Those Uppity Nubians

While the Codex Hammurabi mandated impalement crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, the earliest evidence indicating that people were actually killed by this method lies with an archaeological document dating back to the city of Thebes, Egypt in the 17th century BCE. The Papyrus Boulaq 18 is believed to have been written during the reign of Pharaoh Sobekhotep II and contains the following Theban palace account:

“a blood bath (?) had occurred with (by?) wood (?) … the comrade was put on the stake, land near the island …; waking alive at the places of life, safety and health …2”

The Papyrus Boulaq 18 tells of a person killed in a bloody manner by being put on a wooden stake. It is unclear who this “comrade” was or why he (or perhaps she) was killed, but the method of execution is fairly certain. More detail can be ascertained from hieroglyphics on the Stela of Akhenaten telling of the impalement of Nubian prisoners of war.

“List (of the enemy belonging to) Ikayta: living Nehesi 80+ ?; … | … their (chiefs?) 12; total number of live captives 145; those who were impaled … | … total 225; beasts 361.3”

Pharaoh Akhenaten reigned during the 14th century BCE. The “Ikayta” mentioned in the Stela of Akhenaten likely refers to the “vile Kheta”, the Egyptian name for their arch-nemeses, the Hittites. The Hittite empire encompassed much of what is now Turkey and northern Syria. It was one of ancient Egypt’s traditional foes. On this occasion, the Hittites had invaded Egypt and managed to stir up a revolt among the “Nehesi” (Nubians) in the land of Nubia (modern southern Egypt and northern Sudan), which was under Egyptian rule.

Akhenaten sent his viceroy of Nubia, a man by the name of Tuthmose, to put down the rebellion in the Nubian district of Akita. The inscription on the Stela of Akhenaten recounts the number of Hittite and Nubian prisoners taken prisoner and the total number who were impaled. The math suggests that the number of Hittites and Nubians (including their chiefs) taken alive and then executed by impalement crucifixion was 145, and that 80 combatants, already killed, had their corpses desecrated by this method, for a total of 225.

By my estimate, the Hittites and Nubians would rate high on the list of candidate people to have been the first to be killed by impalement crucifixion in a war situation. The Nubian revolt under Akhenaten occurred in the 12th year of his reign, dating it sometime during 1241-1239 BCE. Note that hostile relations between Egyptians and Nubians had existed since 3100 BCE when Egypt, under Pharaoh Aha, first invaded and occupied Nubia. Cross border raids, occupations, and revolts had been common enough that impalement crucifixion may have been standard practice between the military forces of these two civilizations. The prisoner and casualty account on the Stela of Akehaten is the earliest material “proof” that combatants may have been impaled while still alive.

There were economic and security reasons for Egypt’s hegemonic interests in Nubia. It did not help matters that the Nubians had a different physical appearance than the Egyptians. Nubia was the home of Africa’s black culture. Nubians were unmistakably African, while Egyptians were of slightly lighter skin and looked more Mediterranean. The racial differences perhaps made it easier for the Egyptians to subject their Nubian rivals to such inhumane treatment, especially during war.

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2 thoughts on “Those Uppity Nubians

  1. Riaan Booysen says:

    Dear Marco,

    Your statement that “The “Ikayta” mentioned in the Stela of Akhenaten likely refers to the “vile Kheta”, the Egyptian name for their arch-nemeses, the Hittites.” is most interesting. Can you provide any references for this interpretation?

    Kind regards, Riaan

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