I. Prehistoric Times > M. Later Old World Prehistory (3000 B.C.E. and Afterward) > 3. Later African Prehistory
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
3. Later African Prehistory
a. Egypt and Nubia
Ancient Egyptian civilization began with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the pharaoh Narmer in about 3100 B.C.E. This long-lived civilization was an entirely indigenous development, its homeland a favored river oasis surrounded by desert. But Ancient Egypt was far from isolated, for from early times the Nile Valley was part of interregional trade networks that linked Mesopotamia and the Levant with the Nile. These relationships involved not only commerce, but occasionally frontier wars in distant lands like Syria. Egypt's relationship with lands upstream was just as important. The pharaohs traded for vital raw materials outside the narrow confines of their kingdom. They prospected for gold in the Sinai and in Nubia, the Land of Kush upstream of the First Nile Cataract. Despite many centuries of trading and occasional military expeditions, Ancient Egypt's cultural contribution to later African history was probably negligible, if nothing else because of the realities of Nile geography.  1
Nubia provided Egypt with gold, copper, and ivory, with semiprecious stones and slaves, and with mercenaries for the royal armies. It was so vital to Egyptian interests that the Middle Kingdom pharaohs garrisoned Lower Nubia in about 1800 B.C.E., specifically so they could control the gold trade.  2
Nubia itself was ruled by black African chiefs, who became wealthy on the Egyptian trade. Although the pharaohs colonized Nubia for a while during the New Kingdom, they never fully controlled the long river reaches upstream. As Egypt weakened after 1000 B.C.E., the Nubians became more powerful. A dynasty of Nubian rulers from Napata far upstream actually ruled Egypt for a short time in the 8th century B.C.E.  3
The Nubian state controlled caravan routes along the Nile and across the Eastern Desert. About 6000 B.C.E., the Nubian rulers moved their capital from Napata far upstream to Meroë, on a fertile floodplain between the Nile and Atbara Rivers in what is now the Sudan. The Meroitic state flourished for nine centuries, ruled by African kings who imitated many of the customs of Egyptian pharaohs. Their capital lay at a strategic point on the Nile, where desert trading routes from the Red Sea to the east intersected with trails leading west along the southern margins of the Sahara and upstream along the Nile. Meroë maintained at least sporadic contacts with the classical world but was never conquered by Rome, for the strategic obstacles were too great.  4
Meroë owed its prosperity to the gold, copper, iron, ivory, and slave trade, and even supplied war elephants for Roman armies. But, above all, its importance can be attributed to the introduction of the camel from Arabia in the closing centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. The Arabs called the camel “the ship of the desert,” an appropriate metaphor, for this tough beast of burden opened up the Sahara and tropical Africa to the outside world.  5
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.