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Africa, Iron and Empire

The Nubians to 500 BCE

In 730 BCE, the Nubians again invaded northern Egypt, and the Nubian king, Piankhi, moved his capital to Memphis and started Egypt's 25th dynasty. In Nubia, an Egyptianization of culture began, including the use of Egyptian writing – more of the world's cultural diffusions. Egyptian became the official language of Nubian government, and gods among the Nubians acquired Egyptian names.

The Assyrians came, drove out the Nubian king and brought with them to Egypt the knowledge of iron making and iron tools and weapons. Iron making became common in Egypt, and it spread south along the Nile to Nubia. Soon after the Nubian kingdom acquired iron the Nubians expanded southward, beyond desert into the wooded, rainy lands of a region called Meroe. In the 500s BCE the Nubians shifted their capital from Napata to the town of Meroe. Perhaps they were escaping from the forays of the Egyptian army, which in 593 BCE sacked the city of Napata.

The region of Meroe had advantages for the Nubians. It had the Nile and Atbara rivers that provided barriers against the Egyptians. Also it had an abundance of iron ore, and it had the hardwood from which charcoal could be made for smelting iron. The Nubians made iron weapons and iron-tipped spears and arrows for hunting. They made iron axes, which helped them cut timber and clear land for farming, and they made iron hoe for tilling the soil.

Unlike the desert region to the north, around Meroe there were summer rains, which allowed the Nubians to extend their farming away from the rivers. They grew sorghum and millet, and they were able to graze cattle on wild grasses. Perhaps the increase in food production brought an increase in population, which probably helped them in conquering their neighbors. And, drawing from their expanded territory, a few Nubians grew rich trading in ivory, ebony, animal skins, ostrich feathers, perhaps gold, and slaves.

Meroe was in a good position for trade: trade passing north to Egypt stopped at Meroe, Meroe had a route to and from the Red Sea, and, on the Red Sea, trade was increasing to and from India and East Asia. Meroe became a center of iron smelting and manufacturing, and in the centuries to come it sent its iron products far and wide, including to India. And some people in India began migrating to port cities on Africa's eastern coast.

Among the Nubians, a local language replaced Egyptian, and the Nubians developed their own distinctive writing – which has never been successfully deciphered. Nubian priests saw kings and queens as having the approval of the gods, and to their pantheon of gods the Nubians added a lion god: Apedemek. Most Nubians were still farmers and fishermen and lived in mud and reed houses clustered in small rural villages where they were ruled by minor chiefs and heads of family clans. Nubian craftsmen lived in towns, worked full time at their craft and were under less control than their counterparts in Egypt. And some Nubians wore silk from China and cotton from India.

Iron In Western Africa

Nok sculpture

Nok sculpture (from Nigeria)

By 600 BCE the Phoenician town of Carthage had grown into a formidable city-state, in part from its trade across the Sahara, with Berbers and others acting as trade intermediaries. Their means of transportation across the Sahara was the horse-drawn chariot, camels not being introduced until centuries later.

By 500 BCE, a civilization where Nigeria is today was in full bloom. It smelted and forged iron for tools, and it is known for its terracotta sculpture. Iron there improved hunting and forest farming, which may have helped to build population pressures on the Bantu-speaking people in the area, and Bantu people began migrating eastward through savanna and forests.

By 400 BCE, Carthage had established a trading settlement at Cerne on the west coast of Africa. Iron use appeared in small trading towns such as Akjoujt and Tichitt, and iron smelting appeared south of the Sahara in Ghat, Gao and the Lake Chad region.

The Soninke of Ancient Ghana, circa CE 200

A thousand miles west of the Bantu community, just inland from the western coast and just south of the Saharan desert, an iron using state arose called Ghana – unrelated to modern Ghana. Its people were the Soninke, who might have grouped together into a state for strength against attacks from Berber nomads to their north. With iron tools, their hunting efficiency had increased, and farmers there were able to form larger settlements. They were illiterate, but they had horses obtained from Saharan nomads. They had iron swords and lances, and they seized farming and grazing land from their weaker, less organized neighbors.

