Caveat: I just looked a bit into the current knowledge about Meroe and Naqa after listening to a podcast. Should someone have better knowledge, please correct any mistakes.
There’s a mostly forgotten advanced civilization: the Kingdom of Meroe. I’m pretty sure that if not all then most of us have heard of the Nubian empire of Kush. After all, they are the pharaohs of Egypt of the 25th dynasty. Kush used to be an Egyptian colony but gained independence ca. 1070 BC and went on to become an independent power (see colonizing Egypt). In probably 591 BC the Kushite capital was moved to Meroe, starting a distinct phase in power and culture. One of it’s cities is Naqa which luckily is preserved in the desert after it was rather abruptly abandoned around 1800 years ago, a kind of African Pompeii.
I was recently listening to a podcast (German language) about the archeological site of Naqa and got introduced to this city and the culture and mysteries surrounded by it. Bloody fascinating. One of the things that struck me was that this civilization was underreported, under-researched and mostly unknown despite being part of classical antiquity and being seen as equals by Egyptians and Romans alike. What happened? Well, Europeans had discovered a liking for and appreciation of Egyptian culture and art in the 19th century and along came tomb raiders who dug up with not a lot of finesse, care or knowledge several important sites in Egypt. Egyptiana sold very well and these tomb robbers could make a lot of money. One of the notorious ‘archeologists’ was Giuseppe Ferlini. After making quite a bit of money unearthing and selling Egyptian artifacts, he turned his talents to site of the Meroan kingdom and damaged at least two sites so badly (destroying pyramids and so on) that not a lot can be learned from them now. He tried to sell these Kushite artifacts and had a lot of trouble, because no one was prepared to believe that a black African people could have produced this level of art. After trying several different collectors he finally could sell his loot to two German institutions: Berlin and Munich. As always, stuff is in the cellar, here’s a young archeologist needing something to study, why not find out more about it? Which is probably the main reason for research into Naqa and the Kingdom of Meroe being dominated by German researchers.
Short intro into Meroe/Naqa:
- Where the hell is it even?
In todays northern Sudan - here’s a link to a google map of the archeological site.
- Part of the Kingdom of Meroe (ca. 300 BC to 350 AD)
Spectacular art and temples and despite being part of the mediterranean trading network, not a lot is really known. They have their own alphabet and language and while the alphabet has been deciphered and linguists have a pretty good idea of what the language sounded like, no one can translate the inscriptions.
- Rivals of Egyptians and Romans
Fought several wars against both, e.g. during Augustus’ reign and made a documented peace treaty with him. One of the few translatable sources about the kingdom and proof that they were viewed as equal powers.
Dominated Egypt for about 100 years (25th dynasty), the so called black pharaohs.
- Iron smiths and elephant traders
Trading center of antiquity, Meroan iron was traded all over the mediterranean as was gold, art and war elephants.
- Amun, ram god, was he Sudanese?
While Kush adopted several Egyptian gods, there is strong evidence that Amun is a god that made it the other way round, stemming from a culture from the area of Meroe, but a lot older.
- African pyramids outside Gizeh
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, a lot of the pyramids were destroyed by Ferlini who was not beneath using dynamite to destroy them in search of gold. The Meroan pyramids are typically smaller than their Egyptian cousins, up to 30m in height, but no less artful or interesting.
- Naqa - desert secret
The only Meroan town not in the Nile valley but in the middle of the desert. Luckily, as this way it was preserved to present day and provides an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating old culture. It’s now part of the Unesco world heritage sites and is being researched under direction of German archeologists (from 1995-2012 Berlin, and now under directorship from Munich). No one has yet found out why Naqa was abandoned in about 200 AD (see inability to translate the writing.
- Work for generations to come
Literally, although they’ve been at Naqa scientifically sound since 1995, there’s still decades of research to be done into this fascinating bit of history.
Drone flight over the archeological site at Naqa