"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Elephant statuette

Meroitic period about 250 BC-300 AD

This small figurine representing an elephant and his mahout is from Meroë and dates to the Meroitic period. The animal proudly stands on four legs, ears flapping away from the face, and the trunk slightly bent back between two massive tusks- wait for the order to advance. A ring attached to the mahout’s head was used to suspend the object. The fact that he holds a shield shows us that we have here a war elephant.

The use of elephants in wars, as a sort of tank of Antiquity, was widely spread in the Hellenistic period. Just consider Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants or Alexander the Great fighting Porus at the gates of India. Hannibal used African Forest Elephants (Laxodonta cyclotis) whilst Alexander, before him, had recourse to Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus). The African Bush Elephant (Laxodonta africana) is very difficult to be tamed. Judging by the manner elephants were depicted in Meroitic art, in addition to photographs of Sudanese elephants taken in the 19th century, it can be deduced that elephants in that region were of the shorter-legged forest variety.

Long before the use of the animal for war, Nubia was the key supplier of ivory in Africa. This material was very popular from the earliest period of Antiquity for the manufacture of prestigious objects, the animal itself disappearing from the Egyptian fauna in the historic period and onwards. Recent analysis shows that the tooth of hippopotamus was very often substituted for the ivory of an elephant in Egyptian production.

However, these elephants had marked the imagination of ancient Egyptians as a border settlement on an island downstream from the First Cataract, established at the end of the 4th millennium on an island downstream from the First Cataract to control trade between Nubia and the heart of Africa (such as the trade of ivory), was named after the animal itself: “Abu”, the toponym that Greeks simply translated, much later, into “Elephantine”.

In Sudan, elephant disappeared much later. Elephant hunting was of great importance to Meroë, for the country owed much of its wealth to the export of animal products, such as livestock, hide shields, ivory and decorative exotic animal skins. During this period, the elephant still inhabited the Butana plain, as well as the region of the Ed-Debba. At Wadi ben Naqa, two of the other trade items, ebony and elephant ivory were found stockpiled in a store-room of the palace. In addition, in room 15 of the Treasury at Sanam, large numbers of fire-damaged elephant tusks were found. Whether these were for local consumption or export is unknown.

Representations of the animal still decorate the religious cult of Musawwarat es-Sufra and even a three-dimensional effigy of the animal was found in a sacred compound. Today, the ivory trade is very strictly regulated so that elephants are protected from extinction.

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