Nubia: Welcome to "God's Land'

Article excerpt

Did you know there are twice as many pyramids in Sudan as there are in Egypt? When recalling humanity's eminent civilisations throughout history, one often thinks of Ancient Egypt, China, the Incas, Mayans, Greeks or the Romans. Never Nubia (Sudan) which, at its peak, presided over a mighty empire that covered great tracts of land through the Nile Valley, and which rivalled the power, influence and wealth of Ancient Egypt. Here, on the back of an ongoing exhibition in London mounted by the British Museum on Sudan, Past and Present, Stuart Price reveals the fascinating history and rise of Africa's Black Pharaohs over 6,000 years ago.


When one thinks of Sudan, the images of the current suffering and chaos in the Darfur region supersede all others. But the country has a much more interesting and fascinating history than contemporary media reports would suggest. In the area which today straddles the regions of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, there once existed a most powerful and wealthy kingdom, ruled by compelling and authoritative kings.



The empire of Nubia stretched along the length of the mighty River Nile from the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at where modern-day Khartoum stands, to as far as the Aswan Dam in Egypt. It was, according to Western historians, "the first known civilisation of Black Africa", but this can only be true if you consider Ancient Egypt as NOT a black African civilisation, which it indeed was, before the Arab conquest of 641 AD.

Attesting to the existence and greatness of Nubia in his book, Art, Politics and Cultural Identification in Sudan published in 2004, Prof Mohamed Abusabib (a Sudanese himself) writes: "According to archaeological records, a distinct culture located in the area north of Khartoum is regarded as the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa. This culture dates back 6,000 years and developed in two prehistoric stages, which are termed the Khartoum Neolithic and the Shaheinab.

"The Nubian civilisation, which existed until the year 350AD, subsequently developed on the banks of the Nile in today's northern Sudan and passed through three historical periods, Kerma (around 3,000 BC), Napata or Kush (9th century BC), and Meroi (7th century BC). Three independent kingdoms were then established following the decline of the Meroi Kingdom, namely, Maris or Nobatia in the far north, Makuria further south, and Alwa or Alodia around the confluence of the two Niles. Byzantine missionaries succeeded in converting these three kingdoms to Christianity in the years 543, 570, and 580 respectively.

"After their conquest of Egypt in 641 AD, the Arab Muslims faced the task of warding off attacks by the Christian Nubians. Following an indecisive victory over the Nubians, the Arab Muslims concluded a treaty known as the Baqt in 652 that formalised matters of mutual advantage, such as security and trade. The Nubian and successive Muslim governments in Egypt maintained an uneasy truce for seven centuries, during which bands of Arabs infiltrated into the southern areas of the Nubian kingdoms as merchants, miners, pilgrims or nomads. Political developments and power struggles within the Nubian political establishment in Makuria eventually led the Egyptians to impose a Muslim puppet upon the kingdom.

Today, the area over which the Nubian civilisation sat has become an environment whose climate is as inhospitable as it is harsh. But it was once a land of exceptional natural wealth blessed with gold, emeralds, copper and ebony--all highly valued by both the Nubians and their neighbours. At their peak, the Nubians invaded and conquered Egypt, ruling over it for more than 100 years and exerting their deep religious beliefs and resolute regard for tradition. Nubia's prominence outlasted that of Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt combined, and at its height, was the centre of the ancient world.

Prof Abusabib quotes the geographer Al-Bakawi who attests to the grandeur of Nubia and its capital Dongola: "A large city in the land of the Nubians. The inhabitants are very numerous; they are Christians and they have a king called Kabil. They pretend that the latter is descended from Himyarte kings. It is among their customs to venerate their kings as a divinity, and they observe the fiction that he never eats. Thus one brings him the food in secret, and if any of his subjects sees him, he is killed instantly. The king has great authority over his subjects who attribute to him the power to make life or to make death."



Prof Abusabib adds: "While the status and attributes of the Nubian king resemble those of other African kings according to this description, they also indicate the resilience of the indigenous Nubian culture." In fact, Nubia developed its own alphabet and language--Meroitic, which still remains un-deciphered today. It established commerce and made significant advances in architecture to rival that of any other powerful civilisation throughout history. Most indicative of Nubia's glorious past are the pyramids of Meroi that greatly outnumber those of Ancient Egypt and still stand as a reminder of a once commanding and dominant civilisation.

