The region in which representations of Apedemak and elephants have been found is Butana, the heartland of the Meroitic Empire, which held a strategic position on the trade route between the Nile and the Red Sea. Specifically, they are mainly found in the ancient Meroitic cities of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra.
I start with Naqa, located 29 km east of the Nile. Naqa is famous for a number of temples and religious buildings. The so-called Roman Kiosk is a small temple or chapel situated in front of the Lion Temple dated to the first century CE. It reflects a crossroads of influences from Roman–Hellenistic culture as well as Egyptian and indigenous cultures. Inside the Lion Temple, one can see a Roman-inspired god depicted in full-face with Mediterranean-type beard, wearing the crown associated with the lion god Apedemak (Shinnie 1967, p. 92; Kroeper 2011; Wildung 2011). This shows how elements linked to different cultural traditions are blended together in various religious contexts. The conventional wisdom has been to see this as a Classical influence inspired from the Mediterranean north. Naqa comprises extensive remains of settlement structures, palaces, temples and cemeteries (Edwards 2004, p. 150); recent work suggests that the settlement of mud brick and redbrick buildings and even more palatial structures were more extensive than earlier alleged (Kroeper 2011; Wildung 2011). The largest temple is dedicated to the Egyptian god Amen. A stele was recovered with the remains of writing both in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Meroitic cursive text. Of special interest for our discussion is the exceptionally well-preserved Lion Temple dedicated to Apedemak. A most interesting scene is on the outside of the back wall, where Apedemak is uniquely represented as a three-headed god with four arms, a common attribute of Indian gods (Fig. 3). The manner in which Apedemak is holding his hands and displaying his fingers appears similar to Indian iconography, with hand positions in the mudra convention prominent within Hindu as well as Buddhist traditions. Another representation of Apedemak is from the same temple where the god is seen as emerging from what Shinnie (1967, p. 113) and Wildung (2004) notice as a lotus flower (1) in the shape of the body of a snake, iconography that is also reminiscent of Hindu and Buddhist traditions (Fig. 4). In India, these types of representation are quite often depicted in connection with Ashoka’s edifices and along trade routes from the third century BCE through the Maurian period, 325-184 BCE. These so-called Pillars of Ashoka are mainly erected along the Gangetic plain, with major sites at Vaishali, Sarnath and Nandangarh (Thapar 2002, p. 230).
In the front pylons at the entrance of the Apedemak Temple, one can see the queen and the king both with weapons in their hands, destroying their enemies (Fig. 5). The temple was built by Queen Netakamani and King Amanitare in the first century CE. This was at a time when Kushite culture and building activities reached their peak (Adams 1977, p. 312; Burstein 2009a, b p. 9). According to Shinnie, they present attitudes derived from Egyptian originals (1967, p. 89); interestingly, Shinnie mentions features of their dress that appear to be non-Egyptian, and he indicates that these might be related to local African traditions (Shinnie 1967, p. 89). Another point to consider is the clothing, which might be linked stylistically to Indian traditions. We know textiles from India were an important trade item exported to the Red Sea as we have seen at Berenike. Thapar (1966, p. 116) also mentioned trade to Africa. We would thus expect textiles to be intended for use by the royal elite. As early as 1951, Arkell mentioned that textiles from India were important trade goods and referred especially to remains of textiles found at the western cemetery at Meroe (Arkell 1951, p. 32). This occurred at a time when the Meroitic Empire at the height of its political power and was involved in a global network of trade. Several literary sources refer to textiles being one of the most important and valuable trade items exported from India to Africa (Periplus, see Casson 1989; Thapar 1966, 2002; Ray 2003; Sidebotham 2011).
Another important site is Musawwarat es Sufra, which shows cultural influences from the Indian subcontinent and is located just 30 km east of the Nile north of Naqa. It is quite different from Naqa in that there are few settlements of a secular character, or cemeteries. Several archaeologists have regarded it as one of the most puzzling of the Kushite sites (Shinnie 1967; Welsby 1996; Wenig 2001; Edwards 2004). It is a very complex site with the remains of a variety of buildings and structures. It was seen by Wenig (2001) as a religious place and pilgrim centre. Edwards argues (2004) that the Meroitic royalty was closely linked to the site and played a central role during religious ceremonies. One of the most puzzling of the structures is the so-called Great Enclosure, covering 55,000 m2, one of the largest structures from the Meroitic period (Wenig 2001). It was occupied over a considerable period of time, from 270 BCE to CE 330, and consists of several temples, enclosures and corridors, as well as a garden and a pottery workshop where remains of more than 25,000 potsherds have been recovered. The large numbers of sherds of both fine Meroitic ware and coarser ceramics suggest that large-scale offerings of food/drinks took place there (Wolf 1997; Edwards 1999b; Wenig 2001).
