21. The Pyramids of Meroe
"where the shadow both way falls - Meroe,
- John Milton, Paradise Regained
MeroŽ was the southern capitol of the Napata/Meroitic Kingdom, that spanned the period c. 800 BC - c. 350 AD. Excavations revealed evidence of important, high ranking Kushite burials, from the Napata Period (c. 800 - c. 280 BC) in the vicinity of the settlement called the Western cemetery.
The culture of MeroŽ developed from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, which originated in Kush. The importance of the town gradually increased from the beginning of the Meroitic Period, especially from the reign of Arrakkamani (c. 280 BC) when the royal burial ground was transferred to MeroŽ from Napata (Jebel Barkal).
Rome's conquest of Egypt led to border skirmishes and incursions by MeroŽ beyond the Roman borders. In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Publius Petronius, to end the Meroitic raids, invaded Nubia in response to a Nubian attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of the region and sacking Napata (22 BC) before returning home. In retaliation, the Nubians crossed the lower border of Egypt and looted many statues (among other things) from the Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan. Roman forces later reclaimed many of the statues intact, and others were returned following the peace treaty signed in 22 BCE between Rome and Meroe. One looted head though, from a statue of the emperor Augustus, was buried under the steps of a temple. Meroe eventually settled down to a healthy trading relationship with Rome and the Mediterranean. However, the kingdom of Meroe began to fade as a power by the 1st or 2nd century AD, sapped by the war with Roman Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries.
The last period of the city is marked by the victory stele of an unnamed ruler of Aksum (almost certainly Ezana) erected at the site of MeroŽ; from his description, in Greek, that he was "King of the Aksumites and the Omerites," (i.e. of Aksum and Himyar) it is likely this king ruled sometime around 330.
The site of MeroŽ was brought to the knowledge of Europeans in 1821 by the French mineralogist Frťdťric Cailliaud (1787-1869), who published an illustrated in-folio describing the ruins. Some treasure-hunting excavations were executed on a small scale in 1834 by Giuseppe Ferlini, who discovered (or professed to discover) various antiquities, chiefly in the form of jewelry, now in the museums of Berlin and Munich.
The ruins were examined more carefully in 1844 by Karl Richard Lepsius, who took many plans, sketches, and copies, besides actual antiquities, to Berlin.
Further excavations were carried on by E. A. Wallis Budge in the years 1902 and 1905, the results of which are recorded in his work, The Egyptian Sudan: its History and Monuments (London, 1907). Troops furnished by Sir Reginald Wingate, governor of Sudan, made paths to and between the pyramids, and sank shafts.
It was found that the pyramids were commonly built over sepulchral chambers, containing the remains of bodies, either burned, or buried without being mummified. The most interesting objects found were the reliefs on the chapel walls, already described by Lepsius, which present the names and representations of their queens, Candaces, or the Nubian Kentakes, some kings, and some chapters of the Book of the Dead; some stelae with inscriptions in the Meroitic language; and some vessels of metal and earthenware. The best of the reliefs were taken down stone by stone in 1905, and set up partly in the British Museum, and partly in the museum at Khartoum.