Meroë (//; also spelled Meroe; Meroitic: Medewi or Bedewi; Arabic: مرواه Meruwah and مروى Meruwi; Ancient Greek: Μερόη, Meróē) is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum. Near the site are a group of villages called Bagrawiyah. This city was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. The Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë gave its name to the Island of Meroë, which was the modern region of Butana, a region bounded by the Nile (from the Atbarah River to Khartoum), the Atbarah and the Blue Nile.
Pyramids of the Kushite rulers at Meroë
Shown within Sudan
|Location||River Nile, Sudan|
|Official name||Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe|
|Criteria||ii, iii, vi, v|
|Designated||2011 (35th session)|
The city of Meroë was on the edge of Butana and there were two other Meroitic cities in Butana: Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa. The first of these sites was given the name Meroë by the Persian king, Cambyses, in honor of his sister who was called by that name. The city had originally borne the ancient appellation Saba, named after the country's original founder. The eponym Saba, or Seba, is named for one of the sons of Cush (see: Genesis 10:7). The presence of numerous Meroitic sites within the western Butana region and on the border of Butana proper is significant to the settlement of the core of the developed region. The orientation of these settlements exhibit the exercise of state power over subsistence production.
The Kingdom of Kush which housed the city of Meroë represents one of a series of early states located within the middle Nile. It is one of the earliest and most impressive states found south of the Sahara. Looking at the specificity of the surrounding early states within the middle Nile, one's understanding of Meroë in combination with the historical developments of other historic states may be enhanced through looking at the development of power relation characteristics within other Nile Valley states.
Meroë was the south capital of the Napata/Meroitic Kingdom, that spanned the period c. 800 BCE – c. 350 CE. According to partially deciphered Meroitic texts, the name of the city was Medewi or Bedewi. Excavations revealed evidence of important, high ranking Kushite burials, from the Napatan Period (c. 800 – c. 280 BCE) in the vicinity of the settlement called the Western cemetery. The culture of Meroë developed from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, which originated in Kush. The importance of the town gradually increased from the beginning of the Meroitic Period, especially from the reign of Arakamani (c. 280 BCE) when the royal burial ground was transferred to Meroë from Napata (Gebel Barkal). In the fifth century BCE, Greek historian Herodotus described it as "a great city...said to be the mother city of the other Ethiopians." The city of Meroë was located along the middle Nile which is of much importance due to the annual flooding of the Nile river valley and the connection to many major river systems such as the Niger which aided with the production of pottery and iron characteristic to the Meroitic kingdom that allowed for the rise in power of its people.
Rome's conquest of Egypt led to border skirmishes and incursions by Meroë beyond the Roman borders. In 23 BCE the Roman governor of Egypt, Publius Petronius, to end the Meroitic raids, invaded Nubia in response to a Nubian attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of the region and sacking Napata (22 BCE) before returning home. In retaliation, the Nubians crossed the lower border of Egypt and looted many statues (among other things) from the Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan. Roman forces later reclaimed many of the statues intact, and others were returned following the peace treaty signed in 22 BCE between Rome and Meroë under Augustus and Amanirenas, respectively. One looted head though, from a statue of the emperor Augustus, was buried under the steps of a temple. It is now kept in the British Museum.
The next recorded contact between Rome and Meroë was in the autumn of 61 CE. The Emperor Nero sent a party of Praetorian soldiers under the command of a tribune and two centurions into this country, who reached the city of Meroë where they were given an escort, then proceeded up the White Nile until they encountered the swamps of the Sudd. This marked the limit of Roman penetration into Africa.
The period following Petronius' punitive expedition is marked by abundant trade finds at sites in Meroë. L. P. Kirwan provides a short list of finds from archeological sites in that country.:18f However, the kingdom of Meroë began to fade as a power by the 1st or 2nd century CE, sapped by the war with Roman Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries.
