Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

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The story of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt should be projected on a broad background. Starting from 1580 a. C. Nubia was ruled by the Pharaohs as viceroyal and cultured. The Egyptians had learned the language and writing, the arts and religion of the Egyptians.
This is a wise transplant of the Egyptian deities, all of which were “towns” of one or another place, similarly “towns” in Nubia; in addition, Nubian deities were configured alongside the Egyptian. For one and for the other they built temples, and for the deceased sepulchres in all similar to the Egyptians.

The decadence of the Egyptian monarchy, begun in the tenth century to. C., dragged down the fall of the Viceroyalty, but also gave space, in the region made independent, in years around 750 a. C., to the formation of a kingdom, which was consolidated in the South with a splendid capital, Napata, later, flanked and then replaced by another, with Meroe.
Together with these monarchies there flourished a remarkable Mischkultur: real pyramid tombs, but much more pointed than the Egyptian; tombs of indigenous “pie” type principles, in stone, gigantic; temples, Egyptian as regards the structure and the layouts of the sculptural integrations, but realized for robust hypervolumetry; palaces of the Greek-Oriental type.
More important for growth from state to state, the fixation of the local language in writing, in Egyptian writing first, then in a new one, which no longer used, like Egypt, a consonantal alphabet and some hundreds of poly-consonantal signs, but only alphabet – second perfection already implemented by the Phoenicians, here, in the III cent. to. C. by King Atakamani, Ergamene in Greek diction, which had been instructed by sophists – and therefore perhaps by imitation of Greek writing. However, this alphabet was still consonant: more likely an imitation of the Aramaic one, brought by groups of Jews descended to Nubia in two rounds, in the sec. VIII and then in the VI.
The kingdom built in this way was however formed of populations linked to the sovereign only by fidelity pact. Therefore, he was unable to prevent repeated raids, which began in the third century. d. C., of another population, and aggressive, from the Eastern Desert, the Blemmi, who headed for Northern Nubia and eventually settled there. The powerful Axumites in Africa, in 350, gave him the coup de grace – they destroyed Napata and Meroe.

This event followed a dark Middle Ages, which lasted until the sixth century. and the formation of three solid Christian kingdoms.
The cosmopolitan culture of Napata and Meroe that we have described, can explain the reason for a peaceful relationship that can be defined as “religious coexistence”, always entertained by the two capitals with the Ptolemies.
Too busy, the Ptolemies, in fact, in the harsh wars in Syria against the Antigonids, turned to the South only with Ptolemy II, who drove a scientific expedition; the successors then occupied the Nile Valley over Aswan to Hierà Sykaminos-Maharraka, along a strip called Dodekaschoinos, “of the twelve miles”; in certain periods they went further, up to Primis-Kasr Ibrim: they entrusted the relative territory to the strategist of Elefantina, dependent on the epistratego of the Thebaide or rather of Upper Egypt.
For the rest they devoted themselves above all to building temples, some on Egyptian shrines: a grandiose at File, for Isis; others modest to Debod, Uadi Hedid, Kalabsha, Aguala, Pselcis-Dakka and in the same Maharraka, for other deities, both Egyptian and Nubian. Egyptian temples in terms of architecture, but with innovative relief decoration, made full-bodied – much less however of the Nubian. Temples including the ones located at File, Debod and Dakka, bear signs of Meroiti interventions.
On the same register of religious coexistence a Ptolemaic Act falls, according to which the territory extended from Aswan to the II Cateratta, called Triakontaschoinos, was to be considered sacred to Isis – dea, to which the Nubians were very devout; they celebrated it with a grandiose annual pilgrimage by ship, which carried the idol of the goddess on a visit to her husband, here not the ancient Egyptian Osiris, but the Nubian Mandulis residing in Kalabsha.
The main authors of this monumental flowering were Ptolemy IV and the VI with the coeval Ergamene, in the years between the end of the III century. and half of II a. C.

