Meroitic Empire Rules from Southern Egypt to the Blue Nile Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After the capital of Kush was moved from Napata southward to Meroë, the Meroitic Empire became one of the most powerful states of the ancient world and a corridor for commerce and cultural exchange.

Summary of Event

The ancient kingdom of Meroë, known to its inhabitants as Kush or Kash, developed in the Upper Nile River Valley. It extended from Egypt’s southern border to a point south of Khartoum, capital of the modern Republic of Sudan. Classical writers called the kingdom Meroë in reference to the city that replaced Napata as its center of government. It became one of the most important empires of the ancient world. Aspelta

Kush’s power rivaled that of Egypt. After years of Egyptian invasion and dominion, Kushite kings became strong and expansion minded. During the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e., they took control of their northern neighbor and formed Egypt’s Twenty-fifth (Kushite) Dynasty (c. 742-c. 656 b.c.e.). They ruled for nearly a century before they were driven out in 656. In 594, the Egyptian pharoah Psamtik II carried out a campaign against Kush, then under the rule of Aspelta, and may have sacked the original Kushite capital of Napata.

Fear of Egyptian incursion was probably one reason for moving Kush’s capital from Napata to Meroë, a site about 180 miles (290 kilometers) southeast. The relocation of the capital occurred over a period of time, probably during the sixth century b.c.e. The city of Meroë became the administrative capital, but the Napata area remained the religious center and the site of royal burials for two more centuries. During the transition, rulers may have kept royal residences in both cities.

Little is known of specific events from the time of Aspelta to the Meroitic decline in the fourth century c.e. As no related languages or sufficient bilingual translations have yet been found, the Meroitic language has not been deciphered. Other literary sources from Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, or Aksumites are limited. Although a list of Kushite kings has been developed from identifiable burial places marked with small pyramids and commemorative inscriptions, many of these sites have suffered damage from time and vandalism. Archaeological evidence is rich but incomplete, and much of the history and chronology remains speculative.

Kush’s power was concentrated along the Nile, although some settlements developed in the grasslands around the city of Meroë. Most towns were located along a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch that started near Maharraqa in the north. The border shared with Egypt fluctuated. A fort built at the Second Cataract of the Nile may once have served as an Egyptian outpost, but in the fourth century b.c.e., the Meroitic Empire asserted control beyond the First Cataract near Aswān. After the establishment of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, archaeological evidence indicates alternating Egyptian and Meroitic occupation of the disputed region. With the Roman conquest of Egypt, the border dispute intensified. A Meroitic attack on Aswān resulted in a Roman retaliation (described by historians Strabo and the elder Pliny), which went as far upstream as Napata. A tentative peace was established with the boundary fixed at Aswān in 24 b.c.e. Deserts to the east and west of the Nile provided natural frontiers, and specific borders were probably ill defined. As there were no major forces to challenge Meroitic expansion into central Africa, the southern borders of Meroë reached as far as the modern town of Sennar, Sudan, located on the Blue Nile 160 miles (250 kilometers) upstream from Khartoum, Sudan.

The city of Meroë, located between the Sixth Cataract and the Nile-Atbara confluence, had been inhabited for perhaps four centuries before it became the seat of government. It has been suggested that the original town was built on an island that fused with the east bank of the Nile in the third or fourth century b.c.e. Because the city and grasslands to the east were surrounded by rivers, the general region came to be designated the Island of Meroë. The city itself had a population as large as 20,000. Excavations of the area indicate a great royal walled compound, a temple complex (including a large building dedicated to the Egyptian god Amen), an extensive residential area of timber huts and later mud-brick buildings, an ironworking area, and pyramid cemeteries.

The Merotic Empire.

