Lecture 30: ANCIENT AFRICA
Lectures contributed by Steve Stofferan and Sarah Wood, Purdue University
In many ways, the history of ancient Africa features just as interesting, complex, and sophisticated narratives as any other ancient civilizations, yet almost without exception it is only Egypt and Carthage that receive any substantive consideration at all in a survey course. This, despite the development of several important pre-Islamic cultures in the interior, far removed from both the Mediterranean and Egypt. The purpose, then, of the following lecture is to shed light on at least three additional centers of civilization in ancient Africa: Kush (Meroe), Aksum, and Ghana.
KUSH (750 BCE - CE 300)
I. Egyptian Domination and Influence
- 500 years of direct rule of southern Nubia by Egyptians (New Kingdom), ca. 1500-1000 BCE
- pharoahs had been especially keen to control trade with the south
- had built lots of Egyptian towns, outposts along the Nile
- this period left a very long-lasting legacy, particularly evident in the Nubian ruling class' adoption and maintenance of Egyptian religion, language, and writing
II. Independence and Emergence of a New Culture
- Egyptians withdrew from Nubia, ca. 1000 BCE; southern region became known to them as "Kush"
- trade links continued, but the two realms separated politically
- by 730 BCE, new rulers of independent Kush felt strong enough to invade Egypt; seized Thebes
- ruled Egypt for 60 years-a period known as the XXVth ("Ethiopian/Nubian") dynasty
- following Assyrian invasion of Lower Egypt (ca. 670 BCE), withdrew to Nubia
- moved their administrative center further south, from Napata to Meroe, ca. 550 BCE
[ see companion lecture on Meroe by Sarah Wood, below]
- primary religious complexes, however, remained at Napata for several centuries
- note the continued pervasive Egyptian influence: temple of Amun Re
- the priesthood remained very powerful; rulers had to present themselves at Napata for sanction
- real development of iron technology in Meroe (probably in response to encounter with Assyrians)
- the region of Meroe supported agriculture and herding very well (better than around Napata)
* also very well situated for trade (gold, ostrich feathers, ebony, ivory, leopard skins, elephants, iron), either across the desert to Egypt or via Red Sea port to several destinations (especially during the period of Greek/Roman control of Egypt)
- eventually, distinctive features of Kushite civilization emerged, particularly after the move to Meroe:
- local language (Meroitic) replaced Egyptian as language of court
- new alphabetic script developed (remains undeciphered today)
- innovations on traditional Egyptian religion: lion god, Apedemek (lion's head on body of snake)
- distinctive art: portrayals of tropical African animals on art objects, pottery, public sculptures
- distinctive pottery style (even some continuity with ancient Nubian practice)
- new style of pyramids: small, unpointed; erected much later than Egyptian pyramids
- also importatnt to note the distinctive economic and political organization of Kushite society:
- peasants and herders were more spread out; thus, rulers were not able to exert as much direct control over their subjects as had been the case in Egypt
- slightly less autocratic than Egypt; nobility & priesthood occasionally removed kings
- the king's mother was traditionally a key political player ("kingmaker")
III. Stature among Great Empires
- Kush had butted up against this great empire in Lower Egypt in 7th century BCE
- withdrew to the south, but had taken some hard iron-age lessons to heart
- by 1st century BCE, Meroe gradually expanded northward; inevitably clashed with Romans
- 23 BCE, Meroitic army attacked border town of Syrene; stole several statues of Augustus
* bronze head of Augustus was unearthed in excavation at Meroe in 1912
- Petronius led a retaliatory campaign
- reached Napata; took several thousand captives, which he then sold into slavery
- however, relations with Rome eventually normalized, and the two powers enjoyed peaceful coexistence for several centuries, with special emphasis on Red Sea trade, even into Indian Ocean
- kingdom declined by CE 300; the city of Meroe itself was abandoned between CE 300-350
- major factors in its decline included:
- over-exploitation of the environment; the land became agriculturally untenable
- iron smelting had consumed most of the forests for charcoal; widespread erosion ensued
- decline of Roman power in Egypt affected Meroe as well; demand for luxury goods fell
- new power of Aksum took control of the Red Sea trade, and even invaded region of Meroe ca. CE 350, although by that time there was not much left to conquer
AKSUM (CE 100-700)
I. Wresting Power from Meroe
- ca. 500 BCE, peoples from southwestern Arabia migrated across Red Sea
- established farming settlements and trading centers on African coast (particularly Adulis), esp. in order to take advantage of ivory trade for Persia and India
- came to dominate the Red Sea trade, already in the period of Greek (Ptolemaic) control of Egypt
- this facilitated the establishment of their independent inland state at Aksum
- eventually edged out Meroe for domination of Red Sea & Indian Ocean trade by CE 300
- Aksum's economic well-being was, of course, dependent upon trade
- likewise, the king's power relied on the tax revenues raised on import/export duties
- esp. important export goods included ivory, slaves, crystal, brass, copper, frankincense, myrrh
- prosperity was reflected in ambitious building projects: esp. stone stelae (tall, thin columns marking notable gravesites)
- adopted Christianity in 4th century CE
- Aksum was eventually confronted by two principal economic & political challenges to its power:
- Persian Empire, particularly in the 6th-century Arabian trade
- Islam: caliphate presented a political threat, but trade also began to shift more to the Persian Gulf, away from the Red Sea
- however, like Meroe, over-exploitation of land and forests also played a major role in Aksum's decline
- did manage to avoid incorporation into the Islamic world system, but with the effect of cultural isolation
- hence the eventual development of very distinctive Ethiopian Christianity
GHANA (CE 200-1200)
One must keep in mind first of all that ancient Ghana has little to do with the modern west African nation that has adopted its name. (It is significant in its own right, however, to note the enduring allure associated with the name itself-an indirect index of its grandeur in the ancient world.) Ancient Ghana, which at its height encompassed a large area extending northward from most of the Senegal River, flourished between AD 200-800, though the state remained a coherent polity well into the thirteenth century. Ghana was always associated first and foremost with its principal export, gold. Indeed, the very name "ghana" refers to the ruler in control of the region's gold supply.
