Egypt's succeeding dynasty failed to reassert control over Cush.
In 590 B.C., however, an Egyptian army sacked Napata, compelling
the Cushite court to move to a more secure location at Meroe near
the sixth cataract. For several centuries thereafter, the Meroitic
kingdom developed independently of Egypt, which passed successively
under Persian, Greek, and, finally, Roman domination. During the
height of its power in the second and third centuries B.C., Meroe
extended over a region from the third cataract in the north to
Sawba, near present-day Khartoum, in the south.
The pharaonic tradition persisted among a line of rulers at Meroe,
who raised stelae to record the achievements of their reigns and
erected pyramids to contain their tombs. These objects and the
ruins of palaces, temples, and baths at Meroe attest to a centralized
political system that employed artisans' skills and commanded
the labor of a large work force. A well-managed irrigation system
allowed the area to support a higher population density than was
possible during later periods. By the first century B.C., the
use of hieroglyphs gave way to a Meroitic script that adapted
the Egyptian writing system to an indigenous, Nubian-related language
spoken later by the region's people. Meroe's succession system
was not necessarily hereditary; the matriarchal royal family member
deemed most worthy often became king. The queen mother's role
in the selection process was crucial to a smooth succession. The
crown appears to have passed from brother to brother (or sister)
and only when no siblings remained from father to son.
Although Napata remained Meroe's religious center, northern Cush
eventually fell into disorder as it came under pressure from the
Blemmyes, predatory nomads from east of the Nile. However, the
Nile continued to give the region access to the Mediterranean
world. Additionally, Meroe maintained contact with Arab and Indian
traders along the Red Sea coast and incorporated Hellenistic and
Hindu cultural influences into its daily life. Inconclusive evidence
suggests that metallurgical technology may have been transmitted
westward across the savanna belt to West Africa from Meroe's iron
Relations between Meroe and Egypt were not always peaceful. In
23 B.C., in response to Meroe's incursions into Upper Egypt, a
Roman army moved south and razed Napata. The Roman commander quickly
abandoned the area, however, as too poor to warrant colonization.
In the second century A.D., the Nobatae occupied the Nile's west
bank in northern Cush. They are believed to have been one of several
well-armed bands of horse- and camel-borne warriors who sold protection
to the Meroitic population; eventually they intermarried and established
themselves among the Meroitic people as a military aristocracy.
Until nearly the fifth century, Rome subsidized the Nobatae and
used Meroe as a buffer between Egypt and the Blemmyes. Meanwhile,
the old Meroitic kingdom contracted because of the expansion of
Axum, a powerful Abyssinian state in modern Ethiopia to the east.
About A.D. 350, an Axumite army captured and destroyed Meroe city,
ending the kingdom's independent existence.
Data as of June 1991