Qasr Ibrim and Meroitic Lower Nubia

January 16th, 2018

Location, areas examined and chronological framework

Lower Nubia is a large area located between the First and Second Cataract of the River Nile, in today’s borders between Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan (1). It is part of Nubia, a larger geographical entity that spreads further south than the Second Cataract, into the modern Republic of Sudan (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Modern map of Nubia with ancient Lower Nubia highlighted (Adaptation from Google Maps)

The inhabitants of Nubia were known to the classical writers (e.g. Herodotus) as ‘the Ethiopians’, the people with the burnt faces (Welsby 2002; Shinnie, 1967). These indigenous populations were considered a different ethnic group to the Egyptians (Smith, 2003) and they were under their control during the periods of the Middle (c. 2000-1700 BC) and the New Kingdom (c. 1580-1100 BC) (Shinnie, 1967; Welsby 1998; Leclant, 1997). The first indigenous Nubian state that we know of, the Kingdom of Kush, arose sometime before c. 750 BC with its capital at Napata. Chronologically, the period between c. 750 BC and c. 300 BC in the Kingdom of Kush is described as the Napatan period.

Edwards (2004, 143) suggests that according to archaeological evidence the ‘Ethiopian’ capital moved to Meroe sometime around c. 300 BC, and it became the centre of a very powerful state, the so-called Meroitic Empire. The period between c. 300 BC and c. AD 350 is described as the Meroitic period in the Kingdom of Kush. The reasons for moving the Nubian capital from Napata to Meroe have not been fully elucidated. Religious aspects seem to have played a major role (Edwards, 2004; Welsby 1998). Even though the term ‘Meroitic Empire’ is well established in modern research, Welsby (1998, 37) discusses the uncertainty of the monolithic nature of Meroitic administration and argues that the area between Meroe and the northern frontiers was directly controlled by the king through his administrative system, while the periphery might have been controlled by local rulers in a state of confederacy with the central administration at Meroe.

Little is known about the Meroitic Empire and its relations with Ptolemaic Egypt (Shinnie, 1967, Edwards, 2004, Welsby, 1998). After the death of Alexander, the Macedonian Dynasty founded by Ptolemy expanded its control as far as Maharraqa, the Hellenistic city of Hiera Sykaminos that was located 12 schoenoi (about 120 km) south of Aswan. This area was known as the Dodekaschoinos (Welsby, 1998, 65-66). Welsby (1998, 66) argues that no evidence suggests any direct conflict between the Ptolemies and the Meroites. In other cases it has been assumed that such Ptolemaic control over Dodekaschoinos never actually existed (Adams, 1977, 335). Adams (1985, 10) verifies that level 5 in Qasr Ibrim contains fortification constructions attributed to a Ptolemaic occupation of the fort timed between 100 BC and 30 BC . However, Horton (1991, 268) argues that the absence of Ptolemaic pottery in Qasr Ibrim casts some doubts on the duration and effectiveness of the Ptolemaic control in Lower Nubia. Some kind of disturbance is recorded during the reign of Ptolemy V, who ordered the defacement of Arkamani’s name from every inscription at Philae (Welsby, 1998, 67). Arkell (1961, 159) and Haycock (1972, 233) suggest that this act was connected with some Nubian revolt in Upper Egypt during the reign of Arkamani.

After the defeat of Cleopatra by Octavian in 33 BC, Egypt passed under Roman control (Jackson, 2002). During the Roman period, troops occupied most of the sites in Lower Nubia by building new settlements or by re-occupying Pharaonic and Ptolemaic forts. Between Syene (modern Aswan) and Hiera Sykaminos there were at least ten major Roman settlements. Smaller Roman military camps have been identified throughout Lower Nubia: two at Philae, one at Dakka, one at Qertassi, two north of Qasr Ibrim and one at Mirgissa, close to the Second Cataract (Jackson, 2002, 134). Other forts may have existed at Batn al Hajar and as far as the Third Cataract (Welsby, 1998, 69). The first contact between the Meroites and the Romans is recorded in several triumphal inscriptions at Philae, mentioning that the first prefect of Egypt, Cornelius Gallus, stopped a revolt that took place in the Egyptian Thebaid, took the Meroitic king under Roman protection and appointed another local governor (Edwards, 2004, 145). According to historical sources, from the first century BC until the early fourth century AD, Lower Nubia was a place of constant conflicts between the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Kush (Edwards, 2004). Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding areas seem to have played a major role in these conflicts.