- best-known of the early west African Iron Age states
- comprised of the Sonnike people (a reference to its language group)
- origins of the state lay in the desire of clans to band together to form larger chiefdoms, which in turn joined together in a loose confederation sometime in the 1st century CE
- the impetus for this consolidation was likely that the Sonnike, armed with iron weapons and cavalry, saw such cooperation as the best means to seize as much remaining arable land in west Africa (which was steadily dessicating with the spread of the Sahara) as they could; it also probably came at least partially in response to increased raids by Berber nomads during periods of drought
- most important in the story of Ghana's rise to power, however, was the advantageous geographical position the Sonnike enjoyed vis-a-vis the trans-Sahara trade: their region served as an ideal middle ground for exchanges of desert salt, local surplus grain, and gold mined in the lands to the south; thus, they became the classic "middlemen"
- prosperity really picked up in the 5th century with the introduction of the camel in trans-Sahara trade; hence the concomitant rise in Ghana's political power at this time
II. Land of Gold
- the gold trade in particular expanded exponentially by the 9th century, as consolidated Islamic states in the north (particularly along the Mediterranean coast) were in need of large quantities of gold to mint coins
- Ghana eventually gained an exotic reputation throughout the Islamic world; it was even known for its fabulous wealth as far away as Baghdad
- we have several descriptions of Ghana by Arab geographers and writers from the 8th-11th centuries
- amazingly, the Sonnike managed to keep the source of its gold (i.e., the location of the southern gold fields and the peoples who owned and worked them-and who traded it for desert salt from Ghanaian merchants) a secret from inquisitive Muslim traders for several centuries
- as had been the case in Aksum, the rulers of Ghana grew wealthy from taxation on trade; interestingly, however, they only taxed salt, not gold; it is also worth noting that only gold dust was allowed to be traded on the market; all solid nuggets belonged to (or were confiscated by) the rulers, which helped ensure their superior wealth and relative opulence
- finally, although the kingdom maintained no regular standing army, the ruler of Ghana was reputedly able (according to the 11th-century Arab geography al-Bakri) to call forth a force of 200,000 warriors from his own territories and those of allied/subject states in times of war
II. Islamic Transition and Decline
- the empire reached its height sometime around 1050 CE
- unlike their counterparts in Aksum, the rulers and people of Ghana eventually converted to Islam, probably in the 12th century; the details of this process are not at all clear in the sources, but it is likely that it was a peaceful conversion
- by this time, however, Ghana was losing cohesion, for several potential reasons:
- continued conflict between Sonnike traders and their Berber counterparts
- wider wars of the Almoravids across north (and central) Africa disrupted trade
- cultural divide between now-Islamic rulers of Ghana and the mostly pagan subjects of the empire
- forceful independence movements among the southern Malinke peoples
- deterioration of the environment (esp. desertification)-an all too common theme in Africa)
Ancient Africa: Meroe, by Sarah Wood, Spring 2002
Around 1050 BC, Egypt’s dominion over Nubia came to an end. It was not until approximately 900 BC that a new power subjugated this territory and for no less than 1000 years determined its history. This power, called the Kingdom of Napata and Meroe is also known as the Kingdom of Kush. The Kingdom of Kush is divided into 2 periods, the Napatan Period lasting until 270 BC and the Meroitic Period existing from the fall of that kingdom toward the year 320 AD.
Today we can say, with some certainty that the ruling class in the Kingdom of Kush was not made up of Egyptian or Libyian immigrants, as we had frequently assumed in the past. Names of the royal family as well as high ranking officials and priests, prove that they belonged to the people whose language became the written language of the Meroitic Period. We call them “Meroites”. In addition, the custom of matrilinear succession and the development of royal tomb installations reveal that the social and cultural traditions of the ruling class were derived not from the Egyptians but from the peoples of the Upper Nile Valley.
