MENTUHOTEP, RACE AND ARCHAEOLOGY
Did Black Africans ever rule over Ancient Egypt? The answer is a nuanced and polemical yes.
The standard answer goes as follows: Black Africans did rule over Ancient Egypt but only at the tail end of its three-thousand year-old civilization.
In its highly acclaimed “The Black Pharaohs,” for example, National Geographic painstakingly retold the story of King Piye, who, in the 8th century BCE, led a Sudanese army deep into the heart of Egypt to found one of the civilization’s most prolific dynasties.
While the feature article provided a rich and accessible portrait of Egypt’s “Nubian Dynasty,” one is left with the distinct impression that Piye actually made history by becoming Egypt’s first Black African ruler. The perspective also suggests that before 700 BCE, non-Black Pharaohs governed a civilization, in which Blacks were either foreigners, captives, slaves, or, if lucky, foot soldiers.
Reminiscent of the modern-day confusion over the existence of people who are both Black and Latino, the notion that Ancient Egypt knew pharaohs who were ethnically Egyptian and phenotypically Black African, apparently defies imagination (so much so that some Classicists have expressed confusion at the Ancient Greek tendency to portray the Ancient Egyptians as both Black and “yellow-skinned”).
This viewpoint is puzzling since, at least one other historical figure stands out as a dark-skinned, fleshy-lipped king of Egypt. He is Mentuhotep II who, in approximately 2055 BCE, united a divided kingdom and established a golden age of military, literary, religious, scientific and architectural achievements.
Ancient iconography depicts him with black skin and sub-Saharan features. For example, on his most famous statue, currently lodged at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo, Mentuhotep is painted with dark-skin and sculpted with “negroid” features.
Many scholars have tried at length to dismiss the statue’s “racial” connotations by alleging that the skin color is merely “symbolic.” Yet other, lesser-known statues, such as the one on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, present the ruler with distinctly Black African features.
Moreover, paintings of the Pharaoh’s favorite wife and one of his daughters defy the ancient Egyptian convention of painting the civilization’s women with light skin. The Queen and Princess are portrayed with unabashedly black skin and with what appear to be short Afros. The women are also shown to be attended upon by yellow-skinned female servants with straight hair.
As a result, some scholars have gone so far as to conclude that Mentuhotep II was Nubian (i.e. Sudanese) in origin. That may very well have been the case. Or he could have simply been an Egyptian who happened to be Black. Regardless, Mentuhotep II’s reign suggests that Black Africans held the reins of power in Egypt at least two-thousand years earlier than many scholars would like us to believe.
Peter Frederick Flegel