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Ancient Africa

Map of Ancient Africa

* Undefined Areas

These are simply areas about which there is difficulty in gaining evidence. Lack of written records requires reliance upon the efforts of archaeologists who are themselves limited by the political or economic stability in a particular area. As African political and economic stability progresses, more opportunities for study will develop.

Civilizations in Africa
Ancient History Sourcebook: Accounts of Meröe, Kush, and Axum, c. 430 BCE - 550 CE

Comparative Timelines

The Neolithic Cultures of Thessaly, Crete, and the Cyclades


Egypt is the longest lasting, continuous civilization in western history. Gradually developing in the period from 5000 to 3000 BCE and lasting until 30 BCE, Egypt had ruled the Nile from the Mediterranean Delta to the first cataract (steep rapids in the river), through 32 dynasties (counting the Ptolomiac rulers as the last dynasty - even though they were Greek, they maintained Egypt's unique character), being conquered numerous times only to rebound into a solid healthy political economic power that was uniquely that of the Nile's people.

The Nile made Egypt possible as it annually spread fertile silt from its tributaries, down into the desert regions of north eastern Africa and creating an environment where farmers could produce a quantity of crops well beyond their yearly needs. The Nile also became a commercial highway bringing goods, culture and people into and through Egypt from all parts of the ancient world.

There is some controversy about the racial make-up of the Egyptian people, i.e. whether they were White or Black. This is a simplistic approach to a much more complicated set of circumstances since Egypt's stratigic location brought people in from the south with Nubian and equitorial African influence and from the northern coast of Africa and the Middle East with Afro-Mediterranean and Semitic influences. The Biblical record places Egypt among the "Black" countries. Melanin dosage tests of mummified remains (controversial due to damage caused by the embalming process) seem to indicate a level of melanocytes consistant with a people of a semi tropical to temperate climate zone. Their own artistic evidence is far from conclusive as it shows different pigments of skin colour from one period to the next and from one artist to the next.

To say that Egyptian people exclusively ethincally "White", i.e. were not ethnically African, would be to pull them out of their own home land and link them with a people farther removed from them than the indigenous people of their own continent and climate. To say that they were exclusively ethnically "Black" would be to ignore their position in the crossroads of history. It's more reasonable to say that Egypt was a gateway for the meeting and interchange of goods, ideas, and people; and that the Egyptians were themselves a unique expression of human strength, beauty, intelligence and diversification.



This was a period of small tribal communities with local leaders, each competing for land along the Nile. This era saw the development of hieroglyphics and a solar calendar consisting of 12 months of 30 days each with five festival days added at the end of each year. Trade with the Middle East was evident.

Gradually, this period saw the development of city-states with the unification of individual tribes until the fusion of tribes into the two states of Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north.

Crowns of Egypt


Lower Egypt was in a position to develop more quickly than Upper Egypt, however, at about 3200 BCE Upper Egypt's King Menes (Narmer) conquered Lower Egypt and united the two. At this time the crowns of the two Egypts were combined into one Crown of the Pharaoh (lit. "royal" or "great house") and the First Dynasty of Egypt was begun. The Pharaoh was not just a political leader, but also the chief priest, and was bound by law to follow certain strictures, one of which was to marry only within his own family to retain the purity of the Pharaonic line. Menes built the city of Memphis (lit. "white walls") as the seat of government and continued the push to unify Egypt. This effort to unify the region characterized most of the Old Kingdom Period and was finally accomplished by the end of the period in 2200 BCE.


This was a period of breakdown of central authority, of social chaos, and of civil war. With the death of Pharaoh Pepi II (the last of the Old Kingdom pharaohs) at the age of 100, the Old Kingdom disintegrated. The nomarks (local leaders - lit. leaders of the nomes, or villages) of Upper Egypt had been gaining power throughout the Sixth Dynasty and in the confusion brought on by the Pharaoh's death took power for themsleves. This period saw the spread of poverty throughout all classes of Egyptians while local principalities battled each other. Out of this chaos came a new individualism and an ideal of social equity and dignity for common people.

