World History 1 144 - 9.3.2 The Meroitic Period in Nubia

The rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and completion of its conquest of Egypt in 656 BCE brought an end to Nubian rule in Egypt. The Kushite leadership fled Thebes and reconstituted their kingdom at a new capital, Meroe, located well south of the fifth cataract. This effort inaugurated the Meroitic period of the Kingdom of Kush. Sometimes called the Island of Meroe because of the way the Nile and Atbara rivers flowed around it, the new capital had several distinct advantages. One advantage was its distance from Egypt, which helped to protect it from raiding and conquests coming from the north. Another advantage was the plentiful iron ore in the surrounding land. As discussed previously, iron smelting technology had only recently reached Egypt in the early 600s BCE. But after facing the well-trained iron-wielding army of Assyria, the Kushite leadership came to appreciate the utility of this metal both as a part of their economy and as a defensive measure against possible invasion. Over time, the iron workers in Meroe earned a reputation for producing high-quality tools well regarded by kingdoms and empires far beyond its boundaries.

Archaeological work done at Meroe suggests that the site was occupied at least a couple hundred years before the Assyrians arrived in Egypt. There is evidence of possibly royal or at least elite tombs at the site which have been dated to the early ninth century BCE. While the earliest inhabitants may not have recognized the benefits of the rich iron ore deposits, they surely would have appreciated the environmental conditions. Unlike lower reaches of the Nile, which were known for wide floodplains and insufficient rainfall, Meroe is far enough south to receive natural watering from the sub-Saharan tropical rains. This meant that the agriculturalists of Meroe were not entirely reliant on the waters of the Nile. Instead, they could expand their farms of sorghum and millet out across the landscape and depend on the plentiful rainfall.

Given its proximity to the Red Sea, Meroe became an important trading center. Evidence from Persia, Egypt, and Rome indicates that iron, wood, elephants, and ivory flowed from Meroe to the wider world. Meroe was also known for its distinctive jewelry produced by highly skilled artisans and made with a great variety of materials. As the goods flowed out, wealth flowed back in. According to some accounts, the wealth of Meroe was so well known that Persia in the sixth century BCE once attempted to conquer the kingdom and add it to its enormous empire. Whether this story is based in fact is up for debate, though it is undeniable that the Persians were quite familiar with the wealth of Meroe. Records indicate that ivory from Meroe was used to decorate the palace of Darius I at Susa. Additionally, stone reliefs at Persepolis appear to show a Nubian delegation bringing gifts of ivory and exotic animals to the Persian king.

Having had many centuries of cultural contact with Egypt, it is no surprise that Egyptian influences in writing, architecture, and religion persisted despite the great geographic distance. The use of Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, continued for centuries until it was ultimately replaced by Meroitic, an alpha-syllabic script derived from the Egyptian Demotic script. Similarly, the Meroitic rulers constructed pyramids for their rulers just as they had seen and clearly admired in Egypt. Unlike the much older pyramids in Egypt, however, the Meroitic variants were smaller, with steep sides and blunt tops (Figure 9.17). Finally, traces of Egyptian religious practices endured throughout Meroe’s long history, albeit gradually and predictably deviating from the original practices as time went on. For example, the Kushite religious traditions eventually included the worship of the lion-headed god Apademak. This was a war god worshipped exclusively by the people of Kush, though it was often depicted in an artistic style clearly influenced by Egyptian culture.

A picture of a sandy desert filled with small pyramids is shown. In the front there are two smooth pyramids with large, decorated, columned entryways in the front. In the left forefront there is a brick entryway that stands alone in front of a green bush. In the background there are five crumbling brick pyramids with simple doorways for openings. A smooth small pyramid is shown in the far right top of the picture. A clear blue sky shows in the background.
Figure 9.17 The royal necropolis at Meroe contains distinctive burial pyramids for dozens of royal officials including kings, queens, and crown princes. The tallest is ninety-six feet high. Two other cemeteries contain more than a hundred additional pyramids. (credit: “Pyramids N26 and N27” by “Wufei07”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Through trade and conflict, Egypt left a deep mark on Nubian culture, manifesting in architecture, art, architecture, religion, and even language. Yet Nubian culture was not entirely subsumed by Egyptian influences, and the two often coexisted in the same work of art.

