Meroë—Testimony to Forgotten Grandeur
By Awake! correspondent in Kenya
THE world has nearly forgotten the ancient city of Meroë. Situated on the eastern bank of the Nile River some 130 miles [210 km] northeast of Khartoum, Sudan, Meroë was once the proud capital of the Ethiopian Empire. But now it is only a study in decay. Its crumbling temples, vacant palaces, and fragmented artwork are but a faint echo of a glorious past. Let’s take a look at some of the ancient ruins.
Over here is the site of the temple of Amon. Once it was some 450 feet [140 m] long. Even today its remains jut out of the desert sand. Granite statues of rams, some of which can still be seen, at one time lined the broad processional way to the temple’s entrance.
In the immediate temple area, you can still see some of the statues, engravings, and paintings that richly ornamented the royal palaces. Or you may wish to admire the beautifully engraved columns surrounding a nearby swimming pool. The plumbing system that once channeled water into the pool through the open mouths of small, lion-headed statues is ingenious even by 20th-century standards. The ravages of time, sun, and desert sand have not completely faded the striking colors that adorn the columns that surround the pool.
At the eastern edge of Meroë stands the Sun Temple, once very prominent in the worship of this city’s inhabitants. Although not of the imposing magnitude of the temple of Amon, it is nevertheless richly adorned with blue and yellow floor and wall tiles, as well as carved scenes depicting military triumphs.
A major testament to Meroë’s grandeur is the burial ground. Across a vast desert plain, but relatively near the town, are a number of different pyramids. Although lacking the scale and majesty of the great pyramids of Egypt, these burial tombs are nonetheless imposing. There is ample evidence here of a forgotten royal life-style. In its heyday Meroë was a city of distinction—an ancient Paris, Washington, or Moscow.
But who lived and worked here? And what led to this city’s demise?
The People and Their History
The founders of Meroë were Cushites, or Ethiopians. Wall paintings and carvings plainly show their African features. Egyptian culture made its mark on Meroë, but toward the close of the second millennium B.C.E., Ethiopia freed itself from Egypt’s control.
In the latter part of the eighth century B.C.E., Ethiopia actually conquered Egypt and dominated it for some 60 years. So while many imagine that Egypt was the only empire to arise out of Africa, this is not true. One of Ethiopia’s rulers during the eighth century B.C.E., King Tirhakah, is even mentioned in the Bible.
According to the Bible account, Assyrian king Sennacherib was battling Libnah while at the same time preparing to attack Jerusalem. Suddenly, word came that King Tirhakah was on the way to fight the Assyrians. (2 Kings 19:8, 9; Isaiah 37:8, 9) Assyrian inscriptions, however, say that Tirhakah was defeated at Eltekeh. A half century later, Ethiopian dominance of the Nile Valley ended when Assyria completely subjugated Egypt.—Nahum 3:8-10; Isaiah 20:3-6.
During that period the city of Napata had served as capital of Ethiopia. But in 540 B.C.E., Meroë began its 800-year reign as capital of the empire. And although the empire declined in power and influence, Meroë was still able to exert some power.
During the period of Roman domination, an Ethiopian eunuch was helped by Philip the evangelizer to become a Christian. (Acts 8:26-29, 38) The Bible says that this man was a treasurer under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. The name Candace appears to have been a title that referred to queens who ruled from Meroë. So Meroë may have had some impact upon even the Christian congregation.
Twilight of an Empire
Why, then, did Meroë fade into oblivion? Information is scanty. Further complicating matters is the fact that the ancient Cushite language has yet to be deciphered. The Meroitic cursive script visible at the entrances to temples, palaces, and other stone structures scattered throughout the ruins is unique, although an altered version of Egyptian hieroglyphics was used in an earlier period. Meroitic words can be read and pronounced but, alas, not understood. So we must rely to some extent on conjecture to determine just what took place.
Perhaps the rising kingdom of Axum stripped Meroë of its trading power, which in turn led to the empire’s decline. Whatever the case, Axum eventually attacked and destroyed Meroë about 350 C.E. Meroë, its sister cities, its civilization, and its culture thus faded from history until recent archaeological excavations brought their past glory to light.
Huge piles of slag dotting the landscape near ancient Meroë indicate that the people there knew the secret of smelting iron ore, and on a huge scale at that. Amid the ruins of Meroë, one finds farming and war implements made of iron. Meroë’s location on the main commercial route between East and West brought many traders and caravans to its domain. With access to the Indian Ocean through the Ethiopian highlands and to Africa westward south of the Sahara, Meroë could easily spread its knowledge and influence to other parts of Africa.
Nevertheless, Meroë now joins the list of countless other kingdoms that briefly tasted prominence and power and then disappeared. For all its former artistry and wealth, the city today is little more than a pile of ruins. Yet, without a doubt this Ethiopian city of forgotten grandeur made an indelible mark on the growth and spread of civilization throughout Africa.
[Picture on page 24]
Relief on pyramid tomb
[Map/Pictures on page 25]
Top: Temple ruins at Meroë
Bottom: Pyramid tombs at Meroë
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