A. Earliest Nubia
B. From Hunting to Gathering to Self-Subsistence
C. A-Group and C-Group Cultures
D. Lower Nubia: 2500-2000 BC
E. Upper Nubia: 2500-2000 BC
F. Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush
G. The Egyptian Conquest of Nubia
H. Kushite Resurgence
I. The Napatan State
J. The Meriotic State
K. From Unity to Fragmentation
L. The Nubian Christian Kingdoms
M. Nubia and Islam
J. The Meroitic State: Nubia as a Hellenistic African State. 300 BC 350 AD
1. The Meroitic Period
The Napatan Phase of the Nubian culture ended when the royal cemetery was transferred from Napata (Nuri) to Mero‘ in the mid- third century BC. This inaugurated the phase called the "Meroitic Period," in which the culture seemed to free itself from the strict bonds of Egyptian norms and developed many original traits as well as accepting many ideals from the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean. The terms "Napatan" and "Meroitic" refer to cultural phases of the same kingdom.
The change of culture in Kush almost certainly had to do with an event recorded by the Greek historican Diodorus in the first century BC. He stated that before the reign of a Kushite king named Ergamenes, who lived at the time 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 Amun himself. This message told him that the time of his rule on earth was finished and that he must die. Traditionally, according to Diodorus, the kings had dutifully 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." Interestingly, it was about this time that the first royal tomb was built at Mero‘, which belonged to a king named Arkamani (= "Ergamanes"). Soon thereafter, Kushite art and architecture began to develop individualistic styles. The royal family appeared much more central African in their images and in their standards of beauty. The royal costumes and crowns were unique. A lion god named Apedemak, unknown in the Egyptian pantheon, became pre-eminent in the southern part of the kingdom. And Egyptian language and writing were largely abandoned and replaced by the native Nubian language (called "Meroitic"), which was for the first time written down in newly devised hieroglyphic and cursive alphabets of 23 letters.
Mero‘ 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 with western Sudan, the Red Sea and the Ethiopian highlands. Since it lay within the rainbelt, its land was seasonally more productive than the region of Napata, and it was thus a 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 Steppe, was the heartland of the later Kushite kingdom and came to be known in classical literature as "the Island of Mero‘."
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 read their offical 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 Meroitic rulers were contemporaries with the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Caesars. In the third century BC, they maintained friendly relations with the Ptolemies, since the kings of the two neighboring Nile kingdoms collaborated in renovating the temples of Lower Nubia, which were sacred to both Kush and Egypt. Agents of the Ptolemies also traveled up the Nile as explorers and emissaries, some perhaps traveling to Mero‘ 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 Mero‘. One, named Simonides, was said to have lived there five years and to have written a book about his adventures. There was obviously a brisk trade between Mero‘ and Egypt and even beyond, since numerous Greek and Roman objects have been found at Mero‘: for example, a wine jar stamped with a mark indicating it had come from a region of Algeria or a Greek vase made in Athens. By the first century AD some of the Meroitic gods even began appearing in the guise of the Olympian deities; some temples were actually built using Greek measurement and incorporated Hellenistic features and ornament. Obviously Mero‘ was in communication with the rest of the Greco-Roman world and incorporated many of its most popular or "modern" features.
2. The City of Mero‘
Scanty, but certainly accurate accounts of the capital Mero‘ have come down to us in the works of the Roman writers Pliny and Strabo, both of whom had at their disposal the reports of the team of explorers sent to Mero‘ by Nero about 60 AD to seek the source of the Nile. Pliny stated that Mero‘ 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 also noted that the palace at Mero‘ 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." (They were, in other words, probably little different from the houses of the Sudanese in the same region today).
Today Mero‘ is the largest archaeological site in the Sudan. Lying about _ mi (1 km) from the river, the city ruins alone cover about a square mile in area. Today they lie in a forest of stunted acacia trees. Most prominent among the ruins is the huge stone-walled enclosure containing the tumbled remains of the palace and government buildings, several small temples (one with painted frescoes), and a so-called "Roman bath". Immediately behind it sprawls another walled compound 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 Mero‘ was an important iron working center.
Farther east is the great ruined temple complex known popularly (but incorrectly) as the "Sun Temple," with the cemeteries beyond (see below). 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 trans-shipment 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 Greco-Roman sphere, Mero‘ never made use of coinage and instead did all business in barter.
3. The Pyramids of Mero‘
Behind Mero‘ to the east lie its huge cemeteries. Those nearest the town were reserved for the common people. Those about 1 _ mi (2.5 km) further east bear the small masonry pyramids of the nobles and lesser members of the royal family. Finally, about 3 mi (5 km) away, lining the tops of two ridges, are the towering pyramids of the rulers.
The royal tombs at Meroe were excavated between 1920 and 1924 by George A. Reisner and his Boston team. From the 1960's to the present, the pyramids have been carefully studied, and many reconstructed, by the German scholar-architect Dr. Friedrich W. Hinkel, working together with the Sudan Antiquities Dept.
