From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 10:09, 11 March 2023 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
The modern region of "Nubia".

Nubia is a region in Southern Egypt along the Nile River and in what is now northern Sudan. While the ancient kingdoms of Nubia had changing boundaries, modern Nubia is roughly thought of as the region along the Nile, south of Aswan, up to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Sudan. Most of Nubia is situated in Sudan with about a quarter of its territory in Egypt. In ancient times, it was an independent kingdom that flourished from 3300 B.C.E. to 1300 C.E. In addition to its political importance, Nubia was a vital trade route for Egypt, providing a corridor between Egypt and tropical Africa. Egyptian craftsmen were able to use ivory, ebony, and special woods that came through Nubia from tropical Africa.

Nubia is the homeland of Africa's earliest black civilization with a history which can be traced from 3300 B.C.E. onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts, as well as written records from Egypt and Rome. In antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense which was always prized by her neighbors.

Etymology and language

A large variety of languages are spoken in the Nubia region due to its long history of organized civilizations and external migrations. In the northern part of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, a subbranch of the Nilo-Saharan subfamily including Nobiin, Kenuzi-Dongola, Midob and several related varieties is present. An offshoot of this group (Birgid), was also spoken (at least until 1970) north of Nyala in Darfur, but that is now extinct. Historically prominent is Old Nubian, which was used in mostly religious texts dating from the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., and is considered ancestral to modern day Nobiin.

Linguistic evidence suggests that the Nubians in the Nile Valley were related to peoples originally from the south or southwest. Comparative historical research into the Nubian language group has indicated that the Nile-Nubian languages must have split off from the Nubian languages still spoken in the Nuba Mountains in Kordofan, Sudan, at least 2500 years ago.[1] Recent studies in population genetics suggest that there was a south-to-north gene flow through the Nile Valley.[2]



By the fifth millennium B.C.E., the peoples who inhabited what is now called Nubia, were full participants in the Neolithic revolution. Saharan rock reliefs depict scenes that have been thought to be suggestive of a cattle cult, typical of those seen throughout parts of Eastern Africa and the Nile Valley even to this day.[3] The Nubians were conquered by the Egyptians during the reign of Kush. Megaliths discovered at Nabta Playa are early examples of what seems to be the world's first Archaeoastronomy devices, predating Stonehenge by at least one thousand years.[4] This complexity, as observed at Nabta Playa, and as expressed by different levels of authority within the society there, likely formed the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt.[5]

Around 3800 B.C.E., the first "Nubian" culture arose, termed the A-Group, and it was contemporary, ethnically, and culturally very similar to the polities in predynastic Naqadan Upper Egypt.[6][7]

According to F.A. Hassan, the Neolithic in the Nile valley likely came from the Sudan, as well as the Sahara, and there was shared culture with the two areas and with that of Egypt during this time period.[8]

Around 3300 B.C.E., there is evidence of a unified kingdom, as shown by the finds at Qustul, that maintained substantial interactions (both cultural and genetic) with the culture of Naqadan, Upper Egypt, and even contributed to the unification of the Nile valley, and very likely contributed some pharaonic iconography, such as the white crown and serekh, later to be used by the famous Egyptian pharaohs.[9][10] Around the turn of the protodynastic period, Naqada, in its bid to conquer and unify the whole Nile valley, seems to have conquered Ta-Seti (the kingdom where Qustul was located) and harmonized it with the Egyptian state, and thus it became the first nome of Upper Egypt.

By this time, in addition to its political importance, Nubia had become a vital trade route for Egypt, providing a corridor between Egypt and tropical Africa. This can be seen by 3100 B.C.E., a period when Egyptian craftsmen were able to use ivory, ebony, and special woods that came through Nubia from tropical Africa.

However, the A-Group began to decline in the early twenty-eighth century B.C.E. The succeeding era's culture is known as B-Group. Previously, the B-Group people were thought to have invaded from elsewhere. Today, most historians believe that B-Group was merely A-Group, but far less developed. The causes of this are uncertain, but one theory holds that it was caused by Egyptian invasions and pillaging that began at this time.

