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Critique of the “Black Pharaohs” Theme: Racist Perspectives of Egyptian and Kushite/Nubian Interactions in Popular Media

Abstract

Two recent documentaries promote a “Black Pharaohs” theme in which Kushite rulers overthrew the superior Egyptians and ruled Egypt (Twenty-Fifth Dynasty), but the Egyptians later erased their reign from history. This narrative undergirds The Rise of the Black Pharaohs produced by National Geographic and “Lost Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs” by the Science Channel. This article argues that these documentaries employ the use of presentism—the imposition of current perspectives and attitudes to depict and interpret past events. The two documentaries highlight fascinating archaeological finds in the Nile valley while also resurrecting now-discredited views on race and Egyptian–Kushite interactions arising in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The earliest Egyptologists (e.g., Petrie, Smith, Reisner) advanced the theory that dynastic Egypt emerged from the migration of a white race into the Nile valley, bringing in the elements of civilization superior to that of the indigenous blacks. While these documentaries condemn Reisner’s racist views on Kush, they largely accept this theory on Egypt’s origins and transfer this thinking onto the ancient Egyptians. These documentaries ignore the archaeological evidence showing that Egypt and Kush have shared origins and that ancient Egyptian civilization arose from a Pastoral Neolithic cattle-based culture encompassing Northern Sudan and much of ancient Northeast Africa. Craniometric studies and non-metrical studies of cranial and dental traits demonstrate a close relationship between ancient Upper Egyptian and Lower Nubian populations. They also demonstrate population continuity in Egypt from predynastic phases into the dynastic era. Presentism in the documentaries uses current racial constructs to interpret Egyptian–Kushite interactions. For example, the oppressive relationship between the colonizer and colonized that characterized European colonialism was assumed to apply to ancient Egypt during its colonization of Kush. This review article highlights archaeological findings that challenge these views of Egyptian–Kushite relationships. Examples of Kushite influences on Egyptian cosmology are presented to demonstrate millennia of cultural exchange between the two. The ancient Egyptians did not think of “race,” as presented in these documentaries. Pharaohs from earlier dynasties shared phenotypic features with Kushites, considered “Black” by current criteria.

Résumé

Deux documentaires récents font la promotion d'un thème « Pharaons noirs» dans lequel les souverains koushites ont renversé les Égyptiens supérieurs et ont gouverné l'Égypte (25e dynastie), mais les Égyptiens ont ensuite effacé leur règne de l'histoire. Ce récit sous-tend «The Rise of the Black Pharaohs» produit par National Geographic et «Lost Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs» par Science Channel. Cet article soutient que ces documentaires utilisent le principe du présentisme—l'imposition de perspectives et d'attitudes modernes—pour décrire et interpréter des événements passés. Les deux documentaires mettent en lumière les découvertes archéologiques fascinantes dans la vallée du Nil tout en ressuscitant les points de vue désormais discrédités sur la race et les interactions Égypto-Koushites au cours du XIXe et au début du XXe siècle. Les premiers égyptologues (par exemple, Petrie, Smith, Reisner) avancent la théorie selon laquelle l'Égypte dynastique a émergé de la migration d'une race blanche dans la vallée du Nil, apportant les éléments de civilisation supérieurs à celui des Noirs indigènes. Alors que ces documentaires condamnent les opinions racistes de Reisner sur Koush, ils acceptent largement cette théorie sur les origines de l'Égypte et transfèrent cette pensée sur les anciens Égyptiens. Ces documentaires ignorent les preuves archéologiques montrant que l'Égypte et Koush ont des origines communes, et que la civilisation égyptienne est née d'une culture pastorale néolithique répandue à travers le Soudan actuel jusqu'à la Moyenne Égypte. Le présentisme dans les documentaires utilise les constructions raciales actuelles pour interpréter les interactions égypto-koushites. Par exemple, la relation oppressive entre le colonisateur et le colonisé qui caractérisait le colonialisme européen au cours des cinq derniers siècles était supposée s'appliquer à l'Égypte ancienne lors de sa colonisation de Koush. Cet article de synthèse met en lumière les découvertes archéologiques qui remettent en question ces points de vue sur les relations égypto-koushites. Des exemples d'influences koushites sur la cosmologie égyptienne sont présentés pour démontrer des millénaires d'échanges culturels entre les deux. Je soutiens que les anciens Égyptiens ne pensaient pas à la «race» comme illustré dans ces documentaires. En fait, les pharaons des dynasties antérieures partageaient des caractéristiques phénotypiques avec les Koushites, considérés comme «noirs» par les critères eurocentriques actuels.

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Notes

  1. Some of the literature reviewed used Kishite and Nubian interchangeably although this may not always be appropriate.

  2. The parentheses specify the time elapsed that the comment appears in the documentaries (hour: minutes: seconds).

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Correspondence to Keith W. Crawford.

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Crawford, K.W. Critique of the “Black Pharaohs” Theme: Racist Perspectives of Egyptian and Kushite/Nubian Interactions in Popular Media. Afr Archaeol Rev 38, 695–712 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-021-09453-7

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Keywords

  • Nile valley
  • Ancient Egypt
  • Ancient Sudan
  • Kush
  • Nubia
  • Black Pharaoh