Meroe, city To Meroe, the "Sun Temple" (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Meroe, city

Meroe was one of the royal and religious capitals of the ancient kingdom of Kush in the middle Nile region (16°54′ N, 33°44′ E). It was known in the ancient world as "Aithiopia," or, from the mid-third century BC, as "Meroe" after the name of this settlement in the Butana grassland, circa 120km north of Khartoum (in the modern district of Shendi on the east bank of the Nile, at the villages Kabushiya and Begrawiya). The ruins of the city and three pyramid cemeteries, at Begrawiya South, West and North, were discovered in 1772 by the English traveler James Bruce, who correctly identified them with the Meroe of the classical authors. His identification remained unnoticed for well over a century, even though there were expeditions to the site in the nineteenth century, including those of Frederic Cailliaud and Richard Lepsius, who recorded the site. Pyramid tombs were also opened by Giuseppe Ferlini in 1834, and by E.A.W.Budge in the early twentieth century.

The importance and identification of the city were only recognized in 1909 by A.H.Sayce, who then suggested to John Garstang that the site should be investigated. With his knowledge of important Meroitic cemeteries in Lower Nubia, Garstang began excavating there under the aegis of the University of Liverpool. The fieldwork was directed by Garstang in collaboration with the philologist Sayce and the eminent Egyptologist F.L.Griffith, who was attracted by the chance of discovering monuments that might promote the decipherment of the Meroitic language. With inscribed finds from the first field season at the city of Meroe, and his collection of texts from the entire middle Nile region, Griffith was able to present, between 1910 and 1912, a corpus of Meroitic documents and a decipherment of both the Meroitic hieroglyphic and cursive writing systems (but not the language written in these scripts, which remains undeciphered). The discovery in the first field season of the walls of a monumental temple of Amen also corroborated Bruce’s and Sayce’s identification and encouraged Garstang’s fieldwork there. After five seasons of large-scale fieldwork, however, excavations were interrupted in 1914 by the First World War. The results were only published in brief preliminary reports. The field records and some of the finds are preserved in the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, and were published by Laszlo Torok. Other finds are in museums in England, Europe, the United States and Canada.


In the early years of the twentieth century stratigraphic excavations were conducted in the western Mediterranean, and in Egypt by Flinders Petrie. Garstang was aware of these developments, yet he did not realize the significance of stratigraphy and thus failed to investigate Meroe in a contextual sense. While he employed photographic documentation, it was only used to record isolated phenomena. Beyond recording the general building phases, based on the use of different building materials and construction techniques supposedly used in the different periods of the settlement, the only stratigraphic observations were made in the fourth field season by the architect W.S. George. Garstang’s analysis of his finds aimed at establishing a chronology that would illustrate Meroitic history, as it was reconstructed from ancient textual evidence, and interpreting this chronology in terms of cultural variation and development. This did not, however, go beyond the limits of descriptive typology.

By the end of the fifth field season Garstang had excavated about one-third of an enclosed area which he named the "Royal Enclosure," the adjacent (late) Amen temple, four other temple buildings and a number of smaller chapels and kiosks outside the Royal Enclosure. He had also identified a number of monumental buildings in the city and at its periphery. Furthermore, three non-royal cemeteries were investigated to the east of the city and Garstang also opened about a dozen pyramid tombs in the Begrawiya West cemetery, dating from the first century BC to the first century AD. Although at several places the sequences of building phases were followed to a depth of 4-5m beneath the present surface, Garstang only reached settlement levels in isolated places that could be dated before the fifth-fourth centuries BC, and this scarcity of early data further weakened his chronology.

The Begrawiya West, South and North Cemeteries were systematically excavated only in 1921-2 by the Harvard-Boston Expedition led by George Reisner. Reisner’s goal was to establish a detailed historical and cultural chronology based on the evidence in the royal necropoleis. In 1923 he published an outline of the royal chronology based on an imposing typological analysis of the burials, placed in absolute dates by a few inscribed finds and historical correlations. After Reisner’s death, his finds were published in their entirety by Dows Dunham, in 1957 and 1963.

Excavations at the town site were resumed in 1965 by a joint expedition of the Universities of Khartoum and Calgary, directed by P.L. Shinnie, in order to establish a cultural chronology of the site and to investigate the settlement evidence outside of the Royal and temple enclosures. A summary of the excavations and a catalog of finds of the 1965-72 seasons were published in 1980; a publication of the work of subsequent field seasons and the final results is forthcoming.

