In 1997 there was a fascinating paper published called The Horses of Kush by Lisa A. Heidorn in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies which summarized some finds about the popularity of horses from Kush being breeded and given or sold to neighboring countries and abroad, appearing to be a burgeoning business. Some of the horses ended up being traded or sent as gifts as far away as Assyria. The Dongola Reach appears to be one particular area of archaeological interest for evidence of horses in the region, being in the northern part of the kingdom.

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Ann E. Killebrew in Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology wrote of one such example, saying "With the Assyrian army in the region, Silkanni, the king of Egypt (Osorkon IV), felt compelled to send Sargon twelve magnificent horses as a gift. These were probably Kushite horses from the Dongola Reach area, already an important horse-breeding center at this time" (pg 240; also citing Heidorn).

A press release this year (2018) elaborated on some of the conclusions about a 2011 uncovering of a Kushite horse grave found in Sudan with the following photograph and a caption saying, "Archaeologists believe an ancient horse burial was a symbolic signature of the ascendant Kushite Dynasty". (See also the release from Purdue University which it was based on).

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Apparently this was a chariot-drawing horse buried in "a tomb complex with a chapel and pyramid aboveground", as this article indicates. It also states:

"The skeleton dates to around 949 B.C., and it is thought to be the most compete horse skeleton from that period ever found, according to a new study describing the grave and its contents, published online April 25 in Antiquity Journal. "

Given the evidence that has emerged over the last two decades since Heidorn's article concerning some neglected chapters in Nubia's history, including fresh evidence of the temporary rule of Nubian Pharaohs in Egypt as they expanded northward (such as under King Taharqa) as National Geographic explored in a winter edition of its magazine in 2008, I'm wondering if a more comprehensive picture of the extent of Kushite horse breeding and trade has emerged as part of this "ascendant Kushite Dynasty" and has been summarized in recent scholarship.

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Since evidence has come out rather piece-meal over time I'm hoping to get a bigger picture of the Kushite horse "industry" (if it may be called that). Can anyone provide me with a summary of what we know as of 2018?

[As a small editorial note, I am mostly (though not exclusively) interested in the history prior to the Greek period; even though the Kingdom of Kush continued into the Common Era]

Edit: As one further consideration on these Kushite horses' prize status and their value in trade I will cite Heidorn's words on page 109 of her paper (linked above) on that topic:

The references to Egyptian and Kushite horses in Neo-Assyrian texts indicate that the two North African countries actively bred horses, and that the horses of Kush were a breed prized by Assyrian charioteers. Dalley suggested that the markets established by the Assyrians in the territory of Gaza and on the eastern border of Egypt, which are mentioned in the inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II, respectively, were involved in the horse trade between Assyria and Egypt. She noted that most Assyrian merchants at this time were either explicitly labeled "horse-traders" or can be shown to have been involved in the horse trade, and she was therefore inclined to believe that Tiglath-pileser and Sargon established these markets to encourage trade with Egypt in order to acquire Nubian horses for their chariotry.

  • Hmmm....Good question. Not having looked into it (yet), you'd think nearby Ethiopia would be far better terrain for breeding horses than Sudan. So I'm really curious where they bred them (or if instead they just got them from Ethiopia).
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:49
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    Ancient Ethiopia was also known as Kush so there is no real distinction there. Translators of the Hebrew Old Testament/Tanak use "Cush" (the old spelling) and "Ethiopia" interchangeably. The Dongola Reach is where the breeding took place primarily. Check out the Horses of Kush article for more particulars on that. Also, if I recall correctly I read somewhere that the Kushite horses were of large stature and one of the largest breed of horses one could find in the Ancient Near East. Jun 28, 2018 at 18:47
  • Note the following from this Wikipedia article: || "During classical antiquity, the Kushite imperial capital was located at Meroë. In early Greek geography, the Meroitic kingdom was known as Aethiopia." || " Taharqa was driven from power by Esarhaddon, and fled to his Nubian homeland. Esarhaddon describes "installing local kings and governors" and "All Ethiopians I deported from Egypt, leaving not one to do homage to me"." || URL: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Kush Jun 28, 2018 at 18:51
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 28, 2018 at 21:20

3 Answers 3


(edited for clarity, removed addendum & comments - see final comment by Mark C. Wallace)

The question:

I'm wondering if a more comprehensive picture of the extent of Kushite horse breeding and trade has emerged as part of this "ascendant Kushite Dynasty" and has been summarized in recent scholarship. ... Since evidence has come out rather piece-meal over time I'm hoping to get a bigger picture of the Kushite horse "industry" (if it may be called that).

