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An empire on the Nile

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Cleopatra
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« on: May 08, 2010, 08:19:20 pm »

An empire on the Nile
A spring exhibition at the Louvre in Paris is throwing unexpected light on the ancient history of Sudan, writes David Tresilian

 Housed in the temporary exhibition space in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, Mro, un empire sur le Nil is a smallish exhibition that might seem almost overawed by its magnificent surroundings. However, appearances are deceptive, and it would be a pity if visitors to Paris were to overlook this exhibition on their itinerary through the Louvre. This is an exhibition that casts real and unexpected light on the ancient history of Sudan. If one had a criticism to make of it, it would only be that it is not larger.

Flourishing between the third century BCE and the fourth century CE and thus coexisting with Ptolemaic and then Roman rule in Egypt, the city of Meroe, the ruins of which are located on the east bank of the Nile a few miles north of Kabushiyah in present-day Sudan, once formed the capital of an empire that stretched northwards to the borders of ancient Egypt and southwards to take in much of what is today central and southern Sudan.

Famous in antiquity for its war-like queens, four of whom are known to have reigned between the first century BCE and the first century CE, Meroe was the successor state of the ancient Kushite kingdom, whose so-called Black Pharoahs once ruled both Egypt and Sudan in the 7th century BCE. Driven back to their capital at Napata in Sudan as a result of the Assyrian invasion of Egypt in 671 BCE, the Kushites later moved their capital to Meroe, which became the site of a civilisation marked by ancient Egyptian, Hellenistic and Mediterranean influences, as well as by those native to Sudan.

There are accounts of Meroe in ancient Greek and Roman writers, with the Greek historian Herodotus writing that the city lay some 50 days march south of Elephantine Island at what is today Aswan. Several hundred years later, the first- century CE Greek geographer Strabo wrote of Roman attempts to subdue Meroe shortly after Egypt became a Roman province on the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.

Responding to Meriotic raids in southern Egypt, the Roman prefect Caius Petronius led Roman legions deep into what is now Sudan, destroying the former Kushite capital at Napata before retreating northwards to Qasr Ibrim above the second cataract of the Nile at Wadi Halfa. Negotiations were opened between Meroe and Rome, and a treaty was signed on the Greek island of Samos in 21 BCE that fixed the border between Egypt and Meroe at Maharraqa north of Qasr Ibrim and south of Elephantine.

Meroe entered a period of decline from the third century CE onwards, and the last of the jagged, toblerone-shaped pyramids that today still mark the royal necropolis at ancient Meroe was built around 320-350 CE. Nubian raiding parties, economic decline and finally a full-scale invasion from neighbouring Ethiopia all contributed to Meroe's fall, with the last inscription written in ancient Meriotic, a language written in modified Egyptian hieroglyphs and in a demotic script and still not understood today, having been made some time around 400 CE.
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Cleopatra
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« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2010, 08:19:53 pm »

 It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that the remains of ancient Meroe were rediscovered by European travelers, with the Scottish explorer James Bruce, the Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and the French scientist and explorer Frédéric Cailliaud all describing the ruins at Meroe. Caillaud published the first important account of the remains in his four-volume Voyage au Méroé in 1826-7.

However, it was not until the first major scientific expedition to the remains was carried out by the Prussian archaeologist Carl Richard Lepsius in 1842-45 that the fragmentary accounts left by ancient writers and more modern explorers were really added to, with Lepsius's Denkmöler aus Aegypten und Aethiopen still being considered a model of its kind.

THE LOUVRE EXHIBITION opens with a sketch of this history, for once given in Arabic and unfortunately rather poor English as well as in French, before presenting surviving items from ancient Meroe taken from the Louvre's collections as well as from collections housed in other European museums, notably in Britain and Germany, and in the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum.

One of the most intriguing features of Meriotic civilisation is the co-existence in it of ancient Egyptian, Hellenistic and African elements, and the exhibition's division of the surviving materials into "prestige objects," "objects from daily life," "royalty and gods," and "palace, temple and funerary world" gives some idea of how this civilisation might have functioned.

Prestige objects along with those associated with royalty and religion take after Egyptian models, and Meroe was organised politically along Egyptian lines. A single Pharoah-like figure stood at the apex of a centralised state and played an important role in religious life by mediating between the population and the gods. Meriotic cities also followed Egyptian models and functioned as centres of political power and religion. Modern excavations have revealed the existence in them of large public buildings, palaces and temples.
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« Reply #2 on: May 08, 2010, 08:20:12 pm »

 The latter were built following Egyptian models and featured characteristic architectural elements such as massive gates, or pylons, led up to by a processional way. Inside, Egyptian architectural design continued through the use of hypostyle halls, with the temples' innermost sanctuaries containing images of the gods.

However, despite these similarities there also seem to have been significant differences between cultural and religious life in Meroe and that in neighbouring Egypt. For one thing, the Meriotic gods were different from Egyptian ones, with Meroe honouring the lion god Apedemak, native to Sudan, as well as the Egyptian pantheon.

For another, while the decorative programmes used on the walls of Meriotic temples typically record the deeds of Meroe's Pharoahs and their links to the gods in ways familiar from ancient Egypt, they also contain far more African elements in the shape of lions and elephants and have far fewer texts, especially when compared to Egyptian Ptolemaic-period temples, practically all of whose exterior surfaces are covered with hieroglyphs.