During the Egyptian New Kingdom domination of the middle Nile region and the Butana grassland probably belonged to an independent chiefdom named Irame. It is unknown whether a settlement existed at the site of Meroe before the eighth century BC, when the Butana region was united with the chiefdom of Napata, which already ruled over the entire territory of the former Egyptian province. By this time the Napatan chiefdom had adopted elements of Egyptian mortuary customs and the earliest burials in the Begrawiya West and South cemeteries at Meroe attest to an Egyptianization that was obviously a result of political unification with Napata, and based on the establishment of an Egyptian-type cult temple at Meroe. This cult temple not only served the mortuary cults, but was also the center of a temple town and acted as part of the Napatan government and redistributive system.

The early settlement at Meroe was probably built on alluvial islands in a braided channel of the Nile, close to the river, which gradually shifted away from the site in the subsequent centuries. Traces of a temple dedicated to the gods "Amen of Thebes" and "Amen of Napata" were found (but not identified) by Garstang under the later buildings (294 and 98) in the center of the island with the Royal Enclosure. Inscribed finds associated with the temple date from the period between King Senkamanisken (second half of the seventh century BC) and King Amanislo (mid-third century BC), but stray fragments of temple relief in the style of the late eighth/early seventh centuries BC may indicate an earlier building phase. Unprovenanced relief blocks in the style of King Taharka’s (690-664 BC) Kawa temple perhaps come from the early Amen temple. It may be presumed that there was a royal palace on the western side of the temple.

The orientation of the early structures corresponds with the course of the Nile. The actual connection between the early Amen temple and a later monumental temple (250) erected by King Aspelta (late seventh/early sixth centuries BC) is unknown, but a monumental processional avenue may be presumed. The later temple was situated circa 1400m to the east from the supposed pylons (monumental gateways) of the Amen temple and its main east-west axis was perpendicular to that of the Amen temple. In its preserved form, Temple 250 reflects a late first century BC rebuilding, which, apart from the addition of an outer colonnade, reconstructed the original double-podium structure (i.e. a cella on a raised podium within a court with pylons, constructed on a pyloned podium surrounded by a colonnade and approached by a ramp). The carving of the original reliefs was influenced by the war reliefs of King Piye’s (circa 747-716 BC) Amen temple at Napata.

The island with the temple-palace compound was apparently separated by (temporary?) channels from two settlement areas (North and South Mounds). Under the North Mound excavations of the Khartoum-Calgary expedition revealed traces of a village with mudbrick houses and huts. The early levels were overlaid with a heavy layer of water-borne clay, silt and river cobbles, indicative of an extraordinarily high Nile and probably the great flood reported in year 6 of Taharka’s reign.

Isolated finds of artifacts at Meroe indicate an urban character and the existence of workshops of mass-produced craft goods. Royal building activity is evidenced by fragments of high-quality statues and reliefs. The production of a distinctive wheel-turned polychrome pottery, unique in the Nile Valley, is dated to around the early fourth century BC by the context of one of these vessels associated with a fragment of an imported Attic Red Figure vase (from Greece). Probably in connection with the emergence of a new dynasty in the Meroe region, large-scale building activity began there in the third century BC. The island of the early Amen temple was enclosed by a 5m thick masonry wall. The enclosure, measuring circa 400x200m, may have stabilized the soil of the alluvial island, but it was more likely intended to separate the temple-palace compound in a monumental manner. Its irregular shape was probably determined by the course of the Nile channels, and the position of its gates was determined by the locations of the temple and palace.

By the second half of the third century BC the early Amen temple was, however, abandoned and a new monumental Amen sanctuary adjoining the central portion of the eastern enclosure wall was begun (Temple 260). Its original pylons faced a (temporary?) channel. In the southwest sector of the Royal Enclosure a water sanctuary (Temple 195) was erected. Its basin was filled with water coming directly from the river (or from a channel) during the period of inundation. Such a "sacred lake," symbolic of the Nile, and the associated sculpture, were directly influenced by Alexandrian art and architecture, and the water sanctuary displays the impact of cult beliefs in Egypt in the Late and early Ptolemaic periods, adapting elements of dynastic and ancestor cults of the Ptolemies. This sanctuary stood in its own temenos (sacred precinct) and a contemporary royal palace appears to have occupied the area of the abandoned early Amen temple (Building 294). From the second half of the second century BC a processional avenue connected the northern entrance of the water sanctuary with a temple (600, of Isis?) built circa 300m to the north from the northwest gate of the Royal Enclosure. The monumental character of this avenue is indicated by traces of a palm alley discovered south of the gate.


