The Lost Land of Nubia: Egypt's Southern Neighbor in Africa

Robert K. Ritner

The Land and Its History

The term "Nubia" designates a land now shared between the modern states of Egypt and the Sudan. Stretching for some 1,600 miles along the river Nile south of the Egyptian border town of Aswan, Nubia is a land of contrasts in both geography and peoples. Encroaching sands along the shore and rocky outcrops, or "cataracts," in the river make the northern section often inhospitable to large settlements and easy transportation, while farther south near the modern city of Khartoum the Nile divides to produce vast grasslands and fertile fields. Taking its name from the south to north direction of the Nile's flow, "Lower" (or northern) Nubia was continually in contact with Egyptian civilization, whether as trading partner, rival, colony or conqueror. Despite its poor agricultural resources, this portion of Nubia contained major deposits of gold, and for that reason Egypt repeatedly occupied and fortified the north. The modern name "Nubia" probably derives from the ancient Egyptian word for "gold" (nub). Other Egyptian names for the territory have also survived into modern times, including "Cush" (found in the Bible) and "Nehsy" in the personal names Phineas and Pincus (which both mean "the Nubian").

The peoples that the Egyptians encountered in the north have histories that can be traced as long as those of Egypt, but with significant differences. Despite cultural similarities in the earliest periods, the northern Nubians were slow to develop anything resembling a unified state, and the earliest evidence of political unity appears only 2,500 years after the First Dynasty of Egypt. Unlike Egypt, where writing appears before 3200 BC, Nubian societies remained unable to write their own languages until Roman times, although rulers adopted the dominant Egyptian script and language for official monuments from about 700 BC. As a result of these factors, Nubian groups were often small tribal bands near the river or mobile bedouin in the deserts who left no imposing monuments or texts to describe their lives.

The first indigenous Nubian culture, the "A-Group" (ca. 3500-3000 BC), lived in small villages between the first and second cataracts in the Nile. Known only from some 75 regional cemeteries, these communities flourished primarily as middlemen in trade with Egypt and disappeared abruptly with the rise of the Egyptian First Dynasty. After a hiatus of about 750 years (the possible period of the disputed "B-Group"), a new society of pastoral nomads, the "C-Group" (ca. 2250-1550 BC), settled in the former A-Group territory. Circular homes and graves characterize these dispersed communities, which were subservient to Egyptian political control, reinforced by a series of prominent river fortress built by Middle Kingdom pharaohs. Another contemporary Nubian group fared better with its northern neighbor. Members of the "Pan Grave" culture (ca. 2500-1500 BC), named for its shallow circular graves, served as bowmen and mercenaries in the Egyptian military and are attested in burials not only in Nubia but in Egypt itself.

Two major exceptions to this pattern of domination occurred when Egypt was internally divided and unable to impose its control beyond Aswan: the Kerma civilization of ca. 1800-1500 BC and the Napatan dynasty of ca. 700-310 BC. Before excavations in Nubia prompted by the building of the first Aswan dam from 1907-1911 and the second from 1959-1969, even these societies were best known from Egyptian records that provide an often hostile view of their cultures.

Kerma, based just south of the third cataract, was allied with the Canaanite Hyksos rulers of northern Egypt. Probably related to the C-Group, this society exploited Egyptian weakness to become the hub of a great trading network between sub-Saharan Africa, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Kerman armies occupied abandoned Egyptian fortresses and invaded Egypt itself; the capital of Kerma became a city of temples, workshops and monumental buildings in brick and wattle, with cemeteries containing massive circular tumuli. The largest of these is over 300 feet in diameter with perhaps as many as 400 human sacrifices.

