Art and Industry

The Achievements of Meroe

By: Samia B. Dafa'alla

Originally Published in 1993

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The empire of Meroe flourished along the Sudanic Nile valley from approximately 300 B.C. to A.D. 350. Although successors to the Napatan empire, the Meroites seem to have been less influenced by Egypt than the Napatan were. They developed a distinctive civilization which incorporated indigenous religious cults, a system for writing their language, new forms of architecture, and a notable ceramic tradition. They also had a sophisticated iron industry, one of the earliest known in Africa.

Meroe is an ancient name. One of its earliest occurrences is on the stela of the Napatan king Amani-nete-yerike, who ruled in the last third of the 5th century B.C. (Macadam 1949:51). Another reference to Meroe from about the same date comes from Flerodotus (History, II, 29), who also states that Meroe was the capital city of the Ethiopians, that is, the Meroites. The pronunciation Merawi is suggested by the pronunciation of the modern place name Merawi, a small town in northern Sudan about 300 km across the Bayuda desert from old Meroe. The town’s name is believed to be a survival of the ancient name.

Archaeology has shown that the origin of Meroc dates back to the 8th century B.C. Thus it was more or less contemporary with the group of Napatan cities centered around the Fourth Cataract of the Nile (Fig. 2). At that early time, however, Napata appears to have been more important than Meroe. Beside the administrative center at Sanam Abu-dom, Napata included at least two important temples and two royal cemeteries, one of which, El Kurru, is the oldest Napatan site so far discovered.

It has become a convention to refer to the period of the political importance of Napata as the Kingdom of Napata and the period that followed it as the Kingdom of Meroe, the two kingdoms together constituting the empire of Kush. Kush began circa 750 B.C. and ended circa A.D. 350. The Kingdom of Napata may he defined as the first phase and the Kingdom of Meroe the second phase of the empire of Kush, but the chronological and cultural relationship between Napata and Meroe is not fully understood. For the purpose of this paper I am going to adopt the division of Reisner (1923), taking the end of the Napata phase to be circa 300 B.C.

The Napatans

During its long history, the Sudanese Nile valley has witnessed the rise and fall of several civilizations. The civilization of Kerma, which flourished between 2400 B.C. and 1400 B.C., was the earliest; it is the oldest known civilization in Africa outside of Egypt. The state of Kerma was brought to an end as a result of the Egyptian conquest of the Sudan at the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom (circa 1570-1080 B.C.). After the with­drawal of the Egyptians about 1100 B.C., a dark age followed in the Sudan. The dark age, a period for which there have been no archaeological finds, was dis­pelled first in the region of Napata with the discovery of the cemetery of El Kurru. The dating of the beginning of El Kurru has been a subject of some con­troversy among scholars; today, however, most would accept Dunham’s 850 B.C. date. The tombs at El Kurru antedating Kashta (who ruled circa 760-750 B.C.) reflect a modest indigenous culture representing possibly a principality with limited geographical boundaries.

Beginning with the reign of Kashta, new culture showing signs of increased Egyptian influence began to evolve in El Kurru. The Egyptianization of the Napatan kings reached a peak during the time when Napata ruled over Egypt (730-656 B.C.). Of the five Sudanese kings who constituted the Egyptian 25th Dynasty, four were buried at El Kurru; the fifth king, the celebrated Taharka, was buried in the cemetery at Nuri. (After the closure of El Kurru, the royal burial was transferred to Nuri and continued there until the end of the Napatan kingdom.) Napatan funerary and religious architec­ture, the royal iconography, the state reli­gion, and the official written language all were derived to a large extent from Egyptian examples (Figs. 3,4).

The archaeological and documentary evidence from the time of Kashta onwards indicates very clearly that the small Napatan principality centered at El Kurru had been transformed into a full-fledged state by that time. Unfortunately, we know very little about the circumstances which sur­rounded the rise of the Napatan kingdom.

