“History is generally only a working hypothesis”

AUC Press had a Q&A session with Aidan Dodson, the author of “The Nubian Pharaohs of Egypt: Their Lives and Afterlives,” which is the sixth edition of the “Lives and Afterlives” series.

The book is an innovative account of the careers of the Nubians who occupied the Egyptian throne.


Could you share some intriguing discoveries or evidence from texts and monuments that you found particularly illuminating or pivotal in understanding the Nubian pharaohs’ legacy?

It is important to recognize that what we call ‘history’ is generally only a ‘working hypothesis’ when dealing with the ancient world, particularly before around 500 BC. It is also the result of combining data from a wide range of sources, most of which are incomplete to a greater or lesser degree. This means that one new discovery, or new interpretation, can have knock-on effects that can require that working hypothesis to be replaced by a new one: one find can literally ‘change history’.

Aidan Dodson with Taher Aboudi in Aboudi Bookstore Luxour
Aidan Dodson with Taher Aboudi in Aboudi Bookstore Luxour

A particularly interesting feature of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty is the way that its ‘working hypothesis’ is based on the melding of Nubian, Egyptian, Assyrian and Biblical data, both textual and archaeological. While most other periods draw on material from outside the Nile valley for their modern reconstruction, none are quite as dependent on such sources as is the story of the Nubian pharaohs in Egypt. A new discovery that has led to some major rethinking came, in 1999, was an Assyrian text (found in Iran) meant that the dates of the reign of the Nubian pharaoh Shabataka had to be shifted backwards in time. This created, or exacerbated, all kind of problems with our reconstruction of the period, which were only resolved by making him the predecessor, rather than successor, of King Shabaka, as had been assumed for some two centuries. Indeed, on closer inspection, it turned out that the traditional order of the kings had simply been a guess by pioneer Egyptologists in the 1830s, which no-one had thought to question.

Switching round the two kings resolved a whole range of historical problems that had built up over the years, showing how important it is to continually challenge our assumptions when writing the history of ancient Egypt – and the rest of the ancient world, for that matter.

What motivated you to spotlight the Nubian pharaohs’ story within your “Lives and Afterlives” series, considering their often-overlooked place in ancient Egyptian history?

Lives and Afterlives Series by Aidan Dodson

The Third Intermediate Period, which is ended by the reigns of the Nubian pharaohs, has always been one of my specialisms.

I first got interested in it while still at high school, and had one of the top experts as one of my lecturers at university.

A few years ago I wrote a book, Afterglow of Empire, for the AUC Press, on the period, with a more specific focus on the Nubian pharaohs was stimulated by a series of visits to Sudan and the key sites of their heartland. This was followed by suggestions that they might make good subjects for the Lives and Afterlives series. In particular, the story of their modern rediscovery sheds interesting lights on historiographic methodologies that have been used over the past couple of centuries and – regrettably – the racist attitudes of many past researchers, whose malign influence still survives, unconsciously, in some historical reconstructions current today.

The book is described as both authoritative and accessible. How did you strike a balance between scholarly depth and making the content engaging for readers of various backgrounds interested in ancient history?

It is a fine line to walk, but for me the key thing is to try and tell a coherent story, but without over-simplification, and ensuring that readers are made aware of the underlying source data and areas of ongoing debate either in the main text, and/or in end-notes. The final chapter of the book, in reviewing the history of the writing of the history of the period, also aims to help readers understand how we got to the current working hypotheses about the time, and why some now-obsolete ‘zombie facts’ are still to be found in modern works. The choice of images is intended to reinforce these aims, by providing illustrations of key sites and monuments, their impact reinforced by the use of colour.

In your book, you mention overcoming biased narratives about the Nubian pharaohs perpetuated by earlier scholars. How did you navigate through these biases while uncovering and presenting a more accurate portrayal of their reigns?

The fundamental thing was to go back to the original texts (Egyptian, Assyrian and Biblical) and see what they actually said, rather than simply accepting narratives that modern historians – no matter how distinguished! – have derived from them. Indeed, this is something that needs to be done in any historical investigation, ancient or modern, as there is always scope for transcription errors and misprints, as well as bias, in secondary and tertiary works.

In the case of the Nubian pharaohs, it became, for example, quite clear that the common allegation that the Nubian pharaohs ‘meddled’ in the affairs of Palestine against the Assyrians was without basis. Indeed, it seems that they tried to keep their distance, but ultimately responded to appeals for aid.

Similarly, further allegations of the Nubians’ supposed ‘incompetence’ in warfare and diplomacy finds no support in contemporary documents. Indeed, when re-evaluated, they may be seen to have actually been viewed as effective opponents of the Assyrians, with their intervention possibly key in ending the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC.

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