Evidence of civilization in Meroë, now part of Sudan and then called Nubia, has existed from about the eighth millennium b.c.e. The culture was fated to live in the shadow of Egypt of the pharaohs to the north on the Nile.

Over the centuries the pharaohs raided Nubia for gold, slaves, and other booty. However, the decline of the Egyptian dynasties around the 11th century b.c.e. gave the Nubian kingdoms a chance to flourish.

As John Reader wrote in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, the rulers of Kush actually were able to subdue Egypt, "where they ruled for more than sixty years—a period of Egyptian history known as the twenty-fifth or Ethiopian dynasty". However, a final burst of Egyptian power forced the rulers of Nubian Kush to retreat up the Nile to safety at Meroë in 590 b.c.e.

Meroë was ideally placed for a defensive position, according to Reader, since "the tract of land, 250 [kilometers] broad, lying between the points at which the Atbara and the Blue Nile join with the main stream of the White Nile is known as 'the island of Meroë' ".

According to the article "Kush, Meroë, and Nubia” in the Library of Congress’ Sudan: A Country Study (1991), "During the height of its power in the second and third centuries B.C., Meroë extended over a region from the third cataract in the north to Sawba, near present-day Khartoum, in the south". The very distance south gave Meroë some protection from invasion from Egypt in the north.

After Cambyses II, son of Cyrus II of Persia, invaded Egypt in 525 b.c.e., an army he sent into the desert simply disappeared—one of the great mysteries of history. With the city of Napata as capital, the rulers at Meroë kept memories of pharoanic Egypt alive, and in early days patterned their court after the Egyptian court.

After the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 b.c.e., Egypt was ruled by the Rome of Octavian, who was strong enough to reassert power in Upper Egypt, which had become a raiding ground for Meroitic armies.

A Roman punitive expedition in 23 b.c.e. razed Napata. Meroë never recovered from the Roman incursion, and by the second century c.e. the Nobatae, nomads from the west were able to establish themselves as rulers of Meroë.

The Roman Empire, however, faced with Germanic invasion and the continuing fight against Parthia in the east, was happy to subsidize the Nobatae as allies and use them to defend Roman Egypt’s southern frontier.

By this time, however, Ethiopia had become a regional power, in the kingdom of Axum. Axum first appeared around 500 b.c.e. and thrived in its position on the trade routes from the Middle East, through Arabia from Yemen to the south, and with Egypt.

Axum was one of the most diverse of the early kingdoms, becoming a commercial and administrative center. By this time Rome faced severe pressure throughout its empire and could devote less energy to the Nobatae, Meroë, or the frontiers of Egypt. Constantine the Great died in 337 c.e., and a struggle for succession ensued.

Seizing the moment, Axum invaded Meroë in about 350 and conquered it, destroying Meroë as an independent state. However, as Karl W. Butzer noted in 1981, Axum too would suffer eclipse largely due to "environmental degradation and precipitous demographic decline". By about 800 Axum had virtually ceased to exist.