From about CE 200, Ghana grew as a trading power. The importation of camels to the Sahara boosted trade, and the demand for gold increased. The Soninke were midway between the source of salt in the Sahara and gold fields to their south along the Upper Senegal River, and the Soninke of Ghana acted as middlemen, passing salt to the gold producers and gold to the north.

Aksum and the Fall of Meroe, to CE 350

Hunters and traders from southern Arabia had crossed the Red Sea and established settlements on the coast near the Ethiopian highlands, and by 500 BCE they had mixed and intermarried with the people who had been there before them. Their languages mixed, producing a language called Ge'ez. Ge'ez speakers were settled at the port town of Massawa and engaged in trade that passed across the Indian Ocean. Ge'ez speaking traders and farmers were forming a new state, Aksum (Axum), which was taking trade away from the state of Meroe.

Meroe's wealth rested on its iron industry, its agriculture and its trade. But its kings wanted more territory northward along the Nile, and they expanded to the Nile's first cataract. In 23 BCE, Meroe's army raided farther north, and the Romans, who then ruled Egypt, retaliated and pushed them back as far as Napata, destroying along the way and capturing several thousand Meroeans, whom they sold as slaves. The Meroean nation continued to thrive, and it acted as a middleman for Roman trade through the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean.

Between the years 200 and 300, Meroe's trade and iron industry declined. The charcoal needed to make iron consumed trees that had been cut down faster than growth. Some scholars believe that topsoil had eroded, that lands had lost fertility and that agriculture had declined because of over-exploitation. Also, with the economic decline of the Roman Empire had come less demand for goods from Meroe, and much of trade with the Roman Empire was acquired by neighboring Aksum.

By CE 300, Aksum had expanded into Yemen. As for the nation of Meroe, between CE 300 and 350 it stopped giving it kings royal burials, and the city of Meroe was abandoned. A pastoral people called Noba moved into the abandoned city. Meanwhile, Aksum's king, Ezana, worked at protecting caravan trade from raiders.  He overran the Beja people in the deserts north of Ethiopia, and he overran the Noba in Nubia.

A Coptic Christian missionary from Alexandria Egypt, Frumentius, had arrived in Aksum and had converted Ezana. And Ezana attributed his success in Nubia to the "Lord of the Heaven." He wrote of killing and capturing people in Nubia, burning their towns and carrying off their copper and iron. note27

After people in Nubia rebelled against Ezana's overlordship, he made war there again, destroying crops, taking prisoners and confiscating livestock. By now, Aksum had irrigation and terraces for its agriculture. Aksum craftsmen who were making crystal, brass and copper luxury goods, which were being exported to Egypt and the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It was also exporting frankincense, a highly valued product used in burials and as a medicine, and myrrh, also used as medicine – products taken as sap from trees that grew in Aksum's higher elevations.

The Bantu and Other Developments in Eastern Africa, to CE 400

Around CE 200, Indonesians arrived by boat and settled in Madagascar. They brought with them a banana plant that had a higher yield than any African banana. The Asian banana was transplanted on the eastern coast of Africa, and it spread inland, improving the food supply.

By now, Bantu speaking people had moved alongside hunter-gatherers in eastern Africa. They were spreading past Lake Ekerewe (today called Victoria) northeast to the Indian Ocean on the coast of what is today is Kenya. By the year 300 they were spreading to areas around Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. And by the year 400 they arrived at the southern tip of the continent.

The Bantu mixed with local hunter-gatherers. And working with iron they created a greater productivity in agriculture. More people were cutting into forests and settling into villages. New primarily agricultural communities of Bantu speaking people was developing, with women working in the fields and the men hunting for meat. And the Bantu speakers traded with neighboring hunter-gatherers, the Bantu giving iron tips for their weapons in exchange for killed game, medicinal plants or as payment for herding livestock.


A History of Africa, by J.D. Fage, 1996 (prehistory to post-independence)

A Short History of Africa, by Roland Anthony Oliver and J.D. Fage, 1988

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.