Modern Nubians and Allies Defend an Ancient Land ; from TV Specials to Museum Exhibits, the Ancient Civilization Is Back

By Sarah Gauch, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Modern Nubians and Allies Defend an Ancient Land ; from TV Specials to Museum Exhibits, the Ancient Civilization Is Back


Sarah Gauch,, The Christian Science Monitor


In the dim light of the ancient Temple of Isis, Rodney Ryland decides now is the time. The African-American tourist turns to his girlfriend and asks her to marry him.

"If there was any place I should do it, it was in this place, because of Isis Temple, built by us and for us," he says.

Mr. Ryland is fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit the land of his ancestors. In particular, he's come to Egypt to see the Pharaonic-style monuments built by Nubians - a people who have lived for centuries along the Nile Valley in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and who for a time ruled ancient Egypt.

Ryland joins a growing group of Americans interested in learning about this brilliant African culture, which is similar to the Pharaohs' in many respects. This interest has resulted in an increasing number of museums sponsoring Nubian exhibits, and in "Nubia" popping up in organization titles, store names, and literature.

In October, PBS aired a special on Africa, "Wonders of the African World," which included a segment on Nubia.

But while the American public discovers this intriguing culture of yesterday, the Nubians of today are fighting a desperate battle to preserve traditions - such as their music, a mix of Arabic sounds with African undertones, and the design of their mud-brick homes along the Nile, each featuring a courtyard in the middle. More than that, Nubians, who number about 3 million, are fighting for their very existence.

"Our people have become an endangered species," says Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, a leading Nubian activist in Khartoum, Sudan. "The world's animals are being protected. Why aren't people protecting us?"

For decades, flooding has forced Nubians to leave their homes along a fertile 1,000-mile stretch of the river from Aswan south to Sudan, tearing apart their social fabric and forcing them to integrate into the larger and more influential societies of Egypt and Sudan. Now, Nubians say, the Sudanese government is threatening to build yet another dam that would flood the largest remaining Nubian population center - along with invaluable Nubian archaeological monuments.

Sudanese Nubians still vividly remember moving to make way for the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. They were relocated to concrete blocks of government tract housing miles into the desert. Egyptian Nubians, meanwhile, moved into bland government housing more than one mile from the Nile.

"The houses were a shock," says Magda Ali, a Nubian from Sudan, who was 13 at the time. "There was nothing green. The windows were made of aluminum, and the floors were covered with cement, instead of lovely yellow sand."

Mindful of the past, Nubians are conducting demonstrations and international letter-writing campaigns to oppose the new dam. They're also supporting an Egyptian government agricultural project that will relocate Nubians back to the Nile, south of Aswan. …

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