The Rise and Fall of Ancient Meroe

Updated on March 20, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Pyramids of Meroe
Pyramids of Meroe | Source

Introduction

The ancient civilization of Meroe experienced its rise and fall through a variety of different climatic and environmental impacts. The dangerously hot and dry conditions of the Sahara had encouraged many to migrate towards the fertile and plentiful Nile River valley during its early years of development. With its silt laden soil the Nile River delta provided perfect conditions for agricultural growth. Furthermore, the abundance of wildlife and scores of fish within the river itself provided a plentiful amount of food that allowed for a dramatic rise in population growth amongst the populations settling alongside its banks

Meroitic Script
Meroitic Script | Source

Rise of Meroe

Eventually faced with the prospect of being conquered by foreign invaders, the kingdom of Meroe formed after an Egyptian raiding army managed to attack and take control of the city of Napata which was part of the Kushite Dynasty. Kushite rulers chose to flee to the site of Meroe because of its strategic location between the Nile and Atbarah tributary river. Meroe, essentially, was an island full of abundant game and wildlife. Furthermore, because the “island of Meroe” lay farther south (closer to the equator), the land area of Meroe remained out of the desert regions of the north and experienced lush, tropical weather that included abundant and predictable rainy seasons (especially during the summer months). With an abundance of rainfall the kingdom of Meroe was able to practice rainfall agriculture and grow a large variety of agricultural crops that may have not been possible in the northern African regions. These included cotton, sorghum, millet, and various cereals. With a variety of agricultural resources and an abundance of rainfall each year the Meroe society was also able to raise cattle and other livestock. Cattle, in turn, became a chief component of Meroe’s society and became a chief “commodity” amongst their ever-increasing trade network. Thus, it could be said that climate and environmental factors, essentially, were a prominent factor in Meroe’s rise to economic prominence. It allowed for an abundance of resources to be developed (both pastorally and agriculturally) which, in turn, allowed for a stable standard of living within Meroe society. Stability, consequently, allowed for increased population, a larger and highly efficient military, extensive trade, and advancements in architecture and the arts to be made as well.

Cemetery located in Meroe.
Cemetery located in Meroe. | Source

Fall of Meroe

Over-cultivation of the land and over-exploitation of the region’s natural resources helped lead to the overall decline and ultimate demise of the Meroe society, however. Loss of topsoil and deforestation led to land infertility which allowed for the “desertification” of the “island of Meroe.” Without its fertile land and abundance of resources the Meroe society faced political and economic decline in its final years. Without its resources, trade sharply fell and Meroe, which had once been a predominantly wealthy region, soon found itself becoming more powerless with each passing year. Additionally, the absence of resources deeply impacted Meroe’s population as well. The society, essentially, was no longer able to sustain its large population anymore. By 350 A.D. Meroe finally met its demise through the conquest of Aksum, thus, ending the once powerful state. Thus, as one can clearly see, both the climate and environment played a tremendous role in both the rise and fall of the Meroe society. Both helped create stability in Meroe’s founding years but also helped contribute to instability in the waning years as well.

Modern-Day Location of Meroe

Archaeological Findings

Meroe was first discovered by Europeans in the early 1800s, by French mineralogist, Frederic Cailliaud. Cailliaud was also the first to publish an illustrated work on the ruins. Excavations, however, did not begin until 1834, when Giuseppe Ferlini began small-scale digs in the area. Ferlini found numerous antiquities in his excavations, which now belong to museums in Berlin and Munich.

In 1844, C.R. Lepsius re-examined the ancient ruins and recorded many of his findings through sketches. Additional excavations were carried out in 1902 and 1905 by E.A. Wallis Budge, who published his findings in the work, The Egyptian Sudan: Its History and Monuments. Through his research and digs, Budge also discovered that the pyramids of Meroe were often built over sepulchral chambers that contained bodies that were either burned or buried without the traditional focus of mummification. Other objects and reliefs were found during the digs that contained the names of queens and kings, as well as chapters from the “Book of the Dead.” Later excavations in 1910 (by John Garstang) unearthed the ruins of a palace and multiple temples in its vicinity. It is believed that the palace and temples were constructed by Meroite kings.

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Conclusion

In closing, Meroe continues to represent one of the earliest and most impressive societies to have existed across the Southern Sahara. Understanding its culture, language, and societal structure is important, as it offers historians and archaeologists important clues to surrounding populations that resided in the area as well. As archaeologists and historians continue to uncover additional details pertaining to Meroe and its rise (and fall), it will be interesting to see what new information can be learned about this remarkable early civilization and its impact on future cultures. Only time will tell what new excavations and research will unveil.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa, Seventh Edition. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 1988.

Garstang, John. Meroe, the City of the Ethiopians: Being an Account of a First Season's Excavations on the Site, 1909-1910. Reprint. Forgotten Books, 2017.

Shinnie, P.L. Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan (Ancient Peoples and Places Volume 55). Praeger, 1967.

Works Cited:

Images:

Wikipedia contributors, "Meroë," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mero%C3%AB&oldid=888091286 (accessed March 19, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        5 months ago from North Carolina

        Thank you so much Eric! Glad you enjoyed. Yeah, I was going through some old research papers I had wrote in graduate school, and I found a small excerpt about Meroe in one of them. So I decided to follow up on it. Pretty fascinating civilization.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Really interesting. Did not know anything about it. Cool lessons for us now.

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