The Ancient Egyptians

Adam Ashcroft

Sitting on the east bank of the Nile between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, Meroe seems to have been an important royal residence since the eighth century BC. But when the Napatan kings decided to move the burial place of royalty to Meroe in the third century BC, it greatly strengthened the importance of the city. The kings brought with them, the influences of the Egyptian religions, merging them with the strong roots of the Meroitic religion. Also added into the mix was a Graeco-Roman influence and possibly, due to the opening of more trade routes to the east, an Asian influence.

Because we still do not fully understand the Meroitic language, our limited understanding of the religion of Meroe is mainly taken from the relief's on the walls of their temples. Not being the builders of many structures, further limits our knowledge. However, from what we do know, the Meroitic religion was, on the face of it, similar to the Ancient Egyptian religion. They incorporated Egyptian gods, as well as having indigenous gods of their own. The iconography was also similar, again adapting to suit their religion.

Major and Minor gods

The general iconography of the relief's of the Nubian portraits, suggest that the Nubians attempted to emulate the Egyptian style. The figures are shown full shoulder on, as in the Egyptian style and the heads are turned to the side. The arms and legs are always shown as large and muscular - the Egyptian style is more in proportion and shows thinner arms and legs. Nubian reliefs also generally show Egyptian style of dress, but this is sometimes adapted to include the dress of the Nubians. Sometimes the iconography showed a Hellenistic influence as well as an Asian influence, but this is still an argued point.

The main Egyptian export was undoubtedly Amun, or Amani in the Meroitic tongue. He was so important that Amani was present in many of the kings names. A temple built for the deity at Gebel Barkal by Tuthmosis III of the 18th Dynasty, first introduced Amun to the Nubians. Tuthmosis probably chose this place because the unusually shaped feature of the rock looks like a rearing cobra [uraeus]. The Napatan Nubian kings seem to have held a special regard for Amun because all of the temples dedicated to him were built during the Napatan Period, with the exception of one built at Meroe. Temples were built at Amada by Tuthmosis III, at Soleb by Amenhotep III, at Gebel Barkal by Horemheb and at Abu Simbel by Ramesses II. There were also temples at Argo Island and Kawa.

When the kings of Egypt lost control of Nubia, the cult of Amun was so ingrained into the lives of the Nubians, that the local population and priests, continued to uphold the worship of this deity. When Amun was incorporated into the Meroitic religion, he seems to have been reduced to an equal standing with the king and other deities. An excellent example of this can be seen at the 'Lion Temple' in Naga where King Natakamani can be seen facing Apedemak, then Horus and then the ram-headed, Amun. Also shown in this relief, was a change from the traditional dress of the Egyptian king to that of the Meroitic traditions of a long robe with a sash draped over the right shoulder.

Local variations of the cult of Amun also appeared. Amun of Napata was a rearing cobra [uraeus]. Amun of Pnubs is shown on seals as a crouched ram under a leaning nebes tree. Amun of Meroe was associated with crocodiles on bronze seals. Amun of Gem-Aten (Kawa) was depicted as ram-headed and accompanied by the goddesses Anuket and Satjet. Amun-Re the Bull of Nubia was to be found at Sanam. Amun was very rarely shown in human form.

When the capital was moved to Meroe from Napata, the cult of Amun does not seem to have made as big an impression in the southern part of Nubia. The lion-god of war - Apedemak, seems to have kept his standing as the supreme deity in the southern part of Nubia. This was probably because Apedemak was a deep rooted, indigenous deity, primarily worshipped in the south. There is however, some evidence of worship to this deity in the north. In Dabod, just above the First Cataract of the Nile, a chapel dedicated to Isis has an inscription in which King Adikhalamani calls himself 'Beloved of Apedemak'. There is no evidence of Apedemak in Egyptian culture and so he must therefore be indigenous to Nubia. His main sanctuary was at Musawwarat es-Sufra in the Butana sands, just north of the Sixth Cataract. Here, the elephant seems to have been held in high regard here, judging by the relief's of kings riding the animals as well as statues of elephants at the 'Great Enclosure'. Elephants were used for military purposes and seem to have had a religious significance - what significance they played is not understood. Some sources have suggested that the 'Great Enclosure' was for capturing, rearing and trading elephants.

