History Traveller, part 1: Meroë, Sudan

In the first instalment of our new History Traveller series, exploring some of the most spectacular stories and sights from the global past, Paul Bloomfield visits the tombs and temples of Meroë, where more than 200 steep-sided pyramids loom in the Sudanese desert

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Explore the tombs and temples of Meroë, Sudan…

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Tombs amid the dunes

Dozens of pyramids stud the desert dunes at Meroë, 150 miles north-east of Khartoum
(Image by Getty Images)

Dozens of pyramids stud the desert at Meroë, 150 miles north-east of Khartoum. No more than 30m high, Sudan’s steep-sided tombs were built for the elite of the kingdom of Kush, which emerged around the eighth century BC, its capital at Napata (modern Karima). Dominating the trade route between Egypt and central Africa, Kush grew in wealth and power, and in the early seventh century BC, Qore (King) Taharqa ruled Egypt as well as Nubia (now northern Sudan). Later that century Assyrians drove the Kushites from Egypt, and around 592 BC an Egyptian-sponsored expedition sacked Napata. The capital then transferred south to Meroë where, from around the third century, some 30 kings and eight queens were interred.

Don’t miss part 2, in which we explore the wonders of St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia

Palace, temple or menagerie?

Stone columns etched with superb carvings rise among the ruins of the vast complex at Musawwarat es Sufra
(Image by Getty Images)

Stone columns etched with superb carvings rise among the ruins of the vast complex at Musawwarat es Sufra, south of the necropolis. This enormous site dates from at least the seventh century BC but the remains now visible are largely from the Meroitic period after c270 BC. There’s a fine temple dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak, but the site is dominated by the 55,000-square-metre Great Enclosure, the purpose of which is still debated. Might it have been a temple or pilgrimage site, palace, hospital, college, hunting lodge or, as many carvings might suggest, a place where elephants were trained?

Royal regalia

An intricately worked gold bracelet looted from the pyramid of Kandake (Queen) Amanishakheto by Italian tomb robber Giuseppe Ferlini in 1834
(Image by Alamy)

This gold bracelet was looted from the pyramid of Kandake (Queen) Amanishakheto (reigned from c10 BC) by Italian tomb robber Giuseppe Ferlini in 1834. Her finely worked jewellery, displaying Hellenistic influences, is now held in Egyptian museums in Munich and Berlin. The Kushites had access to iron and gold, and were expert metalworkers; Meroë has been described as the ‘Birmingham of Africa’.

Mane attraction

A carved relief frieze of the lion-headed god Apedemak, in the Lion Temple at Naqa
(Image by Getty Images)

The lion-headed god Apedemak, shown in a carved relief frieze at the Lion Temple at Naqa, a complex of sanctuaries south of the necropolis. This temple, built around AD 50, is dedicated to the important indigenous god believed by the Kushites to be the companion of Isis. In Egypt, Isis was considered the sister and wife of Osiris, god of the underworld.

Animal avenue

Carved stone rams dotted across the desert landscape, built to guard the inner Temple of Amun at Naqa
(Image by Alamy)

A phalanx of carved stone rams guard the inner Temple of Amun at Naqa. This precinct, believed to have been built around AD 50, is dedicated to the Kushite’s chief creator god Amun (‘The Hidden’). After centuries of interaction, the religious pantheons of Kush and Egypt overlapped: the much earlier and larger Temple of Karnak at Thebes (Luxor) – which also boasts an avenue of rams – was dedicated to Amun.

Cultural cross-fertilisation

A stone entryway at Naga, part of a Meroitic temple complex, blending local and Graeco-Roman architectural and iconographic features
(Image by Getty Images)

A decorated stone lintel tops the entrance to the Hathor Chapel at Naqa. This shrine was formerly known as the Roman Kiosk, reflecting stylistic influences that also included Egyptian and Greek. At the time this chapel was built, around AD 50, Egypt had been ruled by the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty for nearly three centuries before being annexed by the Romans, who began to make incursions into Kush in the late first century BC.

Reading the script

A rectangular stone tablet etched with the Meroitic script
(Image by Alamy)

This tablet is etched with the Meroitic script. Though its 23 characters have been deciphered, the Kushite language is still largely a mystery – one reason why little is known about the kingdom’s history. We do know that Kush waned from the third century AD, possibly a knock-on effect of the decline of the Roman empire. It was dealt a terminal blow around AD 320–350 when forces of King Aeizanes of Axum (now in Ethiopia) attacked Meroë.

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Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heritage writer and photographer, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Where to Go When (Lonely Planet, 2016)

This article was first published in BBC World Histories Magazine