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The Age of Meroe & its Achievements

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  • 0:02 From Kush to Meroe
  • 1:34 Government
  • 3:00 Economy & Innovation
  • 3:58 Conquest by Axum
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Often swept to the sidelines of Egyptian history, Meroë has a history rich in trade, innovative government, and metalworking. Just as importantly, it took centuries for anyone to conquer Meroë.

From Kush to Meroë

For generations, the Kush civilization maintained relations with Egypt, especially through trade. This included a period of time known as the 25th Dynasty, where the Kush actually ruled Egypt as pharaohs. The Kush did this not to destroy Egyptian culture; far from it, they had a great admiration of all things Egyptian, and the 25th Dynasty was actually a rebirth of Egyptian customs, including pyramids. Instead, the Kush did this to protect themselves against a much more ferocious enemy, the Assyrian Empire. For years, the Assyrians had been ruthlessly conquering everything they could reach, and the Kush were a prime target. Although distant from the Assyrian homeland of Mesopotamia, the Kush were both wealthy and skilled metalworkers, making them an objective of the Assyrians. As a result, conquering Egypt served to insulate the Kush homeland from the Assyrians.

However, few empires could hope to stop the Assyrians, and the Kush in Egypt were no exception. The Assyrians overran Egypt, and the Kush retreated up the Nile River. Traditionally, the center of their culture had been the town of Napata. However, with the threat of Assyrian invasion, they shifted the capital south by a few hundred miles to the new site of Meroë.

Government

Luckily for Meroë, their system of government made them very unattractive to the Assyrians. For starters, while they were an agricultural civilization, the highlands of Sudan and Ethiopia were their breadbasket, not the towns along the Nile. As a result, there was little good land to support a raging invading army. Additionally, the Meroë never considered control of land to be all that important. After all, when you control more than 750 miles of waterfront on the world's biggest river, you can afford to lose some of that, especially that part that borders Egypt. Instead, people were the real value for Meroë, and those people could be moved out of harm's way.

Meroë is also interesting in how it was governed. Whereas most other societies during this period passed the crown from father to son, the Meroë would pass the crown from sibling to sibling. Note that I did not say from brother to brother. That's right - the Meroë would allow a woman to become king. In fact, the most powerful voice in determining who the next king should be was actually the Queen Mother, the mother of all the siblings up for consideration, if she was still alive.

Economy and Innovation

It wasn't just in government that Meroë showed real signs of innovation. Meroë traded goods from the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and inland Africa, and became rich being the middleman between all three trading spheres. While it was difficult to conquer in wartime, the Blue and White Nile Rivers, as well as the relatively short distance to the Red Sea, meant that this part of the world was definitely plugged into global trade.

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