Apedemak was depicted as anthropomorphic to the shoulders with a lions head and dressed in classic Egyptian attire. He is also shown holding a sceptre with a seated lion on top of the handle. He is also shown wearing the 'hem-hem' crown - the crown of the Egyptian god Re-Harakhty. His wig has the curls of a lions mane with the depiction of a falcon on the back. Sometimes, Apedemak is shown in complete leonine form. At the temple of Naga, Apedemak is shown in some unusual relief's, prompting the belief of Asian or Indian influence. This is probable because of the opening of trade routes to Asia. Although mainly shown as a solar god and a god of war, he was also a lunar god and a god of vegetation, and this coupled with Isis being his consort, shows his close connections with Osiris.

At the south east border of Meroe, at Gebel Qeili, is a depiction of King Shorkaror receiving gifts of millet, sorghum and slaves from a Hellenised version of the god Apedemak. The human face is full frontal, but has certain lion-like features.

Arensnuphis was an anthropomorphic Nubian deity who wore the double plumed crown which was worn by the Egyptian deity - Onuris.He is shown wearing a long skirt rather than the Egyptian short kilt. At Musawwarat, he shown carrying a dead antelope over his shoulders. His companion was Sebiumeker and colossal statues of the pair are at some Meroitic temples in Musawwarat and Meroe. There is a temple dedicated to him on the island of Philae. This was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator. One of the only things that we can work out from the inscriptions is that he was a companion of Isis.There is also a representation of Arensnuphis on a wall at the Dendur Temple originally situated on the First Cataract on the Nile. Here, he accompanies Peteese and Pihor, who were the local deified heroes. His companion, Sebiumeker, was an anthropomorphic deity of procreation who was shown wearing the false Egyptian royal beard and kilt. His crown was the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Isis was another Egyptian deity who was incorporated into the Nubian religion and was frequently represented on reliefs in Meroitic Nubia, especially at Meroe and Wad ben Naqa. She also had a temple dedicated to her at Philae during the 26th Dynasty which became a major centre of pilgrimage, not only for the Meroites but also for other Nubian groups such as the Blemmyes. The 30th Dynasty pharaohs increased the size of the temple because of their particular devotion to the goddess. The temple has been relocated on the neighbouring island of Agilqiya. This temple also had the distinction of outliving all other Egyptian temples as a place of worship. Isis had a strong influence during the Greek Ptolemaic period and gained great popularity during the time of the Romans. Although her popularity was great in Northern Nubia, her presence was not felt as much in the south of the Meroitic kingdom - probably because of the deep rooted religious traditions of southern Nubia. Isis is normally depicted in typical Egyptian dress with her protecting wings. Her companion on most reliefs in Nubia was Osiris.

Osiris was shown in typical Egyptian attire and as he was the god of the dead in Egypt, appeared as a funerary deity with Isis, Nephthys and Anubis. The funerary offering tables that frequently depicted these gods, were Nubian in style but the iconography and theology was undoubtedly Egyptian, although it does not seem as though the Egyptian religion was fully understood.

Another important deity which seems to be indigenous to Nubia, was Dedwen, who was an anthropomorphic deity who presided over the access to resources such as incense. He is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts as Dedwen, Lord of Nubia. There is an association with royalty in which he is seen burning incense at royal births. Tuthmosis III built temples in Nubia at el-Lessiya and Uronarti. No evidence of a cult for Dedwen exists above Aswan.