Early history

Nubia is the homeland of Africa's earliest black civilization with a history which can be traced from 3300 B.C.E. onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts, as well as written records from Egypt and Rome. In antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense which was always prized by her neighbors.

Old Kingdom Egyptian accounts of trade missions first mentioned Nubia in 2300 B.C.E. Egyptians imported gold, incense, ebony, ivory, and exotic animals from tropical Africa through Nubia. Aswan, right above the First Cataract, marked the southern limit of Egyptian control. As trade between Egypt and Nubia increased, so did wealth and stability.

By the sixth dynasty of Egypt, Nubia was divided into a series of small kingdoms. Scholars debate whether these C-Group peoples, who flourished from c. 2240 B.C.E. to c. 2150 B.C.E., were another internal evolution from the B-Group, or invaders. There are definite similarities between the pottery of A-Group and C-Group, so it may be a return of the ousted Group-As, or an internal revival of lost arts. The Sahara Desert was becoming too arid to support human beings. These may have been a sudden influx of Saharan nomads. C-Group pottery was characterized by all-over incised geometric lines with white infill and impressed imitations of basketry.

A contemporaneous, but distinct, culture from the C-Group was the Pan Grave culture, so called because of their shallow graves. Shallow graves produced mummies naturally. The Pan Graves are associated with the East bank of the Nile, but the Pan Graves and C-Group definitely interacted. Their pottery is characterized by incised lines of a more limited character than those of the C-Group. It generally had interspersed undecorated spaces within the geometric scheme.

During this period, trade with Egypt continued and during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 B.C.E.), Egypt began expanding into Nubia to gain more control over the trade routes in Northern Nubia and direct access to trade with Southern Nubia. They erected a chain of forts down the Nile below the Second Cataract. These garrisons seemed to have peaceful relations with the local Nubian people, but little interaction during the period.

Shell bracelet from a c.1800 B.C.E. Nubian mercenary grave

From the C-Group culture, the Kingdom of Kerma arose as the first kingdom to unify much of the region. It was named for its presumed capital at Kerma, one of the earliest urban centers in tropical Africa. By 1750 B.C.E., the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick. They created rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife and large human sacrifices. The craftsmen were skilled in metalworking and their pottery surpassed in skill that of Egypt. Reisner excavated sites at Kerma and found large tombs and a palace-like structure ('Deffufa'), alluding to the early stability in the region. By 1650 B.C.E., Kerma had become powerful enough to administer the entire area between the first and fourth Cataracts of the Nile.[11]

However, relations with Egypt were apparently tense at times and at one point around 1550 B.C.E., Kerma defeated Egypt in a major battle, with Egypt suffering a "humiliating defeat" by the hands of the Nubians.[12] According to Davies, head of the joint British Museum and Egyptian archaeological team which discovered evidence of this battle, the attack was so devastating that, had the Kerma forces chosen to stay and occupy Egypt, they might have been able to destroy Egyptian civilization.

Yet soon afterward, Egypt's power was revived under the New Kingdom (c. 1532–1070 B.C.E.) and Egypt began to expand farther southward. Destroying the kingdom and capital of Kerma, Egyptians expanded to the Fourth Cataract. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I in 1520 B.C.E., Egyptians had annexed all of northern Nubia. They built a new administrative center at Napata, and used the area to produce gold. This made Egypt the prime source of gold in Africa and the Middle East during the New Kingdom.

In the late twelfth century B.C.E., though, Egyptian power was in decline and by 1070 B.C.E. the New Kingdom fell and Egyptian administration in Nubia came to an end. With this opening, and local Nubian rulers reasserted themselves.


While Egyptian forces pulled out by the eleventh century, they left a lasting legacy. A merger with indigenous customs can be seen in many of the practices formed during the kingdom of Kush. Archaeologists have found several burials which seem to belong to local leaders, buried here soon after the Egyptians decolonized the Nubian frontier. Kush adopted many Egyptian practices, such as their religion and the practice of building pyramids.