In the following years, after Azio, 31 a. C., Rome took over.
Rivers of ink have been spent to recall the story of Cleopatra (VII), Ottaviano and Antonio, but not a drop for other figures of that time just as worthy of literary “digging”.
Julius Caesar, who in Egypt learned the scheme of the state with administration of the “pyramid” territory, as never built elsewhere in antiquity; he proposed to trace it back to Rome; he paid that design in the Ides of March.
Cornelio Gallo, delicate poet novus of the circle of Tibullus and of the young Virgil, a classmate of Ottaviano and a talented leader at his side in Azio: sent by his friend to occupy the Nile Valley and winner against bitter resistance in the Thebaid – cradle of all time , of a strong and riotous population – and in the Triakontaschoinos, he raised a large stele to File with hieroglyphic and Greek and Latin inscriptions to his own glory; he was immediately recalled to Rome by Octavian. He also learned that he had been betrayed by his beloved woman; he did not stand, and stoically gave himself death; Virgil erased a panegyric that he had written in the Georgics for him.

Neither a drop was spent for a Candace (ie “queen” in the Nubian language, but the name was believed by the personal Latins) of Napata, who led a revolt of the Nubians against the dominion imposed by Cornelio Gallo; a warlike horde pushed to File: it sacked the temple of Isis and brought back to Meroe some statues of Augustus, which the archaeologists have recently found. He was driven back to the south by the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Petronius, who inflicted a severe defeat in 23 a. C. to Dakka; he locked himself in the fortress of Primis but did not stand to assault on Petronius; he went on to Napata, offering peace to the citizens against the restitution of the hostages and statues of Augustus;

But Candace once again returned to the offensive and attacked Primis, now the cornerstone of Rome; another time Petronius intervened, and he imposed very hard pacts of peace. She did not resign herself however: she asked and obtained to deal directly with Octavian; he went as far as his General Headquarters to Samos, and he obtained to mark the border between Rome and Meroe to Maharraka – the date of this event is in the 22nd or 21st. C.
It was therefore, Candace, a counter-Cleopatra. On the one hand Cleopatra, not as beautiful as it is painted – see the portrait on her coins – but certainly refined and certainly fascinating in speaking animated by a vast culture, as described by the historians, so that managed to seduce a Julius Caesar – for meeting comparable to those of Vittoria Colonna with Michelangelo and of the Lady of Staël with Vittorio Alfieri. But he did not move a Octavian finger. Candace succeeded, not even her beautiful – she was described as an orba – nor perhaps equally cultured, but she met the wisdom of the politician: Octavianus never wanted to avenge the defeat of Carre, nor that of Teutoburg; the Empire was closed within safe boundaries,

The peace of Samos held for two centuries, up to 250, the year of a first, ruinous raid of the Blemmi, extended to the Thebaid, barely rejected by Traiano Decio. Others followed, similarly and uselessly rejected, until Diocletian, in 197, withdrew the frontier to File. In this way he initiated a Middle Ages, which later welded to the one in the South, and closed a season in which North Nubia was anthropized as never before.
First of all, with a chain of strong elevations on the nodes of the slopes along the Nile and of the connected caravans, to defend against raids of nomads of the deserts.

Referring to Roman itineraries and archaeological remains, it was found that the first link in this chain consisted of Siene-Aswan and Contra Siene, the second from File and Shellal; followed on the west bank only Parembole – today Debod – and Tzitzis – today Uadi Kamar – in a stretch where the opposite coast is inaccessible, and therefore Kertassi, without a bridgehead on the eastern region of Dehmit, flat but not dangerous, because open on a wadis who turned to Aswan.

Further south, the valley narrows into the narrow of Bab el-Kalabsha, forming an important strategic point, protected by Tafis – today Tafa – and Contra Tafis, located at the point where the two slopes turned inward to circumvent the headlands, and at the subsequent outlet of the same on the river, to Talmis – today Kalabsha – and Contra Talmis; small forts also stood on islets that emerged from the current in the same narrow. Beyond were the stable Aguala encampments on the eastern bank, and Tutzis – today Dendur – on the western one; then another pair of forts in Pselcis – today Dakka – and Contra Pselcis, this second placed on the site of the ancient Kuban forts, but no longer with the function of looking at the access road to the now abandoned gold mines of Uadi Allaki. Finally, on the only west bank, the Court’s defenses – today Kurta – and Hierà Sykaminos – Maharraka – were on the border. Again, there was no need to look at the caravans on the Arabian Desert; instead those towards the Red Sea were fortified.
The entire system was completed by sighting and guard towers, elevated at regular intervals from strong to strong.

