Kush and Persia

In 525 BC, Persia—under the rule of Cambyses—defeated the armies of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetic II at the battle of Pelusium. This took place during the reign of the Kushite Pharaoh Amani-natake-lebte (538-519 BC).1 Following Persia's rule of Egypt, various historical records mention military frictions between Kush and Persia.2

Herodotus, the Greek historian and geographer, reports that Cambyses wanted to conquer Kush. He sent "spies" to the pharaoh of Kush disguised as messengers bearing gifts. However, the Kushite pharaoh, as Herodotus explains, realized that the Persian messengers were spies. The king mocked Cambyses' gifts in front of the messengers and sent them back with a bow. The messengers were instructed to deliver the following message to Cambyses: "when the Persians draw their bows (of equal size as mine) as easily as I do this, then he [Cambyses] should march against the long lived Ethiopians [Kushites]"(Herodotus iii. 21).3

Jona Lendering ©
A relief of a Kushite from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
Kushite relief from Persepolis

Cambyses was infuriated and, in response, led a large army to Kush. However, when he "had passed over the fifth part of the way"(Herodotus iii. 25) in the barren deserts of Nubia, Cambyses' army ran out of supplies. Herodotus writes that the Persian army got so hungry that the soldiers resorted to cannibalism. Cambyses eventually gave up the expedition and turned back.

Later in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo, writes that when Cambyses was traveling from the city of Premnis (Karanog in Lower Nubia) with his army to conquer Kush, he was "overwhelmed by the setting in of a whirlwind"(Strabo xvii. 54)4 and was consequently forced to head back.

According to Herodotus, the Kushites did not pay tribute to Persia. Instead they sent precious gifts to the Persian king, including gold, ebony and elephant tusks. We also know from Herodotus, as well as from other Greek reporters, that part of the Persian army of King Xerxes (486-465 BC) was composed of Kushite archers (Herodotus vii.69-70).

  • 1 S. Wenig, Africa in Antiquity: the Catalogue (New York, 1978).
  • 2 M. A. Dandamaev, and W. J. Vogelsang. A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire, trans. W. J. Vogelsang (BRILL, 1989) 80.
  • 3 Herodotus, and D. Lateiner, The Histories, trans. G. C. Macaulay (Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).
  • 4 Strabo, H. C. Hamilton, and W. Faulkner, The Geography of Strabo, trans. H. C. Hamilton, and W. Falconer (G. Bell & Sons, 1889).
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Dec. 2008.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.