was a wealthy kingdom in southern Egypt
, bordered on three sides by the waters of the Blue and White Nile
, which flourished from between 800 BCE to 350 CE. As no one, yet, has been able to decipher the Meroitic script
, very little can be said for certain on how Meroe grew to become the wonderous city
written about by Herodotus
in circa 430 BCE but it is known that the city was so famous for its wealth in ancient times that the Persian King Cambyses mounted an expedition to capture it (the expedition faltered long before reaching the city owing to the difficult and inhospitable terrain of the desert). The kingdom was also known as the Island of Meroe as the waters flowing around it made it appear so. While there was a settlement at Meroe as early as 890 BCE (the oldest tomb
discovered there, that of 'Lord A', dates from that year) the culture flourished at height between 300 BCE and 350 CE.
The Kingdom of Meroe (also known as Kush, as referenced in the Biblical book of Genesis 10:6, and elsewhere, and as Aethiopia) was ruled by Nubians who, early on, continued Egyptian practices and customs and, though they were depicted in art as distinctly Nubian, they called themselves by Egyptian titles. In time, however, these practices gave way to indigenous customs and the Egyptian heiroglyphs were replaced by a new system of writing
known as Meroitic. The break from Egyptian culture
is explained by the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus who writes that in the time before the reign of King Ergamenes
(295-275 BCE) it had been the custom for the high priests of the Egyptian god Amun at Napata (another great Kushite city) 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.”
Ergamenes (also known as Arakakamani) was the first king to institute burial
outside of Meroe (instead of following the practice of burying the dead at Napata according to Egyptian custom) and passed the laws which would make Meroe a culture distinct from that of Egypt. Egyptian language, writing and art disappears from the archaelogical evidence after this time (roughly 285 BCE). The ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Amon-Ra were melded into the worship of Nubian deities like Apedemak the lion god and queens, rather than male pharaohs
, shared the political power in the land with the king.
The title of the queen was Kentake, commonly rendered as 'Candace' (which most likely meant 'Queen Regent’or 'Queen Mother') and there were at least seven Candaces between 284 BCE and 115 CE. The Candace Amanishakheto is depicted as extremely fat, a towering figure conquering
her enemies who are all rendered as smaller and helpless in her grasp and the Candace Amanitore is shown in the same way, clearly illustrating the power and prestige women rulers had in the Meroitic culture. Easily the most famous (though fictional)event illustrating the esteem in which the Candaces were held is the legendary tale from Psuedo-Callisthenes of Alexander
the Great being deftly turned aside from his attack on the kingdom by a Candace of Meroe in 332 BCE. According to this story, the Candace arrayed her army so perfectly that Alexander, surveying the field of battle
, thought it more prudent to retreat than press an attack. The true account of Augustus
Caesar's clash with the forces of Meroe in 22 BCE, however, is actually more compelling as the Emperor ended hostilities with the Nubian Kingdom by a peace treaty which favored Meroitic interests over those of Rome
; a very rare gesture for Augustus to offer.
The city of Meroe occupied over one square mile of fertile ground and, at its height, was a great center of iron
. The iron industry of Meroe made the city as famous as its wealth and, of course, contributed greatly to that wealth as the iron workers of Meroe were considered the best and iron tools and weapons were much sought after. Situated fortuitously on the banks of the Nile, Meroe overlooked rolling grasslands and fertile fields. Broad avenues are said to have opened the city to its people and they walked past statues of great stone rams to the Temple of Amon, located toward the city’s center. The Royalty of the city lived in great palaces while the working class lived in huts of mud and straw (so surmised from archaelogical evidence and ancient writings). The people gathered rainfall in great cisterns which were 800 feet in diameter and twenty feet deep, decorated around the sides with figures of animals.
Today Meroe is the most extensive archaelogical site in the Republic of Sudan and the ruins of the pyramids
, palaces and official buildings stand silent where the populous city once thrived. While some have speculated on a 'mysterious’ disappearence of the people of Meroe, the victory stele on the site, erected by an Aksum King (thought to be King Ezana) makes it clear that the city was conquered by the nomadic Aksumites around the year 330 CE (which marks the death of the Merotic written and spoken language) and this, coupled with over-use of the land, leading to desertization, lead to the decline of Meroe which, by the 5th century CE, had been transformed into a city of mystery and legend.