There are, of course, many theories for­mulated by various scholars to explain this occurrence (Connate 1987:9-12).

Whatever the circumstances, they enabled the newborn state to develop very rapidly. I am inclined to believe that the systems of Napatan kingship and kin­ship were essential in securing the integrity and stability of the kingdom. Another factor was probably the econom­ic system, which was based on the control of trade and the monopoly of the region’s gold resources. The army must have played an important role in Napatan territorial expansion, as well as in protect­ing the state from external dangers.

Laying down the foundation of a strong state must he considered the most singular achievement of the Napatans. Another important achievement, howev­er, was Napata’s conquest and effective 70-year rule of Egypt, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. A significant aspect of this conquest was that the Napatans entered Egypt as a civilized people. They did not destroy Egypt’s monuments or symbols; on the contrary, they adopted many elements of Egyptian civilization. There is a general tendency in the literature today to underestimate this Sudanese achieve­ment. Many scholars cite the state of dis­unity inside Egypt as the main factor behind the Napatan conquest. While it is true that there was political unrest in Egypt, the Egyptian dings who stood in the way of Piankhy and his forces never­theless appear to have been very strong. Piankhy’s victory stela shows that he encountered strong resistance from two fortified Egyptian towns.

Because the Napatans were strongly Egyptianization, it is difficult to see immedi­ately their contribution to Egyptian civi­lization. Recent research in the art of the 25th Dynasty shows that the Napatans were able to reactivate the Egyptian art which was in some way in danger of becoming stiff’ (Wenig 1989:12). Future research in other fields might come up with similar discoveries.

One cannot leave the Napatans with­out mentioning their role as great builders, both in stone and in mud brick. In this particular field they surpassed their successors, the Meroites. The monuments of the Napatans are spread throughout Egypt and the Sudan and include stone pyramids, many temples and palaces, and a number of other buildings of a public nature.

The Meroites

Of all the civilizations which arose in the Sudan, Meroe is considered to be the most important because of its achievements. These achievements are significant not only in their magnificence, hut also in their indigenous and inventive character, despite the veneer of foreign influence. By focusing on the nonroyal elements of the culture, it becomes apparent that the Meroitic method of dealing with foreign civilizations was one of special selection. The Meroites borrowed the styles and techniques which best suited them. These borrowings were combined with elements of Meroitic culture, resulting in completely different products. The products were “new works of undeniably Meroitic character” (Wenig 1978:66).

Preservation of the State

The Meroitic kings (Fig. 6) succeeded in maintaining and preserving the state which they inherited from their predeces­sors, the Napatans. The limited docu­mentary evidence at our disposal shows that the danger of attack from the north continued to threaten the very existence of the Meroitic empire. We know that Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 B.C.) seized control of two of the most impor­tant gold mines in the Sudan—those of Wadi al Alaqi and Wadi Gabgaba. To secure these, he must have annexed the extreme northern parts of the Meroitic kingdom, the region known to the Greeks as Dodekaschoenos. That this was done is suggested by the writings of the hist­orian Bion (Torok 1987:153-54). Later, Ptolemy VI (180-145 B.C.) annexed an additional portion from the territory of the Meroitic kingdom, fixing the Egyptian southern boundary very close to the Second Cataract of the Nile (Torok 1987:155). Although there is no support­ing evidence, it seems very likely that the Ptolemaic colonial activities met with strong protest from the Meroites and pos­sibly with military confrontation. On the other hand, the seizure of the gold mines deprived the Meroitic kingdom of a very important source of wealth and strength.

In 23 B.C., the Meroites fought a direct war with the Roman rulers of Egypt. Strabo, who recounts the events of this war in very vivid detail, maintains that the Meroites started the aggression by attacking Roman settlements in Upper Egypt (Geography 17.1.53ff.). The Meroitic attack was interpreted, quite rightly, as a protest against the Roman policy that declared Meroe a protectorate of the Roman empire. I believe, following Torok, that the protection of the Meroitic ruler was “the first step towards the cre­ation of a Meroitic client-kingdom and eventually the annexation of the king­dom” (1987:163).