Kerma fell to succeeding invasions of the triumphant Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, which established direct colonial rule that dominated Lower Nubia for well over four centuries. The New Kingdom occupation of Nubia produced many of the most famous monuments in the region, including fortresses, free-standing temples and shrines, and the extraordinary rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel. Throughout this period, Nubians appear in Egyptian records both as stereotyped "wretched" enemies and as valued Egyptianized citizens, who often served in the military and police forces. At the end of Egypt's New Kingdom, internal dissension and Libyan invasions led to the withdrawal of Egyptian forces and the rise of an independent Nubian kingdom based at the former colonial site of Napata, near the "Holy Mountain" (Gebel Barkal). Mixing elements of local cultural traditions with formal Egyptian religion and language, the Napatan dynasty presented itself to the Egyptians as the true inheritors of New Kingdom Egyptian culture. In a reversal of the situation that had prevailed for millennia, Nubian forces then invaded Egypt as cultural saviors against divided Libyan city states. As Dynasty 25, Nubian rulers became formal pharaohs of Egypt for a century. Finally driven from Egypt by Assyrian invaders in 663 BC, the Nubian kingdom never abandoned its claim to Egyptian rule. As a result of the dynasty's adoption of Egyptian traditions, there are more royal pyramids in Nubia than in Egypt itself.

In addition to gold, from earliest times trade has been noted as a critical factor in the development of Lower Nubia, since it served as the gateway to the produce abundant in southern, or "Upper," Nubia that was considered exotic and valuable in Egypt. In recognition of this trade, the name of the city of Aswan, which is located on the natural boundary of Egypt near the first cataract, means "market" or "place of exchange." The division between Lower and Upper Nubia is based on the limit of extended Egyptian colonization at the dangerous second cataract, roughly corresponding to the modern boundaries of Egypt and the Sudan. This traditional division masks the complexity of Upper Nubia, however, which includes as many as five distinct environments ranging from arid desert to grasslands.

For Egypt and the Mediterranean world, Upper Nubia provided animals such as giraffes and baboons, pelts, feathers, incense trees, and in particular elephant ivory and ebony wood, whose modern English names derive directly from Egyptian (and perhaps Nubian) terms. Upper Nubia never experienced the Egyptian colonization imposed in the north, and aside from brief raids along the Nile beyond the fourth cataract, Egypt was forced by the great distance to conduct peaceful expeditions with negotiations and payment for items obtained from local chiefs. Again, Egyptian records and depictions have often served as the best evidence for the peoples and customs of southern Nubia, but this region became the heartland of the most significant Nubian empire, the Kingdom of Meroë.

Descended directly from the earlier Napatan kingdom that had ruled Egypt briefly as Dynasty 25, the Meroitic empire flourished from the fourth century BC until the fourth century AD and maintained contacts not only with Egypt, but with the broader Greek and Roman world and perhaps even India. In architecture, sculpture, jewelry and especially in its famed pottery, Meroitic art shows a cosmopolitan mixture of native, Pharaonic and Hellenistic styles. By modifying current Egyptian scripts, Meroitic scribes developed the first African writing system outside of Egypt to record their own language. Unfortunately, only individual terms and phrases of that written language can now be translated. Sacked by invading forces from Axum (Ethiopia) about AD 350, the Meroitic state disentegrated into territories ruled by differing "X-Groups": Blemmyes in the eastern deserts, Noubadians in Lower Nubia and Noba in the southern Sudan.

Even in late antiquity, Nubian courts could justifiably claim to be the protector of Egyptian traditions. Well after the formal conversion of Egypt to Christianity, Nubian society preserved the basic elements of Egyptian religion in company with regional deities such as the lion god Apedemak. The Blemmye nomads who replaced the Meroitic empire in the fourth century even forced the Byzantine emperors to leave open the temple of Philae, the sacred island of the goddess Isis. Closed only in the reign of Justinian (ca. AD 540), this last "pagan" temple owed its longevity to direct Nubian intervention. When Nubia did convert to Christianity, it again looked to Egypt for its model and adopted the distinctive practices of the Coptic, or Egyptian, Church. Excavations by the Oriental Institute at the small monastery of Qasr el-Wizz discovered two remarkable hymns to the cross: one in Coptic and the other in Old Nubian, the literary predecessor to the two modern dialects of Nubian that are no longer written, only spoken. Widespread conversion to Islam began only after AD 1323 with the accession of a Moslem prince in the formerly Christian kingdom of Dongola.

