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Meroe: burial traditions at the edge of Hellenism

Francigny Vincent 1, 2
2 OM-MP - Équipe Mondes pharaoniques
SU - Sorbonne Université, OM - ORIENT ET MÉDITERRANÉE : Textes, Archéologie, Histoire
Abstract : Before the kingdom was re-discovered at the beginning of the 19th century by the first European travellers that entered Nubia following the army of Mehemet Ali, Meroe only appeared in the historical tradition via descriptions and myths that survived through copies of ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic literature. Among them, a few texts address the question of the religion and the burial traditions followed by the Kushites in the middle Nile valley. As early as the 5th century BC, Herodotus, who investigated the origins of the Greco-Persian wars, delivered an important set of information regarding the populations and the geography of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean world, including Meroe. Though he personally never went farther than the island of Elephantine (now in the middle of the modern town of Aswan) at the bottom of Egypt, he is said to have interviewed two emissaries, so-called “spies”, sent to the Meroitic kingdom by the king Cambyses. Therefore, we find in his Histories the first account on Meroitic funerary practices, where Meroites bury their dead in a sort of glass coffin that allows seeing the body, kept at home for the first year following the death. Though the report is unlikely true, it remained in the literature for a few hundred years, as it reappears in the description made around the 2nd century BC by Agatharchides of Cnidus, when cited by Diodorus in his Bibliotheca Historica. Around the beginning of our era, though contacts between Meroe and the external world are numerous, the myth of the glass coffin can still be found in Strabo’s Geography. This shows how a large kingdom dominating the middle Nile valley and a substantial part of the trade with the rest of the African continent was also, somehow, part of the unknown margins of the Mediterranean world. Paradoxically, Hellenism impacted societies such as Meroe far beyond these borders, which can be seen notably through the lens of funerary practices.
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Contributor : Vincent Francigny <>
Submitted on : Friday, April 10, 2020 - 12:59:57 AM
Last modification on : Tuesday, January 19, 2021 - 11:08:58 AM


  • HAL Id : halshs-02539319, version 1


Francigny Vincent. Meroe: burial traditions at the edge of Hellenism. 2016. ⟨halshs-02539319⟩



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