Statue of queen and prince of Meroë
This group of basalt with once encrusted eyes was found in Meroë in a royal pyramid. It is attributed to Queen Shanakdakhete, the first queen who personally exercised power in the Meroë Empire. The sovereign, who reigned in the second half of the 2nd century BC, is accompanied by a prince who raises his arm and places his hand behind the Queen’s crown.
This gesture is interpreted as the transmission of royal power: the prince is hereby designated as the heir to the throne. The sculpture illustrates the different cultural components of the Meroë civilization (about 300 BC-350 AD), born at the crossroads of Africa, the Nile Valley and the Hellenistic world. The Empire of Meroë succeeded the Kingdom of Kush and extended its peak from the Third Cataract of the Nile to the site of the present city of Khartoum.
The pharaonic traditions of erecting stelae to commemorate the actions of sovereigns and of constructing pyramids to serve as tombs persisted in the royal lineage of Meroë. These elements, in addition to the remains of palaces, temples and baths at Meroë, testify to the centralised political system, permitting the massive mobilization of craftsmen and labourers. The efficient system of irrigation also allowed the territory to support a population density greater than that of later periods. Further, the Meroitic script adapted the system of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing to express in a native Nubian language, which was at the time spoken by the peoples of the region.
This sculpture was still very influenced by Egyptian artistic traditions. They are visible in the presence of the dorsal pillar in the shape of a stela, the strict frontal view of the couple with left foot forward, as well as the attitude of the Queen who probably held in her right hand the floral sceptre of the rulers of Egypt. Her costume also includes elements borrowed from Pharaonic art such as the Uraeus: the emblem of kingship which adorns her forehead and the crown consisting of a sun-disk surmounted by tall feathers. Other features highlight the African components that can be found throughout the Meroitic civilization. Thus the image of the ruler reflects a feminine beauty which differs strikingly from that of ancient Egypt. She is represented in the guise of a sturdy woman, a wide and powerful body; adorned with many jewels. In Africa, as in many other civilizations, these traits which combine the promise of fertility and exterior signs of wealth, symbolize prosperity and power.
The heads of ram decorating the necklace and earrings are borrowed from the Kushite ornamental repertoire and refer to the sacred animal of the god Amun, whose cult was widely distributed in Nubia. The attitude of the Prince, with his raised right hand, is very original and his tunic, a part which is wrapped around the left shoulder, can perhaps be Greek inspired. His triangular face, its wide mouth and huge eyes recall those statues of ba placed in the tombs from the same period (refer to the caption for the Statue of ba).
The size of the Queen, equivalent to that of the prince, illustrates the important place accorded to mothers and wives in the Kingdom of Kush and then afterwards the Meroë Empire. It can be found neither in classical Antiquity nor in modern times. It is an African heritage. Queens of Meroë played a decisive role in the transmission of royal power; they were represented equal to the king, sometimes even massacring enemies. Some of them ascended the throne. This particularity had struck ancient historians, who cited them under the generic name of “Kandaké”, a Meroitic title used to designate the mother of the king. One of them was described by the historian Strabo, who was remembered in history for having fought the Romans as the head of her army.