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Episode Transcript – Episode 22 - Sphinx of Taharqo

Sphinx of Taharqo (made around 680 BC) found in Temple T at Kawa, northern Sudan.

If you were to ask which country the River Nile belongs to, most people would immediately say Egypt. But in fact, of course, the Nile is a river that can be claimed by nine different African countries, and as water resources get scarcer, the question of its ownership today is a burning political issue.

A critical fact of modern Egypt's life is that most of the Nile is actually in Sudan. Egypt has always been wary of its huge southern neighbour but, for most of its history, it has been by far the stronger of the two. But there was a moment, around three thousand years ago, when for a century or so, it all looked very different.

"It really was the centre of a very powerful vibrant civilisation in the heart of Africa - black Africa." (Zeinab Badawi)

"And it was one of the major civilisations of the ancient world, although it's always seen as being on the periphery of that world." (Derek Welsby)

This week I'm investigating the world around 700 BC. Even though populations were tiny - only about one per cent of today's world population occupied the whole of the globe then - large-scale conflicts were frequent and bitter. War was everywhere, and one of the features of the period was the conquest of long-established centres of wealth and civilisation by poorer peoples living on the edge. In the case of Egypt, this meant that the mighty land of the pharaohs was conquered and ruled by its southern neighbour - what is now northern Sudan, but was then called the kingdom of Kush.

I'm walking through the galleries of the British Museum heading for a stone sphinx. Sphinxes - statues with a lion's body and a man's head - are creatures of myth and legend, but they're also one of the great symbols of Egyptian royalty and power. The most famous of all, of course, being the Great Sphinx at Giza.

Here it is now and, compared with the one at Giza, this sphinx is very small - it's about the size of a spaniel - but it is particularly interesting, because it's not just a hybrid of a man and a lion, but a fusion of Egypt and Kush. It's made out of sandy grey granite, and it's beautifully preserved. The muscular lion's back, the mane of hair and the powerful outstretched paws are all classically Egyptian - but it's not a typical Egyptian pharaoh's face, because this man is unquestionably a black African, and this sphinx is the image of a black pharaoh. Hieroglyphics on the sphinx's chest spell it out: this is a portrait of the great King Taharqo, the fourth pharaoh to rule over the combined kingdoms of Kush and Egypt.

Kush occupied what is now the north half of Sudan. For thousands of years, Egypt had looked on its southern Kushite neighbour essentially as a rich but troublesome colony, that could be exploited for its raw materials - there was gold and ivory and, very important, slaves. In this almost colonial relationship, Egypt was very much the master. But in 728 BC, the balance of power flipped. Egypt had become fragmented and weak, and the Kushite king, Piankhi, took the opportunity to send his armies north, and capture the cities of Egypt one by one, until finally the north was quashed, and the Kushites were in charge of an empire that ran roughly from modern Khartoum to modern Alexandria. And in order to govern this new state, they created a new national identity, a hybrid that would combine both Egypt and Kush.

Taharqo, represented in the British Museum sphinx, is the most important of all the Kushite kings. He initiated a golden age for his immense new kingdom, and he succeeded largely because, rather than imposing Kushite customs on the Egyptians, he absorbed and adopted theirs. Even in Kush itself, Taharqo built pyramids on the Egyptian model, and he worshipped the Egyptian god Amun; he restored temples in the Egyptian style, and his officials wrote in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It's a pattern that we see again and again in successful conquests. They used the existing symbols and vocabulary of power, because those are the ones that are already familiar to the population. It makes sense to keep using a language of control that everybody is accustomed to accept. The Sphinx of Taharqo, in its calculated mixture of the two different traditions, is not just a striking portrait of the Kushite ruler as a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, it's also a lesson in political method. And for a short period, that method worked brilliantly.

This brief Sudanese conquest of Egypt is now very much a forgotten history. The official narrative of Egypt underplayed the Kushite disruption, blandly calling the reign of the Kushite kings the 25th Dynasty, thus quietly incorporating them into an unbroken story of an eternal Egypt; but Kush's historical role is now being energetically reassessed, and Sudanese history, in some measure, rewritten.

In the British Museum we have a curator who has been central to this work of recovery and re-evaluation. Derek Welsby, a leading expert on the archaeology of the Sudan, has been digging along the Nile for many years. He has done a lot of work at Kawa, north of Khartoum, where this sphinx came from. It was made to go into a temple there, that had been restored by Taharqo. Derek's description of the working conditions at his excavation give an idea of what this land would have been like for the Kushites:

"Often it's incredibly hot on site. Even in the middle of winter it can be very hot, but sometimes early in the morning it's incredibly cold as well, like 4 or 5 degrees, and then you've got a very strong wind. But by 11 o'clock it can be 35, 40 degrees, so it changes very dramatically.