We find here the most famous temple dedicated to the lion god Apedemak, the importance of whom is shown by numerous iconographic scenes. Indeed, the oldest representation of Apedemak is found here dated to the third century BCE (Torok 1997); one of the main scenes on the outer temple walls is of the king and the prince facing Apedemak, where he is being being worshiped by the royal family. The Apedemak temple thus clearly played an important ceremonial role for royalty.
In terms of the site of Naqa, it is discussed above that there were features that show that Apedemak was influenced by Indian culture. However, at the site of Musawwarat es Sufra, we do not find that Apedemak reflects Indian influence. Instead, there are several other cultural features indicative of Indian influences, such as a column drum showing a number of gods depicted in an unusual high relief, and one engraved figure in a yoga-like position. Shinnie noticed this unusual posture and workmanship and sees these engravings as being quite similar to Indian sculptures and reliefs (Shinnie 1967, Pl. 22). Vercoutter suggested that Meroitic art was equally influenced by Indian and Egytian cultures (quoted in Shinnie 1967, p. 114).
What is most significant at this site is the number of representations of elephants, which suggests that this animal played an important role at Musawwarat. The ancient Meroitic name of the site itself, Aborepi, has been translated as “place of the elephant,” tracing the word for elephant, abore, back to a Nilo-Saharan root in the Proto-Northeast Sudanic sub-phylum (Rilly and de Voogt 2012, p. 102). Shinnie sees the elephant as divine, similar to Apedemak (Shinnie 1967, p. 146), an interpretation that has created quite heated discussion (Hofmann 1975; Wenig 1978). Hofmann argued in 1975 that the elephant was not regarded as divine but was the carrier of the divine. One example that illustrates this is an engraving of an elephant carrying a divine king wearing the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the royal religious insignia of a winged python on its back (Shinnie 1967, p. 95). According to Hofmann, these are features influenced by Indian symbolism, which he sees as evidence of substantial Indian influence (Fig. 6). However, this has been quite heavily criticized by Wenig (1978). As early as 1951, Arkell published an article on Meroe and India in which he argued that the elephant imagery might reflect the importance of Indian cultural influence on Meroe. He argues that the representation of the king riding bareback on an elephant, wearing the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, is quite foreign to the Nile valley. A mahout, an elephant trainer, appears to be kneeling in front of the elephant. According to Arkell (1951), this scene is clearly inspired by Indian cultural traditions. It is suggestive of a ceremonial occasion as one finds in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Another relief on the northwest wall of the Lion Temple shows a file of elephants leading prisoners on ropes (Fig. 7). Similarly, this seems to refer to a ceremonial procession. Interestingly, the elephants are decked out in what appears to be an elaborately made cloth, which is quite unusual in Meroitic culture but common in India, as we can see of the relief of an elephant from the Pitalkhora cave, dated to the ca. second century BCE to second century CE (Fig. 8). This decoration of the cloth from Musawwarat seems quite distinct; a possible link to follow is to see if comparative material from South Asia can be found, such as the similarities discussed for the cotton textiles found at Berenike and Ajanta cave in India. Interestingly, we find inside the Apedemak temple several iconographic pictures of elephants that appear to have covers on their backs, although not as prominent as we see on the outside wall (Fig. 9).
The most enigmatic structure at Musawwarat is the so-called Great Enclosure, which has been the subject of various interpretations. It consists of a number of temples and long corridors connecting groups of buildings. These buildings are surrounded by numerous rooms that possibly served as storerooms, kitchens and workshops, probably to be used by priests as well as the royal family when attending important ceremonies (Wenig 2001). As early as 1967, Shinnie proposed the possibility that this structure was used for the taming and training of elephants (Fig. 10). A graffito on the temple wall of an elephant, which seems to be ascending a ramp, supports the interpretation that the temple might have played a role in the training of elephants (Welsby 1996, pp. 147). Wenig interprets the Great Enclosure as important in serving both cultic and profane purposes and could also have been a place for training elephants, which were sought after in the Mediterranean world. He sees Musawwarat as a place where traders from the Mediterranean could have met their Kushite partners to obtain African elephants (Wenig 2001, p. 86). We know from written sources that the Ptolemies sent hunting expeditions south along the Red Sea to capture elephants (Adams 1977, p. 335; Welsby 1996, pp. 175-176; Phillips 1997; Phillipson 1998; Burstein 2008). Ptolemies saw the military importance of these animals and looked to sub-Saharan Africa to obtain a supply of them. The special structures found at Musawwarat might thus have been such a centre for training captured elephants.