Artefacts recovered from archaeological excavations include rudimentary stone tools--hand axes, choppers and other basic yet effective implements featuring small flints set in bone or wooden handles. These findings mirror similar evidence unearthed at archaeological sites in Egypt to the north. Such evidence points toward a civilisation of relative sophistication which had the capability to produce such tools and weaponry. It also substantiates the claim that this particular region of Africa has produced some of the earliest evidence of humankind's existence and habitation. During this epoch of human history, climatic conditions oscillated dramatically, having a significant effect on the animals, plants and overall environment of the region and dictating the survival, success or decline of many species.

It is widely believed that during the fourth millennium BC, two distinctive yet separate cultures emerged along the Nile Valley. To the south of the second cataract (see map) developed a group known as the Pre-Kerma culture. Although its entire territory is not known, evidence of various wooden buildings and grain storage pits have been uncovered at sites located in Kerma and Sai, an island located beyond the Nile's Fourth Cataract.

To the north of this area, near the Ancient Egyptian border, was an area the Pharaohs called Wawat. This was the region they termed Lower Nubia, situated in contemporary southern Egypt with Upper Nubia in northern Sudan. The name Wawat was derived from a group of Nubian chiefdoms located in the region. This population, situated between the First and Second Cataracts of the Nile, was known as the A-Group, a term invented by the American archaeologist George Reisner, which along with the C-Group, was used to characterise the different civilisations that thrived between 3,000 and 1,500 BC in Lower Nubia.

A flourishing and successful culture, they were typified by a variety of Ancient Egyptian goods and artefacts. Like their southern Upper Nubia counterparts, the A-Group settlements included storage pits and wooden constructions. But more significant was their use of "egg-shell" pottery, as from this point onwards, the use of such craftsmanship became and remained commonplace in the Sudanese Nile Valley for the next 4,000 years. With the area of Nubia stretching along the route of the Nile, it was for many centuries a vital and important trade route between the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa. It meant that the inhabitants of Nubia often came into contact with their neighbours and people from other cultures.

Evidence of this is reflected in the archaeological records of the area, which prove an Ancient Egyptian-influenced culture and existence. Nubia's prosperity, power and wealth were underpinned by its position as a conduit for trade through the region. Indeed, it was the A-Group who acted almost as "middlemen" between the Ancient Egyptians and the more southerly Pre-Kerma people. The position saw the trade of Egyptian goods southwards and Pre-Kerma artefacts moving to the north. By 3,000 BC, the Ancient Egyptians had begun looking towards the lands of Nubia and realising the potential of the raw materials and riches that sub-Saharan Africa possessed. They called this area, to the south and southeast of their territory, Ta-Netjer or "God's Land". It encompassed the whole wider region to include all the different countries and people of this area of Africa. The Ancient Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Seti which means the "Land of the Bow". It is some of the earliest proof of the Nubian people's adept skills as archers and feared soldiers, something which was to exist for thousands of years after the Egyptians first described them in early inscriptions around 3,200 BC.

By 2,500 BC, a powerful kingdom had begun to be established around the Third Cataract of the Nile. The Kingdom of Kerma was to rise and become the first great empire of Nubia, influencing a thousand years of "Kerma culture" as archaeologists have come to name it. The city of Kerma has been documented as the first urban centre in all of sub-Saharan Africa. It evolved into a developed town and centre for trading with a temple and religious complex, a royal palace, storehouses, administrative buildings and metalwork furnaces, all surrounded by formidable defences.

An agrarian society, Kerma's prosperity was due to the particularly fertile land along the Nile basin that also provided suitable conditions for the rearing and farming of a variety of livestock. The extent of which animal husbandry played in the Kerma people's existence is reflected in the huge number of sacrificed animals used in royal burials: one particular tomb was found to contain the remains of over 4,000 cattle.

After Kerma, rose Napata or Kush which rapidly grew and established itself throughout the Nile Valley and became Ancient Egypt's principle trading partner, providing the wealth and riches from sub-Saharan Africa that the Pharaohs so greatly desired. Interestingly, in spite of the resources that Kush supplied Ancient Egypt, the Egyptians spoke of Kush in disparaging terms such as 'vile' or 'wretched'. This maybe due to not only the increasing wealth and affluence of Kush, but also as a result of its increasing power and might which compelled the Egyptians to construct massive fortresses and defences along their southern border with Nubia between the First and Second Cataracts. It was around 1700 BC that Kush rose to become the most powerful state in the Nile Valley after the Egyptians had withdrawn from the area between the First and Fourth Cataracts, a vacuum which the Kushites as they were known, quickly filled. In doing so, they extended their rule from the First Cataract all the way upstream to the Fifth.

Once again, the power and influence of the Kushite rulers was represented in their vast and extravagant burial mounds and chambers, full of rich and valuable artefacts and sacrificed individuals to accompany the occupant into the next world. One such mound contained the remains of some 400 people.

