Issue No.1191, 3 April, 2014      02-04-2014 09:07PM ET

Knowing Nubia

Ancient African Kingdoms on the Nile: Nubia; Edited by Marjorie Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram and Sue D’Auria; ‫Cairo‬: AUC PRESS, 2012. Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

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For a long time, the very notion of Nubia, the “Land of Gold” as the ancient Egyptians called it, was an eccentric Egyptologist’s pipe dream. Nubiology as a separate academic discipline, independent of Egyptology was unknown. The very notion of Nubiology was frowned upon. Nubia was an Egyptian appendage at best.

New hypotheses, though, attest to Nubian civilizations being the origin of ancient Egypt. In other words, the ancient Nubians were the progenitors, and their cattle-based culture, the precursor of the Egyptian civilization. 

The designation Nubiology was coined by the Polish archeologist and Egyptologist Kazimierz Michalowski who is also acknowledged and internationally acclaimed as the founder of Nubian studies as an academic discipline in its own right.

On a visit to Meroe last year I was astounded by the beauty of the ancient Nubian pyramids. Most are much smaller in size than their Egyptian counterparts, and especially when compared to the Giza pyramids. Yet, two facets of ancient Nubian pyramids stood out. First, was the fact that there were far more pyramid in Sudan than in Egypt. There are 300 pyramids in Sudan, while there are only 100 pyramids in Egypt. Second, and even more startling is that there are almost as many pyramids constructed specifically for ancient Nubian queens, or rather queen-mothers, as for kings.

It is reasonable to presume that the status of royal women in ancient Nubia was far more significant than in ancient Egypt. The royal consorts were not particularly powerful in ancient Nubia. The Queen-Mother, being the king’s biological mother, his maternal aunt or sister often assumed that role. Moreover, many royal women ruled as queens in their own right and were socially accepted as such.

Hatshepsut and Cleopatra aside, very few women actually ruled Egypt. In sharp contrast, in ancient Nubia numerous royal women held the title Candace or Kandake, the equivalent of a female pharaoh. This becomes abundantly clear in the chapter entitled Women in Ancient Nubia written jointly by Joyce Haynes and Mimi Santini-Ritt.

Even more curious are parallels with contemporary ethnic Akan customs of West Africa. Like the Akan people of West Africa, the ancient Nubian kandake, or Queen Mother was invariably a sister of the king or the mother to the successor to the throne. One major difference however, was that in ancient Nubia, unlike in the contemporary Akan culture of West Africa, women were permitted to be rulers. The title qore, the authors of the chapter indicate was definitive proof that the queen had taken the throne.

“Queens and especially King’s Mothers were frequently represented ion reliefs and stelae, along with the king, playing an active role as priestesses of the royal cult of the god Amun. There are numerous representations of them rattling sistrum and pouring libations”. Indeed, the specific role of God’s Wife (hmt-ntr) was central to Napatan and Merotic religious rites. The celibate royal priestesses held the highest religious office, surpassing even the High Priest of Amun, and she had her name written in a cartouche. “During the Kushitic rule in the [Egyptian] Twenty Fifth Dynasty, the position of God’s Wife of Amun was at its peak,” the authors note. 

“The God’s Wife presided over a body of priestesses called ‘The Inner Abode of Amun” and was head of a large household with her own court and an extensive staff, including her own major-domo, scribes, chamberlains, and doorkeepers, As such she wielded substantial economic power. The Kushite God’s Wives lived in Egypt and adopted Egyptian names. The God’s Wives adopted the Egyptian style of the day, Rarely were they shown with the the short curly hairstyle of Kushite women”.

Ancient Nubian culture has a profusion of Egyptian influences as well as a distinct culturally vibrant specificity. Nevertheless, the remoteness of the pyramids and ancient royal cities and temples from the Sudanese capital Khartoum make it difficult for proper research to be conducted. It took me two hours to fly from Cairo to Khartoum, and yet it took four hours to reach the historic sites by bus, and that with the assistance of the Sudanese Ministry of Tourism who organized the tour.

Ordinarily, it is extremely difficult to obtain permission for archeologists and Nubiologists to conduct research work in northern Sudanese backwaters. Transport and communication facilities are poor, to say the least. To visit Kerma, Meroe, Gebel Barkal, Nuri or Al-Kurru is a nightmare as infrastructure is almost non-existent. One is left to his or her own devices, and worse, the Sudanese authorities do not always welcome researchers.

