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The Kingdom of Kerma (2500-1500 BC)

The Kingdom of Kerma was an ancient civilization that existed between 2500 BC and 1500 BC, with its capital at the city of Kerma. It was located in the heart of Sudanese Nubia and is the first provable sub Saharan kingdom to have existed. The Kingdom of Kerma is thought to have existed without a writing system and so all information about this kingdom comes either from archeological proof or sources from Egypt.

Later the kingdom began to be referred as Kerma, and its inhabitants were renowned for being talented warriors and archers. The major occupations of the kingdom included trade, tending livestock, hunting, and fishing. The Kingdom of Kerma existed in three distinct phases – Ancient / Early Kerma (around 2500 BC – 2050 BC), Middle Kerma (around 2050 BC – 1750 BC) and Classic Kerma (around 1750 BC – 1500 BC). Classic Kerma was the golden age of the kingdom. It was during this period that its rulers successfully took control of Egyptian fortresses and gold mines in the Second cataract. The kingdom kept on attacking and capturing Egyptian territories until around 1500 BC Thutmose I attacked Kerma itself and annexed the kingdom into the Egyptian Empire.

kerma - capture egyptian mines
Distribution of gold in the Sudanese Eastern Desert.  Shadowed areas mark the main gold-bearing regions. Triangle – Kermite assemblage, Green lozenges – Eastern Sudan assemblage, Square – Middle Nubian assemblage and Rounded symbols – Pan-grave assemblage. An assemblage is an archaeological term for a group of artefacts that can be grouped by context. (source)

The Nubian name for Kerma is Doki which means Red Hill. The city of Kerma itself has been inhabited for 9,500 years. Kerma was ruled by a mixture of a lineage-based elite and priests. The cultural ties between Kerma and Egypt is similar to two regional states within one people.

Origin and Rise to Power

The Kingdom of Kerma, was one of the earliest urban centers in the Nile region. This region had been inhabited from as far back as 5,000 BC, mainly by small fishing villages and trade centres. There is archaeological evidence of a unified culture and kingdom emerging from a conglomeration of these small villages and the proto-Kerma (pre-dynastic) A-Group Culture of 3,800-3,100 BC. This culture and its kingdom was known as the Naqada kingdom. Around the turn of the proto-dynastic period, Naqada, in its bid to conquer and unify the whole Nile valley, seems to have conquered Nubia.

This created a unified kingdom surrounding the area of Nubia. After the fall of the Naqada kingdom in 2700 BC, the Kerma culture took over the area of Nubia, with Kermites spreading out from the city of Kerma. Eventually this culture was the dominant one in the area, and led to the creation of the The Kingdom of Kerma around 2500 BC with the entirety of the area of Nubia under their control.

At this time their northern neighbours, the Egyptians were flourishing as well, and that opened up both trade opportunities, and rivalries in terms of territories for the Kermites. They kept clashing with each other but there were no significant inroads made by either.

After centuries of expanding away from Egypt, the Hyksos invasion of Lower Egypt, around 1786 BC, gave the Kermites an opportunity to extend northward. Hyksos comes from heqa-khase, a phrase meaning “rulers of foreign lands”.

In 1650 BC, Kerma made an alliance with the Hyksos which enabled them to almost double their strength. While the Hyksos ruled Lower Egypt, the Kermites controlled Upper Egypt. The authority of independent Egyptian kings was thus constrained to a little territory around Thebes. The population of Upper Egypt, on the other hand, appeared to have acknowledged the control of Kerma without obstruction. This launched the Kingdom of Kerma into its golden age, wherein it reached the peak of its wealth and power.

kerma - 2000-1800 bce (middle kingdom) Ax00033
Having eliminated the rival dynasty at Hierakonpolis, the Theban pharaoh, Montjuhotep II, installed a garrison fortress at Abu, where he could monitor desert trading routes and create a springboard to assault an increasingly disaffected Lower Nubia, successfully annexing the region around Buhen. By c. 1872 BCE, Egypt had lost control over Wawat, precipitating a brutal assault by Amenhotep I and his co-ruler Senusret I. Nubian independence was extinguished and many conscripted into slavery. Having annexed Nubia beyond the second cataract, Senusret I embarked on a prolific fort-building programme, concentrated around Buhen and Kor. Senusret III, worried about the rebellious Kush region, established more forts and a new border between Mirgissa and Semna. Trading centres were also established along the Nile, with massive forts not only providing a display of military strength and defensive capability, but also protecting the Nile trade in gold, copper and precious metals extracted from the Nubian mines.

Areas Under Rule and Administration

In the Kingdom of Kerma’s most prosperous phase, from about 1700–1500 BCE, it absorbed the Sudanese kingdom of Sai and became a sizeable, populous empire rivalling Egypt. This Kingdom covered wide swathes of the great Nile river, covering all of Nubia and Egypt, barring the areas around the city of Thebes, where the Egyptian Pharaohs still held power.

kerma - 1700-1500 bce
The expanse of the Kingdom of Kerma ( source)

The Kermite Empire was divided into provinces run by a pesto (governor). The pesto had subordinates who served specialized functions. Nubian queens were co-rulers with pharaohs. In some cases, they ruled alone.

