A detailed study of the Romano-Meroitic trade in Lower Nubia

January 16th, 2018

Before understanding the scale of the Romano-Meroitic trade in Lower Nubia it is important to elucidate the existence of trading networks in the area and the transportation systems that were available during the period examined. A major factor is that these two cultural groups occupied territories that had common borders, both on land and on the waters of the River Nile. Geographically, Lower Nubia was an area located on these borders, which also match the modern borders between Egypt and Sudan. Communication would have been efficient along the River Nile, even though cataracts and rapids, floodwater and strong currents would have made sailing upstream quite a challenge. The existence of land communication networks is also likely.

Land transportation through the desert seems to have existed in Lower Nubia at that time. According to archaeological evidence, camels were present in Egypt and generally in North Africa before the beginning of the dynastic period (Ripinski, 1985, 135), even though some scholars argue that they became extinct and were re-introduced from Asia at a later date (Robinson, 1936, 65-66). The earliest evidence for the presence of domesticated camels in Lower Nubia comes from Qasr Ibrim. More specifically, camel dung recovered from the settlement was dated by radiocarbon methods to the early first millennium BC (Rowley-Conwy, 1988, 246). Unfortunately, we neither know the scale of desert transportation during the Roman period, nor the distances covered by commercial caravans. However, the practice of crossing the desert with camels seems to have been known to the Kushites at least from the period of the Assyrian invasion of Egypt in 654 BC (Arkell, 1961, 128).

Several studies stress the importance of horses in the Kushite economy. Assyrian texts mention large numbers of Kushite horses imported into the Middle East, even though further archaeological evidence is required to prove this point. Horsemen of the Kushite army are often noted on inscriptions; however, reliefs show that these soldiers were often mounted on donkeys (Welsby, 1998, 155). Wheeled vehicles appear in a number of reliefs at Meroe. However, their use is interpreted as rather ceremonial and related to the transportation of royal coffins and sacred barks (Yellin, 1990, 364). Furthermore, the only known humanly made road in Kush has been discovered a long way South of Qasr Ibrim, at Jebel Barkal (Welsby, 1998, 171).

The availability of waterways would always have affected the cost of trade in the ancient world, particularly in heavy and low value goods (Peacock, 1977; Peacock 1982; Peacock & Williams, 2007). There is no reason to doubt that similar criteria affected trade in Lower Nubia (Welsby, 1998, 170). Pliny mentions that the 'Ethiopians' transported their traded goods to Aswan by sailing the River Nile and similar activities have also been recorded on Greek inscriptions at Philae (Török, 1984, 51-53). Scholars note that the economic importance of Lower Nubia was mainly reliant upon trade, since control over the Middle Nile was equal to control of the main transportation route between the North and the South (Welsby, 1998, 12).

River transportation became less important during the Hellenistic and Roman period because of the increasing naval trade across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This large naval trade is recorded as having taken place on 'Roman' ships, while no evidence suggests that the Meroites had their own merchant fleets to conduct similar naval trade (Villiers, 1952; Juma, 1996; Tomber, 2008). In the case of Meroitic Lower Nubia nothing suggests that Roman trade along the Nile was interrupted, even though the two nations were officially in constant conflict. On the contrary, ceramic evidence indicates that Romano-Meroitic connections continued with the increase of Egyptian wine trade into Nubia, which was transported in heavy and relatively poor quality vessels (Adams, 1981 & 1986a). Welsby (2002, 190) mentions that during the medieval period, transportation by river from Debba to Aswan was feasible with the exception of the cataract districts at low water. Bearing in mind the proximity of the settlements that were located along the waterway, even though pottery can be extremely fragile, transportation may have been viable across long distances by using the settlements as middle stations (Welsby, 2002, 190). Similar transportation possibly existed during Meroitic times, even though some traded goods would have probably travelled by land for at least some part of the journey (Welsby, 1998, 171).

According to the ceramic evidence, large quantities of Egyptian vessels prove that various agricultural products reached as far as Wadi ben Naqa (Vercoutter, 1962). These exports were mainly olive oil, wine and honey (Welsby, 1998, 174). It is also possible that at the borders with Egypt some sort of foodstuff trade may have existed, even though it has been suggested that such trade never operated on a large scale (Welsby, 1998, 175). Utilitarian pottery was also imported into Kush in large quantities, mostly used for water transport. These vessels were of low value and they were traded mostly between the First and the Second Cataract (Welsby, 1998, 174). It seems that the Second Cataract was the southern limit for trading low-value goods, probably because of the higher transportation cost that was required to ship the vessels further downstream (Adams, 1973, 192).

According to the evidence above it is reasonable to assume that the strategic location of Qasr Ibrim allowed it to play the role of an important trade station. Goods from the North of Kush and the South of Egypt would have reached the local market by going through the Nile, while various other products that originated from the heartlands of Kush were possibly transported along a combination of waterways and land networks. In the case of Romano-Egyptian trade, it has been demonstrated that Lower Nubia was one of the Egyptian exportation markets, especially for the products of the Aswan region. Generally, the Egyptian trade of the Roman period was well established through a large transportation network. Trading activity has been recorded, both historically and archaeologically (Peacock, 1977; Peacock 1982; Peacock & Williams, 2007; Villiers, 1952; Juma, 1996; Tomber, 2008). The question remains whether the Meroites employed similar trade patterns or not.

The Kushite trade is difficult to evaluate because of the absence of a structured monetary economy, which existed in Egypt at that time. When bearing in mind the similarities in political organisation between Kush and Egypt, it is reasonable to assume that some sort of production existed in order to create surplus, which is necessary to maintain the royal family, the administrative machine and the army. Concerning the Meroitic Empire, opinions are quite diverse. Some scholars suggest that the local economy functioned on a redistributive basis. Agricultural surplus was produced, then collected in a form of taxation, and finally redistributed by the authorities and the king (Welsby, 1998, 173). Other scholars argue that such a system never existed. They suggest that the populations worked their land at subsistence level and no contribution or other form of obligation existed towards the state (Adams, 1981, 9).

Amongst the Meroites, there were certainly populations that could not be food producers. Welsby (1998, 173) suggests that these were the priests, the members of the army, the members of the administration, potters, builders, architects and other artisans, even though it can be argued that some of these professions could have been practised temporarily along with agricultural work and animal husbandry. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence for how these populations maintained themselves or how they were paid for their services. However, the amounts of fine pottery and other luxurious goods (both local and imported) indicate that a large portion of the population was able to purchase such items (Welsby, 1998, 173). It is interesting that the largest quantities of luxurious grave goods are found in North (Lower) Nubia, which also happens to be the area with the least efficient agricultural production of the Meroitic Empire (Welsby, 1998, 173). This paradox can possibly be attributed to a circulation of wealth through trade because of the strategic position of Lower Nubia and its close connections with the Egyptian trade centre of Aswan.

Welsby (1998, 173) stresses that in modern societies, wealth in poor areas can arrive as a result of migration activity and Vantini (1981, 129-131) notices that similar examples of wealth were brought into Lower Nubia by mercenaries who served in the Fatimid armies in Egypt during the medieval period. It is possible that during the Meroitic period Nubian immigrants might have been in a position to travel to Egypt and work there, bringing back home various luxurious items (Welsby, 1998, 173). Jackson (2002, 136) suggests that during the Roman period in Egypt (which is equivalent to the Late Meroitic period in Kush) the population of Dodekaschoinos reached its height because the gold mines and the granite quarries at Qertassi were being exploited by the Romans on a large scale (Jackson, 2002, 136). According to archaeological evidence from the area, inscriptions with names of various emperors (e.g. Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla and Gordian) indicate that the exploitation continued for a long period of time (Adams, 1977, 344). It is quite possible that Meroitic immigrants may have worked in Egyptian quarries.

Török (1989, 63) notices that the temples of Dakka and Philae were being visited by a large number of Kushite pilgrims from Lower Nubia, who presumably were able to purchase luxurious items of Egyptian origin. Apart from the high quality imported pottery at Qasr Ibrim, similar imported items are usually recovered in Nubian graves. However, the majority of these graves have been heavily looted, so the absence of other luxurious items (e.g. gold) makes it difficult to reconstruct the image of wealth in Meroitic Lower Nubia (Welsby, 1998, 174).

Edwards (1996; 2004) and Welsby (1998) suggest that Meroitic long-distance trade was probably controlled by the state, since large quantities of ostraca found in Lower Nubia may be related to trade activity and organised trading networks. Many of the ostraca relate to accounts and record-keeping, usually connected with literate members of the population that worked in an extensive administrative network (Edwards, 2004, 161-162). Adams (1981, 9) suggests that the main exported products of the Kushites were gold, ivory, slaves and possibly exotic goods from the tropics. However the quantities of these exports are difficult to estimate (Welsby, 1998, 175).

During the Napatan period most of the trade contacts probably operated inside a sort of 'embassy trade' system, where members of the local elite would exchange various goods as gifts. This practice was quite popular in the Mediterranean world at that time. It is certain that these diplomatic contacts continued during the Meroitic period, for which various textual evidence verifies that Kushite ambassadors linked the Meroitic Empire with the Ptolemies and the Romans in Egypt (Edwards, 1996). Funerary texts from eight Meroitic settlements north of the Second Cataract mention the title ‘Apote’ (meaning ‘envoy’) and sometimes more specifically ‘Apote Aromelis’ (‘envoy to the Romans’). This title has been suggested as referring to diplomatic and trading duties, and it seems to indicate regular contacts between the Meroites and the Romans (Edwards, 2004, 161-162; Haycock, 1974, 69).

Edwards (2004, 167-168) suggests that no direct historical evidence speaks of private or commercial trade between these nations. On the contrary, most of the evidence refers to long-distance exchange, mostly of items found in burials, such as wine and oil containers (amphorae and bottles), glassware, lamps, jewellery, metal vessels and others. It has been suggested that the distribution of foreign materials indicates that most of the imports were being channelled through elite or royal networks (Edwards, 2004, 167-168).

From the above, it is clear that Meroitic trade is not fully understood. Even though Egyptian and Meroitic products travelled within both lands, it is difficult to say whether free trade ever existed between the two nations. Diplomatic connections that included exchanges of various goods between the members of the Meroitic elite and the Roman administration may have indeed existed. As for other citizens of the Meroitic Empire, it appears to be likely that they had the ability to travel, earn money and purchase items from the Egyptian market, which they would then introduce back into Nubia. In both cases, it can be agreed that the populations of Lower Nubia were geographically located in an area where the contacts between the Meroites and the Romans were a lot more frequent.