Contrarian View

I think the idea of horse industry - as OP indicated - may be overstating it.

In fact, I'd go further and ask: was there significant trade of horses during Kushite period (25th Dynasty), as opposed to gift-giving (prestige goods)?

1. Horse Trading vs Prestige Goods (Gifts)

After Megiddo (mid-15th century BCE), Thutmose III seized 2,000 mares and 6 stallions as war booty. This was the start of the proto-Arabian horse in Egypt. Prior to this period, there was no significant iconography of horses or related activity. Even during this period, Egypt struggled with introducing horses into their world and therefore, I believe the stock-breeding was to maintain/grow their horses for warfare. Trade/export would diminish this important livestock.

From 13th to 10th century BCE, the importance of horse-training grounds of Piramesses was its strategic military staging post (vs the Hittites & Shansu). In other words, breeding and training horses for warfare.

From 8th century BCE, given the unique horse burials at el Kurru, especially the horse accoutrements buried together, it is clear that horses were were still very highly valued and clearly the King's prerogative. To date, there has been no discovery (however, see quote above from Heidorn) of private horse-breeding during this period. In other words, horses were high-value, status-enhancing, livestock only fit for royalty (i.e. prestige goods). Hence, it would be surprising to find Nubian horse trading activity.

The recent discovery of the "Tombos horse" (OP's picture) further confirms the high-value of the horse:

A tomb burial for the horse suggests that the animal probably played a significant role in its owner's household, and was more than a mere beast of burden, while the iron bridle piece found in the tomb — an expensive and rare item that would have been made specifically for the horse — further helps to establish its elevated status, according to the study.

Source: This 3,000-Year-Old Horse Got a Human-Style Burial, Live Science, April 26, 2018 (emphasis mine)

2. Large Horses

There is another matter of what horses were being bred (i.e. the breed)? Why was it so attractive to the Neo-Assyrians? In some sources, such as Heidorn's 1997 article, the argument was that these were large horses.

From my comments (which is removed): On the "large stature" of the horse, is there any discussion on the 'breed' itself because, to my understanding, it should be smaller/lighter type, i.e. proto-Arabian. Especially if there were seized from nomads of Near East. Horses buried in el Kurru were facing NE, most likely Bactria/Sogdiana or Black Sea? Weren't the imports from that direction, i.e. transiting thru the Near East? (Excavations from horse burials shows horses of steppe nomads & early Chinese facing east generally -- NE,SE,E, direction of rising sun). All questions that cause me to think it was more than the horse (breed) itself, or at very least, perhaps the horse equipment was also highly valued.

I still have no idea why "large horses" and do not have breed info on Kusaean horse (from Nubia) - see below (Postgate's quote, point 4.2) on the naming of this breed.

3. Trading vs Breeding

After discussion with OP, and subsequent edit of question, I believe there is a distinction between a trader/trading (export industry for horses) and breeder (location best-suited for breeding). In other words, Nubia (Kush) was probably a good place for breeding horses. However, that does not mean there was horse trading involved.

OP makes a point that it was highly-prized (final para, from Heidorn's 1997 article) as chariot horses. I see that as status symbols and, in my mind, the Kushite horses were proto-Arabian, so I don't understand why "large horses" would be prized (stamina goes down in the heat) unless they were status symbols (hence my "prestige goods" point). Of course, OP could be correct and I'm wrong.

