Kwasi Konadu

Meroë, ancient industrial city of Kushite Kingdom

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

The main industrial craft in Meroë was iron smelting and the making of iron tools, weapons, and implements. Iron provided its farmers and hunters with superior tools and weapons. The development and use of iron was thus partly responsible for the very success, growth and wealth of Meroë. Meroë was part of Kush or Nubia, a contemporary of ancient Egypt on the middle Nile region between the confluence of the Blue and White Nile to Aswan in the north. Kush’s first capital at Kerma emerged sometime before 3,000 BCE, but its roots were in indigenous Africa rather than the Mediterranean or across the Red Sea. Kerma was a major commercial center and a centralized political community. We, unfortunately, know little about its socioeconomic organization or its successor capital of Napata due to our inability to decipher Kush’s meroïtic script. In the wake of Napata’s decline, the Kushite capital or state of Meroë (ca. 700 BCE–300 CE) rose to prominence. Kush’s subsistence economy consisted of mixed farming in cereals (e.g. sorghum, millet, and barley), vegetables, and animal husbandry; its agriculture and pastoralism supported both a sedentary and mobile population, and a technological and structurally advanced society. Whether farming villages along the Nile with small administrative centers or stone pyramids and temples, a formidable construction and manufacturing base was evident in the range of skilled artisans, scribes, and farmers, and in the settlements and monumental projects engineered. In an environment where cultivable land and access to grazing were limited, the colossal tombs, large mud-brick temples, rectangular houses and stonewalls, and heated bathrooms with piped hot water were nothing short of amazing. The temple reliefs suggest male-female authority in a centralized polity; the small houses in settlements amid large structures point to a social hierarchy; and Kush’s production industries based on metals, textiles, pottery, wood, and leather-work contributed to its vital long-distance trade. When Kush shifted its capital to Meroë, it discovered not only rich sources of iron ore and timber there, but also the economic advantages of livestock and agriculture facilitated by dependable rainfall—since Meroë lacked the Nile floodplain—as well as access to Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade. The leadership of Meroë derived its wealth from the control of trade, and since the mining of iron and gold facilitated trade with ancient Egypt and western Asia, it is not surprising iron working and iron tools formed a crucial industry. Environmental over-exploitation and the loss of key trading position, however, tipped the scale of ecological balance toward Meroë’s decline.

The following excerpt comes from Strabo, Greek geographer and historian (c. 64 BCE – 24 CE), sourced from an out of copyright translation, H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, The Geography of Strabo (London: George Bell & Sons, 1906), 3: 270-72.[1]

For the mode of life [of the Nubians] is wretched; they are for the most part naked, and wander from place to place with their flocks. Their flocks and herds are small in size, whether sheep, goats, or oxen; the inhabitants also are small. It was perhaps from the diminutive size of these people, that the story of the Pygmies originated, whom no person, worthy of credit, has asserted that he himself has seen.

They live on millet and barley, from which also a drink is prepared. They have no oil, but use butter and fat instead. There are no fruits, except the produce of trees in the royal gardens. Some feed even upon grass, the tender twigs of trees, the lotus, or the roots of reeds. They live also upon the flesh and blood of animals, milk, and cheese. They reverence their kings as gods, who are for the most part shut up in their palaces.

Their largest royal seat is the city of Meroë, of the same name as the island. The shape of the island is said to be that of a shield. Its size is perhaps exaggerated. Its length is about 3000, and its breadth 1000 stadia [=1,000 English miles]. It is very mountainous, and contains great forests. The inhabitants are nomads, who are partly hunters and partly husbandmen. There are also mines of copper, iron, gold, and various kinds of precious stones. It is surrounded on the side of Libya by great hills of sand, and on that of Arabia by continuous precipices. In the higher parts on the south, it is within the compass of the streams of the rivers Astaboras [Atbara River], Astapus [Blue Nile], and Astasobas [White Nile]. On the north is the continuous course of the Nile to Egypt, with its windings, of which we have spoken before. The houses in the cities are formed by interweaving split pieces of palm wood or of bricks. They have fossil salt, as in Arabia. Palm, the persea (peach), ebony, and carob trees are found in abundance. They hunt elephants, lions, and panthers. There are also serpents, which encounter elephants, and there are many other kinds of wild animals, which take refuge, from the hotter and parched districts, in watery and marshy districts.

Above Meroë is [Tsana], a large lake, containing a well-inhabited island. As the Libyans occupy the western bank of the Nile, and the [Nubians] the country on the other side of the river, they thus dispute by turns the possession of the islands and the banks of the river, one party repulsing the other, or yielding to the superiority of its opponent.

The [Nubians] use bows of wood four cubits long, and hardened in the fire. The women also are armed, most of whom wear in the upper lip a copper ring. They wear sheepskins, without wool; for the sheep have hair like goats. Some go naked, or wear small skins or girdles of well-woven hair round the loins.

They regard as God one being who is immortal, the cause of all things; another who is mortal, a being without a name, whose nature is not clearly understood.

In general, they consider as gods benefactors and royal persons, some of whom are their kings, the common saviors and guardians of all; others are private persons, esteemed as gods by those who have individually received benefits from them.

Of those who inhabit the torrid region, some are even supposed not to acknowledge any god, and are said to abhor even the sun, and to apply opprobrious names to him, when they behold him rising, because he scorches and tortures them with his heat; these people take refuge in the marshes.

The inhabitants of Meroë worship Hercules, Pan, and Isis, besides some other barbaric deity.

Some [groups] throw the dead into the river; others keep them in the house, enclosed in hyalus (oriental alabaster?). Some bury them around the temples in coffins of baked clay. They swear an oath by them, which is reverenced as more sacred than all others.

Kings are appointed from among persons distinguished for their personal beauty, or by their breeding of cattle, or for their courage, or their riches.

In Meroë, the priests anciently held the highest rank, and sometimes sent orders even to the king, by a messenger, to put an end to himself, when they appointed another king in his place. At last one of their kings abolished this custom, by going with an armed body to the temple where the golden shrine is, and slaughtering all the priests.

The following custom exists among the [Nubians]. If a king is mutilated in any part of the body, those who are most attached to his person, as attendants, mutilate themselves in the same manner, and even die with him. Hence, the king is guarded with the utmost care. This will suffice on the subject of Ethiopia.

[1] See also Ancient History Sourcebook: Accounts of Meröe, Kush, and Axum, c. 430 BCE - 550 CE (