NUBIA - "Its glory and its people"


FEBRUARY 1 thru 28, 1987

Presented by: THE ORIENTAL INSTITUTE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO and the OAK WOODS CEMETERY ASSOCIATION In the Tower of Memories, Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago

By BRUCE WILLIAMS, Research Associate

Exhibition Brochure Cover

Exhibition Credits

Exhibition Introduction

To the ancient Mediterranean world, the land south of Egypt was a territory of mystery and legend. Wealth and exotic products came from there. It was the home of the Ethiopians, whom Homer called blameless and stories about its great achievements endured to tantalize the modern world. This land, which now includes Nubia, is a land of enormous distances, and its exploration was long impeded by problems of transport and political unrest. In the last hundred years, Nubia has slowly yielded its secrets, its vanished peoples, abandoned cities and lost kingdoms brought to light by the excavator and copyist of inscriptions. This exhibit is a selection of objects recovered over twenty years ago by the Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition in the effort to rescue archaeology from the rising water behind the Aswan Dam.

The land of Nubia is a desert divided by the river Nile. For want of water and rich soil, most of Nubia has never been able to support a large population for long periods. However, some of Africa's greatest civilizations emerged here, centers of achievement whose existence was based on industry and trade. Because they did not write their own languages until very late in ancient times, we know these centers and their people largely through their archaeology and what the Egyptians and Greeks said about them.

An Early Kingdom in the Land of the Bow:

The A-Group, 3800-3100 B.C.

The first continuous agricultural tradition in Africa, the Sudanese-Saharan Neolithic, developed almost ten thousand years ago in country west of Nubia that is now desert.

The Nile Valley in Egypt had been inhospitable, but in the seasonally dry channels of the Second Cataract, early farmers learned to manage parts of the river's annual flood. This knowledge could then be applied in Egypt's wide floodplain, giving rise to the great sequence of Upper Egypt's early civilizations.

Upper Egypt soon grew wealthy and its culture expanded again into Nubia, where renewed southern contacts gave rise to the first of Nubia's trading cultures, called the A-Group. Incense, copper, gold, objects of shell, and semiprecious stones were traded northward in return for manufactured articles and probably agricultural produce.

Most surprising, evidence that early pharaohs ruled in A-Group Nubia was discovered by the Oriental Institute at Qustul, almost at the modern Sudanese border. A cemetery of large tombs contained evidence of wealth and representations of the rulers and their victories. Other representations and monuments could then be identified, and in the process, a lost kingdom, called Ta-Seti or Land of the Bow, was discovered. In fact, the cemetery at Qustul leads directly to the first great royal monuments of Egypt in a progression. Qustul in Nubia could well have been the seat of Egypt's founding dynasty.

Figure 1: The decoration of the Qustul Incense Burner, as restored. A sacrificial procession contains the earliest definite image of a pharaoh with his crown and falcon-label. Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition.

The Land of Wawat: C-Group Lower Nubia, 2300-1550 B.C.

Life in Nubia between 3100 and about 2300 B. C. differed greatly from the prosperous times of A-Group. We know of only a few inhabitants and one substantial town, where copper was smelted for export.

About 2300 B.C., during the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty, a new culture appeared, which archaeologists call C-Group. Cattle played an important role in this culture, as they have in many other African societies since. Nevertheless, the C-Group was settled permanently along the Nile, from Aswan to the Second Cataract, and a closely related culture was established in northern Sudan, especially at Kerma, south of the Third Cataract. As Egypt fragmented politically, C-Group people entered the country to the north, as herdsmen and soldiers. They sometimes rose very high in Egyptian society and they played an important role in the struggles that founded the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, about 2050 B.C.

Figure 2: One of the finest C-Group incised bowls is decorated with a herd of cattle. Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition.

From biographies of Egyptian governors at Aswan, about 2300 B. C., we learn that the peoples to the south were concentrated in four principalities. One, Wawat, later gave its name to all of Lower Nubia, the land between the First and the Second Cataracts. Another, Yam, may have been a predecessor of Kush. In the Egyptian period of disunity, about 2250 B. C., Lower Nubia had its own pharaohs.