In any case, here's two paragraphs from Sandra Olsen, "A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse" (International Museum of the Horse, 2010), pp.52-3 (emphasis mine). It establishes Nubia as a good location for breeding horses:

It will be recalled from discussion in the previous chapters that the horse was domesticated in the Eurasian steppe, definitively before 3500 BCE, and to have made its way to Syria and Mesopotamia by around 2500 BCE. Although domesticated horses would have been able to enter the Arabian Peninsula at this time, the climate was probably already too severe in much of the region to easily sustain this northern species. It would take another 1,000 years and the development of the proto-Arabian breed before there were horses adapted to such extreme heat.

Domesticated horses arrived in Egypt about 1600 BCE, but were kept in very small numbers in the Nile delta and along the river. By the 8 th century BCE, horse breeding was done for the Egyptians and the Assyrians in southern Nubia, where it was possible to have pastures even some distance from the Nile floodplain. The success of the horse in the Near East and Egypt relied on the development of the proto-Arabian breed, which possessed a variety of physical adaptations that allowed it to live and work in extremely hot and arid environments. The earliest evidence for this is around the time of Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE), and his source was probably in the region of Syria-Palestine. This may be the turning point after which it is reasonable to look for the horse moving into the Arabian Peninsula.

4. Basis for Contrarian View

From OP's comment asking why I took the "contrarian view":

I guess what I'm saying is if you can quote actual recent scholarship that establishes the contrarian view ...

Short answer: Instead of just more recent scholarship, I am more inclined to believe Postgate is correct. Dalley not so much. The reason for this is explained below.

Kingdom of Kush, began in 8th century BCE, were constantly at war with Neo-Assyria. So, the real question is would horses be sold to the enemy. Some historians believe so, others considered this unlikely (contrarian view).

4.1 Dalley vs Postgate in The Horses of Kush (1997)

First, as OP explained, the key document is Heidorn's "The Horses of Kush" (1997) and, for me, it was a choice between two academics who disagreed on the provenance of Kushite horses, namely Dalley & Postgate.

  • Dalley - The author referenced Dalley (Stephanie Dalley, a British scholar) as the source for this idea that Neo-Assyria was buying horses from the Kushites (see OP's quote in last paragraph).
  • Postgate - He is the competing academic who did not agree with Dalley (also referenced by Heidon), and it was Nicholas Postgate, also a British scholar. In addition, he is an Assyriologist.
  • In 2007, Postgate wrote more on Neo-Assyria's reliance on horses from Nubia (see below), but as for Dalley's "Kushite" horses, I could not find anything else on this topic from Dalley.

4.2 The Land Of Assur & The Yoke Of Assur (2007) by Postgate

The full title of the book is "The Land Of Assur & The Yoke Of Assur: Studies on Assyria, 1971 to 2005" (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2007).

In chapter 6, "The economic structure of the Assyrian Empire", Postgate made the argument that Nubian horses were provisioned (not bought) from Nubia, especially during the reign of Esarhaddon (681 – 669 BCE), pp. 217-8:

Problems of supply: Alongside the general dependence of the cities on the country, we should put some specific areas in which the central government relied on supply from a different part of the empire. Apart from corn, the staple requirements of the army were for men, animals, and straw. The provision of men and straw seems to have proceeded smoothly as long as the empire remained intact, but it is clear that the supply of animals, and especially of horses, was a constant anxiety to the kings of Assyria.

Texts from the reign of Esarhaddon show that the horses were classed in two broad categories, riding (pethallu, cavalry) and draft horses (sa niri, of the yoke), and the latter type includes horses of the Kusaean and Mesaean breeds. There is no certainty of the identity of the places Kusu and Mesu from which these names derive, but the most plausible candidates are Cush (or the Sudan) and an area of north-western lran. Horses were certainly bred in Assyria as well, and elsewhere, but nevertheless the diminishing control over Egypt and the far north-eastern parts of the empire during the 7th century may well have led to a shortage of horses and thus have affected the whole country's military potential.