(Library of Congress)

The southward shift in political power from Napata to the city of Meroë had advantages in addition to military security. Whereas the Napata area was undergoing desiccation, the southern region had sufficient rainfall to facilitate the growth of crops and the use of land as pasture. By the fifth century b.c.e., the city of Meroë was an established ironworking center with sources of iron ore and timber necessary for smelting. In addition, the new capital was well placed for trade; it was located on the Sudanese Nile near regions that provided products valued in the Mediterranean world, and it was situated near caravan routes that crossed to ports on the Red Sea. It has been suggested that the city of Meroë rose to importance because it was home territory to powerful families who eventually came to control the empire. Whether its origins were due to economic factors or dynastic considerations, the southern capital became a major center.

With the move of the capital to the southern part of the kingdom, Meroites were exposed to long-established African traditions at the same time that Egyptian influences were decreasing. There is no doubt that Egyptian occupation left an imprint on early Kushites, but as the kingdom emerged, it developed its own distinct civilization. Although the Kushites worshipped Egyptian gods (especially Amen), they also developed their own deities and religious idioms. The lion-headed war god Apedemak, for example, was distinctively Kushite. They used pyramids for royal burials but did not adopt Egyptian building and burial customs. Inhabitants of the Meroitic Empire retained their own language. They first wrote with Egyptian hieroglyphs, but during the three centuries before the Common Era, they developed their own written script, now known as Meroitic cursive. Although they adopted features of pharaonic rule, they also had uncommonly powerful queens called kandake, a term from which the name Candace derives. They recruited Egyptian craftspeople and utilized many of their artistic techniques, but Egyptian elements were blended with other influences to develop a distinctively Meroitic style.

With its prosperity and influence peaking in the centuries between c. 300 b.c.e. and c. 100 c.e., the kingdom of Meroë played a central role in an international trading system that extended to southeast Asia, the Mediterranean world, and parts of the African interior. Meroë’s rise was aided by Ptolemaic development of additional Red Sea trade routes that provided outlets for exports such as iron, tortoise shell, ostrich feathers, slaves, animal skins, gold, and ivory. The rarity of Meroitic manufactures beyond its own frontiers suggests to some that goods from the African interior were acquired through expropriation rather than trade. Nevertheless, it was a time of unprecedented wealth, expansion, and construction in the Upper Nile River Valley.

By the third century c.e., the Meroitic Empire was encountering a host of problems. As Rome declined, sources of wealth diminished and shifts occurred in the trade markets. Commercial routes from the Nile to the Red Sea came under control of the Aksumites. Desert groups, especially the Noba, staged incursions. The empire fell into slow decline. Aksum rose to power, and fourth century inscriptions indicate Aksumite suzerainty over Meroë. It is generally believed that c. 350 c.e., Ezana, king of Aksum, led a campaign into territories previously held by the Meroitic Empire. His inscriptions describe the defeated enemy as the Noba, who were already occupying areas in the heartland of the former kingdom. It is evident that central control had already fragmented, but Ezana’s victory is used to mark the official end of the Meroitic Empire as an independent political entity.


The importance of the Meroitic Empire has not always been recognized in accounts of the ancient world, perhaps because of its geographic distance from the Mediterranean basin and to the misconception that it was a copy of Egypt. Meroë was a corridor of cultural exchange, but despite many examples of syncretism, a distinctive civilization emerged. The empire was a key component of international trade; it may have been one of the main channels through which ironworking technology was transmitted into sub-Saharan Africa. The vacuum created by Aksum’s eclipse of Meroë enabled consolidation among the Noba peoples and the founding of the new Christian successor states of Alwa (Alodia), Makouria, and Nobatia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Although slightly outdated, a detailed history of this area. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnstein, Stanley, ed. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 1998. A compilation of primary sources including geographic and ethnographic texts, secular and church histories, inscriptions, and commercial documents. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993. Discusses the rise and fall of Nubian kingdoms and documents many artifacts included in the title exhibition. Index and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shinnie, P. L. Meroë: A Civilization of the Sudan. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967. Although slightly out of date, a detailed survey of the history and culture of Meroë. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1998. A modern analysis of Kushite civilization. Discusses the problems involved in developing a balanced account of the kingdom’s thousand-year history. Notes, bibliography, and index.
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Categories: History