MIDDLE KINGDOM: 2040-1785 BCE; Dynasties XI/XII

Thebes became the capital, and through force of arms, Egypt was once again united (at the expense to one degree or another of the newly won individualism). Pharaoh Menthuhotep reorganized the country's administration. the peace of the Old Kingdom was long past, and the occassional revolt in the Middle Kingdom was crushed with an iron hand.

The beginning of the Twelth Dynasty saw the capital moved to Ithet-Tawi ("holder of the two lands") a bit south of Memphis. Amenenmhet I established himself there to better control lower Egypt, and set his son up as regent, mainly as a protection against palace conspiracy. He also planned the subjugation of Nubia and established an outpost at Kerma near the third cataract. Lower Nubia was conquered and made into an Egyptian provence and ambitious building, irrigation and agricultural projects brought greater prosperity to Egypt.


Western migrations of Asiatic and Semitic people into the area, and the invasion of the Hyksos (Hka-Hasut, "rulers of foreign countries" in Egyptian) brings the Middle Kingdom to a close. It wasn't a single invasion, but a gradual infiltration of several groups of Semitic people coupled with a general decline in the Thirteenth Dynasty that brought the change to the landscape. The pharaohs begin to carry Hyksos names and presumably Hyksos heritage and establish their capital at Hat-Wert (Avaris). The Hyksos Period was a time of great shame and humiliation for Egypt. It was the first time Egypt had ever found itself under foreign domination, sending a sense of shock to their feelings of supremacy and of security under the protection of their gods.

(Conjecturally, this could be the time that is Biblically described as the entry of the Hebrews, lead by Joseph, into the land of Egypt. Logically, the details seem to fit with the Hyksos Kings being in power, and their Semitic connection. Egyptian records of this are scant, if they exist at all, and may have been destroyed as the Egyptians were notorious for editing out of their history events and people that they did not like remembered.) The horse and chariot are introduced, during this time, as well as body armour. With these, the Egyptians drive the Hyksos from Egypt and capture Palestine.

NEW KINGDOM: 1580-1070 BCE; Dynasties XVIII-XX

Thebes is reestablished as the capital and Egypt's control expands as far north as Lebanon and as far south as the third cateract in Nubia establishing Egypt as a world power. The Luxor temple is built along with numerous other monuments, temples, palaces and cities.

During this time, Egypt saw the rise of the very powerful Queen Hatshepsut, followed by her son Thutmose III who became the "Napoleon" of ancient Egypt. This time also saw a period of religious rebellion by the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton) and Queen Nefertiti, who introduced monotheism and a period of individualism and natural artistic expression for a brief time, to Egypt. This period also saw the reign of Ramesses II, who is recognized as one of Egypts greatest builders and may have been the Pharaoh of the Biblical Exodus.

The New Kingdom could be considered a "Golden Age" for Egypt, and was certainly a period of great achievement.


The Assyrians in the north under Sargon II beat Egypt back to the Sinai, the Lybians took power and ruled Egypt until defeated by the Nubians, who in their turn pushed back by the Assyrians. The Persians invaded, were expelled and for a brief time Egypt was ruled by Egyptians until a final Persian invasion in 343 BCE which remained in control until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and entered Egypt in 332 BCE.


Alexander ordered the building of the city of Alexandria and its great library and instituted religious freedom throughout his vast empire, but was greatly enthralled by Egyptian culture and won the hearts of the Egyptian people. Upon his death he is succeeded by Philip Arrhidaeus and Alexander II.

In 305 BCE, the Macedonian General Ptolemy became the first of the Ptolomaic Pharaohs who ruled until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE, when Rome took control of Egypt.

ROMAN PERIOD: 30 BCE - c. 450 CE

Octavian (Roman Emperor Augustus) defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra VII at the battle of Actium. Upon entering Egypt, the Romans found that Anthony and Cleopatra had both committed suicide leaving Egypt to Roman mercy.

Egyptian culture steadly declined from that time with neglect from the Romans, steady pressure from Christianity, and later Islam, until the former infrastructure of ancient Egypt lay forgotten and in ruin under the desert sand, and modern Islamic culture took its place.