While Amon and Isis were worshipped at Meroe, the former is often presented in sheep-like form using iconography unknown in Egypt. From the evidence of the surviving Meriotic temples, it seems that Apedemak and his entourage of the gods Sebioumeker and Arensnouphis played starring roles, with temples dedicated to Apedemak having been discovered at Meroe as well as at Naga and Moussawarat es-Soufra, the later featuring hieroglyphs written in ancient Egyptian, and therefore able to be translated, that stress Apedemak's role in warfare and his omnipotence.

Such differences suggest that while the general outlines of Meriotic culture were based on Egyptian models, particularly as far as political life and religion were concerned, its content drew extensively on African materials, as well as on elements taken from Hellenistic and Mediterranean civilisation.

Prestige objects found in Meriotic tombs, particularly jewelry and glassware, seem to have been imported from Ptolemaic Egypt and from as far away as the western Roman Empire, suggesting that elite culture followed foreign models. Meroe seems to have been particularly open to such outside influences, with materials in the exhibition suggesting that a significant cult of the Greek god Dionysus, originating in the Hellenistic and Mediterranean world far to the north, once flourished there.
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« Reply #3 on: May 08, 2010, 08:20:39 pm »

 However, study of "objects from daily life," another of the exhibition's categories, suggests that there was always a significant African underlay, with ceramic materials in particular featuring geometric and figurative designs for which there are no Egyptian parallels.

Further distinctive features of Meriotic civilisation include ancient Meroe's funerary customs and the Meriotic language. While the pyramids marking the graves of Meroe's rulers seem to have functioned along the lines of ancient Egyptian royal tombs, with a mortuary temple originally standing in front of each pyramid in which rituals would have been performed, they depart from the Egyptian model in that the Meriotic pyramids are merely markers, rather than tombs, the tomb itself lying in the rock below.

Mummification seems not to have been performed, and grave goods were less extensive and elaborate than those in Egyptian tombs. Moreover, the use of pyramids as royal tombs is of course a feature of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, with the pyramids at Giza having been built between 2600 and 2500 BCE. Why the Meriotic Pharaohs should have adopted the pyramid form many centuries after it had been abandoned in Egypt is unknown, but it is a fact that the multiple pyramids crammed together at the royal necropolis at Meroe were built between 270 BCE and 350 CE.

Writing in the exhibition catalogue, itself a kind of summary of everything that is known about Meroe, French academic Claude Rilly summarises current knowledge of the Meriotic language. This uses a restricted set of 23 hieroglyphs together with a cursive alphabet, the hieroglyphs being used for religious and royal purposes as in ancient Egypt. However, Meriotic hieroglyphs are purely phonetic signs, unlike Egyptian ones, and while they can be read from right to left or left to right, as is the case for Egyptian hieroglyphs, unlike the latter the figures and animals of which they are composed face towards the end of the line and not towards its beginning, as in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Of the 2,000 or so texts written in Meriotic that have thus far been discovered, 90 percent are written in cursive characters. And while the language was deciphered in 1911 by the British scholar Francis Griffith, in the absence of any equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which gives the same text in different writing systems, it has not been possible to work out what Meriotic words mean. Rilly suggests that the situation of Meriotic is similar to that of ancient Etruscan, a language that also has no descendants and seems to be only ambiguously related to other ancient ones.

Comparative study of Meriotic and other languages has allowed some fragmentary translations to be made, but the Meriotic grammar and tense system is still unknown, and future advances will depend on new discoveries being made.

A FINAL SECTION of the exhibition deals with the possibility of such discoveries, notably through excavations currently being carried out by the Louvre at Mouweis, in cooperation with the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums in Khartoum. This is described as an average-sized Meriotic settlement some 50 km south of Meroe. The exhibition ends with a video presentation of the excavations of the Mouweis palace and temple areas and includes many atmospheric images of this part of Sudan.
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« Reply #4 on: May 08, 2010, 08:21:14 pm »

    Historically, one of the most important stimuli behind the excavation of the Meriotic sites has been the fear that they will be lost beneath the waters of the Nile. As Salah el-Din Mohamed Ahmed, director of archaeology at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums in Sudan, writes in the exhibition catalogue, dam building on the Nile has long threatened the survival of Meriotic sites, and salvage excavations were carried out both during the building of the Aswan dam at the beginning of the last century and then again during the building of the High Dam in the 1960s.

    Today, a dozen or so sites are under excavation, among them Mouweis and including Naga, Moussawarat es-Soufra and Meroe itself. Some of the most important finds of recent years have come during salvage excavations carried out between 2001 and 2009 as part of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Project, which is designed to safeguard remains threatened by the construction of a dam at Djebel Barkal near the fourth cataract of the Nile.

    Méroé, un empire sur le Nil, Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 6 September 2010

   

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« Reply #5 on: May 08, 2010, 08:22:07 pm »

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« Reply #6 on: May 08, 2010, 08:22:26 pm »

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« Reply #7 on: May 08, 2010, 08:22:57 pm »



'Flourishing between the third century BCE and the fourth century CE and thus coexisting with Ptolemaic and then Roman rule in Egypt, the city of Meroe once formed the capital of an empire that stretched northwards to the borders of ancient Egypt and southwards to what is today central and southern Sudan.'
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