When discussing the civilisations of the Nile Valley, many histories focus almost exclusively on the role of Egypt. But this approach ignores the emergence further south on the Nile of the kingdom known to the Egyptians as Kush, in the region called Nubia – the area now covered by southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.
Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. One of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 B.C. onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts as well as written records from Egypt and Rome, it was home to one of the African empires.
There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504, when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within the Kingdom of Egypt from 1899 to 1956.
The name Nubia is derived from that of the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century, with the collapse of the kingdom of Meroë. The Noba spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, ancestral to Old Nubian. Old Nubian was mostly used in religious texts dating from the 8th and 15th centuries AD. Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia).
Historically, the people of Nubia spoke at least two varieties of the Nubian language group, a subfamily which includes Nobiin (the descendant of Old Nubian), Kenuzi-Dongola, Midob and several related varieties in the northern part of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. Until at least 1970, the Birgid language was spoken north of Nyala in Darfur but is now extinct.
Early settlements sprouted in both Upper and Lower Nubia. Egyptians referred to Nubia as “Ta-Seti.” The Nubians were known to be expert archers and thus their land earned the appellation, “Ta-Seti”, or land of the bow. Modern scholars typically refer to the people from this area as the “A-Group” culture. Fertile farmland just south of the Third Cataract is known as the “pre-Kerma” culture in Upper Nubia, as they are the ancestors.
The Neolithic people in the Nile Valley likely came from Sudan, as well as the Sahara, and there was shared culture with the two areas and with that of Egypt during this time period. By the 5th millennium BC, the people who inhabited what is now called Nubia participated in the Neolithic revolution. Saharan rock reliefs depict scenes that have been thought to be suggestive of a cattle cult, typical of those seen throughout parts of Eastern Africa and the Nile Valley even to this day. Megaliths discovered at Nabta Playa are early examples of what seems to be one of the world’s first astronomical devices, predating Stonehenge by almost 2,000 years. This complexity as observed at Nabta Playa, and as expressed by different levels of authority within the society there, likely formed the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Around 3500 BC, the second “Nubian” culture, termed the A-Group, arose. It was a contemporary of, and ethnically and culturally very similar to, the polities in predynastic Naqada of Upper Egypt. Around 3300 BC, there is evidence of a unified kingdom, as shown by the finds at Qustul, that maintained substantial interactions (both cultural and genetic) with the culture of Naqadan Upper Egypt. The Nubian culture may have even contributed to the unification of the Nile Valley.
Toby Wilkinson, based on work by Bruce Williams in the 1980s, wrote that “The white crown, associated in historic times with Upper Egypt, is first attested later than the red crown, but is directly associated with the ruler somewhat earlier. The earliest known depiction of the white crown is on a ceremonial incense burner from Cemetery at Qustul in Lower Nubia”. Based on a 1998 excavation report, Jane Roy has written that “At the time of Williams’ argument, the Qustul cemetery and the ‘royal’ iconography found there was dated to the Naqada IIIA period, thus antedating royal cemeteries in Egypt of the Naqada IIIB phase. New evidence from Abydos, however, particularly the excavation of Cemetery U and the tome U-j, dating to Naqada IIIA has shown that this iconography appears earlier in Egypt.”
Around the turn of the protodynastic period, Naqada, in its bid to conquer and unify the whole Nile Valley, seems to have conquered Ta-Seti (the kingdom where Qustul was located) and harmonized it with the Egyptian state. Thus, Nubia became the first nome of Upper Egypt. At the time of the first dynasty, the A-Group area seems to have been entirely depopulated, most likely due to immigration to areas west and south.
This culture began to decline in the early 28th century BC. George Reisner suggested that it was succeeded by a culture he called the “B-Group”, but most archaeologists today believe that this culture never existed and that the area was depopulated between around 2800 and 2300 when a-group descendants returned to the area. The causes of this are uncertain, but it was perhaps caused by Egyptian invasions and pillaging that began at this time. Nubia is believed to have served as a trade corridor between Egypt and tropical Africa long before 3100 BC. Egyptian craftsmen of the period used ivory and ebony wood from tropical Africa which came through Nubia.