Map of the city of Meroe

Figure 73 Map of the city of Meroe

The northern part of the Royal Enclosure was occupied by large houses, which were probably inhabited by the higher status priests of the Amen temple, built along narrow streets with the same orientation as the processional avenue. The houses were probably constructed with two stories and their design was derivative of a known type of Hellenistic house found in urban communities. The ground floor consisted of an entrance corridor leading into the south-east corner of a central courtyard and a single or double room. One of these houses at Meroe (990) shows the influence of a type of Hellenistic palace, such as is found at the city of Ptolemais in Cyrenaica (northern Libya), dating to the second century BC (the "Palazzo delle Colonne"). This suggests direct contact between Meroe and Ptolemaic Alexandria, as this type of house plan was unknown farther south in Egypt.

During the first century BC changes began to occur in Meroe’s environment. The gradual silting-up of the channel which supplied water to the basin of the water sanctuary at the time of the New Year, and which probably also supplied ground water during the rest of the year, caused the abandonment of the original aqueduct and the rebuilding of the sanctuary. The late water sanctuary was provided with smaller quantities of water by a mechanical lift device. Remains of the sculpture decorating this new sanctuary indicate an increased importance of native religious concepts and the prominence of the native lion god, Apedemak. The silting up of the channels also made possible an eastern extension of the late Amen temple.

By the first century AD the center of the town was no longer on an island, and it joined the North and South Mounds and the mainland. In front of the new pylons of the Amen temple, chapels and small sanctuaries of different types (such as a "double sanctuary," perhaps influenced by the temple of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt) were erected along a processional avenue. Thus the city was provided with a monumental east-west axis. In contrast, with the final abandonment of the water sanctuary in the first century AD, the northwest axis was abandoned within the Royal Enclosure and in subsequent centuries the enclosure wall was pulled down and built over in several places. The center of the city shifted entirely to areas outside of the Royal Enclosure. A temple-palace complex was created by the rebuilt double-podium Temple 250 and a monumental residential building within its temenos. The rebuilt sanctuary was decorated with monumental reliefs of war scenes faithfully imitating in both iconography and style the original reliefs of the Aspelta building.

Remains of architecture and sculpture dating to the second-first centuries BC indicate the existence of royal workshops. Local traditions and fine ceramics, manufactured in various parts of the Mediterranean and imported from Alexandria, influenced the production of fine pottery. Large kilns provided the entire kingdom with painted wares, which in the late first century BC received a decisive impetus from the discovery of the source of an unusually fine marl clay. The presence of Egyptian vase painters is also attested at Meroe. Fine painted and relief-decorated pottery continued to be traded from Meroe to Lower Nubia as well as to the southern regions of the kingdom in the first to third centuries AD. By the second century AD the town was centered around the late Amen temple, with its processional avenue, the new royal palace (750) and a magazine complex (740). This evidence is also indicative of the continuity of a homogeneous royal/ temple redistributive economy. During the second and early third centuries (?) several priestly houses were rebuilt in the northern sector of the Royal Enclosure, but some time in the late third or early fourth century large areas of the Royal Enclosure were destroyed and the ruins were leveled. Poor mudbrick houses were built around the few surviving monumental structures, such as Chapel 98, where the head of a monumental bronze statue of Augustus, which had been taken from Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia during the Roman-Meroitic war in the late first century BC, was found buried under the threshold.

Garstang recorded clusters of small rooms arranged around open courtyards, which gave the impression of simple, rural architecture. However, the Khartoum-Calgary expedition also found more substantial buildings of the late period outside the Royal Enclosure, indicating a shift of the city center and not a general decline.

The city was briefly occupied around AD 350 by Aksumite invaders (from northern Ethiopia) who left triumphal inscriptions in Greek. Although the Meroitic kingdom survived this invasion for some time, the site seems to have been completely abandoned by the fifth century AD.

Meroe, the "Sun Temple"

Located on a plain on the east bank of the Nile circa 1km east-southeast of the ancient town of Meroe (16°56′ N, 33°43′ E), the "Sun Temple" is a very ruined complex. Its location, its unique architectural design, the style and subject of its reliefs and the historical events which might have been the reasons for its construction all testify to the importance of this temple in Meroitic times.

The visible structural remains of the temple were first recorded in 1844 by the Prussian Expedition, led by Richard Lepsius. In 1910-11 the site was cleared of rubble by an expedition from the Institute of Archaeology, University of Liverpool, under the direction of John Garstang. The excavator proposed the hypothetical identification of the temple as the "Table of the Sun" mentioned by Herodotus (III, 17-18), thereby establishing its subsequent name, the "Sun Temple." During these excavations fragments of a stela inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphs were found in the temple precinct (temenos). Part of the name of King Aspelta (593-568 BC) was recognized in the inscription, but it was wrongly taken as evidence for dating the temple.

