Lie of the land south of Pharaoh

The Kingdom of Kush - Meroë City
January 14, 2000

The ancient town of Meroë, lying on the east bank of the river Nile about 200km (not 120km, as given by Laszlo Torok) downstream from Khartoum in the Sudan, was first brought to the notice of the West by the traveller James Bruce when he visited it in 1772 on his return through the Sudan from a visit to Ethiopia.

Although known to many classical writers (Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and others), knowledge of the town had faded until Bruce's visit. The site, though still not firmly identified with the Meroë of the ancient writers, was visited on numerous occasions by 19th-century travellers and scholars, notably by Richard Lepsius, leader of a Prussian expedition to Egypt and the Sudan from 1842 to 1844. It was not fully established that the ruins so described were those of Meroë until excavations by John Garstang in 1910-14.

After the outbreak of the first world war forced the closure of Garstang's excavations, interest in the kingdom of Kush - the state of which the town of Meroë was the residence of the ruler and thus, in modern terms, the capital - decreased. Though work was carried out at the royal pyramids during the 1920s, Kush and Meroë were little considered by the academic world, being regarded as a rather remote and provincial offshoot of ancient Egypt.

I well remember that during the years when I was responsible for the antiquities of the Sudan (1947-55), it was almost impossible to arouse any outside interest in the history and archaeology of Kush.

Now the situation is very different and during the past 20 years many books, both of detailed scholarship and of general interest, have been published. The two books reviewed here are good examples of both genres.

Török's is a very detailed study of what can now be obtained from such records as Garstang left of his excavations, and Derek Welsby's is a serious but general description of the culture covering both its early period, when Napata was the main residence of the king and administration, and of the later period, when the king ruled from Meroë, until its final decline and probable destruction in about the middle of the 4th century AD.

In taking the massive and detailed work by Török, first it is necessary to explain its purpose. The five large-scale excavation seasons of Garstang at Meroë already referred to were never published in full.

He, with his colleagues, wrote preliminary reports for all seasons, which were issued in successive volumes of the Liverpool Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology . In 1911, with Archibald Sayce and Francis L. Griffith, he also produced a rather thin volume covering the work of the first season.

In 1914, when the work at Meroë was suspended, Gastang, who never returned to the Sudan, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. The records of the fieldwork were deposited at Liverpool University, together with the finds that had not already been distributed to various subscribers to the fund set up to finance the excavations.

The records of various types - field notebooks, photographs, drawings etc - as well as some of the artefacts, were damaged by the bombing of Liverpool during the second world war, and Garstang used this as a reason for his inability to write a full report. A somewhat acerbic correspondence went on between Anthony Arkell and Garstang in the 1940s, in which the latter was pressed to fulfil his obligation to publish. This he never did and died in 1956, leaving only the partial records that had survived.

It seems that Török saw the correspondence at Liverpool but not that in the archives of the Corporation for Antiquities and Museums in Khartoum. I have a vivid memory of some of these, which showed Arkell's sense of responsibility in his attempt to persuade Garstang to publish.

Török has now made a detailed study of what records remain, rather more than Garstang had suggested, and has produced the two volumes (one of text, one of illustrations) reviewed here.

Starting in 1980 with a review of what was available at Liverpool, the author continues with a detailed investigation of all sources in order to reconstruct, more carefully than the excavator did, an account of the excavation of Meroë.

Török was faced with many difficulties - not only as a result of the scrappy nature of the surviving records and the casual way in which they were kept, but also of the length of time elapsed since the excavations were done.

He tells us that he visited the site of Meroë in 1989, though he does not indicate how long he spent there and to what extent he attempted to reconstruct ambiguities in Garstang's reports and notes. Much of his comments on buildings on the site are derived from a study of the excellent series of photographs that have survived.

The resulting work is massively and carefully detailed. While the author may not always be correct in his stratigraphical and chronological interpretations, many of these can only be matters of opinion.

It is not a book for the general reader but will be valued and studied with care by all those who are concerned with the history and culture of Kush. The specialist will find a mass of information in the detail of the excavation, but the arrangement of the book does not make it easy to find specific items of information and, in some ways, an excavation has to be carried out through the nearly 300 pages to find particular details and to relate them to the illustrations.

The book by Welsby is of a quite different order since it is designed for the general reader, and it demonstrates by its appearance the considerable growth of interest in ancient Sudanese history and culture. It covers the whole period of the existence of the kingdom of Kush from the 9th century BC until its little-understood demise in the 4th century AD.

There has been in the past a tendency to divide this long period into two and to distinguish the early centuries as "Napatan" and the later ones, after royal burials were moved to Meroë, as "Meroitic". Welsby's treatment of the whole period as one under the name Ku****e is far better and reflects new scholarship based on recent research.

The first three chapters cover the main part of the history of Kush from its little-known beginnings up to the middle of the third century AD leaving the account of the end of the kingdom to be described in a final chapter.

Though the beginnings of Kush are not well understood, at least from the time of the first royal burials at Kurru a line of rulers can be discerned and some chronology established.

Welsby's account of the history is somewhat disjointed and may not be very clear to those with little or no knowledge of the subject and of the detailed arguments for the "long" and "short" views of the early history. The author judiciously does not take a side in this controversy but clearly sets out the different opinions and then moves on to surer themes.

After giving an overview of what is known of the history, Welsby then describes the culture of Kush and its changes through the approximately 1,000 years of its existence, devoting chapters to specific aspects of the culture. He divides this study into sections on religion and funerary ritual, architecture, urban and rural settlement, the economy, the arts and the art of writing, and ends with a chapter on the decline and "fall" of the Ku****e kingdom.

These chapters cover in a satisfactory way all the major, and many of the minor aspects of this interesting but still little-known civilisation and provide an accurate and up-to-date account.

This reviewer finds little in the book to disagree with - many details about which scholars argue have insufficient evidence for anyone to be sure, and Welsby maintains a reasonable balance between the various views with a tendency to give the evidence for the different views without committing himself to a favoured one.

He is perhaps unduly cautious in discussing the evidence for an Aksumite presence at or towards the end of the Ku****e kingdom: the finding of two inscriptions and one coin and the Aezanes inscription at Aksum are reasonable grounds for assuming that the Aksumites were there at some time in the middle of the 4th century AD. Evidence for destruction abounds at Meroë but it still cannot be said for certain when this happened, though it was certainly later than about 300 AD.

The appearance of these two publications in consecutive years is good evidence that the kingdom of Kush has taken its place among the states of the ancient world as one deserving of study and one that should be better known.

Bridging the gap between ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, it stood in a place of importance and reflects as no other can the influences flowing north and south.

Much of Ku****e culture was derived from Egypt and there had been contacts between the two areas along the Nile long before Kush emerged as an important and independent entity. But it was not just a provincial copy of Egypt and the indigenous "Sudanese" element played an important part. The origins of this indigenous part of Ku****e civilisation are not well understood and Welsby, perhaps wisely, does not address the problem.

We now know that a powerful, organised African state existed along the Nile south of Egypt for an impressive length of time and that it was an urban civilisation, which had mastered many techniques including building in stone, metal-working and the making of some of the finest pottery known from the ancient world.

This was no mean achievement, and these two books - one a detailed reconstruction of previously largely unknown information about the city of Meroë, the capital of Kush, the other a survey of the whole history and culture of its people - now make it possible to obtain a better understanding of an undervalued aspect of Africa's past.

Peter Shinnie is emeritus profesor of archaeology, University of Calgary, Canada.


The Kingdom of Kush

Author - Derek A. Welsby
ISBN - 0 7141 0986 X
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 240

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