Royal City Of Meroe

After the decline of Napata, the Kushites moved the seat of the dynasty south and transferred the capital to Meroe, which was far away from Napata invasions. This was the beginning of Meroe as a royal city and capital of the kingdom, which continued for another thousand years until 350 CE. Kushite art and architecture began to develop new styles, for example the lion- god Apedemak became the most important Meroitic deity in the southern part of the kingdom. Also, a Meroitic script primarily replaced the previous commonly used Egyptian writing.

Pyramids of MeroePyramids of Meroe

The Meroites were great builders of pyramids, temples, palaces, and created wide industrial areas. The four most noted of these are the royal city of Meroe, Begriweya pyramid fields, Naga, and Musawwarat es-Sufra. This rich archaeological region is often referred to as the so-called “Island of Meroe,” as it lies in an area between the Nile and Atbara rivers. These several areas comprise the best preserved relics of the Kingdom of Kush, encompassing a wide range of architectural forms and industries that shaped the political, social, artistic and technological scene of the middle and northern Nile Valley for more than 1,000 years (8th century BCE to 4th century CE). These architectural structures, the applied iconography and evidence of production and trade, including ceramics and iron works, testify to the power and influence of the Kushite state.

Similar to other Kushite urban settlements, Meroe was an epicenter of territorial administration and a religious center which developed into a temple-city centered around a royal complex and Amen temples. The many other urban centers with Amen temples including Sanam Abu Dom, Napata/Gebel Barkal, Kawa, Kerma/Dokki Gel, and possibly Tabo.

Excavations have only concentrated on monumental structures, and even in those areas have rarely penetrated through to the first phases of occupation, rather than the deeper and early settlement levels. What little evidence there is indicates that the earliest inhabitants of Meroe lived in circular wooden dwellings, and this occupation has been dated to the 10th century BCE. At this time little is known about the political and settlement history of the Middle Nile Valley in Sudan.

The site of Meroe was brought to the knowledge of Europeans in 1821 by the French mineralogist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787–1869), who published an illustrated in-folio describing the ruins. This was followed by treasure-hunting expeditions executed beginning in 1834 by the infamous Italian Giuseppe Ferlini (1797-1870), who destroyed over 40 pyramids near Meroe in search for what he described as “unprecedented treasures.” Archaeological excavations in the royal cemeteries by Wallis Budge of the British Museum began immediately after the conquest of the region by the Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1898, and in the city in 1909, and these have continued sporadically up until the present day. Unfortunately much of this work was only published in a summary fashion by the excavators, and in some cases, there is no detailed information about the history, development, and topography of the ancient Royal City.

pottery artifacts from MeroePottery artifacts from Meroe

The Meroe area is rich in iron ore and the earliest fragment of smelting slag and smelting furnaces have been dated back to 6th century BCE. There were 5,000-10,000 tons of iron slab found with 1992 excavations, indicating the vast production and trade in iron. Slag is the by- product formed during iron smelting, and heaps or iron slag in the immediate neighborhood (east) of the town bear witness to intensive iron making and working on the site. The site is renowned for its large iron-slag heaps, one of which was cut through by the railway line from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa when construction began in 1897. It is clear that at one time this was the principal iron-making area of Sudan. Perhaps more than any other ancient technology, iron production generated a significant quantity and diversity of remains that survive in the archaeological record. There was much skill, effort, and materials required to produce iron, and production was viable and in some cases became of paramount importance to the society, because it provided a material that could be worked to produce tough, durable objects as well as ornamental and prestige items suitable for local consumption and for external trade. The items included rings, pins, bracelets, hoes and axes, and spears and arrowheads, and the plasticity of heated iron meant that a smelting bloom could be easily forged and shaped into desired objects with good strength, and this contributed to the rise, dominance, and fall of the Kingdom of Kush.

Other local production items are worth noting such as the complex of pottery kilns excavated at Meroe towards the northern edge of the city, but has yet to be published in detail. The diversity of forms and decorative motifs, particularly of the fine painted wares found at Meroe, suggests that the city was a major pottery production center.

Necklace from Meroë, 50-320 AD. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy: wikipediaNecklace from Meroë, 50-320 AD. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy: wikipedia.

Other major goods traded from Kush included gold, ivory, ebony, rhinoceros horn, leopard and other skins, and ostrich feathers, most of which originates from South Sudan and beyond to other lands to the south. Trade in early states was largely a matter of intergovernmental relations and not so much commercial entrepreneurship. An important point is that in this kind of administrative system, trade is not only a matter of the flows of goods and political influence, but also involves the diffusion of ideas and knowledge brought about by migration of occupational specialists whose skills are in demand in distant communities. Events in some parts of the ancient world thus had repercussions in other parts, restructuring local production and international distribution as well as affecting the growth and decline of states in widely separated regions.

