King Ergamenes (also known as King Arkamani I, reigned 295-275 BCE) was the first great king of Meroe (located in modern-day Sudan) who broke free from Egyptian dominance to help direct a wholly distinct culture. The city of Meroe is cited by many ancient writers (Herodotus among them) as an almost fabled city of wealth and mystery, and scholars credit Ergamenes for establishing the culture which fostered such prosperity and lay the groundwork for later Meroitic kings to build upon. His relationship with the Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus is the earliest documented case of political cooperation between the Kingdom of Meroe and the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt. According to the historian Robert Steven Bianchi, Ergamenes was closely tied to the Egyptian throne and "possessed a titulary composed of five royal names on the model of traditional ancient Egyptian pharaohs" including his throne name Khnum-Ib-Re. He is most famous as the ruler who broke with the long-standing tradition of religious authority superceding the secular authority of the king.
According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, in the time before the reign of King Ergamenes it had been the custom for the high priests of the Egyptian god Amun at the holy city of Napata to decide who became king and to set the duration of the king’s reign. As the health of the king was tied to the fertility of the land, the priests had the power to determine if the sitting king was no longer fit to rule. If they deemed him unfit, they would send a message to the king, understood to be from the god Amun himself, advising him that the time of his rule on earth was completed and that he must die. The kings had always obeyed the divine orders and had taken their own lives for the supposed good of the people. However, Diodorus continues:
[Ergamenes], who had received instruction in Greek philosophy, was the first to disdain this command. With the determination worthy of a king he came with an armed force to the forbidden place where the golden temple of the Aithiopians was situated and slaughtered all the priests, abolished this tradition, and instituted practices at his own discretion.
The archaeologist George A. Reiser, who excavated the sites of Napata and Meroe, called into question Diodorus' story about the priestly control of kingship calling it "very dubious" and claiming Diodorus' account was most likely a legend which, by the time he wrote, had come to be accepted as historical truth. The historian Welsby, however, notes, "The veracity of Diodorus' statement has been doubted, but there is no other evidence to bear on this question one way or the other" (32). What is known is that, after the reign of Ergamenes, Egyptian influence in the region of Nubia declines, the Kingdom of Meroe rises, and Meroitic script replaces that of the Egyptians. Whether Ergamenes did, in fact, slaughter the priests and free the people from Egyptian influence in precisely the way described by Diodorus is, then, almost irrelevant. Clearly something of great significance occurred which had something to do with Ergamenes and the priests of Amun which resulted in the abrupt decline of Egyptian influence. The Nubia Museum states, "When the kings ceased writing in Egyptian, and began writing in their own Meroitic language, we suddenly cease being able to understand their official inscriptions," and this seems to have happened rather abruptly, arguing for the truth of Diodorus' version of history.
Reiser also claims that Ergamenes was a contemporary of Ptolemy IV Philopator (reigned 221-205 BCE) instead of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285-246 BCE) and that he was instrumental in the building of the Dakka Temple in southern Egypt. Relations between the Kushites of Nubia and Egypt were strained during the reign of Ptolemy IV, however, and cooperation between the two countries in a building project seems unlikely. It seems clear that Ergamenes and Ptolemy II established a mutually respectful relationship between the two countries after Ergamenes had asserted his authority. This relationship was maintained until the reign of Ptolemy IV when the Kingdoms of Kush supported a revolt in Upper Egypt, and so to claim that there were collaborations on building projects between the two nations at this time seems untenable.
Having freed Meroe of Egyptian custom, Ergamenes then set about passing a series of laws which would make the Meroitic culture even more distinct from the Egyptian (c. 285 BCE). He instituted burial practices at the city of Meroe itself instead of observing the tradition of interment of the dead at Napata following Egyptian methods. Although all of the tombs found at Meroe (including Ergamenes’) have been plundered, the evidence which has been uncovered points to practices similar to the Egyptian but significantly different. Two examples of these differences are the depictions of Meroitic kings in Egyptian poses but with Kushite elements such as dress, facial features, and weaponry, and the style of coffins used in burials. Similarities would include the rituals surrounding the burial of the dead (placement of personal objects in the grave or tomb) and the fashioning of the tomb as a home for the deceased. Egyptian language, writing, and art all begin to decline in Meroe after the reign of Ergamenes to be replaced by Meroitic art and the highly distinctive Meroitic script of 23 symbols, including vowels. As no one has yet deciphered the script, whatever else may be known of the great King Ergamenes remains hidden and as mysterious as the city of Meroe itself would become to later writers.