Strabo maintains that the Meroites were utterly defeated and that their royal city was destroyed and its treasures loot­ed. He also claims that the Romans car­ried their boundaries deeper into the Sudanese territory, establishing a mili­tary station at Qasr Ibrim.

Having failed to stop the Roman inter­vention by force, the Meroites resorted to diplomacy. A Meroitic delegation went to meet Emperor Augustus himself at Samos. After negotiation, the emperor granted the Meroites everything they asked for. Apparently, these requests included, besides the remission of the tribute mentioned by Strabo, the cancellation of the idea of a client-kingdom.

The Invention of a Writing System

A system for writing the native language of Kush finally appeared in the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.; the actual date of this invention could have been slightly earlier (Abdalla 1976:103). The Meroitic script consists of 23 signs, 21 of which are alphabetic and 2 of which are bilateral (that is, made up of two consonants). There are two sets of signs: a pictorial, less commonly used set of hieroglyphs, and a much-employed cursive script (see Fig. 5).

Although many of the Meroitic symbols were bor­rowed from the Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphic writing, there are a number of fundamental differences between the two writing sys­tems. For example, the method of writing the picto­graphic signs differed. Meroitic letters face toward the end of the line while Egyptian letters face toward the beginning. There was also a large discrepancy in the number of symbols used. The Meroites employed a total of 23-signs while the Egyptians used hundreds of symbols, a great many biliteral and trilit­eral signs, and a large number of detenni-natives. In addition, Meroitic contained written vowel notations and Egyptian did not (Hintze 1978:93).

Concerning the origins of the Meroitic language, most researchers now believe that it belongs to an African language family called Eastern Sudanic. This fami­ly also includes the Nubian language which replaced Meroitic in medieval times, as well as the Dinka, Barea, Daju. and Masai languages.

Research in the field of Meroitic lan­guage is proceeding slowly. Presently, it is only half understood. We can easily read whole sentences of Meroitic, but we remain ignorant about much of their meaning due to the difficulty in decipher­ing the grammar and vocabulary.

The Worship of Indigenous Deities

All the gods known from the Napatan period belong to the Egyptian pantheon. The absence of indigenous Napatan gods may be due to deliberate suppression of their worship by the Napatan authorities.

In spite of this, indirect evidence indi­cates that there were a number of indige­nous cults. Graffiti from a site called by archaeol­ogists “the Great Enclosure” point to the existence of an indigenous lion cult in the region of Musawwarat es-Sufra from as early as Napatan times. The Great Enclosure is a curious structure composed of unroofed areas, three temples, many cor­ridors, and a number of sloping ramps.

The interior surfaces of some of the walls are carved with hundreds of graffiti (Fig. 7) and drawings representing human beings, animals, and zoomorphic creatures (Hintze 1979:figs. 2-44). Many of the graffiti are invocations to a lion god called Apedemak. Since this god is not known from any contemporary civilization, it must he indigenously Meroitic. Hintze dates the buildings of the Great Enclosure to the Napatan peri­od (1978:93). This date may also be given to the appearance of the worship of Apeclemak among the ordinary Meroites.

During the Meroitic period, and as early as the 3rd century B.C., Apedemak was raised to the status of an official god. A temple dedicated to his worship was built by a 3rd century Meroitic ruler called Arnekhamani (Hintze 1962: 170-202). Apedemak temples have been discovered in a number of sites in the Butana, such as Naga (Fig. 1), Basa, and Um Usuda. Apedemak temples have also been found in the city of Meroe.

In representation, the god Apedemak has several forms. He may appear as a man with a lion’s head or as a man with three lion heads, a torso and two sets of arms; in a third representation, he appears as a snake with a lion’s head, with the snake’s torso emerging from a lotus flower.

