Meroë was the southern capital of the Napata/Meroitic Kingdom, that spanned the period c. 800 BC — c. 350 AD. The culture of Meroë developed from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, which originated in Kush.
The Napatan Phase of the Nubian culture ended when the royal cemetery was transferred from Napata to Meroe in the early third century BC. This inaugurated the phase called the “Meroitic,” in which the culture seemed to free itself from the strict adherance to Egyptian norms and developed many original traits. It was about this time that the first royal tomb was built at Meroe: of a king named “Arkamani” (=Ergamanes). Soon thereafter, Kushite art and architecture began to develop individualistic styles. The royal family appeared much more “African” in their images and in their standards of beauty. The royal costumes and crowns were unique. A lion god, Apedemak, the lion-son of Sekhmet (or Bast, depending upon the region),unknown in the Egyptian pantheon, became pre-eminent in the southern part of the kingdom.
Egyptian language and writing were largely abandoned for official monuments and were replaced by the native Nubian language (called “Meroitic”), which was for the first time written down in newly devised hieroglyphic and cursive alphabets.
The dramatic shift in the Kushite culture almost certainly had to do with an event recorded by the Greek historican Diodorus. He stated that prior to the reign of Ergamenes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 BC), it had been the custom for the high priests, probably at Napata, to send a message to the king, supposedly from the great god himself, advising him that the time of his rule on earth was finished and that he must die. Traditionally the kings had obeyed the divine orders and had taken their own lives. Ergamenes, however, “who had received instruction in Greek philosophy”, was the first to disdain this command. With the determination worthy of a king he came with an armed force to the forbidden place where the golden temple of the Aithiopians was situated and slaughtered all the priests, abolished this tradition, and instituted practices at his own discretion”. Ergamenes then passed the laws which would make Meroe a culture distinct from that of Egypt.
Meroë’s wealth was due to a strong iron industry, and international trade involving India and China. At the time, iron was one of the most important metals worldwide, and Meroitic metalworkers were among the best in the world; iron tools and weapons were much sought after. Meroë also exported textiles and jewelry. Their textiles were based on cotton and working on this product reached its highest achievement in Nubia around 400 BC. Furthermore, Nubia was very rich in gold. Trade in “exotic” animals from farther south in Africa was another feature of their economy. Pottery was a widespread and prominent industry. The production of fine and elaborated decorated wares was a strong tradition within the middle Nile.
In 24 BC, soon after Rome had wrested Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra, the Kushites invaded Lower Nubia, attacking and plundering even Aswan to test the new northern power. This is virtually the only incident in which Meroe appears directly on the stage of Roman history. Following this challenge to Augustus’ authority, the Roman general Petronius was immediately dispatched into Nubia. He met and defeated a Meroitic army and drove on to Napata, which was said to have been captured and destroyed by him, and its inhabitants enslaved. The Meroites and Romans ultimately made a peace treaty, which endured for three centuries.
Curiously, in the Roman account it was noted that the Merotic queen was “a very masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye.” This strange description is given substance by the even stranger portrayals of these ladies that appear in reliefs in their tomb chapels and temples. The successive Candaces Amanishakheto and Amanitore, for example, both of whom are nearly contemporary with Petronius’ campaign, are depicted as massive, powerful figures, enormously fat, covered with jewels and ornament and elaborate fringed and tasseled robes. Their huge frames tower over their diminutive enemies, whom they are shown grasping brutally by the hair with one hand and dealing the coup de grace with the other. The social and aesthetic implications expressed by these reliefs are very different from those of Egypt, where women preferred to be portrayed as lithe and slim. This attribute, together with the facial scars worn by both the kings and queens of the Meroitic period, were the marks of physical beauty, common to central Africa, and suggest how much more southern oriented the kingdom had become since the days of the 25th Dynasty. Doubtless, over the centuries, the Meroitic ruling house had been infused many times with new ethnic strains and tribal affiliations.
Easily the most famous (though fictional)event illustrating the esteem in which the Candaces were held is the legendary tale from Psuedo-Callisthenes of Alexander the Great being deftly turned aside from his attack on the kingdom by a Candace of Meroe in 332 BCE. According to this story, the Candace arrayed her army so perfectly that Alexander, surveying the field of battle, thought it more prudent to retreat than press an attack. The true account of Augustus Caesar’s clash with the forces of Meroe in 22 BCE, however, is actually more compelling as the Emperor ended hostilities with the Kushite Kingdom by a peace treaty which favored Meroitic interests over those of Rome; a very rare gesture for Augustus to offer.
While some have speculated on a ‘mysterious’ disappearance of the people of Meroe, the victory stele on the site, erected by an Aksum King (thought to be King Ezana) makes it clear that the city was conquered by the Aksumites around the year 330 CE (which marks the death of the Merotic written and spoken language) and this, coupled with over-use of the land, leading to desertification, led to the decline of Meroe which, by the 5th century CE, had been transformed into a city of mystery and legend.