Hathor was shown in typical Egyptian style and was accompanied by Horus at Musawwarat as well as other temples. Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge was also depicted at Musawwarat as well as being worshipped at the temple of Dakka. Bes, the dwarf god of the Egyptian household was represented in his typical Egyptian style with a grotesque lion-like face. At Gebel Barkal, there are huge statues of Bes at the Birth House chapel of the 25th Dynasty. Amulets and small plaques were found at Meroe which show Bes as a protective deity. Kheperi, in the form of a scarab beetle, is depicted pushing the sun over the horizon at day break.

Votive offerings and protective amulets, which were generally made of faience, were also used by the Meroites. These came in the typical Egyptian form of wadjet eyes - the Eye of Horus, the ankh - the sign of life, [which was frequently used on Meroitic fine ware pottery], the wd sceptre, the sistrum - an Egyptian musical instrument, and the upraised arms of the ka sign.

Temples in Nubia

Meroitic temples are few in number. They can however, be separated into two distinct types. One is Egyptian in style and is referred to as the 'Amun Temple'. The other is a more simple affair and is called the 'Lion Temple'.

The Lion Temples are mainly found in the southern part of the Meroitic kingdom in Musawwarat, Basa and Naqa - Naqa being the best preserved. The main dedication is to the principal Nubian deity - Apedemak. Although they seem to be indigenous, the temples have an Egyptian styled pylon which opens onto a simple open courtyard surrounded by four or six columns, which may or may not have supported a roof structure - Bill Adams states that the columns supported a flat, timbered roof. Sometimes the sanctuary was partitioned off inside the temple walls and in a few, a walled forecourt was built outside the temple pylons. Even though different deities were on the walls of these temples, the principal deity is always Apedemak. The canon and styles are in Egyptian style, but have Meroitic influences. The main influence is the muscular arms and legs, which are not in proportion to the body or head. Even the female representations are 'muscular'.

The Amun Temples are more grandiose affairs and there are more of this style of temple than the Lion Temple. Typically Egyptian, they are similar in design, of the cult temples in Egypt. Nearly all of the Amun Temples were built during the Napatan Period - only the temple at Meroe seems to have been built during the Meroitic Period. This shows the decline of the cult of Amun in Nubia, after the kingship returned to its native Egypt.

The Nubian kings also borrowed the concept of being buried beneath the shape of a pyramid - albeit on a smaller scale and with some variations. The Egyptians built their pyramids during the years of the rule of the king and when the king died, he was buried, via a tunnel, under or in the pyramid structure. The Nubian burial was different. When the king died, he was buried in the ground and only then, was the pyramid structure erected above him. The reliefs on the walls of the adjoining chapels, which were in design, very similar but smaller than the lion-temple, show strong Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife. The bodies were mummified and covered in the usual burial regalia but there is an absence of the use of shabti figures, who are to serve the king in the afterlife. Instead of these, the Nubians reverted back to the old African concept of retainer sacrifice, although this was not on the scale of the Kerma culture. The chapels contained libation and offering tables as well as a funerary stela. On these were the usual standard formula addressed to Isis and Osiris. On the libation tables were depictions of Anubis and Nephthys.

As the iconography, religious ideas and many depicted Egyptian gods shows, the Nubian religion was massively influenced by the religion of their neighbours. When the Napatan Nubian kings entered Egypt as pharaohs, they saw the impressive religious monuments and their inscriptions and decided to bring back the power of the Egyptian religious belief with them into Nubia to reinforce their status of kingship on the people. This influence stayed with the Nubians, and even though they did not fully understand the Egyptian religion, it became ingrained into their religious beliefs. As time went by, the Egyptian influence was reduced or partly forgotten and a more Meroitic influence became apparent. The Egyptian influence was still apparent albeit in a 'watered down' version. The strength of the indigenous African deity Apedemak, further pushed back the influences of Egyptian religion, especially in the south of Nubia.

We still do not understand the Meroitic religion. Until we fully learn to read the writings of the culture of Meroe, much of the religion will remain an enigma.

 Adam Ashcroft


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Comparing the religions of Meroe and Ancient Egypt