Meroë is mentioned succinctly in the 1st century CE Periplus of the Erythraean Sea:
2. On the right-hand coast next below Berenice is the country of the Berbers. Along the shore are the Fish-Eaters, living in scattered caves in the narrow valleys. Farther inland are the Berbers, and beyond them the Wild-flesh-Eaters and Calf-Eaters, each tribe governed by its chief; and behind them, farther inland, in the country towards the west, there lies a city called Meroe.— Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Chap.2
a stele of Ge'ez of a unnamed ruler of Aksum thought of as Ezana was found at the site of Meroë; from his description, in Greek, that he was "King of the Aksumites and the Omerites," (i.e. of Aksum and Himyar) it is likely this king ruled sometime around 330. While some authorities interpret these inscriptions as proof that the Axumites destroyed the kingdom of Meroe, others note that archeological evidence points to an economic and political decline in Meroe around 300. Moreover, some view the stele as military aid from Aksum to Meroe to quell down the revolt and rebellion by the Nuba. However, conclusive evidence and proof to which view is correct is not currently present.
Meroë in Hebrew legend
Hebrew oral tradition avers that Moses, in his younger years, had led an Egyptian military expedition into Sudan (Kush), as far as the city of Meroë, which was then called Saba. The city was built near the confluence of two great rivers and was encircled by a formidable wall, and governed by a renegade king. To ensure the safety of his men who traversed that desert country, Moses had invented a stratagem whereby the Egyptian army would carry along with them baskets of sedge, each containing an ibis, only to be released when they approached the enemy's country. The purpose of the birds was to kill the deadly serpents that lay all about that country. Having successfully laid siege to the city, the city was eventually subdued by the betrayal of the king's daughter, who had agreed to deliver the city to Moses on condition that he would consummate a marriage with her, under the solemn assurance of an oath.
Meroë was the base of a flourishing kingdom whose wealth was centered around a strong iron industry, as well as international trade involving India and China. Metalworking is believed to have gone on in Meroë, possibly through bloomeries and blast furnaces, and Archibald Sayce reportedly referred to it as "the Birmingham of Africa", because of perceived vast production and trade of iron (a contention that is a matter of debate in modern scholarship).
The centralized control of production within the Meroitic empire and distribution of certain crafts and manufactures may have been politically important with their iron industry and pottery crafts gaining the most significant attention. The Meroitic settlements were oriented in a savannah orientation with the varying of permanent and less permanent agricultural settlements can be attributed to the exploitation of rainlands and savannah-oriented forms of subsistence.
At the time, iron was one of the most important metals worldwide, and Meroitic metalworkers were among the best in the world. Meroë also exported textiles and jewelry. Their textiles were based on cotton and working on this product reached its highest achievement in Nubia around 400 BCE. Furthermore, Nubia was very rich in gold. It is possible that the Egyptian word for gold, nub, was the source of name of Nubia. Trade in "exotic" animals from farther south in Africa was another feature of their economy.
Apart from the iron trade, pottery was a widespread and prominent industry in the Meroe kingdom. The production of fine and elaborated decorated wares was a strong tradition within the middle nile. Such productions carried considerable social significance and are believed to be involved in mortuary rites. The long history of goods imported into the Meroitic empire and their subsequent distribution provides insight into the social and political workings of the Meroitic state. The major determinant of production was attributed to the availability of labor rather than the political power associated with land. Power was associated with control of people rather than control of territory.
The Egyptian import, the water-moving wheel, the sakia, was used to move water, in conjunction with irrigation, to increase crop production.
The King of Meroë was an autocratic ruler who shared his authority only with the Queen Mother, or Candace. However, the role of the Queen Mother remains obscure. The administration consisted of treasurers, seal bearers, heads of archives and chief scribes, among others.
Although the people of Meroë also had southern deities such as Apedemak, the lion-son of Sekhmet (or Bast, depending upon the region), they also continued worshipping ancient Egyptian gods that they had brought with them. Among these deities were Amun, Tefnut, Horus, Isis, Thoth and Satis, though to a lesser extent.
The collapse of their external trade with other Nile Valley states may be considered as one of the prime causes of the decline of royal power and disintegration of the Meroitic state in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.
