Article excerpt

The century that embraced the last half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth formed a critical period in the creation of the modern Sudan. For the eastern kingdom of Sinnar, centered in the Nile valley, this "Heroic Age" witnessed the rise of towns and a middle class at the expense of a central government grounded in older principles of political economy.1 The new middle class continued to flourish under the Turco-Egyptian colonial regime established in 1821, and its prosperity was intimately linked to the acquisition and deployment of slaves.2 To facilitate its break with the past, it adopted a new Arab ethnic identity.3 The wide western lands of Kordofan had long been an integral part of successive precolonial kingdoms based on the Nile, including Makuria, Alodia, and Sinnar.4 From the mid-eighteenth century, however, Fur-speaking Musabba'at and Keira intruded from the west, and gradually wrested authority away from the eastern kings.5 The territory they acquired was vast and diverse. South Kordofan was a hilly region about the size of South Carolina, where some ninety different languages were spoken by diverse communities who clustered on and around low mountains called jabals. North Kordofan was an arid lowland about the size of Texas, punctuated at intervals by rocky desert crags. In 1821 the Turco-Egyptians annexed North Kordofan, while the southern realm of Taqali and other mountain districts struggled toward independence.6 In Kordofan, as on the Nile, the difficult transitional century from 1750 to 1850 was characterized by the rise of a middle class, changes in the rules governing the acquisition and deployment of slaves, and shifts in ethnic identity.

The Nubians

An ancient community of African people entered the historical record in the fourth century AD in an inscription of the Ethiopian emperor Ezana. Ezana had intervened in the Nile valley kingdom of Meroe in response to the arrival of a group of invaders known as the "Nuba" or "Nubians," and for the next thousand years the Nubians dominated the history of the Nile valley.7 It was reasonably obvious that the origin of these "Nuba" was Kordofan.8 Time passed. By the twentieth century, the Nubian language family was seen to include two major languages spoken along the banks of the great river in southern Egypt and North Sudan-Kenzi-Dongolawi and Nobiin. The present author has defended the viewpoint that Nobiin Nubian was probably the dominant language of the Nile Valley as far south as the confluence and beyond until the sixteenth century AD. At the close of the Middle Ages, folk of Christian Nubia became Muslims, but the notion that they should also become Arabs was an idea whose time had not yet come.9 The twentieth-century Nubian language family also included remote and isolated relict tongues, two spoken in the northernmost jabals of the Nuba Mountains, Kadero-Koldagi and Debri, and two by communities in eastern Dar Fur, Birgid (probably now extinct) and Meidob.10 But by the twenty-first century, studies by Herman Bell and M.W. Daly had demonstrated the survival into the 1930s of Nubian-speaking communities at numerous mountainous sites in North Kordofan." By the turn of the present millennium the vast distances between Aswan and the Nuba Mountains, and between Dar Fur and the Nile, were filled by an extinct Nubian-speaking community hitherto unknown.

"Nuba" or "Nubians"?

With the benefit of hindsight provided by Bell and Daly, surprising new information about the lost nation suddenly leaped from hitherto-neglected pages, not only of C.A.E. Lea, but also the earlier German traveler Eduard Ruppell and the Austrian colonial technocrat Joseph, Ritter von Russegger, who visited Kordofan in the period 1823-1837.12 At that time at least one Nubian language was spoken throughout the semi-sedentary settlements based on the North Kordofan desert crags.u Nubian was the original language of El Obeid and its environs.14 Only Nubian was spoken west of El Obeid across the wide plains toward the border of Dar Fur where predominantly pastoralist communities relied not upon camels, but upon pack-oxen,15 and the Nubian language Birgid was spoken not only, as recently, in the corridor between al-Fashir and Nyala, but as far south as the Bahr al-Arab/Kir River. …