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Meroe, the empire of the black pharaohs

Inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list, the site is one of the jewels of Sudan. Back on the unique history of the empire of the heirs of the black pharaohs.

A vast territory 

 

Located downstream from the sixth cataract of the Nile in Nubia, this city gives its name to a brilliant civilization that developed from the first cataract to the confluence of the two Niles and probably further south, between the fourth century BC and the fifth century AD.

 

Called the kingdom of Kush by the Bible, Ethiopia – “land of burnt faces” – by the Greeks and Romans, or Nubia, the kingdom prospered from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD, before being destroyed by Aksum, the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. Its rulers were alternately trading partners, adversaries and vassals of the Egyptian pharaohs. But their ancestors ruled Egypt between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., and this is what earned them the name of Black Pharaohs.

 

A unique landscape full of history 

 

Discovered in 1822 by the Frenchman Frederic Cailliaud, the Kush kingdom, which is now part of modern Sudan, is home to three times as many pyramids as Egypt. According to Unesco, “its pyramid complex is one of the most extensive in the world“.

The site of Meroe is very extensive and the excavations have barely touched the remains. Numerous sanctuaries have been excavated outside the city and about two hundred pyramids have been identified in the three necropolises. The royal baths are also remarkable.

200 to 250 funerary monuments are distributed between the sites of Meroe, Naqa and Musawwarat as-Sufra. But the most famous are those built in Meroe, capital of the kingdom of Kush, whose very particular civilization mixed African, Egyptian and Greco-Roman influences.


Important remains

 

The ancient capital has exceptional ruins, including temples, palaces, residential buildings and pyramids where some forty kings and queens, and as many nobles, were buried. Built in the middle of the desert, these funerary monuments, from six to 30 meters high, are smaller and much steeper than those of Egypt. Shrines with pylons engraved on the walls with hymns to the deities were attached to them to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. They were not buried like the Egyptian mummies; they were lying on their backs with their heads turned towards the West.

 

A scattered heritage today 

 

It is the Italian Giuseppe Ferlini, who, based on the plans elaborated by Frederic Cailliaud, plundered in part Meroe. The man exhumed numerous jewels from the pyramidal tomb of Queen Amanitore. 

The numerous relics of the empire are now exhibited in museums in Berlin and Munich, and a large part of them was shown in an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in 2010.

 

A powerful empire

According to Claude Rilly, the Meroites were powerful. They had a strong administration, as well as feared armies that inflicted defeats on the Roman Empire. But what made the strength of Meroe was especially its geographical position: it is a trade route linking two worlds, the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa, making it an obligatory passage for precious materials such as gold, ivory or ebony. In addition, the empire had its own language, which remains a mystery today. “The Meroitic language, “the Etruscan of Africa“, is one of the most difficult enigmas left to us by ancient civilizations”, says Claude Rilly, the main specialist in Meroitic epigraphy. He explains that this civilization had known the Egyptian writing, but, from the second century BC, it created a writing that was its own.