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Empires Of The Nile : Hardcover – 1 Jan 2009

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 694 pages
  • Publisher: The Folio Society; 2nd. Printing edition (1 Jan. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0036IN8BQ
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,179,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

A thick hardback ( 694 pages ) First Published in 2008 . This Edition is the 2nd. printing 2009 . Published by the Folio Society . Includes a Bronze Sparkle slipcase . Size 180 X 260 X 50

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jasper Tamespeke on 7 Aug. 2012
The Folio Society have combined 3 books by archaeologists in 1 volume, the first 2 by Derek Welsby about kingdoms located in present day Sudan, Kush and the medieval kingdoms of Nubia respectively. The last is about the Ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, by David Phillipson.

Note that these are books by archaeologists, and in fact most of the evidence about Kush and Aksum in particular are archaeological rather than being in the written record. Therefore a lot of the book is taken up with detailed description of the archaeological record, which some might find fascinating, but for those like me who are primarily interested in the history this makes for a dry read. I have to confess I skipped through the chapters on architecture, the economy, etc. fairly quickly. Phillipson's book in particular tells us very little about the Aksumite history & culture, and I tired of reading variations on `we don't know' which are littered through the book. Michael Wood's introduction is much more interesting on this subject than the book itself!

Ironically I had bought the book primarily to read about Kush and Aksum, but the subject I found most interesting was the Nubian kingdoms, about which I have to confess I was completely ignorant. This is partly because Welsby writes better than Phillipson, but also because there is a richer literary record, at least about the more northerly kingdoms of Nobadia and Makuria, which had more contact with Egypt and the Byzantine Empire. There is more history proper as a result.

Both Kush and its effective successors in what is modern Sudan, the Nubian kingdoms, lasted for over a thousand years, Kush being concurrent with the declining New Kingdom and their successors in Egypt.
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Amazon.com: 1 review
Fascinating subjects, but be prepared for a dry read 8 Aug. 2012
By Jasper Tamespeke - Published on Amazon.com
The Folio Society have combined 3 books by archaeologists in 1 volume, the first 2 by Derek Welsby about kingdoms located in present day Sudan, Kush and the medieval kingdoms of Nubia respectively. The last is about the Ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, by David Phillipson.

Note that these are books by archaeologists, and in fact most of the evidence about Kush and Aksum in particular are archaeological rather than being in the written record. Therefore a lot of the book is taken up with detailed description of the archaeological record, which some might find fascinating, but for those like me who are primarily interested in the history this makes for a dry read. I have to confess I skipped through the chapters on architecture, the economy, etc. fairly quickly. Phillipson's book in particular tells us very little about the Aksumite history & culture, and I tired of reading variations on `we don't know' which are littered through the book. Michael Wood's introduction is much more interesting on this subject than the book itself!

Ironically I had bought the book primarily to read about Kush and Aksum, but the subject I found most interesting was the Nubian kingdoms, about which I have to confess I was completely ignorant. This is partly because Welsby writes better than Phillipson, but also because there is a richer literary record, at least about the more northerly kingdoms of Nobadia and Makuria, which had more contact with Egypt and the Byzantine Empire. There is more history proper as a result.

Both Kush and its effective successors in what is modern Sudan, the Nubian kingdoms, lasted for over a thousand years, Kush being concurrent with the declining New Kingdom and their successors in Egypt. Indeed, for a brief period the Kushites ruled Egypt, intervening during a period of weakness, after a northern usurper Tefnakt threatened the religious centre of Thebes. Within a couple of generations the Kushites were installed as the XXV dynasty. However, it was the misfortune of the Kushites that their rule in Egypt coincided with the rise of Assyria. The Assyrian policy of westward expansion inevitably led to a conflict, the flashpoint being Judah. Initially the Assyrian king Sennacharib had to withdraw when plague broke out amongst his forces besieging Jerusalem. The assault on Egypt came in 671 BC in the reign of Taharqo, eventually leading to the expulsion of the Kushites & the installation of Assyrian vassal princes in Egypt.

Our knowledge of Kushite history is limited because it has not been possible to decode more than small amounts of the Kushite language, Meroitic. Names, titles & even some phrases have been guessed from funerary texts but the majority of the inscriptions have still not been deciphered. Scholars think that if Meroitic proves to be unrelated to any other language, like Sumerian, or we do not find any other sources of bilingual information, there is only a very small chance of the language being adequately understood.

As a result we do not know why the Kushite kingdom disappeared, or even whether it collapsed or just gradually withered away. It used to be accepted that Kush was overrun by the Azumite King Ezana although according to Welsby this is no longer considered likely (no-one seems to have told the compiler of the Wikipedia entry on Kush, however). There is no direct evidence of what happened. The pre-eminence of the monarch may have been eroded by the emergence of a powerful nobility. The monarch's power may also have waned due to the decline of trade, as the Egyptians opened another trade route for importing exotic goods from sub-Saharan Africa, through the Red Sea. The Aksumites were major players in this trade in the early centuries AD. Also the increasing poverty of Roman Egypt will have reduced its market potential. The increasing aggression of the desert tribes against the Nile civilizations in general may also have been a factor. By the mid 6th Century Kush had vanished and in its place were 3 Nubian Kingdoms, from north to south Nobadia, Makuria & Alwa (or Alodia), although Nobadia was fairly soon swallowed up into Makuria.