In 2300 BC, Nubia was first mentioned in Old Kingdom Egyptian accounts of trade missions. From Aswan, right above the First Cataract, the southern limit of Egyptian control at the time, Egyptians imported gold, incense, ebony, copper, ivory, and exotic animals from tropical Africa through Nubia. As trade between Egypt and Nubia increased, so did wealth and stability. By the Egyptian 6th dynasty, Nubia was divided into a series of small kingdoms. There is debate over whether these C-Group peoples, who flourished from c. 2240 BC to c. 2150 BC, were another internal evolution or invaders. There are definite similarities between the pottery of the A-Group and C-Group, so it may be a return of the ousted Group-As, or an internal revival of lost arts. At this time, the Sahara Desert was becoming too arid to support human beings, and it is possible that there was a sudden influx of Saharan nomads. C-Group pottery is characterized by all-over incised geometric lines with white infill and impressed imitations of basketry.
During the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 BC), Egypt began expanding into Nubia to gain more control over the trade routes in Northern Nubia and direct access to trade with Southern Nubia. They erected a chain of forts down the Nile below the Second Cataract. These garrisons seemed to have peaceful relations with the local Nubian people but little interaction during the period. A contemporaneous but distinct culture from the C-Group was the Pan Grave culture, so called because of their shallow graves. The Pan Graves are associated with the East bank of the Nile, but the Pan Graves and C-Group definitely interacted. Their pottery is characterized by incised lines of a more limited character than those of the C-Group, generally having interspersed undecorated spaces within the geometric schemes.
Nubia and Ancient Egypt
One interpretation is that Nubian A-Group rulers and early Egyptian pharaohs used related royal symbols. Similarities in rock art of A-Group Nubia and Upper Egypt support this position. Ancient Egypt conquered Nubian territory in various eras, and incorporated parts of the area into its provinces. The Nubians in turn were to conquer Egypt under its 25th Dynasty.
However, relations between the two peoples also show peaceful cultural interchange and cooperation, including mixed marriages. The Medjay –from mDA, represents the name Ancient Egyptians gave to a region in northern Sudan–where an ancient people of Nubia inhabited. They became part of the Ancient Egyptian military as scouts and minor workers.
During the Middle Kingdom “Medjay” no longer referred to the district of Medja, but to a tribe or clan of people. It is not known what happened to the district, but, after the First Intermediate Period, it and other districts in Nubia were no longer mentioned in the written record. Written accounts detail the Medjay as nomadic desert people. Over time they were incorporated into the Egyptian army. In the army, the Medjay served as garrison troops in Egyptian fortifications in Nubia and patrolled the deserts as a kind of gendarmerie. This was done in the hopes of preventing their fellow Medjay tribespeople from further attacking Egyptian assets in the region. They were even later used during Kamose’s campaign against the Hyksos and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power. By the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force. No longer did the term refer to an ethnic group and over time the new meaning became synonymous with the policing occupation in general. Being an elite police force, the Medjay were often used to protect valuable areas, especially royal and religious complexes. Though they are most notable for their protection of the royal palaces and tombs in Thebes and the surrounding areas, the Medjay were known to have been used throughout Upper and Lower Egypt.
Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the 12th Dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.
…the XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) originated from the Aswan region. As expected, strong Nubian features and dark coloring are seen in their sculpture and relief work. This dynasty ranks as among the greatest, whose fame far outlived its actual tenure on the throne. Especially interesting, it was a member of this dynasty that decreed that no Nehsy (riverine Nubian of the principality of Kush), except such as came for trade or diplomatic reasons, should pass by the Egyptian fortress and cops at the southern end of the Second Nile Cataract. Why would this royal family of Nubian ancestry ban other Nubians from coming into Egyptian territory? Because the Egyptian rulers of Nubian ancestry had become Egyptians culturally; as pharaohs, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies. (Yurco 1989)
In the New Kingdom, Nubians and Egyptians were often so closely related that some scholars consider them virtually indistinguishable, as the two cultures melded and mixed together.
