The Iron Age of Meroe

  By Tobodei
  Category: African History
Contents »
Far to the south of the famous fertile delta and fields of the Lower Nile lies a far less habitable landscape, a landscape barely capable of sustaining settled agriculturists and supporting the structures of a complex society. Yet, it was here, in what the ancient Egyptians called "Tau-ceti" or land of the bow, that a great and long lasting kingdom would arise in the desert stretch between Egypt and Ethiopia. This land is now popularly known as Nubia, the sister Nile civilization to Egypt. It has been the conclusion of many archeologists and historians that Nubia was an attempt by the inhabitants further south of Egypt's borders to copy the society to the north of them, however, the physical and documented evidence shows that long after the collapse of Egypt's glory an independent and unique civilization known as Meroe would establish itself as a regional power in the culmination of cultural and technological evolution of the Nubian Nile. Through modern archeology, architecture, material culture, and historical documents the story of Iron Age Meroe can be, at least partially, brought to life.

The rise of what looks like sedentary civilization in the form of agriculture and, therefore, centralization of power appears in what is referred to as the Badarian culture along the border of Egypt and Nubia. It has been argued by some that Egyptian and Nubian cultures evolved from the same basic genesis and would later diverge, one being closer to the fertile delta and the Mediterranean world, and the other straddling the thin twist of the Nile into the heart of the African Sahara
[1] . The reasons for the population increase, which led to this development, was an increase in the drying out of the Sahara and a disappearance of much of its herd sustaining grasslands due to climate change. Thus, immigration to the fertile Nile valley increased substantially[2].

An Egyptian depiction of the invasion of the Hyksos
An Egyptian depiction of the invasion of the Hyksos
For a long time there was a seemingly uniform culture throughout the expanse of the Nile, but the different agricultural opportunities meant that the Egyptians would become more socially stratified and materially powerful, whereas the Nubians adopted some agriculture in conjunction with herding cattle and controlling the lucrative gold and ivory trade. As time went on and Egyptian dynasties rose and fell, the political entity of Kush began to assert regional power from the city of Kerma. It is likely that this was less a divine kingship at first, and more a confederacy formed for common defense against Medjay nomads and the predatory stance the Egyptian government often took. During the Second Intermediate period, with northern Egypt under the sway of the Asiatic , Kush even conquered parts of southern Egypt. This renewed contact and the change of the power relationship between the two kingdoms precipitated the rise of more authoritarian kingship in Kush, and the coagulating of Nile based religions[3].

Pharoah Ahmose
Pharoah Ahmose
Soon, however, the first New Kingdom Pharaoh Ahmose had pacified Lower Nubia and expelled the Hyksos from Africa. Ahmose's main manpower source was Medjay mercenaries from Kush and their superior archery skills certainly was a factor in his victory over the Asiatics. However, Egypt's policy towards its southern neighbor was not about to change because of this, and soon Pharoahs, such as Thutmose III and Ramses II, would be back leading armed campaigns in Nubia for gold and ivory

By Ancient Near East standards, however, the revenge of Kush would not be long in coming. With the collapse of both the New Kingdom and the mercenary Libyan dynasties that replaced it, Egypt was fractured and open for the taking, and it was King Pianky of Kush who would lead Nubian forces north to create the largest Nile-based empire to exist until the 19th century.  By 760 BC, the Nile valley and some Asin territories where under Kushite control

Now with the wealth, population, and contacts of Egypt, the Kushites established their own dynasty, the XXV to be precise. The ruling elite adopted Egyptian culture and the masses of Nubia adopted some artistic and architectural influences from their northern neighbors, while the distinctly Nubian god, Apredemak, was introduced to Egypt. The Kushite dynasty was especially prolific in the upkeep of Egyptian culture and public works, while they ruled from Napata by the third cataract. However, the best of the Nubian pharaohs, Taharqo, was forced to retreat in the face of a massive Assyrian invasion utilizing Iron Age technology, and withdrew back to Nubia.

Turmoil would rock the world of the Lower Nile as Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and, finally, Romans jockeyed for power, but this chaotic era led to a much needed respite for the Kushite state, which began to learn from its inefficiencies in the wars against the Assyrians and adopted the iron technology that had beat them out of Egypt. Although remaining a trade kingdom and an important link in the gold chain of the Pharaohs, the Nubian Nile was about to become one of the largest iron producers in the Ancient World.

