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Nubia is the region in the south of Egypt, along the Nile and in northern Sudan. Most of Nubia is situated in Sudan with about a quarter of its territory in Egypt. In ancient times it was an independent kingdom.

The people of Nubia spoke at least two varieties of the Nubian language group, a Nilo-Saharan subfamily which includes Nobiin, Kenuzi-Dongola, Midob and several related varieties in the northern part of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. A variety (Birgid) was spoken (at least until 1970) north of Nyala in Darfur but is now extinct. Old Nubian was used in mostly religious texts dating from the 8th and 15th centuries CE and is considered ancestral to modern-day Nobiin.



Throughout its history, Nubia has been broken into three distinct regions – “Lower Nubia”, in modern southern Egypt, which lies between the first and second cataract, and “Upper Nubia and Southern Nubia” – in modern-day northern Sudan, which existed in the area south of second cataract, along the Nile down to the sixth cataract.

Lower Nubia and Upper Nubia are so called because the Nile flows north, so Upper Nubia was actually further upstream the river, even though it lies geographically south of Lower Nubia.

Early settlements sprouted in both regions: The Restricted flood plains of Lower Nubia. These people are known early on as the “Ta-Seti” by early Egyptian scribes, and as the “A-group” culture by modern archeologists. Fertile farmland just south of the third cataract is known as the “Pre-Kerma” culture in Upper Nubia, as they are the ancestors of Kerma. Nubian Civilization originated in 5000 BCE in Upper Nubia.

Evidence indicates that the Neolithic people in the Nile valley likely came from the Sudan, as well as the Sahara, and there was shared culture with the two areas and with that of Egypt during this time period.[1] By the 5th millennium BCE, the people who inhabited what is now called Nubia, were full participants 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.[2] 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 2000 years.[3] 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.[4] Around 3800 BCE, the second "Nubian" culture arose, termed the A-Group, and it was contemporary, and ethnically and culturally very similar to, the polities in predynastic Naqadan Upper Egypt.[5][6] 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, and may have even contributed to the unification of the Nile valley, and very likely contributed some pharaonic iconography; such as the white crown and serekh, later to be used by the famous Egyptian pharaohs.[7][8] 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, and thus, it 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 BCE. The succeeding culture is known as B-Group. Previously, the B-Group people were thought to have invaded from elsewhere. Today most historians believe that B-Group was merely A-Group but far poorer. 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 BCE. Egyptian craftsmen of the period used ivory and ebony wood from tropical Africa which came through Nubia.

Early history

Nubia is the homeland of one of Africa's earliest black civilizations, with a history which can be traced from 5000 BCE onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts as well as written records from Egypt and Rome. Ancient Egyptian portraits depicted the Nubians as having very dark skin, and were often shown with golden hooped earrings and with braided or extended hair.[9] In antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense which was always prized by her neighbors.

In 2300 BCE, Nubia was first mentioned in Old Kingdom Egyptian accounts of trade missions. From Aswan, right above the First Cataract, southern limit of Egyptian control at the time, Egyptians imported gold, incense, ebony, 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 BCE to c. 2150 BCE, were another internal evolution or invaders. There are definite similarities between the pottery of 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 BCE), 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.


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, one of the earliest urban centers in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 1750 BCE, the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick, and had rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife and large human sacrifices. The craftsmen were skilled in metalworking and their pottery surpassed in skill that of Egypt. Reisner excavated sites at Kerma and found large tombs and a palace-like structure (Deffufa), alluding to the early stability in the region. At one point, Kerma came very close to conquering Egypt, with Egypt suffering a serious defeat at the hands of the Kushites.[10] According to Davies, head of the joint British Museum and Egyptian archaeological team, the attack was so devastating that had the Kerma forces chose to stay and occupy Egypt, they might have eliminated it for good and brought the great nation to extinction. When Egyptian power revived under the New Kingdom (c. 1532–1070 BCE) they began to expand further southwards. Destroying the kingdom and capital of Kerma, they expanded to the Fourth Cataract. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I in 1520 BCE, all of northern Nubia had been annexed. They built a new administrative center at Napata, and used the area to produce gold, which made Egypt a prime source of the precious metal in the Middle East.

Nubian–Egyptian relations

Nubian–Egyptian relations are complex and extend across many centuries. 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.[11] Relations between the two peoples however also show peaceful cultural interchange and cooperation, including mixed marriages. The Medjay –from mDA,[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] This was done in the hopes of preventing their fellow Medjay tribespeople from further attacking Egyptian assets in the region.[15] They were even later used during Kamose’s campaign against the Hyksos[16] and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power.[17] By the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force.[18] 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 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) [19]

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.[20]


When the Egyptians pulled out, they left a lasting legacy that was merged with indigenous customs forming the kingdom of Kush. Archaeologists have found several burials which seem to belong to local leaders, buried here 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, even invading and controlling Egypt itself for a period (the Kushite dynasty) in the 8th century BCE, under the leadership of king Piye[21]. They held sway over their northern neighbors for nearly 100 years, until they were eventually repelled by the invading Assyrians, forcing them to move further south, eventually establishing 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, Taharqa was crowned king in c.690 in Memphis. He ruled over both Nubia and Egypt.


