Meroë is one of the great kingdoms of ancient Sudan. Next to it was Egypt, another great kingdom. For several centuries, especially the late period and during the reign of Cleopatra, Meroë was strategically positioned in terms of its geography, thus contributing to its reputation as a hub, or a melting pot, for several civilizations. However, till date, very little is known about this great civilization. An exhibition to enlighten the general public on the vestiges of a great kingdom that hint on an atypical culture that could have influenced or been influenced by African, Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations is underway at the Louvre Museum in Paris until September 2010.
Meroë chronological timeline
2500 – 1500 BC : Kingdom of Kerma Sudan
1500 – 1000 BC. : Colonisation pharaonic in the North
1000 – 750 BC. : Constitution and expansion of El-Kurru kingdom
747 – 656 BC. : Black Pharaos reign Egypt (25th dynasty)
656 – 270 BC : Kingdom of Napata
Around 270 BC : Accession of Arkamani 1 : Kingdom of Meroë
25 – 21 BC. : War with Rome
Around 50 : Natakamani and Amanitore co-regent ; height of Meroë
Around 200 : Decline of the empire
Around 320 : Construction of the last Meroitic royal pyramid
Around 350 : Troubled era
500 : Establishment of Christian kingdoms in Nubia
The Louvre Museum will be home to some of the mysteries of the Meroë empire until September 6. Themed “Meroë: An empire on the Nile”, the exhibition will highlight the vestiges of a mysterious Southern Sudanese civilization that was rediscovered in 1821 by the Frédéric Cailiaud. The kingdom is believed to have appeared at the end of the Late Egyptian period (-270 to 400), that is, around the same period the Ptolemies seized Egypt (-323).
Meroë or Ethiopia (“The Land of Burned Faces”– as termed by Greco-Roman historians, or “The Kingdom of Kush” — as termed by ancient Egyptians) covered large areas within the boundaries of present day Egypt and Sudan, stretching over 1000 kilometers along the banks of the Nile river for over six centuries. Descending from the little known Nubian kingdom of Kerma and the resplendent Napata civilization (celebrated for its Black Pharaohs), the Meroë empire (between III BC and IV AD) symbolises, by virtue of its history and geography, the crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa and Ptolemaic Egypt under Greco-Roman rule.
A crossroads of civilizations
“One of the primary goals of the exhibition”, explains Michel Baud, head of the Louvre Museum’s Nile Sudan section, “is to show the Meroitic Empire as a crossroads of influences and civilizations”. Several cultures, including African, Egyptian, Greco-Roman are particularly highlighted in the everyday life and traditions of the Meroë.
The “highly Egyptianised” and great empires of Kerma and Napata had conquered the region earlier on, leaving Egyptian legacies like what is witnessed in the case of the Meroitic Pantheon, where Amun, the creator deity “par excellence”, is opulently displayed. Their funeral tradition is also marked by Egyptian influences. Royal sepulchers, for example, were constructed in pyramid-like shapes. The representation of Meroë royalty is also very similar to what was practiced in Egypt. The royal statuary, in particular, bears the royal insignia of Egypt (the postiche or false beard per example). But Egypt is not the only culture that is seemingly represented.
Meroë marks Africa’s great comeback. Meroës, among other things, used non-wheeled pottery making techniques. The “black” pottery featured a geometric pattern. The cult of the lion and the elephant, animals from the African hinterlands, are also very present in Meroë.
Greco-Roman influence can be seen by virtue of the presence of various Greek gods, especially Dionysus. Jugs, amphorae and various other objects bear testimony.
Meroe nevertheless developed its own characteristics. The empire had its own writing, divided into two distinct graphical systems, and 24 signs (just like in Egypt, which had two types of writings; hieroglyphic and cursive). The Meroitic writing was discovered over a 100 years ago. Currently, experts are able to read and decipher the writings, although they do not understand it. In the area of translation, archaeologists still have much to learn. “It would be great to discover a Meroitic version of the Rosetta stone, but there is little chance,” explains Michel Baud.
The Meroitic language and writing are not the only elements that remain mysterious. The history of the Meroitic civilization is also an enigma. According to classical authors, the founder of the Meroë dynasty was a certain Arkamani I. Records show that women played a vital role in the empire throughout its history. Women took the roles of Queens and Candaces in what looked like a warrior state. The fall of the empire was registered in the third century upon the emergence of Christian monotheism.
The Louvre museum unveils the history and various aspects of the Meroë empire and culture through objects retrieved from the Louvre sponsored Mouweis excavations as well as loans from Sudanese and British museums. The objects on display highlight Meroitic royalty and religion, language and writing, objects of everyday use, a showcase of the Mouweis excavations, as well as the end of Meroe.
Visitors will discover exceptional museum pieces, including the famous statue of the archer King, lent by the British Museum. Discovered in 1974 in Tabo, the royal statue, in gilded bronze, is the largest Meroitic metallic piece to have been discovered so far. Another centerpiece of the exhibition is a bifacial stone (dating from the first century AD) depicting a Queen (or a Candace, as it were among the Meroës) receiving the breath of life from the patron goddess, Amesemi (wife of Apedemak, the lion god). Believed to be of Egyptian influence, the stele shows a Queen with a generous body and whose face and neck bear scarification marks, a sub-Saharan influence.
Ongoing translations and excavations will probably soon uncover a few more mysteries from Meroë. The Louvre, which until recently was not as represented in the region compared to its British counterpart in particular, only began excavations in Mouweis, 50 km from the Meroe capital, in 2007. After several electromagnetic surveys for detection of archaeological remains, a city has seemingly emerged. The great civilization will soon unveil more of its secrets.