It is an extremely difficult task to attempt to describe the Nubians during the course of Egypt’s New Kingdom, because their presence appears to have virtually evaporated from the archaeological record. The result has been described as a wholesale Nubian assimilation into Egyptian society. This assimilation was so complete that it masked all Nubian ethnic identities insofar as archaeological remains are concerned beneath the impenetrable veneer of Egypt’s material culture. In the Kushite Period, when Nubians ruled as Pharaohs in their own right, the material culture of Dynasty XXV (about 750–655 B.C.E.) was decidedly Egyptian in character. Nubia’s entire landscape up to the region of the Third Cataract was dotted with temples indistinguishable in style and decoration from contemporary temples erected in Egypt. The same observation obtains for the smaller number of typically Egyptian tombs in which these elite Nubian princes were interred.
From the pre-Kerma culture, the first kingdom to unify much of the region arose. The Kingdom of Kerma, named for its presumed capital at Kerma, was one of the earliest urban centers in the Nile region. By 1750 BC, the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick. They also had rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife and large human sacrifices. George Reisner excavated sites at Kerma and found large tombs and a palace-like structures. The structures, named (Deffufa), alluded to the early stability in the region. At one point, Kerma came very close to conquering Egypt. Egypt suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Kushites.
According to Davies, head of the joint British Museum and Egyptian archaeological team, the attack was so devastating that if the Kerma forces chose to stay and occupy Egypt, they might have eliminated it for good and brought the nation to extinction. When Egyptian power revived under the New Kingdom (c. 1532–1070 BC) they began to expand further southwards. The Egyptians destroyed Kerma’s kingdom and capitol and expanded the Egyptian empire to the Fourth Cataract.
By the end of the reign of Thutmose I (1520 BC), all of northern Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative center at Napata, and used the area to produce gold. The Nubian gold production made Egypt a prime source of the precious metal in the Middle East. The primitive working conditions for the slaves are recorded by Diodorus Siculus who saw some of the mines at a later time. One of the oldest maps known is of a gold mine in Nubia, the Turin Papyrus Map dating to about 1160 BC.
When the Egyptians pulled out of the Napata region, they left a lasting legacy that was merged with indigenous customs, forming the kingdom of Kush. Archaeologists have found several burials in the area which seem to belong to local leaders. The Kushites were buried there soon after the Egyptians decolonized the Nubian frontier. Kush adopted many Egyptian practices, such as their religion. The Kingdom of Kush survived longer than that of Egypt, invaded Egypt (under the leadership of king Piye), and controlled Egypt during the 8th century as the twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt. The Kushites held sway over their northern neighbors for nearly 100 years, until they were eventually repelled by the invading Assyrians. The Assyrians forced them to move farther south, where they eventually established their capital at Meroë. Of the Nubian kings of this era, Taharqa is perhaps the best known. A son and the third successor of King Piye, he was crowned king in Memphis c. 690. Taharqa ruled over both Nubia and Egypt, restored Egyptian temples at Karnak, and built new temples and pyramids in Nubia before being driven from Egypt by the Assyrians.
Meroë (800 BC – c. AD 350) in southern Nubia lay on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, ca. 200 km north-east of Khartoum. The people there preserved many ancient Egyptian customs but were unique in many respects. They developed their own form of writing, first utilizing Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later using an alphabetic script with 23 signs. Many pyramids were built in Meroë during this period and the kingdom consisted of an impressive standing military force. Strabo also describes a clash with the Romans in which the Romans defeated Nubians. According to Strabo, following the Kushite advance, Petronius (a Prefect of Egypt at the time) prepared a large army and marched south. The Roman forces clashed with the Kushite armies near Thebes and forced them to retreat to Pselchis (Maharraqa) in Kushite lands. Petronius, then, sent deputies to the Kushites in an attempt to reach a peace agreement and make certain demands.
