When Did the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe Rise to Prominence?

The Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

The ancient Nubians are often overlooked as one of the more important peoples of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean because they were often under the thumb of the Egyptians, and when they were free to develop on their own they never built a vast empire as other peoples in the region did. With that said, the Nubians developed a culture that was the most sophisticated in sub-Saharan Africa and they often played an important, albeit secondary role in the geopolitics of the Near Eastern and later in the Hellenic world.

Historians and archaeologists generally consider the ancient Nubians to have built three great kingdoms that are named for the location of their largest and most important settlements: Kerma (c. 1700-1550 BC), Napata (eighth to early third centuries BC), and Meroe (early third century BC to the mid-fourth century AD). Modern scholars often give the Kingdom of Napata the most attention because its kings ruled Egypt for a time and there are a plethora of texts from around the ancient Near East, including the Bible, that document their activities. But the Kingdom of Meroe was just as, if not more important. The Nubian kings moved the capital of their kingdom to Meroe to better protect themselves from new threats from Egypt. As the Nubian kings made the move farther south, they preserved all elements of Nubian culture, resisted incursions from the Ptolemaic Greeks and later the Romans, and eventually influenced the course that culture would take in eastern Africa in late antiquity.

Kerma and Napata

Satellite Map of Nubia. The First Cataract at Aswan Was generally Considered the Border between Nubia and Egypt in the Ancient World

Before an examination of Meroe’s rise to prominence and dominance can be detailed, a definition of Nubia is vital. The definition and nomenclature of Nubia and the Nubians varied widely throughout ancient history depending upon the people and time writing about the subject. Owing to the fact that they were neighbors, the Egyptians were the first ancient people to write about the Nubians. The Egyptians referred to the land south of Aswan as the region of Wawat, while Kush is what they called anything south of the second cataract. [1]

To the Egyptians, the Nubians were a distinct people who they step apart as an “other” in both texts and art. The ancient Egyptians were ever cognizant of cultural, physical, and ethnic differences in the peoples they most commonly dealt with, as shown on the walls of numerous temples and in the decorations on a number of tombs. For example, in the tomb of the Egyptian King Seti I (ruled c. 1305-1290 BC) Egyptians, Nubians, Canaanites, and Libyans are all depicted as phenotypical representations of their groups. In texts, the Egyptians generally referred to the Nubians as “Kushites,” usually accompanied by the pejorative adjective “wretched.” [2] Although the Egyptians never referred to their southern neighbors as Nubians, the modern term is probably derived from the ancient Egyptian word for gold – nebu – because Nubia/Wawat-Kush was one of Egypt’s primary sources of gold. [3] Today, the Nile south of Aswan is generally considered Nubia and its people Nubians, with many Egyptologists using the terms Nubia/Nubians and Kush/Kushites interchangeably.

The ancient Greeks and Romans divided the continent of Africa into three parts – Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia – with Ethiopia for the most part being all the land south of Libya and Egypt and Ethiopians generally referring to black Africans. [4] Since these terms were fluid and are sometimes at odds with the modern terms, for the sake of uniformity the term “Nubian” is used here for the African people who lived just south of Egypt and “Nubia” for the land south of the first cataract.

It is important to know that when Egypt was strong, Nubia was generally weak and often subordinate to their northern neighbor, but when Egypt was weak, such as during the First, Second, and Third Intermediate periods, Nubia saw its greatest extent of power. The first major Nubian kingdom formed near the site of Kerma and reached its pinnacle of power during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (c. 1750-1650 BC), extending as far north as Aswan and probably encompassing all of Nubia. [5] The Kerma kingdom, though, was eclipsed and conquered by the Egyptians of the New Kingdom, ensuring that it would be hundreds of more years before another strong Nubian state would arise.

The Nubians’ fortunes turned once again when central authority in Egypt collapsed, sending the kingdom into the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1075-664 BC). The center of Nubian culture during this period was located more than 100 miles upstream from Kawa, in the city of Napata near the fourth cataract. The Napatan kingdom would prove to be the greatest of all the Nubian kingdoms, with the King Piye/Piankhy (reigned 747-716 BC) conquering Egypt in 728 BC, thereby uniting the two lands as one. Although Piye returned to Napata after conquering Egypt, he probably spent time in the Egyptian city of Thebes establishing the framework and foundation for the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. [6]

The Nubians ruled Egypt for about eighty years as legitimate pharaohs, building in the Thebes region and engaging in the geopolitics of the Near East, which eventually brought the Assyrians to Egypt. Tantamani (reigned 664-? BC) was the last Nubian king to rule in Egypt, before he was defeated by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (ruled 668-627 BC) and then either killed or driven from Egypt by Psamtek I (reigned 664-610 BC), the first king of Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth or Saite Dynasty. [7] But before Tantamani and the Nubians were vanquished from Egypt, they had left a considerable cultural footprint in Egypt and Nubia.

Beginning with Piye, the Napatan kings embarked on a series of cultural innovations that were followed by later Nubians. Perhaps one of the most interesting was the fact that Piye was the first Nubian king to be buried under a true pyramid. The Naptan kings constructed a necropolis near Napata, outside the present location of el-Kuru, where they were buried under small, distinct pyramids with steep sides ranging from sixty to seventy-three degrees. This Nubian pyramid building tradition was later continued at the site of Nuri and finally Meroe, the capital of the last great ancient Nubian kingdom.

Nubian Culture Shifts to Meroe

Statue of a Meroitic Queen in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

After the seat of Nubian power moved south to Meroe, it took some time for the new kingdom to rise to prominence. The Nubian royal necropolis was moved to Nuri in the Napata region immediately after the Tantamani was vanquished from Egypt, before moving much further south to Meroe around 270 BC. [8] Once Meroe was established as the new seat of government, the kingdom grew in size and power: but why did the move happen in the first place?

