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ME´ROE (Μερόη, Herd. 2.29; Diod. 1.23, seq.; Strab. xviii. p.821; Plin. Nat. 2.73. s. 78, 5.9. s. 10; Steph. B. sub voce: Eth.Μεροαῖος, Eth. Μερούσιος). The kingdom of Meroe lay between the modern hamlet of Khartoum, where the Astapus joins the true Nile and the influx of the Astaboras into their united streams, lat. 17° 40′ N., long. 34° E. Although described as an island by the ancient geographers, it was properly an irregular space, like Mesopotamia, included between two or more confluent rivers. According to Diodorus (1.23) the region of Meroe was 375 miles in length, and 125 in breadth; but Strabo (xviii. p.821) regards these numbers as referring to its circumference and diameter respectively. On its eastern side it was bounded by the Abyssinian highlands; on the western by the Libyan sands--the desert of Bahiouda. Its extreme southern extremity was, according to a survey made in the reign of Nero, 873 miles distant from Syene. (Plin. Nat. 6.29. s. 33.) Eratosthenes and Artemidorus, indeed, reduced this distance to 625 and 600 miles. (Mannert, Geog. d. Alten, x. p. 183.) Within these limits Meroe was a region of singular opulence, both as respects its mineral wealth and its cereal and leguminous productions. It possessed, on its eastern frontier, mines of gold, iron, copper, and salt: its woods of date-palm,s almond-trees, and ilex yielded abundant supplies of both fruit and timber for export and home consumption; its meadows supported large herds of cattle, or produced double harvests of millet (dhourra); and its forests and swamps abounded with wild beasts and game, which the natives caught and salted for food. The banks of the Nile are so high in this region, that Meroe derives no benefit from the inundation, and, :as rain falls scantily in the north, even in the wet season (Strab. xv. p.690), the lands remote from the rivers must always have been nearly desert, But the waste bore little proportion to the fertile lands in a tract so intersected with streams ; the art of irrigation was extensively practised; and in the south, where the hills rise towards Abyssinia, the rains are sufficient to maintain a considerable degree of fertility. The valley of the Astaboras (Taca<*>é) is lower and warmer than the rest of Meroe.

Partly from its natural richness, and partly from its situation between Aethiopia and the Red Sea,--the regions which produced spice, and those which yielded gold-dust, ivory, and precious stones,--Meroe was from very early times the seat of an active and diversified commerce. It was one of the capital centres of the caravan trade from Libya Interior, from the havens on the Red Sea, and from Aegypt and Aethiopia. It was, in fact, the receptacle and terminus of the Libyan traffic from Carthage, on the one side, and from Adule and Berenice on the other. The ruins of its cities, so far as they have been explored, attest its commercial prosperity.

The site of the city of Meroe was placed by Eratosthenes (ap, Strab. xvii. p, 786) 700 stadia, or nearly 90 miles, south of the junction of the Nile with the Astaboras, lat. 16° 44′; and such a position agrees with Philo's statement (ii. p. 77) that the sun was vertical there 45 days before the summer solstice. (Comp. Plin. Nat. 6.30.) The pyramids scattered over the plains of this mesopotamian region indicate the existence of numerous cities besides the capital. The ruins which have been discovered are, however, those of either temples or public monuments, for the cities themselves, being built of palm-branches and bricks dried in the sun, speedily crumbled away in a latitude to which the tropical rains partially extend. (Ritter, Africa, p. 542.) The remains of Meroe itself all lie between 16° and 17° lat. N., and are not far from the Nile. The most southerly of them are found at Naga-gebel-ardan. Here have been discovered the ruins of four temples, built in the Aegyptian style, but of late date. The largest of them was dedicated to the ram-headed deity Ammon. The principal portico of this temple is detached from the main building,--an unusual practice in Aegyptian architecture,--and is approached through an avenue of sphinxes, 7 feet high, and also bearing the ram's head. The sculptures, like those of Aegypt, represent historical events,--Ammon receiving the homage of a queen, or a king holding his captives by the hair, and preparing to strike off their heads with an axe. At Woad Naja, about a mile from the Astapus, are the remains of a sandstone temple, 89 feet in length, bearing on the capital of its columns the figures and emblems of Ptah, Athor, and Typhon. These ruins are amidst mounds of brick, which betoken the former presence of an extensive city. Again, 16 or 17 miles west of the Astapus, and among the hollows of the sandstone hills, surrounded by the desert, are the ruins of El-Mesaourat. Eight temples, connected with one another by galleries or colonnades, and divided into courts and cloisters, are here found. The style of architecture is that of the era of the Ptolemies.