Quoting Strabo, the Kushites “desired three days for consideration” in order to make a final decision. However, after the three days, Kush did not respond and Petronius advanced with his armies and took the Kushite city of Premnis (modern Karanog) south of Maharraqa. From there, he advanced all the way south to Napata, the second Capital in Kush after Meroe. Petronius attacked and sacked Napata, causing the son of the Kushite Queen to flee. Strabo describes the defeat of the Kushites at Napata, stating that “He (Petronius) made prisoners of the inhabitants”.
During this time, the different parts of the region divided into smaller groups with individual leaders, or generals, each commanding small armies of mercenaries. They fought for control of what is now Nubia and its surrounding territories, leaving the entire region weak and vulnerable to attack. Meroë would eventually meet defeat by a new rising kingdom to their south, Aksum, under King Ezana.
The classification of the Meroitic language is uncertain; it was long assumed to have been of the Afro-Asiatic group, but is now considered to have likely been an Eastern Sudanic language.
At some point during the 4th century, the region was conquered by the Noba people, from which the name Nubia may derive (another possibility is that it comes from Nub, the Egyptian word for gold). From then on, the Romans referred to the area as the Nobatae.
The crown of a local Nubian king who ruled between the collapse of the Meroitic dynasty in 350 or 400 AD and the founding of the Christian kingdom of Nubia in 600 AD. It was found in Tomb 118 at Ballana in Lower Nubia by the British Egyptologist W.B. Emery
Around AD 350, the area was invaded by the Kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed. Eventually, three smaller kingdoms replaced it: northernmost was Nobatia between the first and second cataract of the Nile River, with its capital at Pachoras (modern-day Faras); in the middle was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and southernmost was Alodia, with its capital at Soba (near Khartoum). King Silky of Nobatia crushed the Blemmyes, and recorded his victory in a Greek inscription carved in the wall of the temple of Talmis (modern Kalabsha) around AD 500.
While bishop Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated one Marcus as bishop of Philae before his death in 373, showing that Christianity had penetrated the region by the 4th century, John of Ephesus records that a Monophysite priest named Julian converted the king and his nobles of Nobatia around 545. John of Ephesus also writes that the kingdom of Alodia was converted around 569. However, John of Biclarum records that the kingdom of Makuria was converted to Catholicism the same year, suggesting that John of Ephesus might be mistaken. Further doubt is cast on John’s testimony by an entry in the chronicle of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria Eutychius, which states that in 719 the church of Nubia transferred its allegiance from the Greek to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
By the 7th century, Makuria expanded becoming the dominant power in the region. It was strong enough to halt the southern expansion of Islam after the Arabs had taken Egypt. After several failed invasions the new rulers agreed to a treaty with Dongola allowing for peaceful coexistence and trade. This treaty held for six hundred years. Over time the influx of Arab traders introduced Islam to Nubia and it gradually supplanted Christianity. While there are records of a bishop at Qasr Ibrim in 1372, his see had come to include that located at Faras. It is also clear that the cathedral of Dongola had been converted to a mosque in 1317.
The influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom around 1504. A major part of the modern Nubian population became totally Arabized and some claimed to be Arabs (Jaa’leen – the majority of Northern Sudanese – and some Donglawes in Sudan). A vast majority of the Nubian population is currently Muslim, and the Arabic language is their main medium of communication in addition to their indigenous old Nubian language. The unique characteristic of Nubian is shown in their culture (dress, dances, traditions, and music).
In the 14th century, the Dongolan government collapsed and the region became divided and dominated by Arabs. The next centuries would see several Arab invasions of the region, as well as the establishment of a number of smaller kingdoms. Northern Nubia was brought under Egyptian control while the south came under the control of the Kingdom of Sennar in the 16th century. The entire region would come under Egyptian control during the rule of Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century, and later became a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium.