Situated along the Great Bend of the Nile River in northern Africa, Nubia served as the gateway between the Red Sea and the Nile Delta—a locus of trade that could have spanned from the source of the Nile River to its mouth in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for Nubia, the Egyptians directly to Nubia’s north had other ideas. The two civilizations would exchange roles as wary neighbor, conqueror, and vassal for millennia, until a series of invaders from distant lands permanently ended their rivalry.
The earliest Nubian civilization began in what is today Sudan. The city-state of Kerma was located in a fertile basin just south of the Nile's Third Cataract. Kerma's ideal position beside the Nile made it a center of trade as accessible by land as it was by water. The discovery and exploitation of extensive mineral wealth such as ebony and gold cemented Kerma's ascension. With trade came wealth, and that led to raids from those who wanted wealth but were not entirely convinced that trade was the way to get it.
Kerma fortified its city and its routes, slowly extending its influence along the Nile until its allied villages, forts, and trading posts stretched nearly 800 miles (1287 km)—roughly the distance between the First through Fifth Cataracts. At that time, they were a match for Egypt in size and influence.
Very little of Kerma has survived since the Second Millennium BCE. If its people had a written language, it was long since lost. Most records of the kingdom exist in Egyptian texts—notably, of various minor conflicts with their Nubian neighbors. They described Kerma as a highly centralized state, but managing extensive territory without a written language is a daunting task.
Despite the constant conflict between neighboring kingdoms, Egypt called Nubia "the Land of the Bow” after the formidable Nubian archers who formed the bulk of Kerma's forces. To understand how strong an impression these warriors left upon their opponents, one Egyptian fort subsequently built in Nubian territory was called “Warding Off the Bows”—both proclamation and aspiration.
Kerma's strength reached its height in 1580 BCE, but an ill-fated alliance with the Hyksos led to its eventual downfall. The Hyksos were invaders from the east who seized portions of Egypt in the middle of the 17th Century BCE but found great difficulty with a rebellious populace and a surviving Egyptian dynasty based in Thebes. Kerma sought to carve up what remained, crushing Egypt once and for all.
It almost worked. For thirty years Kerma cut deep into Egyptian territory, taking religious and cultural artifacts for themselves, until Egypt finally overthrew and expelled their Hyksos overlords. So extensive and painful was Kerma's invasion that the Egyptians subsequently purged all records of it, along with any mention of the Hyksos "15th Dynasty." What they could not do was erase the accumulated Egyptian treasure in Kerma.
Still, the pharaohs remembered their humiliation. Thutmosis I repaid it a century later when he captured the city of Kerma. His successor Thutmosis III pushed even further into Nubian territory, eventually proclaiming the mountain of Jebel Barkal and the nearby city of Napata the new southern border of Egypt.
Nubia spent roughly four centuries under Egyptian rule. There were many rebellions, of course, but as time passed Nubian and Egyptian cultures intermingled. Kerma faded and the loyal province of Nubia eventually became the source of Egypt's gold, its route to the Red Sea, and its archers—now feared by Egypt's enemies.
By the 10th Century BCE, Egypt's focus on Mediterranean affairs (and the subsequent collapse of Egypt’s New Kingdom) left Nubia to its own affairs. Slowly, over the next few centuries, the Kingdom of Kush rose to prominence when Libyan princes subjugated an overextended Egypt.
In a strange twist of fate, the Kushite King Piye proclaimed divine mandate by the god Amun—an Egyptian god whose temple at Jebel Barkal was constructed by Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III—to liberate Lower Egypt from its Libyan interlopers. And with that, the Nubian king seized control of the Nile Delta, formed the 25th Dynasty, and sought to restore Egypt to its former glory.
For a time, it did. Piye and his successors made it a priority to rebuild the monuments, temples, and public works that had long since languished under foreign control. This revitalization of Egyptian culture was the 25th Dynasty’s greatest accomplishment—but not a lasting one.
No matter how small the wasp’s nest, it is rarely a good idea to give it a swift kick. This lesson was lost on multiple pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty who sought to extend their influence into the Near East. This put them in conflict with the powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire who considered the Near East its vassals. (Piye’s support of Canaan’s rebellion against their Neo-Assyrian overlords did not help matters.) Neo-Assyria’s King Esarhaddon made his position abundantly clear when he invaded Egypt in 674 BCE. In three short years, the invaders had deposed the 25th Dynasty, permanently ending Nubia’s flirtations with empire.
Nubia’s withdrawal from Egypt ultimately worked out in their favor—after Neo-Assyria’s example, other Mediterranean powers would find Egypt a tempting candidate for vassal. A prudent relocation of Nubia’s capital from Napata to the more distant Meroe provided access to the Greek traders on the Red Sea, then far more lucrative than trade along the Nile. It also discouraged invasion from the north—neither Persia, Macedon, nor Ptolemaic Egypt made any serious effort to extend into the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush.
Then, in 25 BCE, Nubia fell afoul of Rome. The Roman general Petronius repeatedly clashed with Nubia’s one-eyed Kandake (or “queen”) Amanirenas. After Roman forces sacked Napata and razed the Temple of Amun to the ground, Amanirenas’s resistance was ferocious enough to convince Petronius that peace was more favorable than conquest. Augustus Caesar signed a peace treaty with Kush that was surprisingly favorable to Nubia, treating them as a friendly protectorate rather than a former belligerent.
Following this period of Roman destruction came the dawn of the Meroitic builders, begun in 1 BCE by Kandake Amanitore (her story is detailed elsewhere). This time of rebuilding ended when the Beja dynasty to their northeast captured Meroe in the 1st Century. Despite attempts by the Beja to expand Nubia, internal rebellion and conflict with the Kingdom of Aksum led to their eventual and permanent conquest.