C-Group is well known for its tightly packed cemeteries of high stone circles. Next to these circles were placed stelae, some with pictures of cattle incised on them, and pottery, some of Nubia's finest art. Three major cemeteries and a house of this culture were excavated by the Oriental Institute at Adindan and Serra East.

Kerma and the Rise of Kush, ca. 2000-1550 B. C.

Egypt conquered Lower Nubia about 1950 B. C., and retained it until about 1700. C-Group kept its cultural identity under Egyptian rule, but the land of Kush to the south and the Medjay people of the Eastern Desert remained independent. Kush, much influenced by the Medjay, became a major power in the south, and as Egypt fell into disunity again, about 1700 B. C., Kush took over Lower Nubia with its C-Group population and Egyptian garrisons. The allegiance of people and soldiers was transferred to the southern ruler who was represented as a pharaoh.

Most archaeology of the Kerma culture or early Kush is found south of the Second Cataract, especially at the great capital at Kerma, with its central temples, elaborate smelter, manufacturing installations, houses and enormous royal mound tombs. Its magnificent pottery was sometimes exported as far north as the Egyptian Delta, and sometimes carried north by travelling officials and soldiers.

The Ages of Egyptian Occupation

The Middle Kingdom, 1950-1700 B. C. The New Kingdom, 1550-1 100 B.C.

The two periods of Egyptian rule in Nubia were quite different. In the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian garrisons occupied fortresses and the native C-Group peoples were not profoundly changed by the imperial occupation.

Figure 3: Ruins of the temple of Soleb, one of New Kingdom Nubia's greatest monuments. Photo by Breasted.

After the terrible struggles that ended Egypt's Second Intermediate Period, objects and many local customs became practically indistinguishable from those of Egypt. Much that underlay the tremendous elaboration of Egypt must have been present long before in Nubia, for the rapid, sympathetic, and understanding adoption of Egyptian culture in Nubia is unique in the ancient world. Egypt invested heavily in this change, building numerous temple complexes such as Abu Simbel that were at once centers of religion, culture, politics, and economy. In later centuries, this investment bore fruit as Nubia championed the pharaonic faith against forces of disruption, conquest and foreign rule in the Nile Valley again and again.

Figure 4: The view looking south from Abu Simbel, great rock-cut temple of Ramesses II, before it was moved. Photo by Breasted.

The Empire of Kush

Between 1100 and 750 B.C., little is known of Nubia, but after 750, a new Kushite kingdom appeared at Napata near the Fourth Cataract and rapidly expanded into a huge empire. To the south, Meroe was founded. To the north, Egypt had fallen into fragments under Libyan rulers, and the Kushites extended their control north of Thebes, the cult center of the god Amun in Egypt, who was also the most favored deity of Kush. Piye, most famous of Kush's pharaohs, united the Nile Valley from the Mediterranean to Meroe, creating one of Africa's greatest states. He and his successors are known as Egypt's Twenty-fifth Dynasty. One, Taharqo, was a great builder, and the Kushite rulers led Egypt to its last age of outstanding achievement, which reached its peak in the sixth century B.C. But when Kush tried to stop the westward advance of Assyria in Asia, Taharqo and his successor Tanutamani were defeated and expelled from Egypt by 650 B.C. In Nubia and Sudan, Kush continued to be a major state for a thousand years.

Meroitic Nubia, ca. 200 B.C.- A.D. 300

The actual capital of Kush was established at Meroe quite early even though its rulers built pyramids near Napata until about 300 B.C. Meroe became a great city of large industrial complexes and great temples, with an inner city that contained palaces, a shrine with a large pool and columns that spouted water, and even an observatory. Numerous important centers were founded in the Isle of Meroe, and great temple complexes dedicated to gods with both Egyptian and Meroitic names. The most important Meroitic deity was Apedemak, usually shown with a lion's head, who became one of the greatest state gods. The outstanding Meroitic industry known to us is iron. The site of Meroe still contains large heaps of slag, and recent excavations have unearthed parts of the furnaces used to smelt the metal.

