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The Meroitic State: Nubia as a Hellenistic African State. 300 B.C.-350 AD


Pyramid N19
 Pyramid N19, Meroe, Sudan

The Napatan Phase of the Nubian culture ended when the royal cemetery was transferred from Napata to Meroe in the early third century BC. This inaugurated the phase called the "Meroitic," in which the culture seemed to free itself from the strict adherance to Egyptian norms and developed many original traits. The dramatic shift in the Kushite culture almost certainly had to do with an event recorded by the Greek historican Diodorus. He stated that prior to the reign of a king named Ergamenes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 BC), it had been the custom for the high priests, probably at Napata, to send a message to the king, supposedly from the great god himself, advising him that the time of his rule on earth was finished and that he must die. Traditionally the kings had obeyed the divine orders and had taken their own lives. Ergamenes, however, "who had received instruction in Greek philosophy, was the first to disdain this command. With the determination worthy of a king he came with an armed force to the forbidden place where the golden temple of the Aithiopians was situated and slaughtered all the priests, abolished this tradition, and instituted practices at his own discretion". It was about this time that the first royal tomb was built at Meroe: of a king named "Arkamani" (=Ergamanes). Soon thereafter, Kushite art and architecture began to develop individualistic styles. The royal family appeared much more "African" in their images and in their standards of beauty. The royal costumes and crowns were unique. A lion god, unknown in the Egyptian pantheon, became pre-eminent in the southern part of the kingdom. And Egyptian language and writing were largely abandoned for official monuments and were replaced by the native Nubian language (called "Meroitic"), which was for the first time written down in newly devised hieroglyphic and cursive alphabets.

Meroe seems to have been a flourishing town at least as early as the eighth century BC. It was situated at the junction of several main river and caravan routes, connecting central Africa, via the Blue and White Niles, with Egypt, and the Upper Nile region itself with Kordofan, the Red Sea and the Ethiopian highlands. Since it lay within the rainbelt, the land about it was seasonally more productive than the region of Napata, and it was thus a somewhat more pleasant place to live. By the third century BC it was only one of several large towns that had arisen in the same region. Bounded to the west by the Nile, the north by the River Atbara and to the south by the Blue Nile, this area, now known as the Butana, was the heartland of the later Kushite kingdom, and came to be known in classical literature as "the Island of Meroe."

Our historical knowledge of Meroitic history is scant. When the kings ceased writing in Egyptian and began writing in their own Meroitic language, we suddenly cease being able to understand their official inscriptions. Meroitic, unfortunately, has not yet been deciphered; the key has never yet been found. All our knowledge of Meroitic history is thus based on the few surviving Greek and Roman reports, and on data recovered archaeologically.

The rulers of the Meroitic Period were contemporaries with the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Romans. In the third century BC, they maintained friendly relations with the Ptolemies, since the kings of the two neighboring Nile states collaborated in renovating the temples of Lower Nubia, sacred to both Kush and Egypt. Agents of the Ptolemies also traveled up the Nile as explorers and emissaries, some perhaps traveling to Meroe to haggle with the Kushite ruler over the price of war elephants which they sought to purchase for the armies of Egypt. The Roman historian Pliny preserves the names of several Greeks who actually resided at Meroe. One, named Simonides, was said to have lived there five years and to have written a book about his adventures. There was obviously a brusque trade between Meroe and Egypt and even beyond, since numerous Greek and Roman object have been found at Meroe: a wine jar from one of the royal tombs, in fact, is stamped with a mark indicating it had come from a region of Algeria. By the first century AD some of the Meroitic gods had even taken on aspects of some of the Olympian deities, and some temples were built using Greek measurement, and incorporated on Hellenistic features and ornament.

Scanty, but certainly accurate accounts of the capital Meroe have come down to us in the works of Pliny and Strabo, both of whom had at their disposal the reports of the team of explorers sent to Meroe by Nero about 60 AD to seek the source of the Nile. Pliny stated that Meroe was in an area where the grass became greener where scrub forest first began to appear and where elephants and rhinoceros could be seen in small numbers. The buildings in the town, at that time, he said, "were few in number," but there were temples to "Jupiter Hammon" (Amun), besides "smaller shrines erected in his honor throughout all the country." Strabo had noted further that the palace at Meroe had a garden full of fruit trees, and that the houses of the common folk were constructed of bricks or "interwoven pieces of split palm wood."