On the eastern bank, however, and about 2 miles from the river, are found groups of pyramids, which mark the site of a necropolis and the neighbourhood of a city: they are 80 in number, and of various dimensions; the base of the largest being 63 feet square, of the smallest less than 12 feet. The [p. 2.331]loftiest of these pyramids is about 160 feet in height. Some of these have evidently been royal tombs. None of the buildings of Meroe, indeed, can claim a remote antiquity. The sculptures as well as the pyramids bear the impress of the decline of Aegyptian art, and even traces of Greek architecture; and this circumstance is one of many indications that Meroe derived its civilisation from Aegypt, and did not, as has been supposed, transmit an earlier civilisation to the Nile valley. And yet it is not probable that Meroe received either its arts or its peculiar forms of civil polity from Aegypt, either entirely, or at any very remote epoch of time. Their points of resemblance, as well as of difference, forbid the supposition of direct transmission: for, on the one hand, the architecture and sculptures of Meroe betray the inferiority of a later age, and its civil government is not modelled upon that of the Pharaohs. One remarkable feature in the latter is that the sceptre was so often held by female sovereigns; whereas in Aegypt we find a queen regnant only once mentioned--Nitocris, in the 3rd dynasty. Again, the polity of Meroe appears to have been in great measure sacerdotal long after Aegypt had ceased to be governed by a pure theocracy. Yet, that the civilisation of Meroe was indigenous, the general barbarism of the native tribes of this portion of Libya in all ages renders highly improbable. From whatever quarter the ruling caste of this ancient kingdom may have come, it bears all the tokens, both in what we know of its laws, and in what is visible of its arts, of the presence of a conquering race presiding over a subject people.

The most probable theory appears to be the following, since it will account for the inferiority of the arts and for the resemblance of the polity of Meroe to that of Aegypt :--

Strabo, quoting Eratosthenes (xvii. p. 786), says that the Sembritae were subject to Meroe; and again he relates, from Artemidorus, that the Sembritae ruled Meroe. The name of Sembritae, he adds, signifies immigrants, and they are governed by a queen. Pliny (6.30. s. 31) mentions four islands of the Sembritae, each containing one or more towns, and which, from that circumstance, are evidently not mere river-islands, but tracts between the streams which intersect that part of Libya--the modern kingdom of Sennaar. Herodotus, in whom is the earliest allusion to these Sembritae (2.30), calls them Automoli, that is voluntary exiles or immigrants, and adds that they dwelt as far above Meroe, as the latter is from Syene, i. e., a two months' voyage up the river. Now, we know that, in the reign of Psammetichus (B.C. 658--614), the military caste withdrew from Aegypt in anger, because their privileges had been invaded by that monarch; and tradition uniformly assigns Aethiopia, a vague name, as their place of refuge. The number of these exiles was very considerable, enough--even if we reduce the numbers of Herodotus (2.31), 240,000, to a tenth--to enable warriors, well armed and disciplined, to bring under subjection the scattered and barbarous tribes of Sennaar. The islands of the Sembritae, surrounded by rivers, were easy of defence: the soil and productions of Meroe proper would attract exiles acccustomed to the rich Nile valley; while, at the distance of two month's journey, they were secure against invasion from Aegypt. Having revolted from a king rendered powerful by his army, they would naturally establish a form of government in which the royal authority was limited; and, recurring to the era when the monarch was elected by or from the sacerdotal caste, they apparently reorganised a theocracy, in which the royal power was so restricted as to admit of its being held by male or female sovereigns indifferently,--for there were kings as well as queens of Meroe.

Again, the condition of the arts in this southern kingdom points to a similar conclusion. The pyramids scattered over the plains of Meroe, though copied from the monuments of the Nile valley, and borrowing names from early Egyptian dynasties, are all of a comparatively recent date; long, indeed, posterior to the age when the arts of Aegypt were likely either to be derived from the south, or to be conveyed up the river by conquest or commercial intercourse. The structures of Meroe, indeed, so far as they have been explored hitherto, indicate less a regular than an interrupted intercourse between the kingdoms above and below Syene. And when it is remembered that these monuments bear also many vestiges even of later Greek and Roman times, we may infer that the original Sembritae were, during many generations, recruited by exiles from Aegypt, to whom the government of their Macedonian or Roman conquerors may have been irksome or oppressive. Finally, the native tribes of Sennaar live principally on the produce of the chase; whereas the population of Meroe was agricultural. New emigrants from Aegypt would naturally revert to tillage, and avail themselves of the natural productiveness of its alluvial plains. The whole subject, indeed, is involved in much obscurity, since the ancient Meroe is in many parts inaccessible; partly from its immense tracts of jungle, tenanted by wild beasts, and partly from the fevers which prevail in a climate where a brief season of tropical rain is succeeded by many months of drought. From the little that has been discovered, however, we seem warranted in at least surmising that Meroe was indirectly a colony of Aegypt, and repeated in a rude form its peculiar civilisation. (See Heeren, African Nations, vol. i. Meroe; Cooley's Ptolemy and the Nile; Cailliaud, l'Isle de Meroe, &c.)


hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.31
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.29
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.5
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.73
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.30
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.23
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