Rise of the Black Pharaohs

Rise of the Black Pharaohs re-aired Thursday, March 19, 2015.

Rise of the Black Pharaohs
Learn about the African Kushites who overthrew the ancient Egyptians.

About the Program

The Egypt of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings was an empire of indomitable might. Then, around 800 BC, the impossible happened. Kush, a subject kingdom from the south, rose up and conquered Egypt, enthroned its own Pharaohs and ruled for nearly 100 years.

These were the mysterious Black Pharaohs of what is today Sudan — the Nubian kings — whose reign has become legendary among Africans and written off as heresy by early archaeologists who refused to believe that dark skinned Africans could have risen so high.

But now, in the heart of Sudan, exciting new archaeological finds are revealing the truth about the great Kush dynasty. A sacred mountain holds the key to the Kush kings’ spiritual claim on the Egyptian throne; stunning statues are providing details about the true color of their skin and their long and prosperous reign; and a long-hidden tomb complex is shedding light on the trappings of their royalty and the extent of their empire.

A Closer Look

More About the Program

Archeologists Geoff Emberling and Tim Kendell are at the heart of the Kushite revival. Emberling is digging his way into a royal pyramid/tomb at a site called El Kurru that he hopes will contain the bones of a Kushite king and the treasure he took with him into the afterlife. He’s following in the footsteps of famous archeologist George Reisner, who excavated most of the other major Kushite sites, but could never get past his racial myopia and accept that these dark-sinned African people had built such an advanced and powerful society. Fortunately, more enlightened archeologists are finally separating myth from fact and revealing the Kushites for who they really were.

Not far from El Kurru, archaeologist Tim Kendell has his sights set on a loftier prize. At a mountain called Jebel Barkal, he believes he’s found the key to the rise of the Kush — the underpinning for their belief that they were the true heirs to the spiritual traditions of the great pharaohs like Ramses II and Thutmose III. Both the Egyptians and the Kushites believed Jebel Barkal was home to Amun — Egypt’s supreme god-of-gods. So when the Kushites rose up, they believed they were doing so to put Egypt back on the right religious path — chosen as the true leaders born in the shadow of Amun’s mountain. 

In an effort to decipher the Kushite’s story, Kendell sends professional climbers to the mountain’s spire, to photograph and analyze an ancient inscription commissioned by one of the great Kushite kings. Amid the evidence of a gold-encrusted mountaintop billboard, can the elusive inscription bring the truth to light?

Emberling, Kendell and others are turning legend into fact — at long last overturning racist misconceptions and giving the Black Kings the exposure and respect they deserve as one of the great civilizations of the ancient world.


Rise of the Black Pharaohs was produced by National Geographic Television for PBS.


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Rise of the Black Pharaohs (DVD)

Explore the history of the little-known African civilization that overthrew the Ancient Egyptians.

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