The Meroitic language was spoken in Meroë and the Sudan during the Meroitic period (attested from 300 BCE). It became extinct about 400 CE. The language was written in two forms of the Meroitic alphabet: Meroitic Cursive, which was written with a stylus and was used for general record-keeping; and Meroitic Hieroglyphic, which was carved in stone or used for royal or religious documents. It is not well understood due to the scarcity of bilingual texts. The earliest inscription in Meroitic writing dates from between 180-170 BCE. These hieroglyphics were found engraved on the temple of Queen Shanakdakhete. Meroitic Cursive is written horizontally, and reads from right to left like all Semitic orthographies.
By the 3rd century BCE, a new indigenous alphabet, the Meroitic, consisting of twenty-three letters, replaced Egyptian script. The Meroitic script is an alphabetic script originally derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, used to write the Meroitic language of the Kingdom of Meroë/Kush. It was developed in the Napatan Period (about 700 - 300 BCE), and first appears in the 2nd century BCE. For a time, it was also possibly used to write the Nubian language of the successor Nubian kingdoms.
It is uncertain to which language family the Meroitic language is related. Kirsty Rowan suggests that Meroitic, like the Egyptian language, belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family. She bases this on its sound inventory and phonotactics, which, she proposes, are similar to those of the Afro-Asiatic languages and dissimilar from those of the Nilo-Saharan languages. Claude Rilly, based on its syntax, morphology, and known vocabulary, proposes that Meroitic, like the Nobiin language, instead belongs to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family.
The site of Meroë 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. His work included the first publication of the southernmost known Latin inscription.
As Margoliouth notes in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, small scale excavations occurred in 1834, led by Giuseppe Ferlini, who, as Margoliouth states, "discovered (or professed to discover) various antiquities, chiefly in the form of jewelry, now in the museums of Berlin and Munich." Margoliouth continues,
The ruins were examined in 1844 by C. R. Lepsius, who brought many plans, sketches and copies, besides actual antiquities, to Berlin. Further excavations were carried on by E. A. Wallis Budge in the years 1902 and 1905, the results of which are recorded in his work, The Egyptian Sudan: its History and Monuments… Troops were furnished by Sir Reginald Wingate, governor of the Sudan, who made paths to and between the pyramids, and sank shafts, &c. It was found that the pyramids were regularly built over sepulchral chambers, containing the remains of bodies either burned or buried without being mummified. The most interesting objects found were the reliefs on the chapel walls, already described by Lepsius, and containing the names with representations of queens and some kings, with some chapters of the Book of the Dead; some steles with inscriptions in the Meroitic language, and some vessels of metal and earthenware. The best of the reliefs were taken down stone by stone in 1905, and set up partly in the British Museum and partly in the museum at Khartoum. In 1910, in consequence of a report by Professor Archibald Sayce, excavations were commenced in the mounds of the town and the necropolis by J[ohn] Garstang on behalf of the University of Liverpool, and the ruins of a palace and several temples were discovered, built by the Meroite kings.
World Heritage listing
- The same episode, with slight variation, is also related in Sefer Ha-Yashar, Tel-Aviv ca. 1965, pp. 192–195 (Hebrew) and in Gedaliah ibn Yahya's Shalshelet Ha-Kabbalah, Jerusalem 1962, p. 22 (p. 31 in PDF) (Hebrew); Pseudo-Jonathan – the Aramaic Targum of pseudo-Jonathan ben Uziel (ed. Dr. M. Ginsburger), 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1974, p. 248.
- CIL III, 83. This inscription was subsequently published by Lepsius, who brought the stone back to Berlin. Although thought lost, it was recently rediscovered in the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin;
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Media related to Meroë at Wikimedia Commons
- LearningSites.com - Gebel Barkal
- UNESCO World Heritage - Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region
- Nubia Museum - Merotic Empire
- Voyage au pays des pharaons noirs Travel in Sudan and notes on Nubian history (in French)
- Labelled map of the pyramids at Meroe
- Sudan's forgotten pyramids - BBC News
- Pictures of Meroë - An online slide show as part of a detailed travelogue (in German)