4.3 Nubian Horses Levied or Seized

A 2008 University College Dublin thesis, Horse Breeds and Breeding in the Greco-persian World: 1st and 2nd Millennium BC (2014), published unabridged -- after some explanation of how many Kusaean and Mesaean horses Assyria needed, the author stated these horses were "levied" or "seized" (not bought). In p.172 (emphasis mine):

The total number of horses levied in the the three months of that came to 2,627. Many more tablets relating to horse levies no doubt existed but have subsequently been lost. ... Constant warfare led to large numbers of horses being lost and so we find many references to continual campaigns where many thousands were seized.

To end, I am certainly not saying the proof is rock-solid, that Nubians (Kushite kingdom) did not trade in horses during the 25th Dynasty. But the circumstantial evidence (war with Neo-Assyrians, prestige economy, etc.), makes it seem unlikely. That's all.

Having said this, the most likely person with knowledge of the Nubian horse "industry" is Sandra Olsen, curator-in-charge at the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. She was consulted by the principal investigators of the "Tombos horse" and she is editor of a new (in press) British Archaeological Report, Equids in the Ancient Near East, Egypt and Arabia, BAR, Oxford. (I do not have access to this report)

Note to readers: The comments below does not make sense as I've deleted mine and incorporated them into the answer.

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    Just use the same discussion with TED (link provided there)?
    – J Asia
    Jun 29, 2018 at 5:14
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    By the way, this is extremely useful feedback, but as per the main purpose of my OP to ask for what scholars themselves have been saying recently about the significance of the horse breeding and how they were sold, taken, traded, etc. I'm leaning towards awarding the answer to LangLangC, though even more detailed quotes would be appreciated, since LLC quotes actual recent literature on the subject which gives me a small bibliography from which to launch into further research. I just don't want my decision if I do accept it to seem arbitrary or shying away from pushback (which I do appreciate). Jun 29, 2018 at 6:56
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    I guess what I'm saying is if you can quote actual recent scholarship that establishes the contrarian view, then more power to you. Jun 29, 2018 at 13:17
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    Thank you for the substantial expansion to your answer. Very helpful. BTW, I reached out to an archaeologist friend of mine (Israeli - just because that's where my contacts are) just to see if he could point me in the right direction for further literature and he confirmed Olsen as a source, albeit pointing me to a recent journal release from her: cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/…. Jul 1, 2018 at 0:20
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    My friend also pointed me to this paper, which @LangLangC actually cited from (by Silvie Zamazalova): ucl.ac.uk/sargon/downloads/zamazalova_crossroads.pdf. Jul 1, 2018 at 0:21

A – for an historian – fairly recent summary reads like this:

Concurrently with the adaptation of the native traditions of government to the Theban model, an adaptation process in production and distribution must have been consciously introduced, the details of which elude our understanding, however. Trade contacts were probably maintained with western Asia despite the difficulties presented by the expansion of Tefnakht and the advance of Assyria. The burials of the chariot horses of Piye, Shabaqo, Shebitqo and Tanwetamani at el Kurru attest to an important Kushite ware of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty period. Recent studies of horse skeletons from el Kurru and of the textual and iconographical evidence pertinent to the use of the horse in Kushite warfare show that the finest horses used in contemporary Egypt and Assyria were bred in, and exported from Nubia. It may also be supposed that the development of this large, long-legged, high-quality horse breed may already have begun in Kush before the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty period. The remarkable burials of the royal chariot horses in standing position, occasionally wearing their plumed head decoration, covered with bead nets known from Egyptian TIP and Egyptian-type Kushite burials, and provided with funerary amulets are testimonies to the Kushite love of horses. This affection was motivated by the importance of the native breed as well as by the adoption of the aristocratic Egyptian tradition of Pharaoh's love of the horses bred in the royal stables. The el Kurru burials thus represent a royal funerary decorum of twofold origins.

