Monday, 14 November 2011

The Pyramids of Meroe

Pyramids at Meroe seen from the air
The pyramids of Giza are probably the most famous pyramids in the world and there is no doubt that the public perception of pyramids is inextricably linked with Egypt. However, by number, the single largest concentration of pyramids isn’t even in Egypt but in Sudan.
A Kushite crown
          Since the time of the Middle Kingdom it is clear that the Egyptians had difficulties dealing with organised political entities on their southern border. These eventually coalesced into the state generally referred to as Kush. Around the year 760 BC the Kushites actually conquered all of Egypt and held it for around a hundred years until they were expelled by the invading Assyrians. Due to the isolation of the kingdom of Kush they are less well-known to history than their northern neighbour Egypt, but the two kingdoms shared a great deal of cultural similarities. It is clear that the Kushites were impressed with the Egyptian pyramids and they buried the majority of their kings in similar constructions but added a distinctive look to them by elongating the height.

Pyramids at Meroe
            Over 53 pyramids have been identified in Meroe (a city that was the capital of Kush for a significant part of its history). Many of them have been extensively damaged and ongoing instability in Sudan has led to a lack of significant restoration but many of the pyramids survive and some idea of the grandeur of the site can be grasped. As well as their pyramids they also left behind writings, sculptures and a variety of other artefacts that all help to shed light on this ancient kingdom.

Head of Augustus from Meroe
            After being expelled from Egypt the kingdom of Kush survived in relative isolation until the first century, although it appeared that they may have had to move their capital from Napata to city of Meroe further to the south. They went to war with the Roman Empire, achieving some successes but also suffering defeats. The Kushites raided Egypt but the Romans burned Napata. Kush and Rome came to a treaty arrangement that was suitable to both sides and fostered trade agreements between the two kingdoms. Raiding occasionally still took place however and excavations in Meroe found broken off head of a statue of Augustus that had been buried in Meroe as a war trophy. It is currently on display in the British Museum.

Kushite writing, known as Meroitic script
            By about the year 300 AD the kingdom of Kush had fallen into decline for unknown reasons and they were conquered by the rising kingdom of Axum. Axum has its own fascinating history and surviving architecture and it eventually became the start of what is effectively the start of the Ethiopian state.