The Economic and Political Organization of Meroe, Nubia
Economically and politically the kingdom of Meroe was quite distinct from Egypt. The economy was not based primarily upon the kind of irrigated floodplain agriculture practiced in Egypt. The extent of floodplain south of the second cataract was too narrow to support a large population. But living just within the northern boundary of the summer rainfall zone, the Meroites could grow their tropical cereals in extensive fields away from the river's edge. This pattern of agricultural production influenced the social and political organization of Meroitic society.
The cattle-herders and peasant cultivators, who made up the vast majority of Meroe's population, were spread out over a wide area. They lived in mud and reed houses, clustered in small rural villages and ruled over by minor chiefs and heads of family clans. As such they appear to have been under less direct political control than their counterparts in the floodplain regions of the Egyptian Nile. They probably paid their taxes in the form of annual tribute to the king rather than the kind of detailed pre-assessed taxation demanded by Egyptian government officials. Cattle were grazed over a wide extent of savannah grassland to the east and west of Meroe. Herdsmen were semi-nomadic, moving their animals between summer and winter pastures. They probably had a fair degree of political freedom from central government control, provided they paid in annual tribute in livestock.
The rulers, their government officials and full-time craftsmen, lived in the towns, of which the principal one was Meroe itself. Politically the king ruled as an all-powerful, absolute monarch, but there appears to have been a greater element of consent by the people than ever existed in Ancient Egypt. Through the choice of monarch came from within a single royal family, succession was not automatic. It required the agreement of the nobility and the final approval of the priesthood. An unpopular monarch was occasionally removed. The mother of the king was also an important figure in the government, which may have helped maintain stability and continuity from one reign to the next.

The personal wealth of the Meroitic kings came from their control of trade. The main exports from the kingdom were the products of mining and hunting. Both of these activities came under the direct control of the king. Hunting expeditions, armed with iron weapons, penetrated deep into the grasslands and woodlands to the south in search of elephants, ostriches and leopards. The hunters formed the basis of a standing army, and elephants were used in war. Indeed trained elephants from Meroe were exported to Egypt for use in the Egyptian army.

The principal industrial craft in Meroe was smelting of iron and the making of iron tools. To this day the huge mounds of waste slag from their smelting furnaces rise up alongside the modern railway to bear witness to the enormous iron output of the ancient kingdom of Meroe. Iron provided the farmers and hunters of Meroe with superior tools and weapons. The development and use of iron was thus partly responsible for the very success, growth and wealth of the Meroite kingdom.
G. Mokhtar, Ancient Civilizations of Africa, 1990, pp. 179-180:
Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, 1995, pp. 43-43:
Gold jackal, Meroe, ca. 1st c. B.C.
British Museum
Head of god Imseti from canopic
jar of King Tanutamani.
664-653 B.C.
Meroitic Period, about 100 B.C.
Hinged bracelet of gold with enamel decoration
Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts
The eastern desert was rich in various precious and semi-precious stones such as amethyst, carbuncle, hyacinth, chrysolith, beryl and others. Even if these mines were not all controlled by the Meroitic kingdom, in the last resort all their products went through Meroitic trade channels, and so increased the fame of Meroe as one of the richest countries in the ancient world.

Crafts and Trade

The Meroitic towns were also important centers of craft and trade. The existing evidence indicates a high technological and artistic level of crafts. Although in the earlier period Egyptian influence is unmistakable, from the third century before the Christian era, Meroitic craftsmen and artists created a highly original and independent artistic tradition.

Pottery is the best-known of all the products of the Meroitic civilization and owes its fame to its quality both of texture and of decoration. There are two distinct traditions: the hand-made pottery made by women which shows a remarkable continuity of form and style and reflects a deep-rooted African tradition, and the wheel-turned ware made by men which is more varied and responsive to stylistic changes.

Jewellery was another highly developed craft. It has been found in considerable quantities, mostly in royal tombs. As with other artifacts, the earlier jewellery was closely modeled on Egyptian styles and only later examples are characteristically Meroitic in style and ornamentation. The main materials were gold, silver and semi-precious stones, and the range of artifacts goes from plaques to necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings and finger-rings.

Cabinet-makers produced various kinds of furniture, especially beds, but also wooden caskets, strong-boxes and even musical instruments. Weavers made cotton and linen textiles. Tanners processed hides and leather.

All this indicates that in Meroe there existed a comparatively large class of craftsmen to which belonged also artists, architects and sculptors. How these crafts were organized is so far unknown, as the names of crafts in Meroitic inscriptions remain undeciphered.

The Kingdom of Kush formed an ideal extrepot for the caravan routes between the Red Sea, the Upper Nile and the Nile-Chad savannah. It is therefore not surprising that foreign trade played an important role in the Meroitic economy as well as in its politics. Foreign trade was directed mainly to Egypt and the Mediterranean world and later perhaps to southern Arabia. The chief trade route went along the Nile, although in some parts it crossed the savannah, for instance, between Meroe and Napata, and Napata and Lower Nubia. The Island of Meroe must have been crisscrossed by many caravan routes and it was also the starting-point for caravans to the Red Sea region, northern Ethiopia, Kordofan and Darfur. The control of this large network of routes was a constant worry to the Meroitic kings, for the nomadic peoples very often raided the caravans. The rulers built fortresses at strategic points in the Bajude steppe - between Meroe and Napata, for instance - to protect the trade routes and also dug wells along them.

Kush (Nubia) Mineral Resources:

During antiquity the Kingdom of Kush, it is said, was one of the richest countries of the known world. This was due more to the mineral wealth of the border lands to the east of the Nile than to the core of the kingdom itself.

Kush was one of the main gold-producing areas in the ancient world. Gold was mined between the Nile and the Red Sea, mostly in the part to the north of the eighteenth parallel, where traces of ancient mining are to be found. Excavations at Meroe and Musawwarat es-Sufra have revealed temples with walls and statues covered by gold leaf. Gold and its export not only were one of the main sources of the wealth and greatness of the kingdom, but greatly influenced foreign relations with Egypt and Rome. It has been computed that during antiquity Kush produced about 51,440,000 ounces of pure gold, worth about $22 billion at todays value.
Plaster, pigment

Thebes, Tomb of Huy, TT54


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