Yet, without research permission to conduct surveys in Sudan, it is difficult to decipher the secrets of ancient Nubia. The onus is on “kingdoms” as opposed to a kingdom of Nubia. Contemporary Nubian relics are in danger of being submerged in the reservoirs created by the construction of new dams. Yet, for all the drawbacks, it is not hard to feel nostalgic about the early heydays of the Nubian civilizations.

Elite burials existed from the earliest days of Nubian civilization, many predating their Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, there is sufficient evidence to prove that the kings of certain Nubian kingdoms contemporaneous with the Naqada civilization of pre-dynastic ancient Egypt donned the “white crown” worn by Upper Egyptian kings. The serekh facade, the Horus falcon and the bull were features that the rulers of Lower Nubia shared with their Egyptian contemporaries. What is not clear is whether the Egyptians influenced the Nubians or as is more likely the Nubians stimulated and animated ancient pre-dynastic Egypt.

Archeologists do not usually operate this way. “For most of the modern world, ancient Nubia seems an unnown and enigmatic land. Only a handful of archeologists study its history or unearth the Nubian cities, temples, and cemeteries that once dotted the landscape of southern Egypt and Sudan. Its remote setting in the midst of an inhospitable deserts and access by river blocked by impassable rapids has lent an air of mystery to Nubia but also a sense of isolation,” extrapolates Marjorie Fischer in the introduction to this seminal work.

Mysteries surround the earliest beginnings of ancient Nubia, and there are numerous unanswered questions, especially about the earliest flowering of the Nubian cultures. Why did the A-Group culture in Lower Nubia, primarily in the southernmost part of Egypt, disappear from the archeological record without a trace?

The first contours of Nubian frontiers were sketched from the records of ancient Egyptian adventurers who traded in exotic goods in the regions south of Egypt. They were aristocrats and pioneers in exploration of territories unknown to the Egyptians.

“Due to the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Merowe Dam in Sudan, many traces of Nubian civilization have disappeared under water,” Fisher elucidates. 

The ethics of conducting research without permission from the Sudanese authorities is a contentious question. The Sudanese government is Islamist in ideological orientation and is not particularly concerned with the country’s pagan past.

But with the questionnaires of contemporary archeologists and the threat of inundation by construction of new dams on the Nile in Ethiopia and Sudan, the urgency of the salvage of ancient Nubian treasures has become more urgent than ever.

The inhabitants of southern Egypt and Sudan still refer to themselves as Nubians. They speak the Nubian languages as well as Arabic. There are four Nubian languages spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and yet we do not know exactly the precise relationship between the Nubian languages of today and those of ancient Nubia. The Meoritic script of ancient Nubia has not been deciphered.

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.

Discovering the various aspects of ancient Nubian culture remains a rewarding challenge for many contemporary scholars. The Oriental Institute conducted research in Nubia from 1960 until 1968. Today, the 5000 Nubian objects in the collection of The Oriental Institute Museum and thousands of objects in other museums provide academicians and laypersons with insights into what was not a folksy-naive and nostalgic sentimental perspective of the ancient Nubians, but rather the ostentatious process of development of a sophisticated culture.

“The earliest examples of texts referring to Nubia are actually found in Egypt and are written in the ancient Egyptian language. These first begin to appear in the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2685-2150 BC), and they record Egyptian incursions into Nubian territory, mostly to confiscate natural resources and imported goods, to take slaves and cattle, and to keep the Nubians from uniting and creating competitive states,” claims Susan Doll, whose chapter Texts and Writing in Ancient Nubia sheds light on an especially controversial topic.

Unlike the Egyptians, the Nubians do not seem to have been particularly interested in empire-building. They Nubians were not united until Napatan and Meroitic kingdoms emerged around 765 BC and the second quarter of the third century BC respectively. In early Egyptian scripts Nubia in its entirety was also called Ta Seti, meaning “Land of the Bow” in reference to its seasoned archers and Nubians were often recruited by the Egyptian military as mercenaries.

Nevertheless, Nubia was subdivided into separate and distinct regions such as Wawat (Lower Nubia) and Kush (Upper Nubia) which in turn included the rather ill-defined Irtjeet, Setju and Yam. Nubiologists disagree on the exact location of these outlying regions. The terms “vile” and “wretched” were often used as derogatory adjectives to describe the Nubians who were the main military challenge to Egypt and ironically the main conduit between Egypt an Africa south of the Sahara.

