an ancient polity also known as Kush, developed along the Nile River immediately to the south of Egypt. Meroë flourished during the latest period of ancient Egyptian history, being, in the main, contemporary with the Ptolemies and the Romans. The Egyptians had various names for the area to their south, one of them being Ta Seti: (“the land of the bow”) in reference to the skillful use of that weapon by the inhabitants, who seemed to have called their country Kash or Kush—so this term was also used by the Egyptians. Classical writers used the name Meroë taken from the town that became the residence of a line of rulers originally based farther north, at Napata. During the twenty-fifth dynasty, these kings had ruled Egypt, before retreating in the mid-seventh century BCE back to Napata; and from there they ruled until moving south to Meroë.
Archaeological evidence shows Meroë to have been inhabited as early as the eighth century BCE. Although the local rulers were buried there from shortly after 300 BCE, the date is uncertain for when the royal residence was moved to this new capital; most probably, it was about the sixth century BCE. The city that became the royal residence—and both male and female rulers are known—is situated on the east bank of the Nile, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile.
Meroë, which may have had a population of about 10,000, consisted of several well-defined areas. The first has the remains of a large temple, dedicated to the god Amun, and a processional way that leads to the east, flanked by at least four smaller temples. The second is an area of large stone buildings surrounded by a massive wall, considered to be the royal residence. The third is a large area of small, domestic mud-brick buildings and the area that was devoted to iron smelting, for which the town was famous. Excavations by J. Garstang from 1910 to 1914 provided information about the temples and palaces; later excavators, from 1965 to 1976, studied the domestic and iron-working areas, as well as several small temples.
After the withdrawal of the last Kushite king from Egypt, the frontiers between the two states varied with the stationing of their armies. A fort on the island of Dorginarti in the Second Cataract may have been an Egyptian and Persian frontier outpost, but by the end of the fourth century BCE, Meroë laid claim to Aswan.
During Ptolemaic times in Egypt, the situation south of Aswan was somewhat fluid; both Ptolemaic and Meroitic rulers left traces of building activity in the temples of that region. Later, with Roman rule in Egypt, the frontier was drawn at Aswan. As a result of an attack by Meroë in 24 BCE, in which Aswan was captured and statues of Rome's Emperor Augustus were pulled down and perhaps taken away, the Romans invaded and reached Napata. On their way back to Egypt, they left a garrison at Qasr Ibrim. After their defeat, Meroë sent envoys to Augustus to arrange a treaty, and by it the frontier was placed at Hiera Sykaminos (Ar., Maharraqa). No evidence exists that the statues of the emperor were recovered; the finding of a bronze head of Augustus at Meroë in the 1910 excavations suggests that they were taken as trophies of war.
Many sites of the period are to be found along both banks of the Nile. They consist of towns and villages with associated cemeteries and a number of temples and stretch from Garba, near Maharraqa in the north to Sennar on the Blue Nile; a total distance of 2,000 kilometers (some 1,250 miles). The only part where monuments are found away from the river is in the wide stretch of open grassland to the east of Meroë and between the rivers Nile and Atbara. Here, in the “Island of Meroë” of the classical writers are found the most dramatic and impressive buildings at Musawwarat es-Sofra and Naqa, where several temples still stand.
The culture of Meroë was heavily influenced by that of Egypt. The rulers adopted the titulary of Egyptian pharaohs, and the early inscriptions were in Egyptian. The art and architecture were closely similar to that of Egypt, though certain distinctive features make it possible to see the difference between Egyptian and Meroitic art. Kings were buried under pyramids, although this custom had long been abandoned in Egypt. Temples were similar to Egyptian constructions, and many of the gods worshiped were the same—the god Amun being especially venerated and treated as the state god. There were distinct Meroitic gods, of whom the best known is the lion-headed Apedemek, for whom several temples of a distinctive style were built.
The inhabitants of Meroë developed their own writing system. It was a simplified form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, being a selection of twenty-three Egyptian signs, and it was used as a syllabary. A modified form of these signs, often known as Meroitic cursive, was used for most inscriptions. The phonetic values of the Meroitic signs are known but with the exception of a few words, many texts cannot be translated.
The long line of rulers of Meroë—many of whose burial places can be identified—provides a thread of history from the end of the twenty-fifth dynasty in Egypt. (c.650 BCE) to the middle of the fourth century CE. The last royal burial is to be dated to the first half of the fourth century. An inscription of Aezanes, king of Axum, found somewhat later at that town in modern Ethiopia, claims that he ruled over Kasu (the kingdom of Kush). There is evidence for destruction in some of the temples at Meroë, and the finding of an Axumite coin and two fragments of Axumite inscriptions in the excavations have supported the view that Aezanes's army attacked and looted the town, in about 350 CE, bringing its kingdom to an end.
- Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London, 1977. The most detailed account of Meroë; gives full references.
- Shinnie, P. L. Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan. London, 1967. Slightly out of date but still useful. Gives an overall survey of the culture and its history.
- Shinnie, P. L., and Rebecca J. Bradley. The Capital of Kush I: Meroe Excavations, 1965–1972. Berlin, 1980. Describes the first years of the new excavations. The second volume is now in press.
- Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London, 1996. The most up-to-date account of Kushite (Meroitic) culture.
Peter L. Shinnie