Egyptian Museum, Berlin

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also co-founder of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

Works of art often make the best witnesses to the spirit of the civilizations that produced them. Underlying principles of social and religious order can even be encoded within the smallest artifacts left behind by long-vanished cultures.

The finger rings seen here are part of a fabulous trove of personal effects once belonging to Queen Amanishakheto, one of the most important rulers of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Meroë. The large group of more than 60 rings and many other types of jewelry were discovered in her pyramid tomb in the capital city, also called Meroë.

Like the cosmopolitan realm over which she ruled, the jewelry of Amanishakheto incorporates the widely differing styles of the wider region. Influences range from the humanist flavor of the Hellenistic world, the distant sub-Saharan cultures of Africa and the rich legacy of Egypt, located close by on Nubia’s northern frontier. Expert local craftsmen melded these contributions into a unique aesthetic statement.

Little is known in detail of the life and reign of Amanishakheto. She succeeded her mother, Amanirenas, roughly between 25 and 10 B.C. and died around the beginning of the modern era, ruling during a period of cultural and political ascendancy. Her rich and extensive realm lay along the fertile middle stretch of the Nile in the eastern part of modern Sudan. Meroë rose in prominence with its great ironworking industry, pottery and key position as a major international trading center.

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Her mother seems to have been the one who famously defeated a large invading force of Romans, while her daughter Amanitore may be the candace, or queen, famously mentioned in the biblical book The Acts of the Apostles. Candace is more accurately transliterated as kentake, the term commonly interpreted as “queen mother” or “mother of the (reigning) king,” and may actually refer to a chief consort in the sense of a “royal (or king’s) sister.” In any case, the title of kentake was borne by all queens of ancient Nubia. For those who actually ruled in their own right, as did Amanishakheto, the title qore, “ruler,” was added to that of kentake.

All of the rings appear to have been made expressly for this queen, and therefore fall within the relatively short span of her reign. Some bear a single figure; others, two or more. It is this latter group that contains valuable evidence for the role played by the queen in the courtly ritual surrounding the birth of a royal heir. The official introduction of a son into life at court reflected the union of the gods themselves and bestowed the same degree of legitimacy on their offspring as that held by the progeny of the immortals. In minuscule scale, the rings preserve the successive moments of this ritual of legitimation.

On the flattened surface of the ring seen here, Amanishakheto participates in the crucial moment of her selection by the Nubian creator god Amun-Min as a suitable mother for the divinely sanctioned heir. In uniquely Nubian fashion, Amun-Min appears here with the head of a ram. He wears the tall, double-plumed headdress, emblematic of his rank as chief deity of the Nubian pantheon. At its base is fixed the great orb of the sun. An image of a cobra, known as the uraeus, fronts the ensemble as a sign of the earthly domain of Nubia.

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Divine acceptance of Amanishakheto as royal mother is signified simply by the touch of the queen’s elbow by Amun-Min, as well as by her identical headdress fixed above the traditional cap crown of Nubian rulers. Amanishakheto stands ready to conceive the royal heir through union with the lord of heaven.

The fulfillment of the queen’s union with Amun-Min is the subject of the next ring. She sits opposite him on a long bench, apparently made of wicker and covered with an animal skin. Their child sits on the lap of his father, while both parents embrace him. The boy may be Natakamani, who would later succeed his mother as ruler of Meroë.

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This time, rather than the double-plumed device worn by Amanishakheto in the selection scene, a more complex assemblage of divine symbols rises above her cap crown. A female-headed water scorpion wears the horns of the cow goddess Hathor with the solar disk suspended between them. Depicted alone, the scorpion would represent the female deity Serqet, the goddess of fertility, magic and healing.

With the inclusion of the woman’s face and the Hathor imagery, however, the assemblage combines her attributes with those of the much-better-known Isis—or, as she was locally known, Aset. The combined attributes of Amanishakheto’s headdress embody the syncretic Nubian deity Aset-Serqet. Amanishakheto and her son appear not only as themselves but also in divinized form as the mother goddess Isis and her son Horus.

Like Amun-Min, the goddess Aset, or Isis, was just one more of the major contributions made by Nubian culture to the complex and storied religion of Egypt. Among the many beneficial gifts bestowed by Isis onto humanity were fertility, the protection of children and the resurrection of the dead. Her indispensable role in the affairs of the royal court is underscored by the meaning of her name: “Queen (or female) of the throne.”

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So often merely described as jewelry, the rings themselves clearly record events of signal importance. Their precise function remains unknown, although formal representations of Amanishakheto show her bedecked with precious ornaments of all kinds. It may be that she routinely wore these rings as part of her regalia at court. More specifically, the rings may have served as part of the crown jewels adorning Amanishakheto’s person during the all-important initiation rites held for the young heir to the throne.

The successors of Amanishakheto long maintained the high status of Meroë as a power to be reckoned with. Eventually, however, the kingdom fell into decline. In A.D. 330, a fateful attack by King Ezana of Axum, in today’s Ethiopia, left the region in a permanent state of decay. The golden rings of state fashioned for this remarkable queen provide a vision of the grand courtly life of Nubia at a time when its fortunes had yet to be challenged.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.