The horse burials at el Kurru also indicate the traditional impor- tance of the chariot as an attribute of the king as triumphant warlord, and complement the evidence of the development of the Kushite army during the course of the century following Piye's accession. Changes such as the introduction of better types of shields, better and larger horses, heavier chariots with three men to each chariot, furthermore the development of cavalry tactics and the refinement of the method of siege warfare contributed to Piye's success in the campaign against Tefnakht and his allies. His wars on Egyptian soil were, however, conducted against foes who shared with the Kushites the principles and techniques of a chivalrous, "medieval", warfare, with the accents laid on the validity of the individual warrior. Despite the prowess of the Kushite army and all innovations and changes mentioned above, this warfare would prove insufficient to meet the onslaught of the Assyrian war machine in the 7th century BC.
Torok, Laszlo:"The kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic civilization", Brill: Leiden, Boston, 1997, p 157.

Unfortunately, not that much more was added to these findings, since the people in that region were less interested in archaeological excavations of signs of trade and warfare in the last years. They mostly preferred actual warfare over that old stone stuff.

In David N. Edwards: "The Nubian Past. An Archaeology of the Sudan", Routledge: London, New York, 2004, the findings are largely summarised to the point that around 1999 the major archaeological finds and publications dry up like a wadi.

But even if the new papers decline in number, a somewhat recent summary still made into press:

The second half of the 8th century B.C.E. proved to be a period of vital importance to the interaction of Egypt, Kush and Assyria, setting in motion events which eventually pitted the Egyptians and Kushites against Assyria in open confrontation at the battle of Eltekeh in 701 B.C.E. The surviving sources, particularly in Egypt, are so scarce that reconstructing the history of this period with any certainty is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, it is worth the attempt, since by analysing the origins of a conflict we are better able to understand whether it was an inevitable outcome, or whether events could have taken a different turn: could Egypt and Assyria have co-existed peacefully and without interfering in each other’s affairs?

Silvie Zamazalová: "Before the Assyrian Conquest in 671 B.C.E.: Relations between Egypt, Kush and Assyria", ReusedMaster Thesis, University College London in 2009; in: Jana Mynarova (Ed): "Egypt and the Near East - The crossroads proceedings of an international conference on the Relations of Egypt and the Near East in the Bronze Age, Prague, September 1-3, 2010"

Very recently things got a little bit less turbulent in the region and scholars returned to work, and promptly shake up the status quo of knowledge:

The accompanying funerary assemblage includes one of the earliest securely dated pieces of iron in Africa. The Third Intermediate Period (1050–728 BC) saw the development of the Nubian Kushite state beyond the southern border of Egypt. Analysis of the mortuary and osteological evidence suggests that horses represented symbols of a larger social, political and economic movement, and that the horse gained symbolic meaning in the Nile Valley prior to its adoption by the Kushite elite.
Sarah A. Schrader & Stuart Tyson Smith & Sandra Olsen & Michele Buzon: "Symbolic equids and Kushite state formation: a horse burial at Tombos" antiquity 92 362 (2018): 383–397.

  • Thank you for the quotes and some of the orientation on who else has written on the subject. That can serve as the basis for further research. It does indeed seem that since the 90s that the information has been "slim pickings". The discovery of the basalt statues of the Nubian Pharaohs like Taharqa (as the NatGeo issue I mentioned talked about) stirred fresh interest, but I guess someone still has yet to condense all we know to date into a comprehensive summary. Thanks for your efforts though. If you find more feel free to load up on bibliography. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:24
  • I actually do have some Egyptologist friends, including my old anthropology professor who I could reach out to for perhaps some lesser known literature what is still specialized in this area, but that didn't occur to me until just now. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:25
  • Do you have any thoughts on J Asia's answer? I'm inclined to mark yours as the accepted answer just because it deals with what other scholars have said, but wanted to see if there is room for expanding the answer. Jun 29, 2018 at 19:31
  • Oh, I think that answer is quite a valuable addition. If I were to expand this answer (gosh, usually 'they' complain about too long answers from me here) some aspects of that direction will show up. There is a bit more to it, give me a few days… Jun 29, 2018 at 19:36
  • I just left a link to a Cambridge journal entry from Olsen under J Asia's answer, which may touch on what you were asking J Asia about. Jul 1, 2018 at 0:24

It must be noted that the Ancient Egyptians state themselves that their origin is to the south of what is now called Egypt; Sudan; Ethiopia (geographically, the Ethiopian highlands are the source of several rivers); Eritrea; Uganda; Kenya. For example, the vast majority of the more than 400 pyramids still standing in Africa are to be found up south of modern Egypt (for example in Sudan) not what is considered within the western academic invention of "Egyptology" Ancient Egypt proper.