Today Meroe is the largest archaeological site in the Sudan. Lying about a half a mile from the river, the city ruins alone cover about a square mile in area. Today they lie in an acacia scrub forest. Most prominent among the ruins is the huge stone walled enclosure containing the rubble remains of the palace and government buildings, several small temples (one with painted frescoes), and a so-called "Roman bath" or nymphaeum. Immediately behind it sprawls another walled com-pound enclosing the Amun Temple, a near copy of the one at Gebel Barkal. The remains of several other major sanctuaries lie nearby among the trees. Between these and the palace compound there are the extensive unexcavated mounds of the settlement, and on the east end of the city, on the edge of the desert, there are great slag heaps which have suggested that Meroe was an important iron working center. While cattle raising and the farming of millet and barley seem to have been the major occupations of the people at large, the city prospered by its river and overland trade. According to Strabo this trade probably involved the procurement and transshipment of salt, copper, iron, gold, various kinds of precious stones, valuable woods and animal products such as ivory and the skins of lion and leopard. Oddly enough, unlike the principalities within the Graeco-Roman sphere, Meroe never made use of coinage, instead doing all business only in barter.

Northern Cemetery, Meroe, Sudan
 Northern Cemetery, Meroe, Sudan

Behind the city in the eastern desert lie its vast cemeteries. Those nearest the town were reserved for the common people. Those about a mile and a half distant bear the small masonry pyramids of the nobles and lesser members of the royal family, and finally, about three miles away, lining the tops of two ridges, are the towering pyra-mids of the rulers, of which over forty can be counted.

If Meroe was the major city of the kingdom, it was not the only one. The Butana Steppe is dotted with other Meroitic remains. Some up to sixty miles east of the Nile. Other settlements have been identified further south along the Blue and White Niles, and many Meroitic settlements arose in Lower Nubia, some barely a hundred miles south of Aswan. Apart from the capital, the most monumental sites are three, which lie between forty and fifty miles south of Meroe. At Wad Ban Naga, on the east bank of the Nile, there may be seen the remains of an enormous palace, together with two temples and a town. This was apparently a river port leading to the two great inland centers Naga and Musawwarat es-Sufra, built on the plain some twelve to eighteen miles inland. The first of these was clearly an important religious center, for it possesses the ruins of seven stone temples, a town, and a cemetery. On-going excavations here have revealed that the town was also surrounded by numerous manor houses with plantations.
The Great Enclosure, Musawwarat es-Sufra, Sudan, 3rd century BC
 The Great Enclosure, Musawwarat es-Sufra,
 Sudan, 3rd century BC

The latter site, ten miles to the north, was also a cult center and perhaps, too, a caravanserai. The most spectacular site in the Butana, Musawwarat contains the sprawling ruin known as the "Great Enclosure", a labyrinth of stone buildings, temples, corridors, ramps, and courtyards. Tremendous stone walls partition the complex into no less than twenty separate compounds, which have recently been found to be protected gardens of fruit trees, all brought, together with their appropriate soil, from the banks of the Nile and watered by an elaborate underground pipe system. The function of the complex is not really known. Some have suggested that it was a seasonal palace; others, a pilgrimage center; and others, a royal hunting pavilion. While both the sites of Naga and Musawwarat now be in virtual desert, careful management of somewhat greater rainfall in ancient times made the area much more fertile than it is today. Huge hafirs (catch-basins) were constructed at each site to collect the annual rainwater and keep it until needed. The largest hafir at Musawwarat is 800 ft. across and 20 ft.. Stone statues of guardian lions and frogs ringed many of these artificial lakes magically protecting their contents.

