The Pyramids of Kush

The pyramids of Egypt may be famous, but they’re not the only pyramids to serve as royal tombs.

The region of Nubia lies along the upper Nile in modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The kingdom of Kush flourished here for a millennium and a half, even dominating Egypt for a century as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Kushites had a long history of war, trade, and diplomacy with Egypt, including incorporating elements of Egyptian art and architecture into their own culture. Like all such cultural borrowings, the Kushites did not simply imitate what they had seen in Egypt but reimagined and innovated on those ideas to suit their own needs.

Pyramids at the northern cemetery at Meroe. The larger pyramids in the background are in ruins, but the two smaller ones in the foreground have been restored in modern times to give an idea of the original shape. Photograph by UNESCO via Wikmedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

In Egypt, Kushite visitors would have seen the massive ancient stone pyramids of the early kings still famous today. They would also have seen small, steep-sided brick pyramids that were popular in later times as tomb markers for wealthy families. In their royal cemeteries in Nubia, Kushite rulers combined these forms to create stone pyramids much larger than the private monuments in contemporary Egypt, though not as large as the great pyramids of early pharaohs. These pyramids had steep sides, rising high over narrow bases. Many also had passages leading inside at ground level marked with monumental gates, a feature not found in Egyptian pyramids. While the major pyramids of Egypt were almost all built for kings, some of the largest Kushite pyramids were built for queens. These tombs drew on Egyptian ideas, but interpreted those ideas in a new way, marking the kings and queens of Kush as both connected to Egypt but also distinct.

Another view of a partially restored pyramid at Meroe. Photograph by Michael Walsh via Wikimedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

The custom of building tombs in this style took hold in Nubia. Despite the depredations of modern treasure hunters, there are, in fact, about twice as many Nubian pyramids still standing today as Egyptian. They are are a remarkable piece of world heritage and a fascinating example of the adaptation and reinvention of one culture’s ideas in the hands of another.

Pyramids at Nuri. Photgraph by Vit Hassan via Wikimedia (Nuri, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE; stone)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

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Ancient Women as Generals

It has come to my attention that some folks online have been making a fuss about the fact that the strategy game Rome: Total War II allows players to recruit women as generals to lead their armies in fighting around the ancient Mediterranean. They decry this addition to the game as modern politics intruding anachronistically on the purely masculine history of war. Well, that’s a load of hogwash.

As your friendly neighborhood ancient historian, I’m happy to present a brief, selective, far-from-comprehensive list of women who led military forces in antiquity. Enjoy.

(All translations my own)

Amage

A Sarmatian queen, 2nd century BCE, who led her people against foreign invaders.

Amage, wife of Medosaccus, a Sarmatian king… seeing that her husband was diverted by luxury, took matters in hand, giving many judgments, organizing the defense of the realm, and fighting off foreign attacks.

– Polyaenus, Strategms 8.56

 

Amanirenas

A Kushite queen, 1st century BCE, who led forces against Roman armies encroaching on her territory from southern Egypt. (Strabo mistakes her title, Candace, for her name)

Queen Candace, in my day the ruler of the Ethiopians, a masculine woman who was blind in one eye… led an army many thousands strong against the [Roman] garrison

– Strabo, Geography 17.54

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To the Lady Queen

An official from a Western superpower arrives in a rich and powerful African kingdom and offers his respect and support to a royal woman. It may sound like Everett Ross from Black Panther, but it’s actually two millennia older:

Good fortune to the Lady Queen, may she live happily for many years. Acutus came from the city and [saw the place (?)] on the 15th of April.

(My own translation)

This inscription, the southernmost Latin inscription yet discovered, comes from Musawwarat es-Suffra in modern-day Sudan, which in antiquity was part of the kingdom of Kush. Kush, often called Meroë by Greek and Roman authors after its capital city, was a powerful state on the central Nile river. After the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, the Roman Empire and Kush fought a brief border war, but the Kushan Queen Amanirenas soon made a peace treaty with Rome that was respected by both sides for centuries to come. (Greco-Roman authors mistakenly call Amanirenas “Candance,” which is not a name but a Kushan title for a royal woman.)

This inscription, which is in rather poor condition and cannot be read fully, probably dates to sometime in the third century CE. The Acutus who dedicated it was most likely a Roman envoy (“the city” being Rome) who had come to Kush on diplomatic business. His effusive good wishes to another (unnamed) ruling queen were in keeping with how Roman ambassadors demonstrated respect for foreign rulers. This inscription shows that Rome regarded its relationship with Meroë as worth maintaining with proper diplomatic dignity. Kush profited handsomely from facilitating trade between the Roman Mediterranean and both sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, and had every reason to encourage ongoing good relations.

The history of interactions between Europeans and Africans is filled with bloodshed and inhumanity. It is understandable how appealing Black Panther‘s fantasy of an isolated African state untouched by European invasion or interference is to many fans. But it is also worth remembering that isolation is not the only option, and history also contains examples of European-African contacts that were peaceful and respectful.

Image: CIL III 83 via Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet, “Rome-Meroe-Berlin. The Southernmost Latin Inscription Rediscovered (“CIL” III 83),” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 157 (2006), 193-198.

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