With Kush's power growing ever greater and allied to the fact that the Hyksos--Palestinian invaders--had begun attacking northern Egypt, Kush now posed a significant threat to Ancient Egypt and its territory. The situation progressed to war around 1550 BC when an invigorated 18th Dynasty of Egypt invaded Kush. It was the Egyptian pharaoh, Thutmose I, who eventually conquered Nubia around 1500 BC. Despite the significant defences, the city of Kerma, Kush's capital, was overran and destroyed. Thus with the southern border of the Ancient Egyptian empire established, Nubia was designated a viceroy under the title of "King's Son of Kush". The viceroy represented the pharaoh and oversaw the steady flow of Nubian tribute, especially gold, to Ancient Egypt. Nubia was now essentially divided into two separate administrative units: Wawat in the north (with Aswan as its headquarters) and Kush to the south (whose provincial capital was at Napata). Under the viceroy was a deputy for each province and a network of other officials. Colonies of Ancient Egyptian traders, bureaucrats and priests established themselves around the administrative centres, but beyond these settlements, Nubians continued to practise their own traditional customs, crafts and traditions.



As Kush's position was central to the trade routes between Egypt, the Red Sea and along the Nile further into sub-Saharan Africa, it brought substantial wealth from a diversity of far-off places. Its hills contained gold and emerald mines that provided bullion and jewels for the pharaohs. The Ancient Egyptians thus established and then sustained a colonial presence in Nubia for more than 1,000 years.

Initially this presence was purely for the purpose of exploiting the resources of the region, particularly the gold, ivory, timber, animal products and slaves that sub-Saharan Africa provided. The River Nile afforded the perfect conduit to transport this bounty from areas further south when Nubian sources and supplies were depleted.

However, as the Ancient Egyptians' reach extended ever further southwards and political differences at home weakened their power, the Nubians assumed control of sections of the trade route. Before long, they were presiding over the entire passage from Aswan to Khartoum and into the lands beyond, from which trade flowed from the heart of Africa. Nubia was presided over by the Ancient Egyptians and their viceroys until internal problems in the early 11th century exposed weaknesses in their rule and brought an end to its third and longest occupation. This ultimately led to the reinvigoration of the Kingdom of Kush, principally because of the power vacuum created by the Egyptian decline. But this time and unlike its predecessor Kerma, Kush's seat of power was situated upstream around the Nile's Fourth Cataract at Napata. However, in spite of their previous links to the Ancient Egyptians, the viceroys, supported by their formidable Nubian armies, became almost independent kings, free from Egyptian control.

As this trend continued, by the 8th century BC, the kings of Kush were, according to experts from the British museum, "hereditary ruling families of Egyptianised Nubian chiefs who possessed neither political nor family ties with Egypt". It was during this century that the Kushites kings invaded and conquered Egypt as defenders and champions of the Egyptian god, Amun. Under King Kashta and then his son Piankhi, the whole of Egypt (up to the shores of the Mediterranean) came under the control of the Kushite administration. At this time, the Kushite Empire stretched as far as the borders of Palestine and further south to both the White and Blue Niles, creating a kingdom that ran from the confluence of the two rivers all the way to the Mediterranean coast. But it wasn't to last. After 100 years of ruling this vast kingdom, the Kushite kings lost it to the Assyrians who invaded Ancient Egypt in 671 BC from the upper Tigris Valley and the Armenian mountains where they originated from. With their far superior iron-forged weaponry, the Assyrians forced the Kushites with their bronze weapons and despite being commanded by the much-feared Taharqa, to retreat. They were driven back to the centre of Nubia and their capital Napata, unable to match the military hardware of the Assyrians.

Although the Kushite Kingdom was significantly reduced by the invasion, the inhospitable and barren hills south of Aswan prevented the Assyrian invaders from the north progressing further. This left the nucleus of the Kushites intact and they continued to rule over the middle Nile region for another 1,000 years. Around 600 BC, the main capital of Nubia was moved further south to the provincial town of Meroi, heralding the rise of the third kingdom of Nubia. The relocation from Napata to Meroi was perhaps made through the possibility of further attack from Egypt. The geographical advantages the location offered were many. John Reader, in his authoritative book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, writes of Meroi:

"The tract of land, 250km broad, lying between the points at which the Atbara and the Blue Nile join the main stream of the White Nile is known as the 'island of Meroe' [sic]. To the security of distance and an enclosing arc of broad rivers on three sides, the southerly position of Meroe also offered its inhabitants the benefits of a well-defined wet season each July and August.