The major god of the region of Meroe was a divinity of local origin, called Apede-mak. He was perhaps a lion form of Amun and was often identified with the moon. He normally took the form of a powerful lion-headed man, dressed in armor. He usually appeared in the reliefs of his temple in a warlike aspect, standing or seated on a throne or on an elephant, grasping prisoners and weapons of war, or holding elephants and lions on leashes. Magnificent temples in his honor were built at every major site in the Butana.
Apedemak Temple at Naga, Sudan
 Apedemak Temple at Naga, Sudan

The finest surviving examples being those at Naga and Musawwarat. The Apedemak Temple at Naga is adorned with reliefs depicting the imposing figures of its builders, King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore doing homage to the lion god. (This royal pair, who lived at about the time of Christ, seem to have presided over a Meroitic "Golden Age," as the remains of numerous buildings bear their names.) In the decorative scheme of this temple the figure of the queen appears just as prominently as that of her husband, providing a clear indication of the unusual status accorded women in the Meroitic monarchy. Judging by the many large pyramids of queens and the remains of buildings bearing their names exclusively, Meroe after the third century BC seems to have been ruled by many queens in their own right. Classical writers were so impressed with this fact that they often assumed that Meroe was ruled only by women, who, they thought always bore the name "Candace." This name, the origin of our modern female name, was in fact a Meroitic queenly title, which may have meant "Queen regent".

In 24 BC, soon after Rome had wrested Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra, the Kushites invaded Lower Nubia, attacking and plundering even Aswan to test the new northern power. This is virtually the only incident in which Meroe appears directly on the stage of Roman history. Following this challenge to Augustus' authority, the Roman general Petronius was immediately dispatched into Nubia. He met and defeated a Meroitic army and drove on to Napata, which was said to have been captured and destroyed by him, and its inhabitants enslaved. The Meroites and Romans ultimately made a peace treaty, which endured for three centuries. Curiously, in the Roman account it was noted that the Merotic queen was "a very masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye." This strange description is given substance by the even stranger portrayals of these ladies that appear in reliefs in their tomb chapels and temples. The successive Candaces Amanishakheto and Amanitore, for example, both of whom are nearly contemporary with Petronius' campaign, are depicted as massive, powerful figures, enormously fat, covered with jewels and ornament and elaborate fringed and tasseled robes. Their huge frames tower over their diminutive enemies, whom they are shown grasping brutally by the hair with one hand and dealing the coup de grace with the other. The social and aesthetic implications expressed by these reliefs are very different from those of Egypt, where women preferred to be portrayed as lithe and slim. This attribute, together with the facial scars worn by both the kings and queens of the Meroitic period, were the marks of physical beauty, common to central Africa, and suggest how much more southern oriented the kingdom had become since the days of the 25th Dynasty. Doubtless, over the centuries, the Meroitic ruling house had been infused many times with new ethnic strains and tribal affiliations

During the Meroitic Period over forty kings and queens were buried at Meroe. Their pyramids, which are better preserved than those at Nuri, continued the same basic royal tomb form. Of all the tombs, not one was found unplundered. There is even reason to suppose that in some cases the robbers were the very men who were employed in cutting the tombs. From reliefs preserved in the tomb chapels it is clear that the royal mummies were laid in wooden anthropoid coffins; these were placed in the inner-most chambers of the tombs on raised masonry benches carved with divine figures. The bodies were evidently weighted down with jewelry. The larger tombs contained remnants of weapons, bows, quivers of arrows, archer's thumb rings, horse trappings, wooden boxes and furniture, colored glass vessels and bottles. fine and coarse pottery, bronze lamps, elegant bronze and silver vessels and other utensils, many of them imported from Egypt and the Greek and Roman worlds.

Many of the tombs at Meroe contained multiple human skeletons, again reminding us of the Kerma burials in which people were sacrificed to accompany the dead. Writing in the first century BC, the Greek writer Diodorus remarked of the Meroites that it was "customary for the comrades of the kings even to die with them of their own accord and that such a death is an honorable one and proof of true friendship." He added also that "it was for that reason that a conspiracy against the king is not easily raised among the Ethiopians, all his friends being concerned both for his safety and for their own." Excavations have revealed that it was not only the kings who took others with them in death. Many tombs of lesser importance contained small groups of subsidiary skeletons and it was clear that most wealthy persons were buried with servants. For the royal tombs, animals too were slaughtered, usually on the landings of the deep stairways, just outside the sealed entrances to the burial chamber. Here were found the remains of yoked horses, oxen, or even camels and dogs, and bodies of attendants.


Timothy Kendall