Basic Lessons in Hieratic
Online Hieroglyphic Translator
Reading Hieroglyphs - The First Steps
Official Internet Site of: The Ministry of Tourism, Egypt


THE 1st NUBIAN AGE: 3100 -1000 BCE

Kush began just north of the first cataract of the Nile River and extended beyond the sixth cataract to present day Khartoum. Early culture centered around a settlement at Kerma. In this first Bronze Age era, three people are identified as the beginning Nubian people. They are called the "A-Group", the "C-Group", and the "Kerma Culture". The "A" & "C" groups were largely dominated by Egypt and centered in the Lower Nile, while the Kerma Culture centered in the Upper Nile and traded extensively with Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranaen. Kerma itself was a trading centre established as an Egyptian trading post with Egyptian administrators, soldiers, and artisans, but also seems to have been the residence of the Nubian chief and the centre of Nubian government.


Egypt, during its Eighteenth Dynasty, took control of the Nubian territories and named Lower Nubia "Wawat", and Upper Nubia "Kush". During this time the Nubian culture was gradually "Egyptianized", but retained much of its special Sudanese/Nubian character. Shortly after the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, Egypt lost control of Nubia and the area declined until around 900 BCE when a Nubian monarchy began to emerge with its capital at Napata. By 770 BCE, the Kingdom of Kush had extended its borders north to the bounbaries of the Upper Nile and began to take a leading role in African affairs that was to last 1000 years. From 750 to 730 BCE, Kush pushed northward, captured Egypt from Lybian control and moved their capital to Thebes. Kushite rulers adopted a crown which has a double cobra signifying Nubia and Egypt as their domain. Some of the Egyptian people welcome Kushite rule, seeing them as civilized people and not barbarians (likely due to cultural similarities). Then in 666 BCE, the Assyrians invaded Egypt and drove Kush back up the Nile (apparently in response to aid given to Palistine, Jerusalem and Syria against Assyria). As Kush retreated, they took with them the Egyptian religios traditions of Amon, performed worship ceremonies in the temple in Napata, supplanting the Kushite god Apedemak.


In 591 BCE, Egypt invaded Kush and Napata was captured and the Kushite king transfered the capital to Meroe, near the sixth cataract creating greater distance between Kush and Egypt. When Persia invaded Egypt at about 525 BCE, they stopped at Kush's northern border. Owing to the distance of Meroe to the Northern border, and that Kush posed little threat to the Persians, Kush remained relatively peaceful during this time. However, Napata remained the religious centre and royal cemetary of Kush until about 300 when the royal burial site was moved to Meroe, as well, bringing an end to the Napatan Period.


While the rulers of Kush were no longer buried at Napata, they still kept allegiance to the Temple of Amon, gradually making the transition to Meroe and the worshop of the Kushite god Apedemak.


The move to Meroe weakened the Egyptian influence and enlivened the Sudanese character of Kush. Trade with Egypt (Now under the rule of the Ptolomies) and with Asia (India especially) was growing, and Kush even entered into joint building projects with Egypt at their common border.


Trade routes from the interior of Africa passed through Kush and up the Nile to the Mediterranaen and apparently through Kush to Asia as well. Images of the Kushite god Apedemak from this era show strong Indian influence as they were rendered in a classic Indian style. Kush enjoyed an economically stragetic position, bolstering its power and importance in the Classical World.

This time marks the height of Meroitic Civilization. Kush is ruled by both kings and queens equally, with the queen, or Kandake (from which we get the present day female name of Candice) often taking the leading role in civil and international affairs.

Rome gained control of Egypt and all of the north African coastline and exacted tribute from Kush. Kush, called "Aethiopia" by the Romans (not to be confused with the present Ethiopia which was called Abyssinia by the Romans - see Axum), seeing Rome edge into lower Nubia, attacked and sacked the Roman outposts at Elephantine and Syene. the Romans retaliated and conquered the Kushite towns of Dakka and Premnis. Then Rome marched on Napata where the queen was in residence. She sued for peace and was refused. Rome then attacked Napata and razed it to the ground, making slaves of their captives. After that Rome fortified Premnis and kept it as their southernmost border while waging a three year war with Kush.