Rome also sealed its presence in the Dodekaschoinos as the Ptolemies had already done, in a good number of temples. Of these we will indicate the main ones, following a route from north to south “forward-submersion”.
At File, the Ptolemaic temple of Isis was enriched under Augustus, Tiberius and Antoninus of extensive reliefs; Augustus himself had two long porticoes built on the sides of the courtyard to access the sanctuary – perhaps completing a Ptolemaic work; Hadrian added a large and magnificent portal to the enclosure of the same sanctuary on the eastern side. In the northern part of the island, Augustus walled a temple – where archaeologists found the stele of Cornelio Gallo – unfortunately today in complete ruin; in the Occidental, Claudius built a temple dedicated to Harendotes, a form of the god Horus. Later that “Trajan’s kiosk” was elevated on the eastern bank, which is inserted among the jewels of the
Proceeding further, after the Ptolemaic-Meroite temple of Debod, attacked by Augustus, after a kiosk in Kertassi and another temple in Tafa, Augustus, they met, in Talmis-Kalabsha, a temple also augustus, that to be the eldest of Nubia , was called “the southern Karnak”. Built over the Ptolemaic building already mentioned, it kept the dedication to Mandulis. Then, in Aguala, a less known place, on the eastern bank of the Nile, just south of Kalabsha, a shrine dedicated to the same god in the same period. And still further, to Dendur, and still Augustus, a temple not large, but of very fine execution, consecrated to different deities, including two local characters taken from demigods, Pedeisi and Pehor.

Last meetings, the ancient Ptolemaic and Meroitic sanctuary of Thot at Pselcis-Dakka completed with a large “pylon” portal, a shrine of Isis at Kurta, and one at Hierà Sykaminos-Maharraka of Serapis, new god created by the Ptolemies and made spouse of a Hellenized Isis in Alexandria.
In all these reconstructions or completions or new constructions, the Ptolemaic patterns and style were faithfully reproduced. Only in the courtyard with a trapezium facing the Temple of File, one could point to a search for all-Roman theatricality, also visible in Egypt, in the temple of Esna.
It should be noted that the temples themselves are indicative of nearby cities, unfortunately rebuilt later – the most important in Kalabsha.

However, at the end of this quick report, the remarkable progress made to agriculture by the Ptolemies and increased by the Romans should not be ignored. To the cultivations of the dura and the date palm, certainly already existing there, were added the olive tree, the vine and the lemon. The findings of large olive crushers for olives in Kalabsha and Uadi Kamar, of grapes for grapes in various localities, testify to this; an inscription in File in which it refers that in 176 Marcus Aurelius donated vineyards to the temple. An incentive for this progress was given by the introduction of noria, which can be used with animal strength, much more effective for lifting the ancient balanced bucket or mazzavallo.

It was probably then created the landscape that North Nubia still held before the recent submersion – in combination with Egypt, similar to that of Switzerland compared to Italy. Villages with a precise urban layout and houses with climate-friendly facilities that are still waiting for a study and publication, the neat streets; the small, perfect cultivations.

Unfortunately, the grandiose work of archaeological salvation of Nubia wanted by the Egyptian Government, could only save the temples, because in stone. Among them, those of Debod, Tafa and Dendur were donated to Madrid, Leiden and New York, to bring their message of culture – along with that dedicated by Thutmosi III in Ellesija, now in Turin. The others have risen in their land, on the shores of Lake Nasser; the only monument still visible on the site, emerging from the body of water, the fort of Primis, abandoned by the Romans with the peace of Samos and variously remodeled in the new times.

Silvio Curto

S. Curto, Nubia [from the Palaeolithic to Islam], De Agostani Geographical Institute – Novara 1965; Nubien, Wilhelm Goldman Verlag München 1965.
L. Habachi (ed.), Actes du II Symposium International sur la Nubie – 1971, Supplements aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Egypte, Le Caire 1981.
E. Winter, Untersuchungen zu den ägyptischen Tempelreliefs der griechischen-römischen Zeit, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 1968.
For other contributions on this chapter, rare: MR Orsini, D. Bauchiero, Catalog of the Egyptian Library of the Egyptian Museum of Turin, I, Turin 1993; II, ibid. 1997; III, ibid. 2000: v. “Repertoire with subject”, sv “Nubia”.