The Secret Story of Egypt's Black Emperors Though their story remains largely untold, so-called "black pharaohs" ruled ancient Egypt for nearly half a century.

The Secret Story of Egypt's Black Emperors

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TONY COX, host: Here's a listener favorite from 2008.

Now, to a largely untold chapter of African history, when Nubian Kings conquered ancient Egypt. The so called "Black Pharaohs" ruled for nearly half a century. They played a major role in unifying the country, and created glorious monument which still stand today. Their story appeared in National Geographic Magazine, and I spoke with Robert Draper, who wrote the article.

COX: Your most recent book - let's talk about this first, because it's curious to me - is about George W. Bush. So how did you become involved in research about black pharaohs?

Mr. ROBERT DRAPER (Author, "Black Pharaohs" Article, National Geographic Magazine): Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition, isn't it? But in fact, one of the black pharaohs, arguably the mightiest of them, Taharca, has a certain amount in common with our president, in that they both have - had a healthy estimation of their abilities, perhaps were possessed by hubris. No shortage of self-confidence in any event. But I do dare say that I'm probably the only individual who's gone from interviewing a sitting president in the Oval Office to 72 hours later, standing on the banks of the Nile and admiring the pyramid in which Taharka is encased.

COX: It was a fascinating article, and the pictures were just as fascinating. One of the pharaohs that you feature is - I believe I'm pronouncing this correctly - Piye. Talk of Piye's rule over Egypt, talk about the significance of that particular pharaoh.

Mr. DRAPER: Well, Piye was significant because he did indeed conquer Egypt, perhaps at the behest - it's still rather unclear - of elements within Egypt who believed that Egypt had been floundering for the previous three centuries, had lost a lot of its spiritual and cultural traditions of a New Kingdom era and was riven by tribal warfare and corruption and economic decline. And so Piye in the meantime, as a southern neighbor to Egypt in what we now know as Sudan, was preserving a lot of these pharaonic traditions. And perhaps - though we're not certain - at the invitation of Cornac priests, he believed that the way to save Egypt, in essences, was to invade it.

And invade it he did, overthrowing the warlords. But, though there was a certain amount of bloodshed, showing no particular interest as a conqueror. Instead, he made a kind of truce with the warlords, returned some of the governance to them and then retreated back to present-day Sudan. And - but that essentially inaugurated what we now know is the 25th dynasty of Egyptian rule, which was a roughly 90-year period from 770 BC to about 656 BC, during which Egypt was ruled by what we now know as Sudan.

COX: One of the interesting things about the article is the fact that this information has not been passed along from generation to generation. I want to read it - a passage from the book to you and ask you to talk about it. It makes reference to the fact that there were more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt. And here's what it says. "The first time…" - and we're talking now about Charles Bonnet, an archaeologist, a Swiss archaeologist, who wrote in 1964 - who said in 1964 these words. "The first time I came to Sudan," recalls Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, "people said, you're mad. There's no history there. It's all in Egypt. And it seems that at some point, attitudes perhaps changed, but maybe not enough as they should have. What did changed in terms of the recognition and the acknowledgement of these - of the study of these black pharaohs?

Mr. DRAPER: Sure. Well, to back into that, the acceleration of European colonialism of Africa in the 19th century lead to the discovery of these great Nubian pyramids that you are referring to. But the prevailing mindset of the times was such that these great structures, it was believed, could only have been built by Egyptians or other Caucasians. And it's almost - it's almost embarrassing, it is rather embarrassing, frankly, to read the turn of the century text in which these Nubian contributions were scoffed at as the work of primitives, or explain away by saying well, they must have been lead by Caucasians, by Egyptians or something. This only began to change around the time of the man you referred to, Bonnet, in the early 1960s.

And Bonnet and the American Timothy Kendall and others like him, they were schooled in a more enlightened atmosphere of the civil rights era. And they began to travel to present-day Sudan with a less jaundiced eye. And what they began to discover was, in fact, that this was a sophisticated culture, that not only was in fact run from sort of deep in Africa, but indeed was in a lot of ways autonomous from Egypt, with its own construction and burial customs. So this wasn't just the work of a bunch of cunning mimics, but for - but for a very, very remarkable civilization in its own right.

COX: Here's my next question: how much of this evidence, the writings of pyramids, other ancients civilization structures, let's put it that way. How much of that remains today?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, a fair amount, but not as much as one would like. Of course, this is, you know, the corollary, I suppose, to the victor goes the spoils. That to the subjugated go ruins. And the Nubians, since they were in power for only about a century or in much despise by the Assyrians and others, had many of their likenesses defaced and in fact, obliterated. For example, the Piye, whom you mentioned, the great pharaonic ruler of the black pharaoh, we don't even know how he looks like. We only know that his skin color was black. And so to some degree, we are reliant on the conquerors of the Nubians to describe Nubian contributions, which of course, is a very, very tenuous way to view Nubian history.

COX: Would that explain why some of the pharaohs - images of the pharaohs in the article, they look as much Euro-Centric as Afro-Centric?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, to some degree, yeah. That's if - you know, there are - there's again, a lot of sort of flip-flopping that you see among archaeologists and among these renderings. And there's a lot of blurred lines, too. You know, there's a line that I mentioned in the story that's drawn a fair amount of interest, that says that the ancient well was devoid of racism. Which is not to suggest that there wasn't subjugation or enslavement or discrimination on the base of class or culture, but pigment itself was not the marker in the ancient world that it would later become.

And African women who were married by Egyptian royalty didn't just become concubines, they were often time queens. And we see likenesses of these queens. The children of these conquered Nubians were often schooled by the finest Egyptian tutors. And so there were all these blurred distinctions. You see in Egypt dark-skinned warriors and light-skinned warriors side-by-side. And it's very telling, I think, again, that the race isn't so much of a marker. But viewed through 19th and 20th century eyes, I think, that became a point of confusion.

COX: Your suggestion - and we have about 30 seconds - your suggestion in the article was that the emphasis on skin color actually came out of Europe later on.

Mr. DRAPER: That's correct, yes. That's exactly right. I mean it's in the - that an archaeologist in later years would be very much influence by the thinking of that time. But that was not the way it was back then. Egyptians looked down on Nubians, but they looked down on everybody. They look down on Libyans and Asians. They believe themselves to be superior. But that was much more of a civilization thing than a skin color thing.

COX: That was Robert Draper, a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine. He wrote the story "Black Pharaohs."

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