Kermite kings worshipped Amun, who was also a key deity to Egyptians. Amun was the god of the sun, and only one of the many in the Egyptian Pantheon. However, Kerma were believers in a single god, and hence had banned the public worship of any other religion or major god in their territory. This excluded the local gods, which were considered minor deities under Amun. Kermite temples for Amun were similar to Egyptian temples, but temples for local gods were constructed differently.

Kerma and Archaeology

Kerma is known among archaeologists for the unique architecture of its metropolis, which reflects an exceptionally high degree of urban organization. The city had its own expanded harbour quarter facing the Nile, thick fortification walls and bastions, royal residence and cemeteries, religious buildings, storehouses, and bakeries.

Moreover, the archaeology of the city indicated that the political structure of the kingdom was more complex than the monocratic political system of ancient Egypt. The archaeology of the cemeteries indicates that magnificent and pompous burials weren’t just reserved for the ruling class, but was made available to all elites, merchants, and anyone with the finances to bear its costs.

kerma - main city
Plan of the central city of Kerma, as revealed by excavations completed by Charles Bonnet in 1994. (1) the Lower Deffufa, (2) its temple complex, (3) the round hall, (4) the later palace, (5) its associated warehouse, (6) a group of small shrines, (7) residential areas, (8) exposed parts of the defensive wall, and (9) deep defensive ditches. Source: Timothy Kendall, Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 bC: The Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Nubian Empire. Washington, Dc: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1996, p. 47.
kerma - Maquette of the classical Kerma.
Maquette of the classical Kerma
kerma - city harbour
Located near the western gate of the city and the royal quarter of Kerma city is a harbour with various structure (a) one of two “presumed” storerooms with a row of parallel rooms and a courtyard within a caravanserai (b) Temple with pylon (c) a fortified storage and administrative building (source)

Achievements

Kerma’s monuments

Among the monumental works believed to have been built during this time is called the Deffufa. The word ‘deffufa’ is either derived from the Nubian term for a mud-brick building or from the Arabic word ‘daffa’, meaning ‘mass’ or ‘pile’. There are three known deffufas, i.e. the western deffufa, the eastern deffufa, and a third lesser-known deffufa.

                                                                           

Kerma - Western_Deffufa
The Western Deffufa (source)
kerma - capital www.kerma.ch
Model of Kerma city with Deffufa (white building) (source)

Trade

The Kingdom of Kerma had a very advantageous position when it came to trade in Central Africa. They were situated at the heart of the trade route from western to eastern Africa, and also were the primary controllers of the trade route from central Africa to the Mediterranean. This meant that they were able to exact heavy taxes and tolls from all trade across these routes. This advantageous position in trade is a direct cause for the wealth of the Kerma.

Military

Nubia was known as the land of the bow. Kermite soldiers were expert archers, often lending their services out to train and educate other kingdoms’ armies as well. Their bows were about six feet in length, usually made with palm fiber stretched across different kinds of wood. The arrows were short, fletched with eagle and goose feather, given steel tips. Often the archers also carried a dedicated quiver with poison tipped arrows. The other Kermite weapons were the spear, pike and the Khopesh sword. While the Kermites were expert archers and bow makers, their melee weapons may have been imported. The Kermite military is also credited with the first use of elephants in active combat in warfare, as earlier elephants were only used for transport. They also trained war elephants for export to Egypt.

Decline

The Kingdom of Kerma had reached its peak by allying itself with the Hyksos, and using this alliance to attack and annex large parts of the Egyptian Empire. However, the Kermite forces had chosen to not occupy the region, and instead had just looted it and kept it as a tributary. This would prove to be their undoing as in 1532 BC, Ahmose too over the rule as the Pharaoh. He was a brilliant strategist and military leader and under him the Egyptian military flourished again. They eventually launched campaigns to retake the lands that had been lost to Hyksos and Kermites. In 1548 BC they went to war with the main Hyksos forces and won.

After the Egyptian pharaoh Ahmose vanquished the Hyksos in 1550 BC, he directed his concentration toward Kerma. Ahmose needed to overcome Kerma with the goal for him to guarantee power over Upper Egypt. The war with the Kermites went on for a long time, with wins and losses on both the sides.

Persistent invasions of nomadic groups in the peripheries of Kerma debilitated the Kermite kingdom. By 1500 BC, the Kermites were overpowered and were crushed by the attacking Egyptian armed forces under the Pharaoh Thutmose I.

The territories and people of the kingdom were annexed and absorbed into the Egyptian Empire, and that signalled the end of the Kingdom of Kerma.

kerma - 1500 bce Ax01095

The people of Kerma would in future reconquer Egypt to become the 25th dynasty Pharoahs.

References

Török,László(1997). The kingdom of Kerma: handbook of the Napatan-Meriotic civilization, Part 1, Volume 31. Brill

A. Lobban Jr. Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. (Scarecrow P, 2003).

L. Haynes. Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa. (Acme Printing Company, 1992).

Hirst, K. K., 2015. Kerma – Ancient African Capital, Opponent to Egyptian Pharaohs.

Omer, I., 2004. The Kush Kingdom at Kerma.

Omer, I., 2009. Observations on the Deffufas of Kerma.

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