"In distinct contrast with the arid climatic regime of the Nile Valley further north in Nubia, where the narrow floodplain offered limited opportunity for even irrigated cultivation, the island of Meroe lay within the zone of tropical rainfall. Total rainfall was never more than 190mm, but this was sufficient to support rain-fed crops of indigenous sorghum and millet; furthermore, rain enabled the farmers of Meroe to extend their cultivation away from the immediate vicinity of the river. With extensive rain-fed agriculture, and grasslands to [the] east and west supporting herds of cattle and other livestock, Meroe was founded on a robust mixed-farming economy.

"Add to this the fortuity of access to the Red Sea and to the resources of the African hinterland at a time when rising Greek and Roman prosperity had created a demand for exotic goods, the wealth and power of Meroe at its height during the last few centuries BC is not at all surprising, particularly since the island of Meroe was also richly endowed with both iron ore and the hardwood timber needed for charcoal."

It is here at Meroi, the largest site of Nubian civilisation, that the burial pyramids were constructed to house the bodies of kings and queens, nobles and wealthy individuals. Indeed it is a little known fact that Sudan actually has twice as many pyramids as Egypt. It is one of Africa's best kept secrets. Similar to the Egyptians, the Nubians were also strong believers in the afterlife which they considered to bear a resemblance to their physical existence, and so they constructed large burial chambers and pyramids as an ever-lasting home for the dead. For the Nubians, the underground burial tomb represented the underworld, the place where the embalmed body would lie. The pyramid itself symbolised the rising sun and the resurrection. The physical structure represented a ladder up to heaven, allowing the king's soul to ascend and join the company of the gods.

Located on the eastern side of the pyramid was a small chapel where sacrifices intended to accompany the deceased on their travels could be placed. It was also a place of prayer and worship associated with the cult of the dead. Although not as grand in physical size as their Egyptian counterparts--being steeper and smaller solid monuments constructed above tombs rather than containing chambers--the pyramids at Meroi are a reminder even today of Nubia's greatness and stature. Sadly, archaeologists have discovered that all the underground tombs of Meroi's pyramids have been plundered of their one time riches. According to records, the Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini smashed the tops off some 40 pyramids in 1820 in a bid to discover treasure and bounty, only to find just one cache of gold.



During the third reign of the kings of Meroi, over 40 generations of Nubian royalty were buried. Every royal tomb was housed by a pyramid. Despite the majority being plundered in ancient times after the demise of the kingdom, pictures and drawings discovered in the tombs' funerary chapels revealed that the kings and queens were first embalmed before being adorned with jewellery and laid in wooden mummy cases. Some of the rock-cut tombs also contained remnants of weaponry such as bows, quivers from arrows, archer's thumb rings and horse harnesses, indicating the occupants enjoyed political power but might not necessarily have been royalty.

Alongside coloured glass and metal vessels were other artefacts imported from Egypt and the Greek and Roman worlds. These findings highlighted connections to the emerging great civilisations and empires in Europe through their continued links and trade routes with Egypt, which Rome had conquered in 332 BC.

Like its predecessors, the third Nubian kingdom, Meroi, fell into decline. By the 4th century AD, the last of the kings and queens had been buried.

One of the contributing factors to Meroi's collapse was environmental dilapidation and unsustainable use of natural resources. The felling of trees to fuel iron-smelting furnaces which had become one of the pillars that propelled Meroi to its greatness was conducted at a faster rate than could be naturally replenished.

This "mass" deforestation inevitably led to soil erosion and the washing-away of nutrient rich topsoil. For a culture and people dependent on agrarian practices and produce, when the land no longer became productive, their fate was sealed. In essence, Nubia was an extension of Ancient Egyptian civilisation and culture in what the Pharaohs termed the land of Punt or Black Africa. Despite the empire cultivating and defining its own characteristic religious and cultural concepts, Nubia ultimately developed under the effect of Egyptian influence. Their gods were worshipped in similar Egyptian style temples, and pyramids were constructed as monuments to their deceased rulers. Hieroglyphic inscriptions documented their culture and achievements that later developed into their own Meroitic language.

Meroi was the most southerly point of an empire that was created and sustained on the bounty and resources that flowed from the heart of sub-Saharan Africa on the shoulders of the Nile.

The peoples and culture of the Nubian civilisation were as glorious as they were progressive and powerful. Yet the prospect of discovering more details through further archaeological studies in Nubia is now virtually unachievable. Many of the important sites that may have held yet more secrets about the Nubians now lie at the bottom of some 250 feet of water in the second largest man-made lake in the world, Lake Nasser, a product of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. The many sites that could have potentially yielded so much information regarding the glory of Nubia and the Black Africans from the Nile Valley region, will now forever remain a mystery.


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