"The temple that Taharqo built at Kawa is purely Egyptian in design - it was actually built by Egyptian workmen and architects sent by Taharqo from his capital at Memphis in Lower Egypt, but it was built in the heart of Kush. But the Egyptian influences are just a veneer over Kushite culture ... the indigenous African culture continued right the way through the Kushite period.

"It used to be considered that the Kushites were slavishly borrowing things from Egypt and just copying Egyptian models, but what we see ... they're picking and choosing, they're choosing the things that are enhancing their view of the world, the status of their ruler and so on, and they're retaining many of their local cultural elements as well. You see this particularly in their religion because, not only do you get the Egyptian gods like Amun, but you also get the major local Kushite gods such as Apademak, being worshipped sometimes in the same temples."

As originally placed in the temple, Taharqo's sphinx would have been seen only by the ruler and by his closest circle - which would have included priests and officials from both Egypt and Kush. Coming upon it in an inner sanctuary, Kushites would have been reassured by its black African features, while Egyptians would have immediately felt at home with its peculiarly Egyptian iconography.

Taharqo's sphinx is a very sophisticated piece of political imagery, for it's not just a mix of north and south, it also combines the present with the long distant past. The form of the lion's mane and his ears closely resemble elements found on Ancient Egyptian sphinxes as far back as the 12th Dynasty, that's about a thousand years before this. The message is clear: this black pharaoh, Taharqo, stands in a long line of great Egyptian rulers, who have held dominion over all the lands of the Nile.

Taharqo was eager to expand Egypt beyond Sinai and its north-east border - an aggressive policy that led to conflict with the Assyrian king, Sennacherib - whose stone reliefs were the subject of the last programme. Around 700 BC Taharqo allied himself with Hezekiah, King of Judah, and fought alongside him.

But this challenge to the Assyrian war machine ultimately led to Taharqo's downfall. Ten years later, the Assyrians came looking for him, seeking the colossal wealth of Egypt, and although he repelled them that time, they soon returned. In 671 BC they forced Taharqo to flee south to his native Kush. He lost his wife and his son to the enemy and, after more attacks from the Assyrians, he was finally expelled.

In the long history of Egypt, Kushite rule was a brief interlude of not even 150 years. Yet it reminds us that the border between what is now Egypt and Sudan is a constant fault-line, both geographic and political, that has frequently divided the peoples of the Nile Valley, and frequently been fought over. We'll see that fault-line again later in these programmes, because both the Roman and the British empires bloodily revisited this contested boundary between Egypt and Kush. Geography has determined that this will always be a frontier, because it's here that the first cataract breaks up the Nile into small, rocky channels that are very hard to navigate, making contact between north and south highly problematic. For Africans, the Nile has never been just an Egyptian river, and it's claimed as fiercely by the Sudanese now as it was in the time of Taharqo. Here's the Sudanese-born political commentator, Zeinab Badawi:

"Ideologically, I wouldn't say that there are any huge differences between the Sudanese and the Egyptian governments certainly, and there is a huge affinity between the people. I think that the biggest source of friction and potential tension between Egypt and Sudan has been in the Nile, and how the waters of the Nile are used. The feeling that a lot of northern Sudanese might have is that the Nile actually in a sense runs much more through Sudan than it does through Egypt. Sudan is the biggest country in Africa. It's the tenth biggest in the world, the size of western Europe. It is the land of the Nile, and maybe there is a kind of brotherly resentment by the northern Sudanese that the Egyptians have in a sense claimed the Nile as their own, whereas the Sudanese in a sense feel they are the proper custodians of the Nile, because after all, most of its journey is through the territory of Sudan."

Zeinab Badawi's words perhaps make it clear why the union of Egypt and Sudan just under three thousand years ago was easier to achieve in the sculpted form of Taharqo's sphinx, than in the unstable world of practical politics. Recovering the story of Kush has been one of the great achievements of recent archaeology, showing how an energetic people on the edge of a great empire were able to conquer it and appropriate its traditions. It's a familiar pattern in the story of empires, and it's one that was taking place somewhere else at almost exactly the same time - in China - and that's where we'll be going in the next programme.