July 11, 2012

Ancient Beja - The Blemmyes

Many forums that look at the history of ancient Egypt touch on the role of the people who lived on the southern border of Upper Egypt. An excellent survey of the Blemmye people is republished below, part of a longer post that included discussion about the Aksumite people. The entire thread might be worth a look.

Posted by Mace1.
The Blemmyes (Latin Blemmyae) were a nomadic Nubian tribe described in Roman histories of the later empire. From the late third century on, along with another tribe, the Nobadae, they repeatedly fought the Romans. They were said to live in Africa, in Nubia, Kush, or Ethiopia, generally south of Egypt.

In antiquity
The Greek geographer Strabo describes the Blemmyes as a peaceful people living in the East Desert near Meroe.

Their cultural and military power started to enlarge to such a level that in 197 Pescennius Niger asked a Blemmye king of Thebas to help him in the battle against the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. In 250 the Roman Emperor Decius took a lot of effort to win over an invasion army of Blemmyes. A few years later, in 253, they attacked Lower Aegyptus (Thebais) again but were quickly defeated. In 265 they were defeated again by the Roman Prefect Firmus who later in 273 would rebel against the Empire and the Queen of Palmyra Zenobia with the help of the Blemmyes themselves. The Roman general Probus took sometime to defeat the usurper and his allies but couldn't prevent the occupation of Thebais by the Blemmyes. That meant another war and the almost entire destruction of the Blemmyes army (279-280).

In the reign of Diocletian the province of Lower Aegyptus (Thebais) was again occupied by the Blemmyes. In 298, Diocletian made peace with the Nobatae and Blemmyes tribes, agreeing that Rome move its borders north to Philae (South Egypt, south of Aswan) and pay the two tribes an annual gold stipend

The Blemmyes occupied a considerable region in current day Sudan. There were some important cities like Faras, Kalabsha, Balana and Aniba, and they were all fortified with walls and towers of a mixture of Egyptian, Helenic, Roman and Nubic elements.

Their culture had also the influence of the Meroitic culture, and so, Blemmyes religion was centered in the temples of Kalabsha and Philae. The former being a huge masterpiece of Nubian architecture, where a solar lion like divinity named Mandulis was worshiped. Philae was a place of mass pilgrimage with temples for Isis, Mandulis and Anhur, and where the Roman Emperors Augustus and Trajan made many contributions with new temples, plazas and monumental works.

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With the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. The Roman attitude toward the nomads was very different from that of the Greeks: Repulsed by their wild-haired appearance, the Romans regarded them as scarcely more than another kind of desert beast, and treated them accordingly. The nomads began raiding Roman territory and trade routes. By the latter half of the third century of our era, the Blemmyes had united sufficiently to present Rome with a challenge. According to the fifth-century Palestinian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the Blemmyes overran the Nile Valley in 268, from Syene (Aswan) all the way to Ptolemais, near modern Sohag, and it took the Romans years of bitter campaigning to drive them back into the desert.

From the third to the fifth centuries the Blemmyes continued to threaten Roman hegemony in the region. In his De Bello Persico, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius recorded that in 284, Emperor Diocletian, faced with continuous Blemmyan conflict, formally relinquished to the Blemmyes jointly with the Nobadae, their rivals, a 250-kilometer (155 mi) stretch of the Nile known as the Dodekaschoinus, which stretched from Syene south to near the present Egyptian Sudanese border. In addition, Diocletian arranged to pay annual tribute to the Blemmyes, and he allowed them access to their favored shrine of Isis at Philae (near modern Aswan), as well as the right to have their own priests in residence there.

Although Diocletian's appeasement did not end Blemmyan raids, the Blemmyes did for a time respect the border at Syene. But by the latter half of the fourth century the Blemmyes were de facto rulers of the Nile Valley far beyond that point. In a contemporary letter, Blemmyan ruler Kharachen assured his administrators at Tanare (some 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, north of Syene, near modern Luxor), "If the Romans make difficulties and do not pay the ordinary tribute, neither the phylarch nor the hypotyrannos [Blemmyan authorities—the Blemmyan language of state was Greek] will prevent you from compelling the Romans to pay it." Interestingly, although the Blemmyes controlled much of the Upper Nile for nearly three centuries, they did not become a settled people. They remained desert-based throughout, interested only in dominating their peripotamian subjects.

The situation changed dramatically in 536, when Emperor Justinian outlawed pagan worship and ordered the removal of the idols at Philae. Outraged, the Blemmyes resumed their raids. Four years later, their hold on the Dodekaschoinus was broken—but not by Rome. Silko, the newly Christianized king of the northern nubian kingdom of nobatia, led an army north, and defeated the Blemmyes so thoroughly that they relinquished all of the Nile and retreated to the desert. The end of their hegemony marked the final blow to paganism in Christian Egypt.

Today, the descendents of the ancient Medjay are part of the Muslim Beja nation.

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