Many of the tombs at Mero‘ contained multiple human skeletons, again reminding us of the Kerma burials in which people were sacrificed to accompany the dead. Obviously by Meroitic times, the Egyptian custom of burying shawabtis as servants in the tombs was abandoned, and important people reverted to the old custom of burying their real servants with them. Writing in the first century BC, the Greek historian 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 Aithiopians, 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 many wealthy persons were buried with servants. In the royal burials, animals too were slaughtered and usually placed at the bottoms of the deep stairways leading to the sealed entrances of the burial chamber. In some cases the remains of yoked horses, oxen, camels and dogs, and even the bodies of their keepers have been found.
4. Some Important Meroitic Archaeological Sites
If Mero‘ was the major city of the kingdom, it was not the only one. The Butana Steppe (east of the Nile north of Khartoum) is dotted with other Meroitic townsites, some up to sixty miles (100 km) east of the Nile. Other settlements have been identified further south along the Blue and White Niles, and many important 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 40 and 50 mi (66 and 82 km) south of Mero‘. At Wad Ban Naga, on the east bank of the Nile, there are the ruins of an enormous palace, together with two temples and a town. The palace was occupied by the great Meroitic queen Amanishakheto, a contemporary of the Roman emperor Augustus. Her spectacular tomb treasure, found in 1833 by an Italian adventurer named Ferlini, is now divided between the Berlin and Munich Museums.
Wad Ban Naga was apparently a river port leading to two important inland centers, now called Naga and Musawwarat es-Sufra, which were built on the plain beneath a ridge of low mountains some 12 to 18 mi (20 to 30 km) inland. Naga was clear1y an important religious center, for it possesses the ruins of at least seven stone temples, a town, and a cemetery, all datable to the first century AD. On-going excavations here by Dr. Dietrich Wildung and his team from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin have revealed that the town was also surrounded by numerous manor houses with plantations.
Musawwarat es-Sufra, 10 mi to the north, was also an important cult center, but it remains as enigmatic as it is awesome to behold. The most spectacular site in the Butana, Musawwarat contains the sprawling ruin known as the "Great Enclosure," a strange labyrinth of stone temples and courtyards surrounded by walls and connected by corridors and ramps. Tremendous stone walls partition the complex into no less than twenty separate compounds. Excavations there by an expedition of Humboldt University of Berlin under the direction of Dr. Steffen Wenig have recently shown that some of these courtyards contained gardens of trees, all brought, together with their soil, from the banks of the Nile and watered by an elaborate undergroound pipe system. The function of the complex was clearly religious, but the lack of carved reliefs on the interior walls of the buildings makes their purpose difficult to determine. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the walls are covered by hundreds of drawings and graffiti of ancient visitors.
While the sites of Naga and Musawwarat now lie in virtual desert, careful management of somewhat greater rainfall in ancient times made the area much more fertile than it is today. Huge artificial lakes, called hafirs, were constructed at each site to collect the annual rainwater and hold it until needed. The largest hafir at Musawwarat is 800 ft. (243 m) across and 20 ft. (3 to 4 m) high. Stone statues of guardian lions and frogs ringed many of these artificial lakes, perhaps intended magically to protect their contents.
The major god of the region of Mero‘ was a divinity of local origin, called Apedemak. 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 and often appeared in the reliefs of his temples 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 Apedemak's honor were built at every major site in the Butana, 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.
5. Mero‘ and Rome
In 24 BC, soon after Rome had wrested Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra, the Kushites invaded Lower Nubia, attacked and plundered Aswan, and seized the statues of the emperor Augustus to test the new northern power. This is the only incident in which Mero‘ appears directly on the stage of Roman history. Following this challenge to Augustus' authority, the Roman general Petronius was immediately dispatched to Nubia. He met and defeated a Meroitic army and drove on to Napata, which he is said to have captured and destroyed, enslaving its inhabitants. The Meroites and Romans ultimately made a peace treaty, however, which endured for three centuries. The Romans claimed a victory, but so apparently did the Meroites. A victory stela, now in the British Museum, was set up in the capital by Amanirenas, the ruling queen of the time, and although it is inscribed in Meroitic, the name of Rome can clearly be read. In one of the temples in the city, a bronze head of Augustus was found buried beneath the entrance steps so that all who entered would step on this foreign ruler, who was only dimly known to Kush. Figures of Roman soldiers pierced with swords or arrows also adorned numerous magical objects and appeared in painted frescoes.
6. The Queens of Mero‘
Judging by the many large pyramids of queens and the remains of buildings bearing their names exclusively, Mero‘ after the third century BC seems to have been ruled by many queens in their own right, although they were probably mothers of future kings too young to rule. Classical writers were so impressed with the presence of queens at Meroe that they often assumed that Mero‘ was ruled exclusively by women, whom they thought always bore the name "Candace." This name, the origin of our modern female name, was in fact a Meroitic queenly title. As was explained by the Christian theologian Oecumenius in the 6th century (probably quoting one of the early Greek travelers to Mero‘ of the second century BC), "Candace is what the Aithiopians call every mother of a king, since they do not refer to the fatherÉ (Her son) is traditionally regarded as a son of the sun god." In Meroitic texts the title "Candace" appears as "Kedeke."
In the Roman account of the war with Kush in 24 BC, it was noted that the Kushites were led by a queen who 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 queens Amanirenas, Amanishakheto and Amanitore, for example, all 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.
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