However, Kushite power soon overshadowed Egyptian. In the eighth century B.C.E., under the leadership of king Piye, Kush invaded and controlled Egypt itself for a period (the Ethiopian dynasty). Kushite kings would hold sway over their northern neighbors for nearly one hundred years. Of the Nubian kings of this era, Taharqa is perhaps the best known. A son and the third successor of King Piye, Taharqa was crowned king in c. 690 in Memphis. He ruled over both Nubia and Egypt and devoted himself to all kinds of peaceful works, like the restoration of ancient temples in both Egypt and Nubia and building new sanctuaries, like the one at Kawa. In February/March 673, an army sent by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon was defeated by the Egyptians, but this was the last of Egyptian successes. In April 671, the Assyrians were back, and this time, they captured Memphis (July 11). Taharqa had left the city, but his brother and son were taken prisoner.

In Lower Egypt, Esarhaddon appointed the native princes as governors. One of these was Necho I, a descendant of Tefnakht, who resided in Sais in the western Delta. Meanwhile, Taharqo fought back, reoccupied in Memphis in 669, and forced the princes into submission.

This provoked a third Assyrian campaign, which was broken off because Esarhaddon died. He was succeeded by Ashurbanipal, who conducted the fourth campaign in 667/666, took Memphis, and sacked Thebes. Because the princes were obviously unreliable, the Assyrian king chose one of them who could be trusted: Necho. When, after Taharqo's death in 664, his successor Tanwetamani tried to reconquer Memphis (the subject of the Dream Stela), Necho beat him, and although he was killed in action, power remained in his family. It was his son Psammetichus I, who unified Egypt, and was clever enough to give the Assyrians the impression that he still served them once they had been forced to recall their garrisons when civil war broke out in Assyria (651-648). The sphinx of Taharqa was found at Kawa Sudan, and is now on display in the British Museum.


Pyramids at Meroe

Meroë (800 B.C.E. – c. 350 C.E.) lay on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum. There the people preserved many ancient Egyptian customs, but their culture was unique in many respects. They developed their own form of writing, first using Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later creating an alphabetic script with 23 signs.[13] Meroe leaders had many pyramids built during this period. The kingdom maintained an impressive standing military force.

According to legend, Alexander the Great assembled his forces in 332 B.C.E. with the intent to conquer the mineral-rich region. According to descriptions of the event, he was confronted with the brilliant military formation of their warrior queen, Candace of Meroë, who was leading the army from atop an elephant, and Alexander concluded it would be best to withdraw his forces.[14] Following the withdrawal, he turned his army toward Egypt, which he conquered without resistance, and he never made another attempt to enter Nubia. This story is one that comes from the fictionalized Alexander Romance and is thought to be legendary;[15] [16] indeed, historical accounts show that Alexander never invaded Nubia and did not attempt to move further south than the oasis of Siwa in Egypt.[15]

Strabo describes a similar clash with the Romans, in which the Roman army fought Nubian archers under the leadership of another Kentake. This queen was described as "one-eyed," being blind in one eye.[17] The strategic formations used by this second queen are well documented in Strabo's description. After her initial victory when she attacked Roman territory, she was defeated and surrendered.[18][19] She succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty on favorable terms. The kingdom of Meroë began to fade as a power by the first or second century C.E., sapped by the war with the Roman province of Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries.[20] Eventually Meroë was defeated by a new rising kingdom to their south, Askum, under King Ezana of Axum.

Christian Nubia

Around 350 C.E. the area was invaded by the Eritrean and Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed. Eventually three smaller kingdoms replaced it: northernmost was Nobatia between the first and second cataract of the Nile River, with its capital at Pachoras (modern day Faras); in the middle was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and southernmost was Alodia, with its capital at Soba (near Khartoum).

King Silko of Nobatia crushed the Blemmyes, and recorded his victory in a Greek inscription carved in the wall of the temple of Talmis (modern Kalabsha) around 500 C.E.

While bishop Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated one Marcus as bishop of Philae before his death in 373 C.E., showing that Christianity had penetrated the region by the fourth century, John of Ephesus records that a Monophysite priest named Julian converted the king and his nobles of Nobatia around 545. John of Ephesus also writes that the kingdom of Alodia was converted around 569 C.E.. However, John of Bisclorum records that the kingdom of Makuria was converted to Roman Catholicism the same year, suggesting that John of Ephesus might have been mistaken. Further doubt was cast on John's testimony by an entry in the chronicle of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria Eutychius, which stated that in 719 C.E., the church of Nubia transferred its allegiance from the Greek Orthodox to the Coptic Church.

