The kingdom of Kush (Meroe) represents one of a series of early states located within the Middle Nile. At its greatest extent controlling more than 1,000 km. of the Nile valley from northern Lower Nubia to Sennar on the Blue Nile, its scale, longevity and cultural achievements are remarkable (Fig. 1). While its origins in the early millennium b.c. and its demise around the fourth century a.d. still remain obscure, it is one of the earliest and most impressive states yet found south of the Sahara. This notwithstanding, the place of the Kushite state and its civilization within the history of sub-Saharan Africa remains far from clear.
The early development of complex societies in the Middle Nile within the frontiers of the modern republic of Sudan raises many questions concerning the role of external influences and cultural contacts on the region. The ever present shadow of Pharaonic Egypt looms large in most studies, and very close links are still maintained between Meroitic (and Nubian) studies and Egyptology. One result of the undoubted Egyptocentrism which has for so long dominated research in the region has been the neglect of many research areas likely to be of interest to archaeologists and historians working elsewhere in Africa. The political structuring and organisation of power within the Kushite state still remain little studied, while little interest has been shown in trying to contextualize it, either in relation to later kingdoms of the Middle Nile or indeed in the history of state development in Sudanic Africa as a whole. All too often it seems still implied, if not explicitly stated, that the early development of social/political complexity in the region, with the rise of Kerma, Napata and Meroe and their attendant cultural achievements, may be largely explained by, and understood in terms of, Egyptian models: ‘secondary states’ on the margins of a great civilization, unique within, and effectively unconnected with, other regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
The concern of this paper is briefly to reassess a number of questions concerning our perceptions of the Kushite state, which also have implications for our understanding of the long-term history of early states within the Middle Nile and their relation to other parts of Sudanic Africa.
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