South of Elephantine the country is inhabited by Ethiopians…. After [the] forty days’ journey on land one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroë, said to be the capital city of the Ethiopians. There is an oracle of Zeus there, and they make war according to its pronouncements.
HERODOTUS, 5TH CENTURY BC
Meroë was a place of romance for the Greeks and Romans, a remote and exotic land lying just beyond their world but still within direct contact. Although in 1772 the traveller James Bruce noted some ruins in passing, guessing correctly that it was Meroë, it was not until the early 19th century that the extensive pyramid cemeteries were brought to the attention of the Western world through the publications of travellers and scholars.
The ancient city lies on the east bank of the Nile, near modern Shendi, some way south of the confluence of the Nile and Atbara rivers. To the east, the land between the two rivers was, in ancient times, wooded savannah, with elephant, giraffe and other wild animals found today only much further south. Still within the rain-belt, this region was used for pasturing cattle; Meroite society was based partly on cattle herding, rather like the Masai and Dinka of today, and settled agriculture. The culture was a complex mix of indigenous ‘Kushite’ and strong Egyptian influences, particularly at the high official level in religion and architecture.
Meroë acted as an important entrepôt for ‘exotica’ from both near and further afield, supplying Egypt under the Persians and the Ptolemaic dynasty, and then the Roman empire. The major commodities traded were ivory, ebony, incense and slaves. Herodotus records the ‘Ethiopian’ (Kushite) soldiers who were sent to the Persian king Xerxes and were part of his vast army in his expedition against Greece. It is these connections with the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity that placed Meroë in the Western tradition.
Although Meroë’s origins are certainly much older, the earliest remains so far excavated date from early in the 1st millennium BC. By the 8th and 7th centuries BC it was a major centre for the rapidly expanding kingdom of Kush. Elite cemeteries with pyramid tombs were constructed on the hilly ridges to the east of the town, and minor members of the Kushite royal family were buried there. Royal inscriptions reveal that by the 5th century BC it was the major royal residence city, but it did not become the kings’ burial place (which at that time was further north near the city of Napata, at the 4th Cataract of the Nile) until about 300 BC. The pyramid cemeteries continued to grow until the mid-4th century AD.
Meroë had kings, but also queens who ruled alongside a king or on their own. The term for them was rendered into Greek as ‘Kandake’ (hence Candace). The Kandakes were depicted as warriors in temple and tomb scenes, and Roman writers record how the Kandake led her armies in person against an invasion in the time of the emperor Augustus.
Nick Jakins after Frédéric Cailliaud, Voyage à Méroe, Paris, 1826–7.
Reconstructing the appearance of the ancient city of Meroë is difficult, in part because of the relatively small amount of excavation that has taken place, but it must have been a sprawling, low-level settlement, with mixed types of housing – some regular mud-brick buildings, some large conical grass huts. Excavations at the site have concentrated on the ‘Royal City’, a large rectangle enclosed by a massive stone wall, with palace and temple structures, and an extraordinary building dubbed by the archaeologists ‘the Roman Bath’, but now thought to be a nymphaeum (a fountain house).
This Royal City originally stood on an island in the river, but over time the eastern river channel dried up or was diverted. Next to the enclosure wall was an enormous temple to the Egyptian ram-headed god Amun, one of the state deities of Meroë. Constructed in typical Egyptian style, the large stone towers of the temple’s pylon, or entrance, opened on to a colonnaded court, columned hall and inner sanctuaries. A processional way leading to the temple entrance was flanked by avenues of rams, as well as other, smaller, shrines.
Within the Royal City were streets with large palatial residences constructed on at least two storeys. A small temple there contained fragments of painted plaster depicting the Kandake (Meroitic queen) with foreign captives. Beneath the temple floor an over-lifesize bronze head of a statue of the emperor Augustus was discovered. The statue was the prize taken by the Meroitic armies that had stormed across the frontier and seized Aswan – a military conflict recorded by Strabo. Following a peace treaty in 23 BC, enormous trade flowed between Rome and Meroë, ushering in one of the city’s most splendid periods. A series of new temples was constructed in Meroë itself and in other towns of the kingdom.
The decline of Meroë coincided with – and was related to – the economic and political problems faced by the Roman empire in the 3rd century AD. Its end seems to have been brought about by invasions of the Noba peoples (from Nubia) and the rising power of the kingdom of Aksum in the Ethiopian highlands.
Between 300 BC and AD 350 the rulers and elites of Meroë were buried in steep-sided pyramids set on the low hills some way to the east of the city. Built of the grainy reddish local sandstone, each pyramid had a decorated chapel facing towards the rising sun, and a burial chamber beneath. The burials combine the Egyptian and local elements of Merotic elite culture.
Photo by opaxir (www.flickr.com/photos/opaxir/).