Kushites in Egypt.

Earlier this month I posted about Libyans in Egypt and their effect on the language (“As a result, official inscriptions of the Libyan Period show a marked preference for spoken forms, workaday grammar, and simple vocabulary, in contrast to the more refined formulations of the ruling class”); now I’ve reached the point in Wilkinson’s book where he talks about the later Kushite rulers, who had the opposite effect:

In another important respect, too, the Kushite monarchy represented a return to the past. With piety to Amun a central tenet of their claim to legitimacy, Piankhi and his successors set out to champion other indigenous Egyptian traditions that had been neglected or overturned by the country’s recent Libyan rulers. The Kushites saw it as their holy mission to restore Egypt’s cultural purity, just as they had saved the cult of Amun from foreign contamination. With active royal encouragement, therefore, priests and artists looked to earlier periods for inspiration, reviving and reinventing models from the classic periods of pharaonic history. An obsession with the past soon influenced every sphere of cultural endeavor.

Shabaqo gave a lead by adopting the throne name of Pepi II, to recall the glories of the Pyramid Age. His successor went one better, dusting off the titulary last used by the Fifth Dynasty king Isesi more than sixteen centuries earlier. High-ranking officials followed suit, adopting long-obsolete and often meaningless titles, just for the sake of their antiquity. The written language was deliberately “purified,” taking it back to the archaic form of the Old Kingdom, and scribes were trained to compose new texts in an antiquated idiom. A fine example was the Memphite Theology, a theological treatise on the role of the Memphite god Ptah. Commissioned by Shabaqo himself, the treatise was said to have been copied from an ancient worm-eaten papyrus, preserved in the temple archives for millennia. The authentically archaic language certainly fooled most scholars when the piece was first discovered. But, like much of the Kushite renaissance, the Memphite Theology was a product of the seventh century, cunningly designed to look like a relic of the past—an imagined past of cultural purity that existed only in the minds of the Kushite zealots.

I love stories like that, of artificially primitive writings that fooled later scholars.


  1. Interesting that a conclusion like that is received with (apparently) little controversy. Making a similar argument about biblical Hebrew brings out the knives immediately.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    James Allen thinks the Memphite Theology probably dates from the Ramesside period, in which case it would at least predate Shabaka by a (measly) half-millennium. He does accept it might be later, though.

  3. The Book of Mormon comes to mind.

  4. Choosing to focus on Ptah, who remained an important god through classical times but definitely had his heyday in the Old Kingdom, always seemed like a smart move to me.

  5. Anaximander says

    Wait, your talking about Wilkinson’s book reminded me that one of the preeminent Egyptologists of this era is named Aiden DODSON!

  6. Huh, I thought I knew all the prominent Dodsons, but I see I missed one.

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