It must also be noted that any literature relevant to "the Bible" associated with Ancient Egypt, Ancient Kush or Ancient Nubia must be questioned. There was no Bible or Christianity during the time of Ancient Egypt (prior to 332 B.C.E.). The first Bible was not published until 1475, see The Historical Origins of Christianity by Walter Williams.

In ancient times the Nile Valley culture extended the breadth and length of the Nile Valley, down north; that is, Kush, Nubia and Ancient Egypt are share the same historical and cultural origin.

Horses in Ancient Egypt are documented to at circa 1700-1550 B.C.E., see Horses in Ancient Egypt. The article states

In the wars between the Theban 17th Dynasty and the Hyksos both sides used horses. In later times, the kingdom of Kush in the Sudan was famous for its horses, perhaps from good grazing grounds in areas of Upper Nubia: in the Victory Stela of king Piy, special mention is made of the royal attention to horses.

however, the timeline is backwards, as mentioned above, the origin of the Ancient Egyptians was up south, not Egypt proper.

If by "developed" you mean "advanced or elaborated to a specified degree" the breeding and usage of horses in peace and war time (or "trading", if that is the term you prefer) was substantial over the course of thousands of years

enter image description here

Ramses II (c. 1303 B.C.E.-1213 B.C.E.) fighting in a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh with two archers, one with the reins tied around his waist to free both hands. Relief from Abu Simbel.

  • I would suggest removing the Bible comment and adding more on the actual subject at hand. The only reason I can imagine you would mention the Bible is because I quoted from a book source that just to happened to contain the word in the title, which was written by a well credentialed scholar and ethnographer Ann Killebrew, and smacks of being an opportunistic pot shot. Unfortunately your "information" is so wildly inaccurate as to even be out of touch with the scholarship of even the more radical skeptical minimalists who largely acknowledge the historical backdrop of the Hebrew Tanak or OT. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:04
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    It's also completely non-trivial that the Hebrew book of 2 Kings actually mentions one of the Kushite Kings, Taharqa, long before archaeology dug up the actual basalt statues of him in recent time and as such was an important historical record of Taharqa. If you want to read a fascinating though slightly skeptical book as concerns the Bible that was written by a journalist who earned the attention of ancient historians for writting it, read "The Rescue of Jerusalem" by Henry Aubin. He delves into Kushite history and explains its connection to Sennacherib and the biblical stories, with a twist. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:08
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    For a not-so-skeptical coverage of biblical history with special attention to Egyptian history (including some Kushite references) by a recognized Egyptologist and authority on the Ramesside Inscriptions, see Kenneth Kitchen's book "On the Reliability of the Old Testament". This post was not meant to veer off into biblical topics but I am entirely ready to defend the historicity of the bible from glib denunciations with little more than assertions behind them. As for the assertion that the Bible was not even published until 1475 that is so absurd it needs no response. Let's get back on topic. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:13
  • @SeligkeitIstInGott The "Bible" is historically worthless. We will not agree on that topic. Yes, any mention of "the Bible" in relation to Ancient Nubia will not go without being directly refuted, by facts, not emotions. The answer provides ample evidence that the Nile Valley Civilization engaged in usage of horses for thousands of years; we left our own artifacts. There is no distinction between Kush, Nubia and Ancient Egypt. We are the same people, see The Nile Valley Civilization and the Spread of African Culture Jun 29, 2018 at 4:22
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    Well, more unsubstantiated pontificating as regards the Bible, but what's new? I see none of such stated "facts" being brought to bear on your pronouncement though so it's just a toothless claim. Emotions have nothing to do with this. Bias and misinformation does. You don't seem acquainted with Syro-Palestinian archaeology and scholarship much less biblical scholarship. Yes we will disagree, but again this is off topic. Jun 29, 2018 at 4:29

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