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Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms

David N. Edwards
The Journal of African History
Vol. 39, No. 2 (1998), pp. 175-193
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/183595
Page Count: 19
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Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms
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Abstract

Most studies of the Kushite (Meroitic) kingdom of Sudan have tended to focus on its more Egyptianized cultural features, while its roots within Sudanic Africa remain poorly understood. Egyptocentric perspectives and research traditions have also tended largely to ignore the Sudanic context of the exceptionally early kingdoms that developed in the Middle Nile and their possible significance for the history of early state development in sub-Saharan Africa. Historical and anthropological studies of the power bases of later states with Sudanic Africa suggest they have a number of distinctive features. The control of exchange networks and prestige-goods, the procurement of valuables through warfare, and forms of ritual power appear crucial; the development of administrative structures and the direct control of production appear less important. Similar patterns can be seen in historical studies of late and post-medieval kingdoms in the Middle Nile and archaeological research into the Kushite state further suggests that they may also be seen much earlier. Kushite royal power was heavily dependent on the control of long-distance exchange as well as the enhancement of ritual powers through assimilation of various aspects of Egyptian royal cults. The importation and redistribution of prestigious exotic artefacts provided an important source of social and political power, building on existing networks and enabling the integration of regional socio-political units on an unprecedented scale. The ritual hegemony of the Kushite crown may also have been particularly influential in binding together otherwise quite loosely integrated regions. In contrast with Egypt and many early Eurasian states, the direct control of production and the power it generated was quite restricted, limited to a relatively small core area of the kingdom. There, following a pattern common within Sudanic Africa, the control of savannah populations was managed through the management of permanent water sources. This interpretation suggests that past studies which have focused on the Egyptian contribution to the development of early states in the Middle Nile have overestimated the importance of external influences. Their particular contribution may have been in increasing the scale of political integration possible and in building on pre-existing structures, but the presence of the more obvious northern influences on the region's material culture should not obscure the existence of recognisably Sudanic states much earlier than is commonly supposed.

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