Lost Nubia and the Oriental Institute

With some exceptions, the sites and history of Nubia can no longer be examined on the ground. The construction of two dams at Aswan which led to intensive study of Nubian remains have also submerged the land and driven modern Nubians from their ancestral homes to new locations in Egypt and the Sudan. Lower Nubia in particular has all but vanished beneath the waters of the modern Lake Nasser. New excavations are no longer possible in these areas, and the surviving documentation from earlier expeditions is not merely precious, but invaluable for understanding this land and its peoples. Fortunately, the Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago took a leading role in the documentation and excavation of Nubia prior to its disappearance. Even before the official inception of the Institute, its founder James Henry Breasted made extended photographic (and combination honeymoon) expeditions to Nubia from 1905 until 1907. During the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Institute was awarded the concessions for all excavation between Aswan and the Sudanese border, as well as several river fortresses, a temple of Ramses II and a Coptic monastery. From 1960 until 1968, the Institute recovered some 10,000 Nubian objects, of which more than 95% became part of the permanent collections of the Oriental Institute Museum.

As a result of its efforts to record these pivotal African cultures, the Institute possesses unique photographic records of ancient monuments and contemporary inhabitants at over 65 locations and extensive field records and artifacts recovered from nine excavated sites ranging in date from 3000 BC until the Middle Ages. No less important is an unparalleled publication series of Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition reports that make the results of these excavations available to a broader audience. In 1965, the Institute produced the film "The Egyptologists," narrated by Charlton Heston, to raise public support for the UNESCO "Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia." Using more current technology, the Institute has placed 1,100 photographs on-line in combination with descriptions of Nubian cultures produced for three previous temporary Nubian gallery installations from 1987 until 1992. With the current renovation of the museum galleries, the Oriental Institute will have its first opportunity to present a larger --and permanent-- display of its extraordinary collection of Nubian materials that document the complete historical range of the varied inhabitants and multiple cultures of Nubian Africa from its earliest records until the Middle Ages.

The Exhibit

Since the bulk of the Institute's Nubian collection derives not from the "art market" but from controlled excavations, the gallery presentation should properly emphasize our unique resource of original archaeological deposits that have been used to identify and refine the historical periods and cultures of Nubia. Works of art and daily life, architectural features of towns, temples, tombs and later churches, in addition to photographic records of vanished sites, would allow the visitor to gain an appreciation for the importance and distinctive characteristics of the varied groups that influenced and inhabited Nubia. Although Nubian cultures include some of the most diverse, complex and historically significant societies in Africa, they are among the least well known of the ancient peoples studied by the Oriental Institute.

In the absence of indigenous names for many of the non-literate cultures of Nubia, archaeologists have assigned designations that may strike visitors as both unfamiliar and odd but which have now become traditional (A-Group, C-Group, X-Group). The significance of such groups is not in the name, but in the distinctive types and range of materials that define its culture. To facilitate a broader understanding of Nubian societies, the gallery should not follow the common practice of grouping objects simply by type (pottery or musical instruments, for example) in a manner that overlooks the differences between individual Nubian cultures. Instead, the gallery ought to highlight Nubian diversity. Thus cemeteries of the "A-Group," contemporary with Egypt's Predynastic Period and early Old Kingdom, include distinctive, regional African features such as cattle skeletons along with some materials imported from (or influenced by) neighboring Egypt. Resembling a South African krall, the great audience hall of the later Kerma chiefdom employs a circular shape that is common in the works of many Nubian societies, but rare in Egypt. In contrast to its Kerman predecessor, the Napatan kingdom contains a wider variety of Egyptian influences, while yet retaining a clear Nubian identity even in propaganda intended for Egyptian audiences. Unlike Egyptian royalty, the Napatan elite was matriarchal, with powerful queens noted in Roman treaties under the title "Kandake," the origin of the modern personal name "Candace."

Each Nubian culture should be presented in its own terms: 1) stressing Nubia's own prehistory as well as links and differences with archaic Egypt, 2) detailing the extended Egyptian domination of the region and the evidence for local cultures, 3) recounting Nubian domination of Egypt in turn and the vast empire of Meroë, and 4) concluding with "Medieval Nubia," featuring artifacts from the latest pre-Christian societies (the "X-Groups" of Blemmyes, Nobadians and Noba), in addition to Coptic artifacts. Objects could range from true art works to mundane items, with a featured object used to typify each period: an incense burner suggested to show links with Egyptian kingship, Egyptian racial stereotypes of Nubian warriors, a bronze statue of a Napatan pharaoh, and extraordinary colored textiles and Biblical manuscripts of the medieval era.

October 20, 2004