Use these links to explore the Nubian art collection and Egyptian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The majority of people worked in the fields and the grazing pastures. They lived in mud homes within small rural villages overseen by minor chiefs of family clans. The elite, ruling families, and artisans, on the other hand, lived in larger towns. The entire kingdom was ruled by monarchs from the reigning family. However, unlike in Egypt where succession to the throne tended to flow from father to son, in the Meroitic kingdom, the monarch was carefully selected by a group made up of local chiefs, military officials, and other high officials. While theoretically the ultimate authority in the land, the power of the kings was limited by customs, taboos, and the consent of the nobility and the priestly class. Unpopular monarchs could be and were removed if they fell out of favor with either of these groups. There was also the position of the kentake, or queen mother. The kentake exercised a degree of official power somewhere above the highest officials and below that of the king. On several occasions, the kentakes themselves, given the right circumstances, could assume complete power and even lead armies into battle.

Dueling Voices

Witnessing Kush: Kushite and Greek Perspectives

Eyewitness accounts of ancient civilizations provide invaluable primary source evidence for historians. Such sources are far scarcer than modern ones, and written accounts of ancient sub-Saharan Africa are even rarer. Often, what source material we have comes not from Africans but from outsiders—travelers, invaders, or occupiers (perhaps all three).

The first excerpt that follows is an inscription attributed to Aspalta, king of Kush (c. 600 BCE), and the other is an account by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 430 BCE). Consider the approaches they adopted to documenting Kush and what the differences suggest about the values of their respective societies.

Now then, the trusted commanders from the midst of the army of His Majesty were six men, while the trusted commanders and overseers of fortresses were six men. [. . .] Then they said to the entire army, “Come, let us cause our lord to appear, for we are like a herd which has no herdsman!” Thereupon this army was very greatly concerned, saying, “Our lord is here with us, but we do not know him! Would that we might know him, that we might enter in under him and work for him, . . . .” Then the army of His Majesty all said with one voice, “Still there is this god Amon-Re, Lord of the Thrones of It-Tjwy, Resident in Napata. He is also a god of Kush. Come, let us go to him. . . . .

So the commanders of His Majesty and the officials of the palace went to the Temple of Amon. . . . They said to [the priests], “Pray, may this god, Amon-Re, Resident in Napata, come, to permit that he give us our lord, to revive us, to build the temples of all the gods and goddesses of Kemet, and to present their divine offerings! We cannot do a thing without this god. It is he who guides us. . . . Then the commanders of His Majesty and the officials of the palace entered into the temple and put themselves upon their bellies before this god. They said, “We have come to you, O Amon-Re, Lord of the Thrones of It-Tjwy, Resident in Napata, that you might give to us a lord, to revive us, to build the temples of the gods of Kemet and Rekhyt, and to present divine offerings. That beneficent office is in your hands—may you give it to your son whom you love!”

—attributed to Aspalta, king of Kush (c. 600 BCE)

I went as far as Elephantine [Aswan] to see what I could with my own eyes, but for the country still further south I had to be content with what I was told in answer to my questions. . . .

The Ethiopians . . . are said to be the tallest and handsomest men in the whole world. In their customs they differ greatly from the rest of mankind, and particularly in the way they choose their kings; for they find out the man who is the tallest of all the citizens, and of strength equal to his height, and appoint him to rule over them. [. . .] The spies were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age—they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. Among these Ethiopians copper is of all metals the most scarce and valuable. Also, last of all, they were allowed to behold the coffins of the Ethiopians, which are made (according to report) of crystal, after the following fashion: When the dead body has been dried, either in the Egyptian, or in some other manner, they cover the whole with gypsum, and adorn it with painting until it is as like the living man as possible. Then they place the body in a crystal pillar which has been hollowed out to receive it. . . . The next of kin keep the crystal pillar in their houses for a full year from the time of the death, and give it the first fruits continually, and honor it with sacrifice. After the year is out they bear the pillar forth, and set it up near the town. [. . .]

Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Ethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; . . . . The Ethiopians were clothed in the skins of leopards and lions, and had long bows made of the stem of the palm-leaf, not less than four cubits in length. On these they laid short arrows made of reed, and armed at the tip, not with iron, but with a piece of stone, sharpened to a point, of the kind used in engraving seals. They carried likewise spears, the head of which was the sharpened horn of an antelope; and in addition they had knotted clubs. When they went into battle they painted their bodies, half with chalk, and half with vermilion.

Herodotus, The Histories, Book III

  • What do these accounts tell us about how Nubian civilization had changed from Aspalta’s time to that of Herodotus?
  • Consider how the authors’ viewpoints may have influenced their accounts and why. Is one voice more dependable than the other? Why or why not?

During the second and first centuries BCE, Roman power spread across the Mediterranean and, in the year 30 BCE, assumed control of Egypt. Around this same time, the Kushite kings of Meroe were also expanding their power northward. These two expanding powers inevitably clashed as Rome sought to secure its southern border and prevent further Meroitic expansion. In one reported encounter, the Romans came face-to-face with a possibly battle-scarred kentake leading an army. In another encounter at Syene (modern Aswan in southern Egypt), the Kushite forces of Meroe appear to have gotten the better of the Romans. Kushite soldiers pillaged the city and took with them a number of statues and other valuables, including a bronze head of the Roman emperor Augustus.

Not a group to leave such an affront unanswered, the Romans counterattacked and nearly destroyed Napata. When they finally left, they took with them several thousand Kush subjects whom they sold into slavery. Historians debate the nature of the subsequent relationship between Rome and the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush. Evidence suggests that at some point during the Augustan period, Kush was a client state of the Roman Empire. In exchange for its internal autonomy, Kush helped Rome secure its East African frontier by providing soldiers and support for garrisoned legions stationed in the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Kush reached a new high-water mark in its power and artistic achievement a few decades later under King Natakamani, in the early first century CE. During his reign, Kush also attained its maximum geographic extent, stretching from the Ethiopian foothills in the south to the Nile’s first cataract in the north. Testifying to its wealth and influence during this period are the pyramids built under Natakamani as well as the temples that were constructed and restored, including one for the lion-headed god Apademak and the Egyptian god Amun (Figure 9.18).

A picture of a carving on a brown, broken piece of stone is shown on a black background. A man is carved with a lion’s head. He wears an elaborately etched headdress, decorated chest armor, and a striped cloth at the waist. Gridded and plain bands adorn his arms and wrists and he holds a twisted scepter with a small seated lion on top in his right hand. Above his head are etchings and ancient writings in a rectangular box.
Figure 9.18 This small fragment of a votive plaque was carved from red siltstone in about 100 BCE and honors the Kushite war god Apedemak, who has a lion’s head and carries a scepter with a small seated lion on top. (credit: “Votive Plaque of King Tanyidamani” by Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Despite earlier tensions, Meroe and Roman Egypt enjoyed mostly friendly relations for the next two centuries. During this time, however, Meroe’s power began to wane, and the kingdom came to an end sometime in the fourth century CE. Scholars are uncertain what caused its decline, although environmental degradation due to the overuse of timber for charcoal manufacture may have been a factor. Trees were being cut down faster than they could replace themselves, which would likely have led to erosion and reduced fertility of the soil, so the land could no longer support a large urban population.

In addition, the weakening of the Roman Empire and its economic contraction in the third century led to a steep decline in demand for the types of luxury goods traded through Kush, especially the ivory, enslaved peoples, perfume, exotic animals, and hardwoods on which its economy depended. Having no partners of similar size and wealth with whom to trade African goods on a large scale, the kings of Kush found that Rome’s economic crisis triggered a fiscal crisis for them. Perhaps the final blow was the rise of the kingdom of Aksum. Better placed to take advantage of the Red Sea trade, Aksum starved Kush of regional commerce. Sometime around 350, the Aksumite king Ezana invaded Meroe but found the island capital of the Kingdom of Kush had been abandoned.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax