Ancient Greek Writers On Kush

When the Greeks invaded Egypt under Alexander of Macedon (356-323 BCE) this marked the Greek period in Egyptian history. To learn about Egyptian culture and history, the Greeks consulted Egyptian priests and had documents translated into the Greek language. Thus, the Egyptian priest Manetho (c. 300 BCE) wrote Aegyptiaca (“History of Egypt”) and gave a chronology of the country’s history by dividing the rulers into 30 dynasties. His original work does not survive but it is quoted by the Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus. Manetho listed Egypt’s Kushite (25th) dynasty, calling it the “Aethiopian dynasty.” Almost two centuries earlier, the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 450 BCE) stated, “In all these many generations [of Egyptian kings] there were eighteen Ethiopian kings.”

Later, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (200 BCE), the Hebrew “Kush/Cush, Kushite” became “Aethiopia, Aethiopian,” and later appeared as “Ethiopia, Ethiopian” in the English King James Version. Ethiopian means, “A man with a sun-burned or black face.” All of the Greek writers referred to Kush as “Aethiopia.” Skin color was obviously in the minds of the Greeks and Romans, and the distinguishing mark of the “Ethiopian” was the color of their skin.

These Greek writers give the location and extent of the Ethiopian (Kushite) empire. It is certain that “classical” historians and geographers called the whole region from India to Egypt, both countries inclusive by the name of “Ethiopia” and in consequence they regarded all of the dark-skinned and black peoples who inhabited it as “Ethiopians.” There is no surprise, then, that the earliest Greco-Roman writers do not assign geographic limits to “Ethiopia.” South of Egypt, including near the 4th cataract and beyond these writers do name various distinct groups in Sudan, such as the Beja and Nubians, but it was common for these writers to call the area “Aethiopia.”

Here are a few examples of the Greeks writers’ comments on Ethiopia and its inhabitants.

Strabo in Geography, book I quotes Euphorus: “The Aethiopians were considered as occupying all the south coasts of both Asia and Africa, this is the ancient opinion of the Greeks.” With regard to the Ethiopians, Strabo states that “those who are in Asia, and those who are in Africa, do not differ from each other.”

Strabo: “As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in colour, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl).” (Geography, book 15).

Homer: “But now Poseidon had gone to visit the Aethiopians worlds away, Aethiopians off at the farthest limits of mankind, a people split in two, one part where the Sun-god sets and part where the Sun-god rises.” (Odyssey, book 1).” In other words, there were two Ethiopias, the one lying towards the west and the other towards the east.

Herodotus: “I went as far as Elephantine [Aswan] to see what I could with my own eyes, but for the country still further south I had to be content with what I was told in answer to my questions. South of Elephantine the country is inhabited by Aethiopians. …Beyond the island is a great lake, and round its shores live nomadic tribes of Aethiopians. After crossing the lake one comes again to the stream of the Nile, which flows into it. …After forty days’ journey on land along the river, one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroe, said to be the capital city of the Aethiopians.”

Ampim, Manu. “History Of African Civilizations, History 110 Course Reader.” Unit 3: Classical African Civilizations (Kush).  Oakland, CA: Advancing The Research, 2016. 42-43.