Finally, the Kandake marched upon Premnis and sued for peace, appealing to August Caesar. Impressed with the Kandake's appeal, and probably being aware that Rome had overextended itself at so distant a border, He accepted at about 20 BCE. Kush was freed from further tribute, the borders were established at their Ptolomaic location, and Premnis was returned to Kushite control.


While the Kushite kingdom was economically and politically strong at the beginning of the Late Meroitic period, it was soon to enter a cycle of decline. With the rise of Axum, trade routes shifted, and Kushite commercial interests faded. Decline was further complicated with an ecological decline of the area causing less agricultural production and the gradual migration of the population from the area. Border skirmishes with tribal factions and internal struggles also added to the decline.

With Rome trading with Axum and shifting its interests from Kush, the Kushite Kingdom became more and more isolated. In 298 CE, Rome finally evacuated the northern borders of Kush. In an apparent bid to regain some economic parody, Kush seems to have attacked Axum, in retaliation for which Axum over-ran Kush, occupied Meroe, and brought about the total collapse of Kush as a civilization in 350 CE.

Ancient Nubia
Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa
ORIENTAL INSTITUTE MUSEUM NUBIA - "Its glory and its people"

Axum (Aksum)

"The Axum (Aksum) people developed when Kush speaking people in Ethiopia migrating from the Sahara and Semitic speaking people from southern Arabia (the Sabaeans) settled in the area known as the Abysinian Plateau around 500 BCE and intermingled into one culture. This was a strategic position in the trade routes between Asia and Kush affording easy access to Arabic trade routes and the Mediterranaenvia the Red Sea. The area was agriculturally well suited, politically defensible, and allowed the possibility of undisturbed cultural development. They spoke a Semitic language and wrote in a Semitic "alphabet".

We have scant knowledge about the early Axumite kingdom. Apparently following a feudal system, they had a single king (the "Negus"), who ruled over princes who paid him tribute. By the first century C.E. the principal city was Axum, and the port city of Adulis became a major trading port that attracted Greek and Jewish traders and merchants.

Adulis served as a crossroads to a variety of cultures: Egyptian, Kushite, Sudanic, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Indian.

In the second century C.E., Axum acquired tribute states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, overtook northern Ethiopia, and then finally conquered Kush. The conquest and distruction of the Kushite Empire gave Axum complete control of the most important trade routes and one of the most fertile regions in the world.

The original Axumite religion was a polytheistic religion which believed in gods that controlled the natural world. In the fourth century, King Ezana, converted to Christianity and declared Axum to be a Christian state, and began actively prosylitizing the population. Not many of the people accepted Christianity at first, but Christianity gradually supplanted the old religion. The move was politically and commercially beneficial to Axum in that Rome was undergoing similar conversion, and the Roman capital wes being relocated to Constantinople.

Axum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD. As Islam sprread, the trade routes changed and commercially isolated Axum. The fall of Rome spelled out a fall for Axum as well as Axum could not maintain the linking trade routes that Rome had so long maintained. By the end of the seventh century, Axum as a power had ended giving rise to the modern Ethiopean people.

Civilizations in Africa - Axum
Ancient Horn of Africa: Axum (Aksum) (4th - 7th c. A.D.)

North Coast


Early indigenous Libyan and North coast cultures have left few clues and no written history. Prior to the Phoenician invason, there seem to have been mostly neolithic, pre-bronze age cultures. Since these cultures were introduced to iron by the Phoenicians, they never passed through a bronze age of their own.

The founding of Carthage was precipitated by Phoenician migration into the western Mediterranean (traditionally from Tyre) in search of raw materials, principally metals such as gold, silver, copper and tin. The Phoenician name for Carthage was "Kart Hadasht", "New City". Earliest archaeological evidence places settlement at the middle of the 8th century BCE, while tradition places it's founding at 814 BCE.

