Meroë was the last capital of the kingdom of Cush, the earliest known imperial state in the interior of Africa. Located in the central Sudan on the east bank of the Nile south of the fifth cataract of the Nile and near the junction of the Nile and Atbara Rivers, Meroë sat astride important trade routes leading from the Nile valley to the Red Sea and from the southern Sudan to Egypt. Although the great slag heaps scattered over the site of Meroë suggested to early historians of ancient Africa that Meroë prospered as a center of iron manufacturing, more recent research indicates that Meroë’s prosperity was based on its ability to control the supply of African goods such as gold, ivory, ebony, exotic animals, and slaves to Egypt.
The History of Meroë
Although Meroë was the southernmost civilized city known to ancient Greek geographers, knowledge of its exact location was lost until it was identified by the Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1772. Seven Greek writers are known to have written works devoted to Aithiopia, the Greek term for Cush. Only meager fragments of these works remain, and the few inscriptions from the site are written in the still-undeciphered Meroitic language. As a result, reconstructions of the history of Meroë rely primarily on archaeological evidence. Unfortunately, the only major excavations undertaken at Meroë to this date—those conducted by John Garstang for the University of Liverpool between 1909 and 1914—were poorly managed and recorded.
The early history of Meroë is especially poorly known. Archaeological evidence indicates that a settlement already existed at Meroë in the eighth century bce, but that Meroë only became a principal royal residence in the sixth century bce. Cush was invaded by the Egyptian king Psamtek II in 593 bce and again by the Persians in the 520s bce. Neither of these attacks, however, reached Meroë, although Cush did recognize Persian suzerainty. Despite these events, the political and religious center of Cush remained near the fourth cataract of the Nile at the city of Napata.
The status of Meroë changed dramatically in the third century bce. Attacked by Ptolemaic Egypt in the 270s bce, Cush lost control of an important region called the Dodekaschoinos just south of the first cataract of the Nile together with valuable gold mines located in the eastern desert. The Cushite king Arqamani (reigned c. 218–200 bce) led a revolt against Napatan domination that resulted in the transfer of the political capital and royal burial site south to Meroë. As a result of these developments, strong Ptolemaic political and cultural influence penetrated Cushite territory during the remainder of the third century bce.
Relations between Meroë and Egypt remained tense but stable until the Roman conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 bce. A Roman invasion in the early 20s bce temporarily made Cush tributary to Rome. Strong resistance by Cush, however, led to Roman withdrawal and the establishment of a de facto peace between Cush and Rome that lasted until the mid-third century ce.
The early centuries of the common era were the golden age of Meroë. Cushite territory extended from northern Nubia (a Nile Valley region comprising present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt to approximately the Aswan Dam) to near modern Khartoum in Sudan. Trade with Roman Egypt flourished, and extensive temple building and agricultural development, including the construction of water storage facilities occurred throughout Cush. By the third century, however, Cush and Meroë were both in decline. The shift of the main trade route to Egypt to the Red Sea weakened Cush economically. At the same time, attacks by the Noba and Blemmyes, nomadic peoples from the western and eastern deserts, and by the neighboring kingdom of Aksum undermined Cushite power, until the Aksumite king Ezana conquered and sacked Meroë in the mid-fourth century. Although there is evidence of later Christian settlement at Meroë, its history as a major political center was at an end.
Government and Culture at Meroë
The government and culture of Meroë were a mixture of local and Egyptian traditions. The most obvious evidence of the Egyptian elements in Meroitic culture are the statues and pyramids of the kings of Cush, the huge Egyptian-style temple of the god Amon, and the walled compound beside the Nile that formed the core of the city and contained the royal palace and other government buildings. Although the Cushite kings’ claim to be sons of Amon and their royal regalia both reflected Egyptian influence, uniquely Cushite were the preference given the son of a king’s sister in the succession to the throne and the prominent role assigned to the queen and especially to the king’s mother, who bore the title kandake. Some kandakes even ruled in their own name during the late first century bce and first century ce. Local tradition also influenced religion in Meroë, most notably in the prominence of the lion-headed war god Apedemak, who functioned as the king’s protector and was worshipped in a uniquely styled one-room temple that had no parallel in Egypt.
Meroitic elite culture was literate. Its unique alphabetic script was developed in the late third or early second century bce. Consisting of twenty-three symbols adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphic signs, it was used for governmental, religious, and funerary texts written on a variety of media, including stone, wood, ostrakoi (pieces of broken pottery), and papyrus. Decipherment of the Meroitic language will provide valuable insights into Meroitic history and culture.
For almost seven hundred years Meroë was the most important city in ancient northeast Africa. During that period, it fostered extensive cultural and economic interaction between sub-Saharan Africa and Greco-Roman Egypt. It also established a tradition of urban life and state-level social and political organization that survived the fall of the city and continued to influence the Christian kingdoms that dominated the Nile valley south of Egypt during the Middle Ages.
See also Trading Patterns—Trans Saharan
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