Egyptian interests in Nubia were always driven by economics. The one factor that chiefly characterized Egypt’s relationship with Nubia through most of their history was exploitation. Nubia’s most important resource for Egypt was precious metal, including gold and electrum. The gold mines of Nubia were located in certain valleys and mountains on either side of the Nile River, although the most important mining center was located in the Wadi Allaqi. That valley extended eastward into the mountains near Qubban (about 107 km. south of Elephantine). Nubia was also an important source of valuable hard stone and copper, both of which were necessary for Egypt’s monumental building projects.
Trading in African Goods
Especially important for Egypt was that Nubia was also a corridor to central Africa and a point for the trans-shipment of exotic goods from that region, including: frankincense, myrrh, “green gold,” ivory, ebony and other exotic woods, precious oils, resins and gums, panther and leopard skins, monkeys, dogs, giraffes, ostrich feathers and eggs, as well as pygmies (who became important to Egyptian religious rituals). In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians regularly penetrated as far as the Second Cataract to barter for these products which were coming down through the upper Nile Valley (viz., the expeditions of Harkhuf, Hekayib, Mekhu and Sabni).
Nubia was also an important source of manpower and labor for the Egyptians. The Palermo Stone records that early in the Fourth Dynasty, King Snefru led a military campaign into Nubia reputedly to crush a “revolt” there (the Egyptians considered all enemies–whether foreign or domestic–as “rebels” against the natural order). According to that text, he captured 200,000 head of cattle and 7,000 prisoners, all of whom were deported to Egypt as laborers on royal building projects. While some archaeologists argue that this campaign was limited to Lower Nubia, others note that the amount of 7,000 is rather high for a country that was fairly depopulated at the time. If the number was not inflated as royal propaganda, then Snefru could have penetrated into Upper Nubia as far as the Land of Yam and made his conquests there. The Old Kingdom Presence in Nubia Egyptian Activities
By the Old Kingdom (if not earlier in the Second Dynasty), the Egyptians founded a settlement at Buhen which apparently was an important site for copper production. Later, Khufu opened diorite quarries to the west of Toshka and south of Buhen, while other quarrying expeditions were sent south above the Second Cataract. The Fourth Dynasty also saw the establishment of a regular messenger service between the First and Second Cataracts.
By the reign of Sahure in the early Fifth Dynasty, the Egyptians began trading with the Land of Punt , which was accessible only by sailing along the seacoast on the Red Sea. Expeditions to Punt began by sailing upriver to Coptos, then caravaning eastward through the Wadi Hammamat or the Wadi Gasus to the seacoast. There the expeditions built ships and embarked on the sea voyage south. While the Egyptians did not penetrate Punt eastward from the Nile in Upper Nubia, apparently some Puntite goods and pygmies were trans-shipped to Egypt via a circuitous overland route through Nubia.
Despite that Buhen was abandoned in the Fifth Dynasty and the diorite quarries near Toshka were closed, Egypt maintained its hold over Nubia in the late Old Kingdom. In the early Sixth Dynasty, Egyptians were recruiting Nubian mercenaries into the Egyptian army. Weni recounts that he included five different Nubian peoples when he assembled the great army of King Pepi I for the military campaign to Canaan. He also led a major quarrying expedition to Ibhat southeast of the Second Cataract, and he built giant barges in Wawat, for which, he says, the rulers of Wawat, Irtjet, Yam and Medja “dragged wood” (in token humiliation?). Later he cut a series of channels through the First Cataract, after which King Merenre traveled to Elephantine in order to receive the homage of the Nubian leaders. Pepi II prepared an expedition to sail to Punt in his reign, although it is uncertain that its preparations were completed.
Apparently, the governors of Elephantine at this time were responsible for royal affairs in Nubia. Harkhuf recounts four successive expeditions on which he served or directed to Upper Nubia and Yam in the reigns of Merenre and Pepi II. He was a pathfinder, and his orders were to discover routes through the country and to trade with its leaders. While his earlier trips saw him traveling through Irtjet and Zatju along the river, in his later journeys, these territories had turned hostile to Egypt, forcing him to travel on desert tracts and through the western oases. On his return to Egypt, laden with goods, Harkhuf could only travel through Irtjet, Zatju, and Wawat with the added protection of forces of the friendly ruler of Yam.
The change in the disposition of these territories was probably spurred by the arrival of a new people who gradually overtook Upper and Lower Nubia at this time and settled those areas. These were the C-Group people who were hostile to Egypt, and ultimately, they may have conspired to force Egypt out of Nubia at the end of the Old Kingdom, when the Egyptian state began to fragment and fall into civil war. Nubian Confederacy
Evidence indicates (e.g., the account of Harkhuf) that at certain periods in the reigns of Merenre and Pepi II, the Upper Nubian chiefdoms of Irtjett and Zatju, as well as Wawat in Lower Nubia, united together under a single ruler. At some point, this C-Group union might even have included the Early Kerma culture, which was distantly related to the C-Group. Evidently, Yam stayed independent of this confederacy. The purpose of the union, undoubtedly, was to resist Egyptian penetration and colonization of Nubia. For that reason, the Egyptians led by Hekayib, Governor of Elephantine, launched a military campaign to suppress the C-Group, splitting Wawat from the confederacy and helping to stabilize Egyptian control of the region. However, the Egyptians were not able to pacify Nubia entirely, despite several military campaigns in the Sixth Dynasty. Nubia remained restive for the remainder of the Old Kingdom. So, e.g., Sabni, Governor of Elephantine, recounts that he had to journey quickly to Wawat with an army to recover the body of his father, the previous governor, who had been killed on a trading mission.