Kush: Lost Kingdom of the Nile

Brock­ton Art Muse­um / Brockton

(Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Art New England, 2 Sec­tions, Vol­ume III Num­ber 1, Decem­ber 1981.)

Kush was a king­dom that flour­ished for near­ly a thou­sand years in the area now called the Sudan, con­nect­ed by the Nile through a vast expanse of desert to Egypt. Con­quered by the Pharaohs of the New King­dom, the Kushites adapt­ed the forms of Egypt­ian cul­ture to those of Cen­tral Africa. Their ani­ma­tion, pow­er­ful aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, and stan­dards of human phys­i­cal beau­ty trans­fig­ured the con­fig­u­ra­tions of Egypt­ian art. Kush briefly con­quered Egypt in 800 B.C.; the black kings of Kush were Egypt’s twen­ty-fifth dynasty, called Ethiopi­an. Expelled by the Assyr­i­ans, they per­pet­u­at­ed in iso­la­tion cus­toms and forms that dis­ap­peared from Egypt until Kish itself was over­run by desert tribes around A.D 350. Their elab­o­rate graves, trans­po­si­tions of Egypt­ian funer­ary rites, were robbed dur­ing antiq­ui­ty; only splin­ters of their civ­i­liza­tion remain. These frag­ments, seen on exhib­it in Brock­ton, were dis­cov­ered by an expe­di­tion sent by the Muse­um of Fine Arts Boston in 916 to the pyra­mid fields near ancient Kush capitals.

Glean­ings from the eleventh-cen­tu­ry B.C. necrop­o­lis, El-Kur­ru, include pieces of black-paint­ed blue faience, cer­e­mo­ni­al arrow­heads, and sev­er­al group­ings of Red Sea shells and stones of many dif­fer­ent types all found, pol­ished or carved into the same sizes and shapes, from the pyra­mid tomb of Queen Khen­sa. An inscrip­tion describes her as:

“great of charm, great of praise, pos­ses­sor of grace, sweet of love.”

A gild­ed sil­ver plume hold­er in the shape of a bird emerg­ing from a papyrus flower came from the graves of hors­es that were buried draped in bead nets and hunt with cowrie shells, amulets, and sil­ver col­lars. A feel­ing for ani­mals sees to have found form in ani­mat­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tions of a tiny, alert bronze lion, a smooth, round, alabaster carv­ing of a bound oryx that recalls Bran­cusi’s abstrac­tions, and oth­er beasts.

A sev­enth-cen­tu­ry B.C. shawabti of King Tahar­qo is sen­si­tive­ly carved from smooth black and brown speck­led gran­ite. The noble, calm expres­sion of his strong African fea­tures and large, rest­ful hands human­izes the abstract cylin­der of his hiero­glyph­ic-cov­ered body. A sand­stone relief of three men play­ing a board game from the tomb of King Ara­matelq is lyri­cal­ly carved in sim­ple, expres­sive lines that bring Matisse’s wood­cuts to mind.

A bronze quiver with arrows and bells and jew­el­ry of car­nelian, alabaster, glass beads, and gold from Meroe in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry A.D. are visu­al­ly among the most com­plete­ly African pieces. Carv­ings on sand­stone mason­ry from that necrop­o­lis show a Meri­ot­ic queen on a lion throne, wear­ing ear­rings and sur­round­ed by female atten­dants in Egypt­ian pos­es. This frag­ment has an imme­di­ate phys­i­cal pres­ence that moves us to feel the dra­ma of the pas­sion of Kush for Egypt and to suf­fer for the loss of their kingdom.

Kush: Lost King­dom of the Nile is a small but pro­found med­i­ta­tion on Art, Time, and the ancient river.

by Rebec­ca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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