The story of Nubia's conversion to Christianity is almost the stuff of comedy: There were 2 major Christian denominations in the Byzantine Empire, the Melkites and the Monophysites. The dispute between these 2 factions seems bizarrely obscure to us now, relating to the correct way to consider the divine and mortal aspects of Christ's nature, but as usual there was politics behind it: The Melkites were the Imperialists, the Monophysites proto-Egyptian `nationalists' (they were mostly based in Egypt at this time). Neither the anti-Imperialist bent of the Monophysites, nor the fact that they had been considered heretics since the Council of Chalcedon in 451 deterred the Empress Theodora in her support for the cause, in opposition to her husband the Emperor Justinian. Theodora was able to ensure that her Monophysite mission reached Nobadia first (in about 543 AD) by intimidating Byzantine officials in southern Egypt- she was clearly a more intimidating figure than her husband the Emperor!

In their early years the Nubian kingdoms were obviously redoubtable: they were the only enemies who survived the early onslaught of the Muslim armies, which otherwise were unstoppable until they faced Charles Martel at the battle of Tours in 732. The Muslim Army invaded Nubia with 20,000 men in 643, after the Byzantine garrison withdrew from Egypt, but were defeated by a much larger Nubian army. The Nubians had the strength to invade Egypt in 748 & force the Egyptian emir to release the patriarch of Alexandria from prison.

We know much more about Makuria than about Alwa, due to the former's proximity to the Muslim states of the Mediterranean & their chroniclers, but also because Makurian archaeology has been better preserved through being buried by desert winds. However, Alwa may have been the more wealthy and important of the Nubian kingdoms, based on the testimony of Muslim eyewitnesses.

One fatal source of instability in the Nubian kingdoms was that the royal succession passed through the matrilineal line, although if there was no nephew to whom the throne could pass, the king's son was the next in line. The crown prince usurping his uncle's throne is a common theme in Makurian history, and even worse, they tended to enlist the support of the Muslim rulers in Egypt, which led to invasions and the progressive erosion of sovereignty. By the middle of the 14th century Makuria had effectively ceased to exist, although Dotawo seemed to survive as a rump Christian monarchy in northern Makuria until the early 16th Century, but only because the area had ceased to have any strategic importance. Alwa seemed to disappear at around the same time under attack by the Fenj people of central & southern Sudan, although the archaeological evidence would suggest it was on the verge of collapse anyway.

Aksum was another Christian kingdom, older than Nubia, based in the mountainous region straddling the northern borders of modern day Ethiopea & Eritrea. Unlike in the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia was very much a top-down affair: King Ezana of Aksum adopted the religion in the 4th Century & then sought its expansion- there was a letter written to him by the Byzantine emperor Constantius II in AD357. It was probably not until late 5th Century, with the activities of the 'Nine Saints' (Byzantine missionaries) that Christianity became widely adopted in the countryside.

The decline of Aksum closely coincided with the initial Islamic expansion which led to Arab control of the Red Sea navigation, cutting Aksum off from its former trade links with the Mediterranean. Henceforth, Christian Ethiopia became isolated & inward-looking. Aksum probably ceased to be the capital in the 7th Century, but the influence of Aksum and its distinctive architecture persisted much later. For example, the design of the famous rock-cut Lalibela churches are firmly rooted in Aksumite tradition, even though built under the Zagwe dynasty which had originally undermined the Aksumite hegemony in the first place.

Indeed, a common theme that runs through these books is how these kingdoms imported culture from elsewhere, and then preserved aspects of these cultures (particularly Egyptian and Byzantine cultures) long after these had been largely lost in the original source country. The old Egyptian religion or cults survived in Kush after they disappeared in Egypt itself. They were so important that the Temple of Isis was uniquely exempted from the Edict of Theodosius in 390 AD which ordered the closure of all pagan temples. Many of the officials of the Nubian kingdoms bore Byzantine titles, most importantly the eparch or regional governor, which was the Greek equivalent of the Latin praefectus. The eparch in the north was charged with handling the relations with the Muslims. Important functionaries also included domesticos (deputies) and even nauarchos, or admiral, a title that persisted long after it was obsolete in Byzantium.

As always with the Folio Society, the production values of the book are very high, it is beautifully printed with clear maps & excellent photographs. It would help if the maps properly covered the Red Sea. The port of Aidhab played a critical role in the downfall of Makuria, but its location is not shown anywhere. Also the index is poor: whenever I tried to search subjects read in earlier chapters (for example the Byzantine Saints) they were not referenced.
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