Figure 5: Decoration from a ring-bezel shows the Meroitic lion god Apedemak. Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition.

In the north, Meroitic policy had been to assist revolts in Upper Egypt against foreign rulers, such as Persians, the Macedonian Ptolemies, and Romans. After an agreement with Rome just after 23 B.C., Meroitic settlers were able to live close to Aswan, beginning a new era of prosperity in Lower Nubia. Wealth derived from trade made possible some of Nubia's most delightful achievements in arts and crafts. The culture, like that of Kush's main center at Meroe, was pharaonic, and the representations on pottery and small objects were made in accordance with the what was considered proper in that tradition. These Meroites of Lower Nubia also constructed small brick pyramids, and equipped their chapels with stone sculptures and inscribed monuments.

X-Group Nubia

The Blemmyes, ca A.D. 250-500

The Noubadian Kingdom, ca. A.D. 350-550

With the Roman world in turmoil, and Meroe in decline, a people from east of the Nile known to the Greeks as Blemmyes and to the Arabs as Bedja, rapidly overran much of Egypt and Lower Nubia. Although expelled from Egypt, they were able to establish themselves in the region of Nubia just south of Aswan. Although they continued the religion of the pharaohs, their rulers used the Greek forms of contemporary Roman Imperial titles. The Oriental Institute excavated near Kalabsha and recovered many fragments of decoration from one of the Blemmyes' most important holy places, as well as pieces of their unusual and beautiful pottery.

Figure 6: A beautifully carved sandstone incense burner found near the main shrine of the Blemmyes has alternating lotus flowers and buds in carved relief, a symbol of creation. Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition.

South of the Blemmyes, the Meroitic province of Lower Nubia collapsed by about A. D. 300, and by 375, the kingdom of the Noubades, now known as Nubians was established with its capital near the modern Sudanese Border. Great mound-tombs of its kings at Qustul and Ballana contained much wealth, in crowns, jewels, and great weapons, including long African spear-swords, now in the Cairo Museum. The Oriental Institute's own excavations there discovered that the tumuli themselves were only part of larger complexes of chapels and sacrificial pits. Like the Meroitic rulers they supplanted, the Noubadians used pharaonic symbols and worshipped ancient gods. They joined with the Blemmyes in attacks on Upper Egypt in defense of the old religion against the newly dominant Christianity.

Christian Nubia, ca. A.D. 550-1400

Nubia first became Christian in the time of the Roman emperor Justinian, but soon after, the Moslem Arabs conquered Egypt, and the Nubians were isolated from direct contact with the Christian world north of the Mediterranean. Early attempts at Moslem conquest in Nubia failed, allowing various Christian kingdoms of Nubia to remain independent for centuries, and they even had a profitable treaty arrangement with the Caliph. At times, Christian Nubia became quite powerful and was able to intervene on behalf of the Coptic Christians in Egypt and even to hold territory. In the twelfth century, under Saladin, and later, under the Mamelukes, the power of Christian Nubia was broken by a series of campaigns and invasions of Arab tribes. By 1400, Christian Nubia had disappeared. Nubians are now virtually all Moslem.

Figure 7: Jar fragments from the later Christian Period that were painted in black with intricate geometric designs. Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition.

The conversion to Christianity was a major stimulus to cultural achievement. Christianity required churches, written texts, in Greek, Egyptian Coptic and in Old Nubian, as well as educational and inspirational decoration. The Christian images and symbols were drawn largely from traditions developed in Egypt and the Mediterranean world, but Nubian artists and architects added details, designs, combinations, and proportions of their own to establish a unique formal art. Some of the greatest paintings of the Middle Ages were made on the walls of the Cathedral at Faras and rescued by a Polish expedition for the Museums of Khartoum and Warsaw. The Oriental Institute excavated a major monastery at Qasr el Wizz, and a large town at Serra East, which contained churches with frescoes that could be copied, but were too damaged to remove. Much architectural information was recovered, along with objects from daily life, including superbly painted pottery which was, as so often before, the glory of Nubia.