Qasr Ibrim and the history of the Romano-Meroitic conflicts

Qasr Ibrim is an ancient fortress and one of the few surviving sites in today’s Lower Nubia (Figure 2). The site is a fortified hilltop settlement that covers an area of two hectares. It is located 100km south of Maharraqa (Hiera Sykaminos) and 230km south of Aswan (Syene) (2). Before the filling of Lake Nasser, it stood on top of a 75m bluff, overlooking the Nile valley (Adams, 1983, 93-95; Jackson, 2002, 143). Its first defences have been dated to the eleventh or early tenth century BC by radiocarbon dating of the chaff in their mud bricks. It is completely uncertain who constructed these defences; however, they clearly pre-date the arrival of the Kushites in the area (Welsby, 1998, 46). Qasr Ibrim used to belong to the cultural zone of the Napatan Kingdom and passed under Meroitic control after the third century BC (Edwards, 2004).

Figure 2: Qasr Ibrim and its surrounding area highlighted (Adaptation from Google Maps)

Apart from being an important fort on the frontiers of Egypt, Qasr Ibrim was an important religious centre of the Meroitic cult. The first temple within the fortress was built by King Taharqo during the seventh century BC (Welsby, 1998, 119) and by the end of the Meroitic period there were seven temples on the site along with the so-called podium (Welsby, 1998, 143). Apart from Taharqo’s temple, most of the other temples date to the earlier centuries of the Napatan period, when the military character of the site had lapsed. Horton (1991, 273-273) suggests that during this period the settlement operated as a pilgrim centre.

The earliest historical mention of Qasr Ibrim is in Strabo, under the name 'Premmis'. Evidently, the name is a latinisation of the Nubian toponym Pedeme (Adams, 1991, 4), which also appears on Meroitic funerary stelae of about the same period (Griffith, 1929, 71). In 25/24 BC, during the absence of Aelius Gallus on his campaign in Arabia, the 'Ethiopians' surprised the Roman garrisons and took over Syene (Aswan), Elephantine and Philae. In retaliation, the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, set out with less than 10,000 infantry and 800 cavalry, against 30,000 Meroites, and recovered the three cities. After chasing the enemy further south into Nubia, he reached the fortified city Premmis and captured it at the first attempt. Petronius’ campaign reached as far as Napata, where he attacked the city and razed it to the ground. On his return he stopped at Premmis, he improved the fortifications and installed a garrison of 400 men with enough provisions for two years. Even though Queen Kandake marched against the garrisons of Premmis with thousands of men, Petronius managed to return to the fort before the arrival of the enemy and to thoroughly secure the area. Ambassadors of Kandake were sent for negotiations and Petronius escorted them to the Greek island of Samos, where Caesar Augustus was stationed at the time. Peace between the Romans and the Meroites was established right after the negotiations of the so-called 'Treaty of Samos' (Shinnie, 1967; Edwards, 2004; Welsby, 1998). From that moment on, Premmis is recorded as the furthest southern point of the Roman Empire in Egypt (Edwards 2004; Welsby 1998).

Strabo implies that the Roman garrisons occupied Qasr Ibrim for two years and after that, the fort passed again to the hands of the Meroites. However, excavations at Qasr Ibrim revealed different phases of construction in the fort, most of which related to a continuous and long-term Roman occupation of the settlement (Adams, 1996, 4). The presence of the Roman army in the fortress has been verified by various archaeological evidence, mainly from the excavated areas of the South Rampart Street (Alexander, 1988; James & Taylor, 1994; Adams et al., 1983, Wilkins et al., 2006). For example, the 1980 excavation revealed large concentrations of river cobbles that were used as sling ammunition, which carried weight inscriptions in both Latin and Greek (Wilkins et al., 2006). Furthermore, Adams (1985) employs other archaeological evidence to argue that the Roman occupation at Qasr Ibrim pre-dates Petronius’ campaign in 25/24 BC. The Roman presence in the area has also been verified by the recovery of two other Roman military camps at a distance less than 1km north of Qasr Ibrim (Horton, 1991; Welsby 1998; Edwards 2004). A third Roman camp has been located 100km upstream, at the area of Mirgissa. However, it is not certain whether or not these sites date to the same period, and furthermore, archaeological evidence does not clearly support that the Roman penetration advanced beyond the Second Cataract (Török, 1989; Welsby, 1998).

After Strabo, Seneca and Pliny record expeditions of Emperor Nero in Lower Nubia (Alexander, 1988, 78). Welsby (1998, 70) suggests that during these eighty years between the Treaty of Samos and Nero’s campaigns, various political changes in Rome dictated a different external policy towards the Empire’s neighbours. Instead of maintaining a system of client kingdoms that secured the Empire’s frontiers, a new system of direct military control was applied to Rome’s enemies by Nero and his successors. A small papyrus fragment of unknown origin, dated perhaps to the late first century AD, informs us of an engagement between the Meroites and a unit of Roman cavalry under a certain Rufus. Cassius Dio mentions that Emperor Septimius Severus was on the southern frontier in AD 200, yet he never crossed it because of the pestilence (Welsby, 1998, 70-71). The prefect and some senior officers of Legio II Traiana Fortis are recorded in military activities in southern Nubia in a letter sent sometime after AD 247, perhaps from Qasr Ibrim (Kirwan, 1977, 24). Two Meroitic kings of the third century AD are recorded at Philae. The first inscription, dated in AD 253, mentions King Tqrrm, who has been identified as King Teqerideamani. The second inscription mentions King ‘Yesbokheamani’, who is also recorded at Qasr Ibrim. It has been suggested that his reign was between AD 283 and AD 300, a very likely date for the Meroitic reoccupation of Qasr Ibrim after Diocletian’s withdrawal to Aswan in AD 298 (Török, 1989, 26; Welsby, 1998, 70; Welsby, 2002, 15).

After the reoccupation of Qasr Ibrim, a major commercial settlement grew up inside the fortified hilltop. The commercial development of the area was accompanied by a large population increase, probably resulting because of the new agricultural potential that was brought along with the saqia wheel (Adams, 1981, 5). The new populations seem to have arrived from the Northern and Western provinces of Kush and they might have been the ones who spoke an early version of the language that is still spoken today in Lower Nubia (Adams, 1982, 11-38).

Unfortunately, it is not clear when the Meroites regained control of the fort. Welsby (2002, 15) suggests that even though the Kushite state was going through its terminal stage during the third century AD, it was still the major power in the Middle Nile and it was strong enough to reassert its control over the area. Adams (1981, 5) suggests that archaeological evidence shows clearly that Qasr Ibrim was reoccupied by the middle of the second century AD. The new occupants neglected the fortifications and started restoring and enlarging the religious installations (Adams, 1991, 5). During the second and third centuries AD a large number of Meroitic inscriptions at Philae and other settlements in Lower Nubia indicate visits from a large number of Kushite pilgrims (Burkhardt, 1985). Edwards (2004, 158) argues that there is a virtual absence of datable textual evidence from that period in Dodekaschoinos and he suggests that archaeological evidence indicates a decline in activity at Qasr Ibrim, probably in the second century AD. Until then, it is possible that the Romans used Qasr Ibrim for a long period as a military and diplomatic outpost to apply control and to state their presence in the area, even though the Meroitic influence was dominant over the rest of Lower Nubia over that time (Adams, 1983; Wilkins et al, 2006; Jackson, 2002).


  1. For names and locations of the Nile's cataracts see Welsby (1998, 10).
  2. For names of places around Qasr Ibrim see Adams (1996, 2).