The Royal City is the name given to the area within the enclosure wall which contains the royal bath and the remains of many structures of a regal nature. Within the Royal City main enclosure the royal baths functioned as a water sanctuary, probably connected with festivals performed by the king on the occasion of the beginning of the annual inundation of the Nile. In its peak, the city covered a considerable area, and today the large mounds scattered with pottery, brick, and stone testify to long and intensive occupation. Many of the mounds cover the remains of domestic buildings belonging to the ordinary inhabitants of the city, the population of which has been estimated at 20,000–25,000.

Excavations of two small areas found a continuous sequence of occupation from the 10th century BCE until the 4th century CE, most of the buildings being of mud brick. The economy of the city was have been dependent to a large extent on the agricultural potential of the area. The fertile Nile banks would have been extensively irrigated, as they are today, with the help of the shaduf, a basic water-lifting device. Whether the more technologically advanced and efficient saqia (water-wheel) was available at this time is still the subject of debate. The people also practiced animal husbandry, and there is evidence for the consumption of cattle, sheep, and goats for food.

Temple of Amun at MeroeTemple of Amun at Meroe

The Temple of Amen is the largest structure within the site (about 442 feet long). It is oriented east–west with the main entrance on the east. It is constructed of mud and red bricks with door jambs, columns, pylons, and the main sanctuary of Nubian sandstone. It is approached along an average of sphinxes which over time was lined with small temples and, close to the pylon, by two stone rams on either side. As in many of the Kushite temples of Amen, it consists of an outer courtyard, a hypostyle hall, several ancillary rooms, and a sanctuary. The western end of the building lay adjacent to the eastern wall of the Royal City.

Near the Royal City are several areas: the Lion Temple, Sun Temple, and several pyramids sites in Begriwiya such as the western, northern, and southern cemeteries.

Temple of Apedemak the Lion God Meroe.Temple of Apedemak the Lion God Meroe

The Lion Temple, dedicated to the cult of Apedemak (Lion God), is located on a heap of iron slag immediately to the east of the town site. It is a double-chambered temple built of sandstone and decorated with reliefs. The entrance to the building is approached by a flight of steps and originally was flanked by two lion statues.

The Sun Temple is located approximately 1⁄2 mile from the town. Older foundations in the royal area to be associated with fragments of an inscription of King Aspelta (593–568 BCE), a successor of 25th dynasty kings.

The Western Cemetery in Begrawiya contains more than 500 graves, some of which are pyramids, and it is considered to be the burial ground for the princes and nobles of Meroe. Some of these burials were richly furnished. In monument 5, five skeletons lay beside that of the main burial, a queen of minor rank. One of the skeletons was clearly that of a maidservant, who was found clutching to her breast her mistress’s mirror and a bag containing the lady’s jewelry (four bracelets of gold and carnelian, four necklaces of gold and cut glass, and six pairs of gold earrings). The Southern Cemetery contains more than 200 graves, and the Northern Cemetery is exclusively the royal burial ground of the rulers of Meroe. It contains 44 pyramids, of kings, queens, and crown princes, all but six of whom were reigning monarchs.

In June 2011, the Archeological Sites of Meroe were listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. The “Island of Meroe” is the heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power in the ancient world from the 8th century BCE into the 4th century CE. Meroe became the principal residence of the rulers, and from the 3rd century BCE onwards it was the site of most subsequent royal burials. It also has evidence for industrial activities, particularly iron- working. The sites (the Meroe city site with the North and South cemeteries, Musawwarat es-Sufra, and Naqa) comprise the best preserved relics of the Kingdom of Kush, encompassing a wide range of architectural forms and occupying a range of environments.

Great enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra temple complex.Great enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra temple complex

Musawwarat is a unique architectural ensemble with temples, courtyards, and domestic buildings, as well as major installations connected with water management, quarries, and industrial areas. At Naqa, the Lion Temple preserves reliefs of Kushite gods and royalty are of special importance, and the sites also has architectural and decorative elements from pharaonic Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Meroe flourished as a thriving royal city until the coming of King Ezana of Axum, who destroyed Meroe in 350 CE. This is the last direct information we hear from Meroe until the times of rediscovery many centuries later. All aspects of Kushite civilization were largely destroyed with the arrival of Christianity on the Middle Nile in the 6th century CE. The Kingdom of Kush collapsed, partly as a result perhaps of an Axumite invasion and the intrusion of foreign tribes into the Nile Valley, towards the middle of the 4th century CE.

A new cultural tradition prevailed in the Sudan during the 4th and 5th centuries CE, widely known as the Post-Meroitic Period. One of its most distinctive features is its burial mounds, often of considerable size. The country was converted to Christianity in the 6th century and three Christian kingdoms were established in the Middle Nile Region: Nobatia, in the north with its capital at Faras; Makouria in the center, with its capital at Old Dongola; and Alodia in the south, with its capital at Soba East. Later, the two northernmost kingdoms were united into a single kingdom (Makouria), with Old Dongola as the capital. The Christian Kingdoms came to an end during the 14th and 15th centuries and an Islamic state of the Funj was established with its capital at Sennar on the Blue Nile.

Ampim, Manu. “History Of African Civilizations, History 110 Course Reader.” Unit 3: Classical African Civilizations (Kush). Oakland, CA: Advancing The Research, 2016. 51-55.

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