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Elections in 8th Century BCE Africa: Modern approach by “Ancient” Meroe

On the eastern bank of the Nile River, about 200 km north-east of Khartoum, Sudan, resides the archeological site that contains remnants of a once flourishing civilization that left behind remains of royal palaces, temples, residential areas, manufacturing areas and even impressive pyramid fields. This archeological site unravels the mysteries of the ancient city of Meroe, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush.

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The Meroe Pyramids, Sudan
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Ruins from the Meroe archeological site, Sudan

In 785 BC, after the disintegration of the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Kushite ruling era was established in Nubia, located at the Sudanese and southern Egyptian Nile Valley. With the support of Nubian armies, the viceroys of Kush became practically independent kings, free of Egyptian control. The central city of Napata initially served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. The kings of Kush came from hereditary ruling families of Egyptianized Nubian chiefs; however, they had neither family nor political ties with Egypt. Under King Kashta’s rule, control of Upper Egypt (the southern area) was acquired, and his son Piye (750 -719 BC) managed to bring the whole of Egypt to the shores of the Mediterranean under the administration of the Kingdom of Kush. That didn’t last for long though, for in 671 BC, the Assyrians with their superior iron-forged weapons managed to drive the Kushites back to Nubia.

In the kingdom behind the barren hills that blocked the southward advance from Aswan, Kush still managed to rule the middle Nile region for another thousand years. At a time when the Egyptian culture became influenced with that of the Roman, Greek and Persian cultures, the unique Egyptian-Nubian culture of Kush was well intact and preserved. Along with that culture, Kush evolved a culture of its own as they developed their own language and cursive script (initially derived from hieroglyphics), the Meroitic language and worshiped their own gods (along with the Egyptian gods). Their wealth continued to grow from their control of the trade routes as well as the generous flow from the mines.

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Meroitic Inscription found at the Egyptian Museum, Munich, Germany

Not late after the retreat from Egypt, the capital was moved from the central Napata southward to Meroe. Just as its ties with Egypt were disappearing, the Kingdom developed new ties with the long-established African cultures farther south. The inhabitants of the Kingdom of Kush were then known as, the Ethiopians.

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A map showing the two capitals of the Kingdom of Kush, Napata and Meroe

In the city of Meroe, the distinction between royalty and commoners was a clear one. The royalty occupied two-story stone palaces, while the common people lived in small, tightly packed sun-dried brick houses. The common people were involved in a variety of manufacturing activities including iron smelting and pottery making. The royalty were buried under pyramids similar to the Egyptian ones, but smaller in size.

There was a rather peculiar aspect of the Meriotic political system that left classical authors such as Herodotus and Diodorus somewhat astonished.  At the time, the process of choosing a ruling king was commonly done via a thorough religious process conducted by priests and finalized by the king being selected by a god. The god-selected king was immediately honored in a god-like manner since to the people, the kingdom was entrusted to him by divine powers. The Meriotic political system on the other hand, chose the ruler by election, an approach that was quite innovative at that time. Napatan inscriptions give a detailed description of the procedures done and how the coronation ceremonies were conducted.

One of those accounts is that of King Amani-nete-yerike (431-405 BC). He says that, at the age of 41, he was elected by the leaders of his armies to be king. Right before his coronation, he had fought a war, and then he proceeded to Napata for the official coronation. At the royal palace in Napata, he received the crown of Ta-Sti, which officially confirmed his kingship. After that and as a matter of formality, he entered a temple for the ceremony where he addressed a statue or a shrine of the god and asked him to grant him kingship, to which the god would accept and bestow it upon him. The inscriptions and the sequence of events prove that the kingship selection process is purely based on the elections while the event of the king entering the temple was more of a ceremonial act rather than a decision-making event.

In another account by King Aspelta (593-568 BC) he says that he succeeded his brother, Anlamni, but rather than being ‘entitled’ to the kingship, he was elected among his royal brothers by a group of 24 military leaders and high civil officials. Aspelta then describes in detail the formal process of receiving his brother’s crown and entering the temple’s inner part where he found crowns and scepters of the preceding rulers.  Similar accounts are documented in steles by other kings such as Harsiotef (404- 369 BC) and Nastasen (335 -310 BC).

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Granite statue of Kushite King Aspelta

 

 

As opposed to the Pharaonic and ancient Oriental systems of kingship, where the succession would follow a father-son pattern, Napata and Meroe’s system was based on electing the most suitable ruler among the royal lineage by the high officials and army leaders. This system eliminated the possibility of having an unsuitable successor, whether due to him being a minor, being unpopular or simply being unfit to the position and the duties that came along with it, as it was the case in other Kingdoms at the time.

King Anlamani also mentioned in his accounts the important role that the queen mother played at the election and coronation ceremonies of her son, showing that not only did she have high status, but a decisive influence as well. Later on, the queen-mothers or wives began to be more actively involved in the political power that at some point, Meroe was ruled by a line of queens, known in the Meroitic language as “Candaces”. The queens also conducted a rather unfamiliar and a complex adoption system, where the mother queen would adopt the wife of her son. This system defied the stagnation of the royal lineage by injecting fresh blood into the royal family.

The Kingdom of Kush continued to prosper on many levels. A glimpse of its monumental culture and heritage can be seen through the several erected monuments and tombs. It is said that Alexander the Great tried to invade Meroe, but he turned back upon seeing the size of its army.

Under the Kushite Kings, the city of Meroe continued to flourish due to two main reasons. The first is the peaceful trading relations it had with its neighboring lands and kingdoms, and the second and most important is the unique approach to developing its political structure, which resulted in political stability that lasted for more than four centuries.

 

Bibliography

  • Fisher, Marjorie M.; Lacovara, Peter; Ikram, Salima; et al., eds. (2012). Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile. The American University in Cairo Press. ISBN 978-977-416-478-1.
  • Török, László. The Kingdom of Kush: History and Civilization. Brill. p. 49. ISBN 978-9004104488.
  • UNESCO, The General History of Africa Collection , Volume II.

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