For about the first two hundred years, it remained little more than a small settlement, but the loss of influence of Tyre, and Tyre's subjugation by Babylon, and growing competition from Greek settlements (starting in about 580 BCE) in Sicily (principly Selinus and Syracuse) thrust Carthage into the need to enter into alliances with other Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean and Spain, and with the Etruscans on the west coast of Italy. Joint victories in repelling the Greeks propelled Carthage into a position of power. From this point, Carthage began to hire mercenary troops (mostly native Lybians) as its citizenry was too small to maintain the burden military of regional leadership. A final defeat of a Carthaginian invasion of Sicily in 480, and the Persian invasion of Greece brought seventy years of peace and a western Mediterranean trading monopoly for Carthage. For Carthage, trade seems to have been the singular industry, and since very little archeaological evidence of the legendary wealth of Carthage remains, it would seem that their trade was in raw materials and non-durable goods. At this point, Carthage maintained control of settlements in northern Africa and in southern Spain, and controled the shipping routes through most of the Mediterranean.


The three Punic Wars (264 to 146 BCE) gradually whittled away Carthage's dominance of the Mediterranean, and ended in the utter distruction of the city of Carthage, the enslavement of it's citizens, and the creation of the Roman province of Africa. The first Punic War gave the Roman Republic undisputed control of Corsica and Sicily, and of the western Mediterranean sea lanes. The second Punic War resulted in Carthage's loss of Spain all its island outposts, and its entire navy. The third Punic War finished Carthage and established Rome as the military, political, and economic power in the western Mediterranean and north Africa.

From 146 to 30 BCE, Rome gradually overtook the northern African coastal lands. The small portion of Tunisia that Rome took with the distruction of Carthage was largely held as an after-thought, while recognizing a series of client kingdoms that Rome largely left to their own devices. Finally, alliances with the Pompeian side of the Roman Civil Wars which destroyed the Roman Republic (and left the Roman Empire in its place) brought Rome's final conquest of northern Africa. The last to fall was Egypt in 30 BCE when the Octavian (Roman Emperor Augustus) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and opened the door to the conquest of Ptolomaic Egypt.

Places to Go - Carthage
Lepcis Magna - The Roman Empire in Africa

Southern & Southwest Africa

Iron work seems to first appear as early as the first century CE, aparantly resulting from diffusion of Bantu speaking people who migrated from what is now Nigeria and Cameroun into Southern Africa. Their skill in metal working seems to have been learned from trade with Kush and achieved a high order of craftsmanship.

The Khoisan People are an ancient people already settled in the area as hunter-gatherer societies. Khoisan people consist of two groups, the Khoi-Khoi and the San.  They are thought to be the oldest of Modern human groups, and there is evidence that they occupied the entire continent at one time in the distant past.    More information about the Khiosan peoples is surfacing on a continual basis through archaeological and anthropoligical research.  See also The Khoi-Khoi & San Peoples By Brian e Ebden.

The earliest settlements at Great Zimbabwe date from the fourth century. Agriculturally favorable land and rich mineral deposits, along with the ability of the migratory people to mine, smelt, and work metals like iron, tin and gold, gave these new settlers a strong foothold resulting in the kingdoms of Great Zimbabwe and Mutapa and wide dispersion and intermarriage northern immigrant people with the Khoisan throughout the southern region of Africa.

Civilization in Africa - The Mwenemutapa
The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe
NOVA - Mystery of Great Zimbabwe
Hill Complex, Great Zimbabwe National Monument


Pre-Colonial Africa: Her Civilisations and Foreign Contacts
F.J. Nöthling
BJohannesburg : Southern Book Publishers, c1989
ISBN 1868122425 (pbk.)

The Atlas of Africa
Regine Van Chi-Bonnardel
New York, The Free Press [1973]

Kush, the Jewel of Nubia: Reconnecting the Root System of African Civilization
Miriam Ma'at-Ka-Re Monges
Trenton, NJ : Africa World Press, c1997
ISBN 0865435286

Atlas of African History
Colin McEvedy
New York : Facts on File, c1980
ISBN 0871964805

General History of Africa /
UNESCO International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa
London : Heinemann ; Berkeley : University of California Press, 1981-
ISBN's 0520039122(v.1), 520039130(v.2), 0520039149(v.3), 0520039157(v.4), 0520039165(v.5), 0520039173(v.6), 0520039181(v.7), 0520039203(v.8),

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