would rise to rule Egypt as the Pharaohs of the 25th dynasty, ensuring the Kermites were never forgotten.
Top Image: The great Western Deffufa of the city of Kerma. Source: Walter Callens / CC BY 2.0.
By Bipin Dimiri