In which we talk about Kush, finally
As hinted yesterday, today we examine a fun new topic here in Herodotus Explains African Geography: the source of the Nile! Nobody knows from whence the Nile flows, except the clerk at the Bank of Athena in Saïs in Egypt. Dude was maaaaybe kidding but Herodotus isn’t taking chances. He’d rather just write down whatever credible-sounding Egyptians say, and let posterity (that’s us) decide whether it’s legit or not.
This is what the bank teller in Saïs claimed. Equidistant between Syene and Elphantine (a couple of other cities in Egypt) are two mountains that are perfect cones, right next to each other, called Mount Crophi and Mount Mophi. Smack dab in between them there’s this artesian well that spews out the Nile and also it sends another river flowing south to Ethiopia. The legendary scientist-pharaoh Psammetichos (that guy again!) did a cunning experiment and dropped a looooooong rope down the shaft of the well, and the sounding-line never found a bottom.
That is, believe it or not, the most plausible story Herodotus could find regarding the source of the Nile. When Herodotus visited Elephantine he asked people about Crophi and Mophi. Folks were willing to concede that mountains are a thing that exist. That is, the word “mountain” signifies an external object, rather than a purely fanciful notion. Whether any particular mountains with any particular rhyming names exist, they couldn’t say. They could tell him what was upstream from them, however. Going up the Nile from Elephantine you find an island and a lake and the Nile flows in one side of this lake and out the other, and if you follow it further up you eventually hit reefs (maybe Herodotus meant rapids?) and you have to portage for a couple of weeks before you can get back on the water, and a month from there is Meroe, the metropolis-capital of the Meroitic Empire aka the Kingdom of Kush aka Ethiopia, home of an Oracle of Zeus.
Meroe, incidentally, is a great example of how skewed our view of the ancient world is. It was some kind of crazy coo-coo super kingdom located south of and upstream from Egypt, more or less coterminous with modern-day Sudan perhaps. Around the time Herodotus wrote about it was maybe the world’s leading producer of worked iron, as well as big in the cotton game probably. (I use a lot of qualifiers because what am I, a historian? I read Wikipedia; that’s the opposite of being a historian.)
However the Merotics didn’t interact with Rome much except to make war upon them, so the Romans didn’t talk much about them in their history books. A few hundred years of intermittent war with Rome went by, and they were pretty well gone by the second century AD. Big for a while, though, at least as much as Lydia or Ionia. We just never hear about them because the Romans didn’t write much about them.
Anyway, I digress. Meroe was a big city built on and around an island in the middle of the Nile. You press on further south and further uphill and you come to the site of a charming story.
Once upon a time, in the reign of the scientist-pharaoh Psammetichos, a great experiment was conducted. Procedure: construct a massive garrison of eighty thousand troops at Elephantine and two more the same size at Daphnai and Marea. Eighty thousand! For reference, each of these garrisons was roughly double the size of Fort Meade. The question was, would two hundred and forty thousand soldiers, stationed in the godforsaken uplands of Eygpt, rebel when Psammetichos stopped paying them?
The experiment was a success! The soldiers rebelled en masse, and set out marching south, away from stupid Psammetichos and his stupid refusal to give them their back pay. Psammetichos, the story goes, sent couriers to entreat the soldiers. Maybe they had some reason to be mad at Psammetichos, the courier told the deserters. Maybe everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong, and we should all just turn around and go back to base. Psammetichos was willing to forgive and forget; could the soldiers also forgive and forget their pensions?
This line of argument didn’t hold much water with the deserters, who told the courier where he could stick Psammetichos’s forgiveness. The courier has been trained to handle these kind of tense negotiations, though, and pointed out how the deserters had two hundred and forty thousand wives, plus roughly double that number of children and mistresses, all waiting for them back in Egypt.
“Screw our loved ones!” cried the deserters, in unison. “In Meroe we’ll get new loved ones, with blackjack and hookers!”
The Meroitc government was down with anything that would stick in Psammetichos’s eye (Herodotus doesn’t bother to explain why, but it’s not hard to guess), so the deserters were granted a big tract of land south of the city, where their descendents live to this day. And by “this day” I mean “as Herodotus wrote this, in 440 BC, give or take a decade.”
Past the land of the deserters — who have a cool name, by the way: they’re the Asmach — the Nile turns west and goes into the sun, or the burning desert, or something, Herodotus has no idea. It’s hot, probably. It sounds hot.