The reason for the move to Meroe was probably due to practical concerns more than anything. The Nubians found themselves in a weak position after losing Egypt to Psamtek I and the Saites, so it appears a quick strategic retreat to Meroe, which is situated between the fifth and sixth cataracts, was in order. A military expedition by Psamtek II (reigned 595-598) may have been the final event that pushed the Nubians south. Two stelae discovered in Egypt, one from Tanis and one from Shellal, document a military campaign Psamtek II led against Nubia in the third year of his rule. The Tanis stela claims the Nubian king was “burned” after Psamtek II invaded and occupied Nubia, and the Shellal stela states the Egyptians took 4,200 male captives. [9] The Nubian King Anlamani (ruled 623-593 BC) may have been the unfortunate victim, as he was succeeded that year by Aspelta (reigned 593-568 BC).

Although there is little evidence, the Nubians may have also come under the rule, at least nominally, of the Achaemenid Persians in the late sixth or early fifth centuries BC. Reliefs dated to the reign of the Persian King Darius I “the Great” (ruled 522-486 BC) at Naqsh-I Rustam and the royal palace in Susa claim Nubia as a satrapy. In particular, the relief from Susa depicts a Nubian bringing tribute to the king, with the text stating “Ivory from Nubia.” [10] It is quite possible, and probable, that the Persians could only claim part of Nubia, but that Meroe and most of Upper Nubia were free of foreign control, although that would change in the third century.

Meroe, the Ptolemies, and the Romans

Meroe truly came to prominence in the ancient world when it began its long relationship with the Greeks and Romans. The Macedonian-Greek rulers of Egypt from the third through most of the first centuries BC, the Ptolemies, were the first to battle with the Nubians of Meroe for control of the Nile. The primary region that the two groups vied for control over was known as the Dodekaschoinos, which was the area between the first and second cataracts of the Nile River. [11] The archaeological evidence shows that the Meroitic King Arkamani built an entrance hall to a temple in Aswan that was originally built by the Egyptian-Ptolemaic King Ptolemy I (reigned 221-204 BC). This is interesting because the two kings were contemporaries and it is highly unlikely that one ruler would allow another to build at such an important site, especially when both were vying for control of the region. What is most likely is that the temple demonstrates control of the region alternated between the Nubians and Ptolemies. [12]

The stalemate between the two powers continued until Ptolemy VI (ruled 180-145 BC) attempted to extend Egyptian control farther south, erasing the name of Arkamani from several monuments in the process, but he was ultimately unsuccessful in holding his gains. [13] The final military push against the Nubians would be led by the Roman legions.

After Egypt was consolidated into the Roman Empire in 30 BC, the Romans wasted little time marching south and claiming Nubia. The Romans gave Nubia client kingdom status, but when other events forced most of the Roman garrison in Nubia to leave in 23 BC, the Nubians took the change to rebel. The first century BC-AD Greek geographer, Strabo, wrote:

“But the Aethiopians, emboldened by the fact that a part of the Roman force in Aegypt had been drawn away with Aelius Gallus when he was carrying on war against the Arabians, attacked the Thebans and the garrison of the three cohorts at Synê and Elephantine and Philae, and enslaved the inhabitants, and also pulled down the statues of Caesar. But Petronius, setting out with less than ten thousand infantry and eight hundred cavalry against thirty thousand men, first forced them to flee back to Pselchis, an Aethiopian city, and sent ambassadors to demand what they had taken, as also to ask the reasons why they had begun war.” [14]

The Romans eventually put the rebellion down and made peace with the Nubians, which ushered in an era when Meroe’s international prominence faded, yet it remained relatively safe and stable. Other than the Roman Emperor Diocletian (ruled AD 284-305) defeating the Meroitic Nubians in a battle in AD 297, little more is known about Meroitic-Roman relations. [15] The Meroitic Period of Nubian history finally ended in 350 when King Aezanas of Axum conquered Meroe. [16]


The ancient Nubians built three notable kingdoms during their long history, each centered around important settlements: Kerma, Napata, and Meroe. Although the Napata Period may be the best known of the Nubian kingdoms due to its control of Egypt during the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, the Kingdom of Meroe was also culturally and politically significant. The Nubian Meroitic kingdom rose to prominence after the Egyptians vanquished the Nubians and possibly attacked Napata in a major military campaign. The Nubians then retreated farther south to the relative safety of Meroe, where Nubian culture continued and the Nubian kings dealt with and sometimes fought the Ptolemaic Egyptians and the Romans before being conquered by another East African kingdom, Axum.


  1. Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. (Princeton, New Jersey: Marcus Weiner, 1998), p. 7
  2. Smith, Stuart Tyson. Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian Empire. (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 23
  3. Faulkner, Richard O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1999), p. 129
  4. Welsby, p. 7
  5. Morkot, Robert G. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. (London: Rubicon Press, 2000), p. 62
  6. Morkot, p. 197
  7. Morkot, pgs. 297-8
  8. O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. (Philadelphia: The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1993), p. 70
  9. Manuelian, Peter D. Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. (London: Keegan Paul International, 1994), pgs. 367, 340
  10. Kent, Roland G. Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. Second Edition. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1953), pgs. 138, 144
  11. Welsby, p. 66
  12. Welsby, pgs. 66-67
  13. Welsby, p. 67
  14. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII,1, 54
  15. Welsby, p. 71
  16. O’ Connor, p. 72