The iconography of Apedemak indi­cates that he was primarily a warrior god. In one of his reliefs he is represented holding a bow and arrows in one hand and a cord to which an enemy is tied in the other. The hymn written for Apedemak on the walls of the Musawwarat temple shows that he was also a creator god and a god of suste­nance (see Hintze 1962:181-82).

Another indigenous cult which appeared in the Meroitic period was the worship of the god Sebewymeker. Like Apedemak, he was given a prominent place in the official religion. Recent exca­vations in Meroe have uncovered a new temple dedicated to this god and the head of a statue of Sebewymeker was found near the temple (Shinnie 1984:502-03). All representations of him show him in the form of a man.

The walls of the temple of King Arnekhamani at Musawwarat depict a non-Egyptian goddess standing between four Egyptian goddesses. Because of her African appearance, this hitherto unknown goddess could be Meroitic (Shinnie 1967:145). The existence of comparable indigenous cults in the north-em half of the kingdom of Meroe is indi­cated by other graffiti. These graffiti were found carved either in the walls of the temples or on the rock surfaces in the desert tracks (Millet 1984:112-15).

All these deities, I believe, were known and worshiped by the ordinary people for a long time before some of them were rec­ognized by the ruling families. This demonstrates how a preoccupation with royal culture to the exclusion of popular culture can distort our understanding of the life of ordinary people.

Iron Working

Several large mounds of iron slag were found on the outskirts of the city of Meroe during the first excavations (1904-1914). These early excavations, however, did not provide any details about the dates or the technology of the industry. Fortunately, such information became available after the resumption of excavations in 1969-1975. Five furnaces have been discovered, together with the remains of three bellow pots. One of these had the tuyere (blow pipe) still con­nected to it. This is said to be the first archaeological discovery of bellow pots ever made in Africa (Shinnie and Kense 1982:23).

There are two methods for dating the evidence of iron working: dating the fur­naces and dating the slag remains. At Meroe, furnace bottoms coming from Level 4 gave carbon 14 dates of 280 ± 120 B.C. Iron slag found at Level 16 has been dated to the 6th century B.C. from car­bon 14 dates (MR-7 514 ± 73 B.C.). This is the oldest date for evidence of iron working obtained in sub-Saharan Africa. The second oldest dates come from Nige­ria, where carbon 14 tests from the site of Taruga yielded dates between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C. (Phiilipson 1985:165).

Since the Meroitic dates are later than those of iron-working sites in North Africa and Egypt, it has been assumed that knowledge of iron working came to Meroe from the north, more specifically from Egypt. The Afrocentric view, how­ever, suggests that the Meroitic iron industry was an indigenous invention based upon an earlier copper-smelting industry.

The technology employed by the Meroites was probably similar to that employed by Africans today (Fig. 8a,b). The iron ore placed in the pit of the fur­nace is fired by charcoal to the required temperature (1100° centigrade). The bel­low pots are placed on a raised platform, 80 centimeters high, which is built around the circumference of the furnace. The method of operation for the excavated fur­naces is difficult to determine. Six holes found in the exterior wall of one of the fur­naces suggest that six bellow pots were used. It may be that six men were at work, or possibly only three men, each one oper­ating two bellows. After separating the usable metal from the waste product (the slag), the metal is brought to the desired shape by repeated heating and hammer­ing. There is no evidence so far that Meroitic iron industry included tasting.

Commenting on the standard of iron industry in Meroe, Shinnie and Kense write, “It indicates a relative sophistica­tion on the part of the Meroites in their technology to a standard as yet un­matched by any known contemporary African society” (1982:17).

