He is most famous as the ruler who broke with the long-standing tradition of religious authority superceding the secular authority of the king. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, in the time before the reign of King Ergamenes it had been the custom for the high priests of the Egyptian god Amun at the holy city of Napata to decide who became king and to set the duration of the king’s reign. As the health of the king was tied to the fertility of the land, the priests had the power to determine if the sitting king was no longer fit to rule. If they deemed him unfit, they would send a message to the king, understood to be from the god Amun himself, advising him that the time of his rule on earth was completed and that he must die. The kings had always obeyed the divine orders and had taken their own lives for the supposed good of the people.
However, Diodorus continues, Ergamenes "who had received instruction in Greek philosophy, was the first to disdain this command. With the determination worthy of a king he came with an armed force to the forbidden place where the golden temple of the Aithiopians was situated and slaughtered all the priests, abolished this tradition, and instituted practices at his own discretion."
Having freed Meroe of Egyptian custom, Ergamenes then set about passing a series of laws which would make the Meroitic culture even more distinct from the Egyptian (c. 285 BCE). He instituted burial practices at the city of Meroe itself instead of observing the tradition of interment of the dead at Napata following Egyptian methods. Although all of the tombs found at Meroe (including Ergamenes’) have been plundered, the evidence which has been uncovered points to practices similar to the Egyptian but significantly different (one example being the coffins used and the rituals surrounding the burial of the dead).
Egyptian language, writing and art all begin to decline in Meroe after the reign of Ergamenes to be replaced by Meroitic art and the highly distinctive Meroitic script of 23 symbols, including vowels. As no one has, yet, deciphered the script, whatever else may be known of the great King Ergamenes remains hidden and as mysterious as the city of Meroe itself would become to later writers.
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