Nubia: Rediscovering African Kingdoms

By Grzymski, Krzystztof | American Visions, October-November 1993 | Go to article overview

Nubia: Rediscovering African Kingdoms


Grzymski, Krzystztof, American Visions


For 3,000 years, in peaceful commerce and in barbarous war, in triumph and in defeat, the ancient African kingdoms of Nubia were Egypt's southern neighbors - and rivals. Egyptian temples and pyramids have been visited by millions of tourists and are illustrated in fancy albums and history textbooks, but where is Nubia? Though there are more royal pyramids still standing in Nubia than there are in Egypt and though the temples of Musawwarat es Sufra and Naga in central Sudan are as worthy of a visit as the temples of Egypt or Greece, the modern world is almost entirely ignorant of Nubia's glorious past. It's as if Nubia lay not along the Nile to Egypt's south, but rather entirely in Egypt's shadow.

The ancient world was not so ignorant of a land that spawned several distinct cultures over the long span of 3800 B.C. to A.D. 600 (see sidebar "Nubia Through 6,000 Years"). The early Egyptians first knew the land as Ta-Seti (the Land of the Bow), then as Wawat and later as Meroe. The Bible speaks of Nubia as Kush. Still later, the Greeks and Romans called it Aethiopia (today's Ethiopia being known to them as Abyssinia), with the earliest Greek "historian," Herodotus, accepting the accounts of tradition and calling the Nubians the "tallest and handsomest" people in the world.

Accounting for our present ignorance is simple. The 19th-century scholars who opened up Egypt's past virtually created the profession of archaeology. They were brilliant and tenacious researchers, and the world is deeply in their debt. But they were so overwhelmed by Egypt that they could never properly see Nubia. In their eyes, anything Nubian was a pale reflection of things Egyptian. Many of the artifacts and buildings of Nubia do, indeed, show strong Egyptian influence, but what was overlooked was the local element in the material culture - and even more so in the spiritual culture. This Egyptocentric bias limited archaeological study of Nubian cultures and placed the few found Nubian artifacts merely as side attractions to Egyptian objects.

The study of Nubia was also hindered by the practical difficulties of reaching out-of-the-way sites and by a prejudice that deprecated black Africa's contribution to civilization. Today, fortunately, all of these factors are on the wane, and Nubian cultures are being studied in their own right, evaluated on their own terms and revealed in all their magnificence.

Indeed, during the last two years, several museums in North America have opened permanent galleries or displayed temporary exhibitions devoted to the ancient cultures of Nubia. Popular culture, too, is catching up on the Nubian civilizations that once flourished in the far-away land on the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. A few years ago, the Nubian kingdom of Kush was discussed in an episode of the Cosby show.

Nor is North America unique: Nubian exhibitions and galleries have also opened in recent years in London, Berlin, Geneva and Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a large Nubian museum will soon open in Aswan, Egypt.

Most of the existing Nubian collections were created 30 years ago, when for one brief moment Nubia was on the front pages of the world press. The Egyptian government was building its great Aswan High Dam near the Nile's First Cataract, and the resulting artificial lake (Lake Nasser) was to flood entirely the land between the First and Second cataracts. The soon-to-be-covered land was Lower Nubia. Before the world lost much of its precious heritage, an international rescue campaign was organized under the auspices of the United Nations Scientific, Technical and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Participating foreign missions were offered half of the discoveries that would otherwise have been permanently lost. Several American museums and universities participated in the UNESCO Salvage Campaign, and their share of finds forms the backbone of the major Nubian collections in this country.

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