The impact of the local production of iron on the Meroitic kingdom must have been great. Despite the relative scarcity of iron artifacts from Meroitic sites, it is quite evident from the nature of the tools discovered that iron played a very impor­tant role in the life of the people. It was used in building (nails and bolts), in agri­culture (hoes), and in making weapons (arrow- and spearheads; Fig. 9). Many scholars now believe that the Meroites might have exported iron to their neigh­bors. Hintze believes that Meroe export­ed iron to Egypt (1978:93). Cliittick thinks that Meroitic iron might have found its way south to Alum in Ethiopia. If this can be proven, iron would have contributed greatly to the wealth of the Meroitic kingdom (Millet and Kelley 1982:45-47). The knowledge of iron technology may have spread from Meroe to other parts of Africa as well, possibly by means of trade caravans or slave-hunt­ing expeditions. As Shinnie observed, Meroe remains the most obvious place from which iron technology could have reached central and east Africa in the first centuries A.D (1967:168).

Meroitic Decorated Pottery 

The profusion of pottery finds and the frequent discovery of pottery kilns leave little doubt that the production of pottery in Meroe was a flourishing industry. Many different wares were produced, both fine and domestic (Figs. 10-14). It is not my intention, however, to give a com­prehensive account of Meroitic pottery. Rather, I would like to draw attention to a specific collection of pottery classified by Adams (1964:131) as Meroitic classic ware. I chose to highlight this group because it represents the best of the Meroitic pottery production, both with regard to fabric and decoration.

The vessels of this ware are usually small cups, bowls, Iekythoi (cylindrical vases), and small bottles (Adams 1964:131 and figs. 1, 2). The clay from which they are made is very dense and fine and of a light color. It is either hard or very hard, tempered with particles of black, white, and red material (Adams 1968:8). All of the vessels were made on the wheel. Some of them have very thin and hard walls which has merited them the description “eggshell pottery.”

The exterior walls of the vessels are decorated with beautifully painted, elabo­rate designs, such as friezes of stylized flo­ral and faunal patterns (Fig. 12), geomet­ric motifs, or anthropomorphic (Fig. 13) and geomorphic motifs (Adams 1964:figs. 10-12). The latter are probably the most distinctly Meroitic. Common zoomorphic motifs are the crocodile (Fig. 14) and the ostrich. Some of the floral motifs, espe­cially the vine-wreath, are believed to he of Greco-Roman origin. It is worth men­tioning in this connection that Meroitic classic ware was the product of Lower Nubia; it was found in Meroe only as an import from northern sites. As the Lower Nubian markets were flooded with imported Greco-Roman pottery, it is easy to explain the influence.

The Meroitic classic ware has Found world-wide recognition and appreciation. For the purposes of this paper, it will suffice to quote the testimony of two prominent scholars. William Adams wrote, “Both technologically and aesthetically it represents one of the highest cultural attainments in Nubian history” (1964:169). According to Peter Shinnie, “It ranks with the finest products of ceramic art of the ancient world” (1967:114).

Innovations and Adaptations in Architecture

The variety, endurance, and survival of many of the Meroitic buildings testify to the existence of skilled masons and cre­ative architects among the Meroitic peo­ple. The Meroites knew and employed well over ten building types. Some were funerary: pyramids (Fig. 15a,b), inastabas, chapels. Some, such as temples, were reli­gious. Other types include palaces, public buildings, fortifications, castles, baths (of Roman type), kiosks, taverns, wine presses, and ordinary houses (see Adams 1984). The building material most often employed was brick, both burnt and an-burnt. Stone was employed mainly for monumental buildings.

Some of the Meroitic building types were of foreign origin. However, it is important to stress once more what I mentioned earlier: when Meroitic people borrowed from foreign civilizations, the method of selection and the recasting of the selected elements in a Meroitic mold resulted in a new product completely dif­ferent from the source of the inspiration. Take the idea of the pyramid, for exam­ple. Reisner’s study of the Meroitic pyra­mids and his classification of them into nine groups according to architectural variations (1923:38-53) prove the degree of diversity even within the Meroites’ own production. The last pyramids in the cemetery of Bejrawiyya North in particu­lar demonstrate the ability of the Meroites to adapt this architectural type to their economic resources and indige­nous technology.