Meroë (800 BCE – c.350 CE) 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 twenty-three signs.[22] Many pyramids were built in Meroë during this period and the kingdom consisted of an impressive standing military force. A famous legend in the history of Meroë relays the coming of Alexander the Great with his forces. According to legend, confronted with the brilliant military formation of the army led by Candace of Meroë, he concluded it would be best to withdraw his forces.[23] Historical accounts however, show that Alexander never invaded Nubia and did not attempt to move further south than the Oasis of Siwa in Egypt.[24] Strabo also describes a clash with the Romans in which the Romans were defeated by Nubian archers under the leadership of a "one-eyed" (blind in one eye) queen.[25] 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.

At some point later, 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[26]). From then on, the Romans referred to the area as the Nobatae.

Christian Nubia

Around 350 CE the area was invaded by the Ethiopian 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 500 CE.

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 fourth 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 Roman 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 Orthodox to the Coptic 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 "Royal" church at Dongola had been converted to a mosque around 1350.

Modern Nubia

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).[27] 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 Egypt. The next centuries would see several 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 sixteenth century. The entire region would come under Egyptian control during the rule of Mehemet Ali in the early nineteenth century, and later became a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

With the end of colonialism, Nubia was divided between Egypt and Sudan. In recent years, despite their Islamic identity, Sudanese Nubians have allegedly become the victims of attacks conducted by the Sudanese government. Human rights violations such as the torching of Nubian villages, have been widely reported in the media. Allegedly, the raids have involved the capture and sale of Nubian women and children as slaves, some finding their way to Khartoum and even beyond Sudan's borders. Wide reporting by Human Rights groups, and the involvement of Human Rights activists is helping to raise global awareness of modern slave trade atrocities.

Many Egyptian Nubians were forcibly resettled to make room for Lake Nasser after the construction of the dams at Aswan. Nubian villages can now be found north of Aswan on the west bank of the Nile and on Elephantine Island, and many Nubians live in large cities such as Cairo.

Notes and references


  1. "Studies of Ancient Crania From Northern Africa".  – S.O.Y. Keita, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1990)
  2. History of Nubia
  3. PlanetQuest: The History of Astronomy – Retrieved on 2007-08-29
  4. Late Neolithic megalithic structures at Nabta Playa – by Fred Wendorf (1998)
  5. Hunting for the Elusive Nubian A-Group People – by Maria Gatto,
  6. "Further Studies of Crania From Ancient Northern Africa: An Analysis of Crania From First Dynasty Egyptian Tombs, using Multiple Discriminant Functions".  – American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 87: 245–254 (1992)
  7. "Forbears of Menes in Nubia: Myth or Reality".  – Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 15–26
  8. Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa: Their Interaction – Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa, by Joseph O. Vogel, AltaMira Press, (1997), pp. 465–472
  9. Dig Nubia – Image
  10. Tomb Reveals Ancient Egypt's Humiliating Secret The Times (London, 2003)
  11. Barbara Watterson, The Egyptians. Blackwell, Oxford. pp. 50–117
  12. Erman & Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, 2, 186.1-2
  13. Gardiner, op.cit., p. 76*
  14. Bard, op.cit., p.486
  15. Wilkinson, op.cit., p. 147
  16. Shaw, op.cit., p.201
  17. Steindorff & Seele, op.cit., p. 28
  18. Wilkinson, op.cit., p. 147
  19. F. J. Yurco, "The ancient Egyptians..", Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol 15, no. 5, 1989)
  20. Bianchi, 2004, Daily Life of the Nubians. p. 99–100
  21. "The Kushite Conquest of Egypt". Ancient Sudan website.
  22. Meroë: writing – digitalegypt
  23. Jones, David E., Women Warriors: A History, Brasseys, Inc.; (2000)
  24. Gutenberg, David M. (2003). The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press.
  25. Nubian Queens in the Nile Valley and Afro-Asiatic Cultural History – Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Professor of Anthropology, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston U.S.A, August 20–26, 1998
  26. "Nubia". Catholic Encyclopedia. 
  27. "Questions from Readers". Ancient Sudan website.


  • Thelwall, Robin (1978) 'Lexicostatistical relations between Nubian, Daju and Dinka', Études nubiennes: colloque de Chantilly, 2–6 juillet 1975, 265–286.
  • Black Pharaohs – National Geographic Feb 2008
  • Thelwall, Robin (1982) 'Linguistic Aspects of Greater Nubian History', in Ehret, C. & Posnansky, M. (eds.) The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley/Los Angeles, 39–56.
  • Bulliet et al. (2001) 'Nubia,' The Earth and Its Peoples, pp. 70–71, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Nubia. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.