With regards to agriculture, during the Meroitic Period, cattle breeding becomes increasingly important, replacing sheep and goats due to their nutritional value. The many representations of cattle, for example those in the Temple of Apedemak at Musawwarat es-Sufra, picture a powerful and well-cared-for breed leading us to assume that cattle breeding was taking place. An extensive system of reservoirs was developed to facilitate cattle herding and the cultivation of fields away from the Nile. The vicinity of Meroe was suited to iron production on a large scale. Implements made of iron may have been employed in agriculture and iron tools were used in the quarries and in construction.
The minor arts, especially that of goldsmiths, continued to develop and reached high levels of achievement. The elephant had great significance in Meroe, particularly in Musawwarat es-Sufra where it was frequently represented in relief and sculpture. A significant change took place at the beginning of the Meroitic Period: typical Napatan (bright red) ceramics disappeared entirely. A new black polished ware is found in royal burials beginning around 300 BC.
International trade did not pass through Meroe, which lay to the side of 2 main trade routes connecting Egypt with the Far East [the overland route through Arabia and the overseas passage across the Red Sea]. Direct trade with Meroe was important for Egypt and so was the trade with central Africa states that passed through Meroe en route to Egypt. To Egypt, Meroe exported gold, ivory, iron, ostrich feathers and other products of the African interior; it also provided Egypt with slaves.
The major period for construction of the Musawwarat es-Sufra began after 300 BC with the erection of temples on artificial terraces within the Great Enclosure. This site is located in a natural basin five or six miles in width surrounded by hills in the Sudan. Musawwarat es-Sufra was an important center for pilgrims who came to celebrate the periodic festivals held there for the local gods. The numerous elephant representations may possibly suggest that elephants were trained here (for military and ceremonial purposes) and the large enclosures may have been designed to herd them in. There are several one-room temples dedicated to the native gods.
The Meroitic script has a cursive and more rarely used hieroglyphic form. Despite the individual characters being derived from Egyptian demotic script and hieroglyphs, the Meroitic system of writing differs fundamentally from that of the Egyptian. The complicated Egyptian system was reduced to a simple alphabet of 23 symbols. In contrast to Egyptian script and most Semitic systems of writing, Meroitic script includes vowel notations. From the 2nd century BC on, the Meroitic language was almost employed exclusively as the written language as well. Since there are no bilingual inscriptions to provide us with access to Meriotic, we understand very little of the language.
The history of the Meriotic Kingdom of Kush can be divided into the following stages:
(A) Transitional Stage 310-270 BC----
It was assumed that the Kingdom of Kush was at this time divided into a northern (Napatan) territory with its capital at Napata and a southern (Meriotic) territory with its capital at Meroe. There is a greater emphasis on Amun of Napata as a traditional god. In their cartouches, all the rulers of this period add to their own names the epithet “beloved of Amun.”
(B) Early Meroitic Period 270-90 BC---
The influence of the priests of Amun came to an end with the transfer of the royal cemetery to Meroe. Arkakemani is the first king to have his pyramid erected near Meroe. The first 3 rulers of the Meroitic Period assumed throne names modeled upon rulers of the Egyptian Dynasty XXVI. During the reign of King Tanyidamani (110-90 BC), the oldest datable text of significant length written in the Meroitic language is found on a stela containing a detailed government report and temple endowments. Henceforth, Meroitic hieroglyphs were increasingly used and soon replaced Egyptian writing altogether.
(C) Middle Meroitic Period 90 BC~0 AD---
The 1st century BC can in many ways be regarded as a golden age; the height of Meroitic power. The strong concentration of reigning queens in this period is striking. A small group of pyramids at Gebel Barkal can be dated to the 1st century BC. Increasing Meroitic activity in Lower Nubia is evident and this eventually lead to a military confrontation with the Romans. According to reports by the Greek geographer Strabo, Roman troops had advanced as far south as Napata. However, a peace agreement with Roman (Ptolemaic Egypt) was met and lasted until the end of the 3rd century AD. Only the Emperor Nero in 64 AD planned a campaign to Meroe, but it was never executed.
(D) Late Meroitic Period 0 AD~320 AD---
This period began with King Natakami (0-20 AD). He managed to introduce a new smaller size pyramid and a new kind of chapel decoration. Natakami also carried out renovations for old temples and built new ones. Given the sparsity of surviving monuments, we are forced to conclude that the summit of power achieved by King Natakami could not be maintained in the years following his reign. There are very few observable decisive changes within this period and it is generally regarded as marking the decline and fall of the Meroitic Kingdom. Yet, there is no evidence of impoverishment and the economy worked fine.
Causes for the decline of the Meroitic Kingdom are still largely unknown. Among the various factors put forth are: soil erosion due to overgrazing; excessive consumption of wood for iron production; abandonment of trade routes along the Nile. There were also constant battles with nomads on both sides of the Nile Valley. The Kingdom of Meroe ended in the first half of the 4th century AD.