Although the Egyptian type of temple did not die out, the appearance and spread of the simpler single- or double-chambered temples points to a certain degree of emancipation from the influ­ence of Egyptian architectural design. Over 38 of these new Meroitic temples have been recorded. Since many of them were found to be associated with the wor­ship of the lion-god Apedemak, it has become a tradition to call them “lion templeas.” Although they became more popu­lar in the Meroitic period, there is good evidence to suggest that they were known since early Napatan times (Ali Hake 1988:183). The reasons for their revival in the Meroitic period could have been practical; they are easy to construct and inexpensive to finance. A better explana­tion is that they were originally associated with the worship of indigenous deities which was revived in the Meroitic period.

Some of the Meroitic building types have no parallels in known contemporary civilizations. One of these is the so-called Great Enclosure in Musawwarat es ­Sufra. Another is the castle of Karanog in Lower Nubia (identified as a palace by some scholars). Adams describes it as a unique example of Meroitic architectural design (1984:264). The castle is a square mud-brick structure (Fig. 16) composed of many small square interconnected chambers. All of the rooms have barrel vault roofs and symmetrically placed win­dows. Before it was inundated, the castle stood up to the height of two stories, but it has been suggested that there was a third floor.

The employment of sculptured ele­phants as column bases in temples (see Shinnie 1967:pl. 20) is another example of Meroitic innovation in architecture.

“Some of the Meroitic building types have no parallels in known contemporary civilizations.”

The Development of Agriculture

The cultivation of cereals in the alluvial plains on the two banks of the Nile began in the Sudan at the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C. By the time of the Meroitic kingdom, there was a wide variety of agricultural produce. At the same time, there was a great improvement in agricultural methods and techniques.

The conspicuous increase in popula­tion during the Meroitic period and the concomitant prosperity must have been accompanied by an increase in the amount of food produced. Since there is no evidence that the Meroites brought in Egyptian peasant farmers, the agricultur­al revolution of the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. must have been the achievement of the Meroitic people themselves. We believe that agriculture was the main activity of a considerable portion of the population. This is indicated by the distri­bution of sites along the lines of the allu­vial plains and in the mouths of the wadis. Also, the increase in the number of urban centers must have been supported by intensified agricultural production in the rural areas. Hintze might be correct in believing that the man-made reservoirs, several of which have been discovered in Meroe and the Butana, were used to reserve water for drinking and irrigation purposes (1978:89). Be that as it may, conditions for agriculture in the Meroitic steppeland were certainly favorable. First, the plains are wide; second, this region receives summer rains which allow for cereal cultivation; third, it is assumed that new iron tools, certainly the hoe among them, played a role in improving agricultural techniques.

In the northern province (Lower Nubia), where the plains are generally very narrow and rain is nonexistent, agri­culture was revolutionized in the 1st cen­tury B.C. by the introduction of the ox-driven waterwheel (see O’Connor, Fig. 1). This device helped to irrigate lands which lay far away from the reach of the annual Nile flood, thus resulting in a sub­stantial increase in the area suitable for cultivation.

The Meroitic state flourished for more than 600 years. Yet the cultural achieve­ments of the Meroites are far more important than their political achieve­ments. Meroe, for example, is likely to have spread iron working through other parts of Africa. It was also the most prob­able source from which the earliest of the sub-Saharan African kingdoms obtained political and ideological views about state formation and organization. Whatever their influence on the rest of Africa may have been, their cultural achievements—especially in writing, religion, technology, and the arts—stand out in their own right. They were the outcome of genuine attempts by the Meroitic people to create their own civilization and to liberate themselves from the grip and influence of Egyptian culture.


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Dafa'alla, Samia B.. "Art and Industry." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 2 (July, 1993): -. Accessed February 28, 2024.

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