The importance of the elephants might have been in their use for warfare during the second to third century BCE. However, over time they seem to have been used more for display and ceremonial processions (Sidebotham 2011, p. 54). In the training of elephants, the Ptolemies and Kushites were dependent on Indian trainers, so-called mahouts. Kistler discusses the importance of the mahouts for training (Kistler 2007, p. 101); according to him, they dressed in clothing suggesting South Asian origins and even had Indian names despite being native to Africa. Sidebotham describes different ways by which the Indian elephants could be captured and domesticated by using enclosures or pits and suggests that the same methods could have been used in Africa (Sidebotham 2011, p. 45).
Anuraag Sanchi has argued that in India, elephants were managed by skills garnered and conveyed for generations within a small specialized community. The English word elephant is derived from the Sanskrit word for ivory (ibha + danta = elephant + teeth).
Unlike horses, elephants can be “ridden” only by specific individuals. Each elephant has a specific “rider(s)”—and mahavats or mahouts. Elephants trust individual riders and trainers, and this relationship is nurtured for the lifetime of an elephant.
The Kushite empire had along history of exchange of experts to other regions and cultures. The Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BCE) imported horse-training experts and horses from Kushite Nubia (Dalley 1985; Heidorn 1997). Not only was there an exchange of experts for training horses, but also the horses themselves which were quite sought after for the royal army of Sargon. Kushite kings (Taharqa, Piankhy) were also visiting the court of the Assyrian kings. The connections between Assyria and Nubia are seen in the artistic influence within both polities. Interestingly, it is especially in ivory art that two-way cultural influences can be detected. At the Nimrud palace, there are certain cultural elements seen in ivory inlay which are similar to stylistic features found on objects at the tomb of Taharqa. Likewise, objects found in royal graves in Nubia show relief styles, carved in a technique traditionally associated with Assyrians although the styles were used to portray purely Egyptian motives. This may indicate foreign craftsmen present at the Nubian court rather than indigenous workshops. Nubians were also familiar to Assyrian artists who depicted them on art objects and wall reliefs (Dalley 1985). Travellers did not only bring with them their expertise but also disseminated aspects of their cultures (Dalley 1985). Other researchers such as Heidorn (1997) have drawn attention to Kushites working in other jobs such as musicians, temple personnel, smiths and stone workers. This is recorded from Sargon II in 721 BCE to the fall of Niniveh in 612 BCE. The horse training occupational specialists, whose skills were in demand in distant regions such as Assyria, were responsible not only for transmitting their skills but also for a flow of other experts and cultural ideas. I discuss below how the skills related to elephant trainers were transmitted over vast regions from India to Egypt and Meroe. With the flow of these experts, other occupational experts and stylistic ideas were disseminated.
It is not unlikely that ideas related to the symbolic world of India were transmitted to rituals in Meroe by experts, and that the mahouts were the carriers of these ideas. Here, we are faced with a puzzle since a closer look at the depicted elephants shows some similarities to Asian elephants, such as the shape and size of their ears. Were the African elephants depicted in a style that would have been familiar to the mahouts? If this scenario is possible, we could see the mahouts as specialist workers who may have moved over long distances between culturally distinct communities, leading to the diffusion of ideas associated with the animals. The mahouts may also have introduced ideas relating to a wider symbolic universe in the Indian subcontinent. The representations of elephants indicate that these animals played an important ceremonial role at the site of Musawwarat which points to Indian influences. We know that in India, the use of elephants in ritual processions was an essential cultural practice. This supports the idea that Musawwarat was an important ritual centre where the Great Enclosure was also used to house elephants required for religious ceremonies (Wenig 2001). It is interesting to note that the Meroites and the Indians were known as “Aithiopians” and both were associated internationally with elephant training.