A blurred image emerges of a somewhat ambiguous relationship between Nubia and  Egypt. Throughout important phases of ancient Egypt and in particular during the New Kingdom, the Egyptians acted as overlords of ancient Nubia. Nevertheless, Nubians often had the upper hand and the Twenty Fifth Dynasty of Egypt was actually Nubian.

Napatan pharaohs of Egypt such as Piankhi, or Piye, (765-22 BC); Shabaqo (722-707 BC); Shebitqo (707-690 BC) and Taharqo (690-664 BC) left a lasting imprint and indelible mark on Egyptian collective consciousness.

Salima Ikram’s chapter entitled From Food to Furniture: Animals in Ancient Nubia, is a fascinating study of animals were of totemic or symbolic significance throughout successive Nubian civilizations. “Animals were a crucial component of Nubian culture and economy: they were a measure of wealth, a source of raw materials for a vast variety of products ranging from food to furniture; cherished pets; valued work animals; trade goods. played a crucial role in religious beliefs; and provided iconographic and artistic inscription,” Ikram notes.

“Ovicaprids (sheep and goats) followed bovids (cattle) in importance as a food source,” she observes. “In addition to meat, cattle supplied milk and its by-products. Although there is no specific evidence for this in ancient Nubia, ethnographic parallels from the Nuer indicate that they might also have been a source of blood that could be cooked (maybe with milk, fat, or cereals), or even taken from a live animal and consumed fresh without harming the creature,” Ikram observes.

This is a particularly insightful observation, for there is much hypothetical ethnographic parallels between the ancient Nubians and the contemporary Nilotic peoples such as the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk of South Sudan. Cattle played a most crucial part in ancient Nubian civilizations, just as they o today among the Nilotic people of South Sudan.

“The ancient Nubians worshipped their gods on hilltops and in caves as well as at the graves of their dead,” writes Janice Yellin. “The religion of the governing elites reflected their extensive and knowledgeable direct contact with Egyptian religion. For the most part, non elites had less contact with Egyptian religion , and so their beliefs did not become nearly as Egyptianized,” Yellin extrapolates.

Elite religion was drawn especially by animal totems,but this great gumbo doesn’t amount to a mess. There were moments of great historical significance where Nubia was center-stage in the ancient world. And, by implication it also had tremendous impact on the rest of Africa, at least on adjacent territories.

What we do know is that certain aspects of ancient Nubian culture can be detected to this day in many West African and East African, particularly Nilotic cultures.

Nubian culture released a grand blaze of artistry, authentic in the indigenous African sense and Egyptian influenced. The ancient Nubians followed considerably more vivacious patterns of Egyptian arts, culture and religion and in particular in the latter stages of the development of the kingdoms of Nubia. Yet, in many ways they tore the Egyptian tradition to tatters, displaying a distinct indigenous African south of the Sahara temperament and brooking no resistance from Egypt.   

The Land of Nubia by Peter Lacovara elucidates that life in ancient Nubia was not a bread and butter issue. The land was inhospitable and yet the Nubians managed to create a perfectly agreeable setting for kingdoms and civilizations with a heel-drumming ardent. A ripple ran round the banks of the River Nile eight centuries ago it influenced Egypt initially and by the end it was itself influenced by Egypt.

The History of Nubia by Marjorie Fisher is another intriguing chapter where the author demonstrates how ceremonial flourishes of successive ancient Nubian civilizations provide potent punctuation.

The stark aridity of the land was thrown to the wildest winds, the Sahara was subdued and the unruly nature of the land tamed. When I last visited the historic Nubian sites I was astounded by the harsh listless landscape. Moving uphill from the highway to the pyramids was quite a feat. But, then I was reminded that nature was far more generous at the time when the ancient Nubian civilizations began.

Bravely stark and richly nuanced, the ancient Nubian civilization flourished even as the climate of the country changed. When it first started, ancient Nubia was more similar to the contemporary Savanna and the plains of East Africa. It was certainly wetter than it is today, and yet the people adapted to climate change.

Saving Nubia’s Legacy by Zahi Hawass is an important chapter in so far as it points to the future with an eye on progressive technological developments. Photography by Zahi Hawass is also impressive. The driving force of ancient Nubian culture was the overreaching conflict, perhaps the exchange of ideas between Egypt and the peoples who inhabited the lands to the south that we now call Sudan. Aswan, Abu in the ancient Egyptian tongue, or Elephantine as the Greeks called it was the presumed border , but it is clear that there was no cultural boundary as such and the religious, intellectual and cultural exchange between Egypt and Nubia was bursting for many a millennia through the arbitrary borders drawn by the ancients.

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