The first move to facilitate the transition to massive metalworking was unintentional, the relocation of the capital from Napata to Meroe. This was originally done to provide safety against Roman expeditions, which had sacked Napata on previous occasions. However, there were many other benefits to this relocation of the urban and production centers of the kingdom. Most obviously was that the erroneously titled "Island" of Meroe was located in an area with higher rainfall and, thus, more trees to fuel the fires of Meroitic forges and support larger populations
[6]. Other unintended effects of this relocation were the development of a more unique culture based on the new realities and customs of the kingdom and less than on Egyptian precedence. Most dramatic was the development of Meroitic writing system. Usually, a different writing system also implies a change in spoken language as well. Although the Meroitic script is still untranslatable to modern archeologists, it seems to still retain its original Kushite linguistic roots[7].

Probably the biggest Egyptian influence to survive the kingdom in transition was the construction of pyramidal tombs. These can still be seen in modern day Sudan, along the stretch of the Nile. Major differences in Nubian pyramids, however, do exist in the form of size, style, and clientele. For instance, Nubian pyramids are much more common, basically being allowed to anyone who could afford them and, thus, there are more pyramids in Sudan than anywhere else in the world, including Egypt. The style is also different as the Nubian pyramids are smaller and of steeper angle. At first it was thought that the difference of angling was a poor attempt to copy what was seen in Egypt, but, in fact, this is due to the irrigation devices used along the Nile by people living in and around Meroe. These spigots where modified and pressed into service to create the pyramids seen today, and it is their unique motion that creates the steep angle of the Nubian pyramid[8].

Among other unique aspects of Meriotic Nubia was the succession of the royal family. Priests controlled a large amount of the political power in the country and often monarchs where recalled or replaced by them. Also powerful matriarchs, who would take the helm of the nation while the heir was growing up, imposed ease of succession. In Meroitic stelae erected in the city, queens are often depicted as equals of the king, standing alongside him or in the process of smiting the enemy. Perhaps, it was this closely-knit family and priest consortium that led to the lasting of the Kushite monarchy for around 1,000 years

The nature of material goods in the Nubian heartland, and throughout the Meroitic kingdom, was one of contrasts. For although the agriculture was often poor and limited and the forging was backbreaking work, Meroe was a trading center in which unique goods and materials from Ethiopia to Egypt were deposited. In addition to the obvious gold, ivory, and additional trade goods, Meroitic culture is most evident in pottery. This ranged from delicate decorative pottery of the so-called eggshell ware that often accompanied burials to the durable and functional red-black ware present, all the way from Kerma past the Meroitic heyday. These goods where often fired into solid black and then braised with sand to create a large dark red upper lip or vice versa, and were used for the collection and transportation of various goods[10].

The final testament to the greatness of Meroe was not its monuments, however, but its trash. The massive meters high piles of waste from iron production and degradation of the local environment show how powerful an economic force the iron manufacturing business was in this area of the world, and how far its products must have been in use around Africa and the Middle East for such a market to exist. However, it may have been this very core of Meroitic society that, ultimately, doomed it.  The environmental degradation and soaking up of resources so close to the desert may have meant a speeding up of desertification and, therefore, an inability to sustain current population levels. More wild herders came in to loot the weakened kingdom and new populations, such as the Noba and the Medjay, and the Nubian urban centers went into drastic decline. By the time the rising power of Axum has successfully competed the trade away from Meroe, there was not much left to call a kingdom in the southern Nile valley. Axumite armies reached Meroe on an expedition, but found the city deserted and swept under layers of desert sand by 500 AD. Although Nubian kingdoms would once again rise, they would lose the distinctive Napatan and Meriotic culture and wealth that had characterized the area, and soon the area would become bastions of Christians, Muslims, and even British Imperialists. Meroe, however, is remembered as a powerful African kingdom that could play the game of empire along with its neighbors. Its effect on both the spreading of iron, urban development and trade, has influenced the fates of Eastern Africa and the Middle East, and, hence, the world at large.


Adams, William Y. Nubia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1977.
Nicolle, David. Rome's Enemies: The Desert Frontier, Osprey Publishing, London, 1991.
O'Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1993.
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press Inc, New York, 2003.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995.
Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires, Markus Weiner Publishers Edition, Princeton, NJ, 1998.

References and Notes:
  1. ^ Shaw, 36
  2. ^ Shillington, 16
  3. ^ Shaw, 196
  4. ^ Nicolle, 9
  5. ^ Welsby, 62
  6. ^ Shillington, 40
  7. ^ O'Connor, 82
  8. ^ Adams, 274
  9. ^ Welsby, 10
  10. ^ O'Connor, 27