Plan of the "Sun Temple" complex at Meroe

Figure 74 Plan of the "Sun Temple" complex at Meroe

The site has most recently been examined in 1984 and 1985 by the Central Institute of Ancient History and Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences (Berlin). In 1986 and 1987 conservation work on the very endangered temple structure was begun by the Sudan Directorate General of Antiquities and National Museums.

The temple (Meroe 250) stood in a nearly square temenos (Meroe 249) surrounded by a mudbrick wall (Meroe 247), 2.7m thick, which was faced with fired bricks and a coat of lime plaster. Two of the four entrances, the east and west gates, were constructed in stone masonry. From the east gate, the main entrance, a paved causeway (dromos) led to the temple proper. The temple was built in the style of Meroitic one-room temples, with a pylon, fifty cubits wide, in front. Reliefs on the lowest register of the south (exterior) wall depict battle scenes with enemies being slaughtered. On the northern wall reliefs show the triumphal return of soldiers, accompanied by captured men, women and children. These scenes are repeated on many of the 700 relief blocks found scattered at the site, which may have come from the upper faces of the temple’s walls.

Most of the temple was surrounded by a type of colonnade (peridromos) with an estimated seventy-two columns decorated with open papyrus capitals. An important scene on the west wall includes a southern elevation of the temple showing the colonnade. Archaeological evidence dates the colonnade (and thus the reliefs) to Ptolemaic or Roman times. Iconographic details also demonstrate that the reliefs date to the end of the first century BC/beginning of the first century AD.

From the dromos the temple was entered by a ramp through the pylon gateway. An inner court (hypaethral), raised 2m above the ground, was surrounded by fifty-one columns (peristyle) with open papyrus capitals. Within this court was a temple with an elevated interior containing a rectangular sanctuary surrounded by a narrow ambulatory. Small stairs provided access from the court to the rear of the inner temple and its ambulatory.

Rooms of a priests’ house (?) were also added to the south wall of the outer temple. The function of this house was ultimately transferred to a separate square building (Meroe 251-253), planned on a grand scale and influenced by Roman architecture. Around its Corinthian-style atrium, with an eight-column peristyle, were small apartments (alae), divided into three separate units of two rooms each and a larger single room. Access to the building was through two entrances, and two staircases led to the roof.

The fragments of the granite stela inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphics were collected in 1910 from the western part of the temenos. More fragments were found in 1984-5. As read by Garstang and A.H.Sayce, the inscription was associated with King Aspelta, whose name is now indicated on several of the 240 fragments. The stela may have been associated with a chapel or small temple in the area where the stela fragments were originally collected, where foundation stones have been found. In constructing the later temple, the chapel may have been dismantled to build the new structure.

In front of the main gate, astride the central temple axis, are the remains of the high altar and its accompanying ramp (Meroe 246). Farther to the east, and south of the temple axis, are the remains of a baldachin (Meroe 245) with nine engaged columns. This was closed on three sides by screen walls, with the fourth side open to the west. Architectural elements of the baldachin exhibit Ptolemaic influence. Part of a column drum was found with sculptured heads of rams, sacred to Amen, the state god of the Meroites. Both the high altar and the baldachin are depicted in the scene on the west wall of the outer temple, thereby providing evidence for the late period in which the whole temple complex was built and decorated.

One of the largest known reservoirs (hafir, Meroe 256) is located south of the temple complex at the southeastern corner of the temenos wall. Farther south and adjacent to the reservoir, are remains of a heavily damaged square building, approximately 27m square (Meroe 255). Although similar to Meroitic palaces, its function is not known. It may have been connected with the economic and administrative functions of the temple complex.

All of the temple inscriptions, except those of the Aspelta stela, refer to rulers living at the end of the first century BC/beginning of the first century AD. These include the cartouches of Akinidad, the crown prince and governor in the north, Queen Amanishakheto, and King Natakamani, her son-in-law (on a reused block). Akinidad and his mother Amanirenas are connected with the Meroites’ raid on Philae, Syene and Elephantine in 24 BC. At that time the Roman garrison in southern Egypt was reduced because of the engagement of Aelius Gallus in Arabia, and the Meroites hoped to take advantage of the situation. After a counterattack by Petronius, which ended with the destruction of Napata, the Meroites had to send a delegation to Samos to meet the emperor Augustus. The outcome of the negotiations was unexpectedly favorable for Meroe. Even the tribute that was first demanded was rescinded by Augustus under the condition that the Meroites would remain peaceful. From this outcome, the Meroites probably felt that they had become partners of the Romans; this may have been the reason for Amanirenas and Akinidad to give thanks to Amen by erecting this temple. Some years later the complex was finished by Amanishakheto, who built the temenos wall.

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