By the 7th century, Makuria expanded and became the dominant power in the region. It was strong enough to halt the southern expansion of Islam after the Arabs had taken Egypt. After several failed invasions, the new rulers in Egypt agreed to a treaty with Dongola to allow for peaceful coexistence and trade. This treaty held for six hundred years. Over time the influx of Arab traders introduced Islam to Nubia. Islam gradually supplanted Christianity.

As Mamluks dominated the area in 1315, and appointed a Nubian prince who converted to Islam. Subsequent conversions to Islam proceeded. While there are records of a bishop at Qasr Ibrim in 1372, his see had come to include that located at Faras. Archeological evidence demonstrates that by 1350, the "Royal" church at Dongola had been converted to a mosque.

Modern Nubia

The influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom. A major part of the modern Nubian population became Arab and the majority of Nubians were converted to Islam. Today, the Arabic language is their main media of communication along with the indigenous old Nubian language. The unique characteristic of Nubian is shown in their culture (dress, dances, traditions and music) as well as their indigenous language.

In the fourteenth century, the Dongolan government collapsed and the region became divided and dominated by Egypt. The region was invaded frequently during the next centuries. A number of smaller kingdoms were established for limited periods. In the sixteenth century, Egypt gained control of Northern Nubia, while the Kingdom of Sennar took over much of the south.

During the rule of Mehemet Ali in the early nineteenth century, Egypt took control over the entire Nubian region. Later it became a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium. With the end of colonialism in the twentieth century, the territory of Nubia was divided between Egypt and Sudan.

Many Egyptian Nubians were forcibly resettled to make room for Lake Nasser after the construction of the dams at Aswan. Nubian villages can now be found north of Aswan on the west bank of the Nile and on Elephantine Island, and many Nubians live in large cities such as Cairo. Egyptian Nubians tend to be far more socio-economically disadvantaged within Egypt, as to Sudanese Nubians in Sudan.


  1. Joseph Greenberg as cited in Robin Thelwall. "Linguistic Aspects of Greater Nubian History," in C. Ehret & M. Posnansky, (eds.) The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. (Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1982), 39–56. (1982).
  2. C.L. Fox, "mtDNA analysis in ancient Nubians supports the existence of gene flow between sub-Sahara and North Africa in the Nile Valley," in Annals of Human Biology 24 (3): 217–227.
  3. Dr. Stuart Tyson Smith, Dept. of Anthropology, UCLA, History of Nubia Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  4. PlanetQuest: The History of Astronomy: Nabta Playa, history of archaeoastronomical site Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  5. Fred Wendorf, Anthropology Department, Southern Methodist University, Late Neolithic megalithic structures at Nabta Playa (Sahara). Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  6. Maria Gatto, Archaeology's Interactive Dig, Hunting for the Elusive Nubian A-Group People Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  7. S.O.Y. Keita, Further Studies of Crania From Ancient Northern Africa: An Analysis of Crania From First Dynasty Egyptian Tombs, Using Multiple Discriminant Functions. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87 (1992): 245–254 Retrieved December 25, 2008.
  8. S.O.Y. Keita, Studies of Ancient Crania From Northern Africa. American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1990). Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  9. Bruce Williams, Forbears of Menes in Nubia: Myth or Reality. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46 (1) (Jan., 1987): 15–26. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  10. Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa: Their InteractionEncyclopedia of Precolonial Africa, by Joseph O. Vogel, (AltaMira Press), (1997), 465–472. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  11. Smith, History of Nubia. Dept. of Anthropology, UCLA. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  12. Dalya Alberge, The Times (London) 2003. Tomb Reveals Ancient Egypt's Humiliating Secret George Mason University's HISTORY News Network.
  13. University College London, 2003, Meroë: writing.digitalegypt. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  14. David E. Jones. Women Warriors: A History. (Potomac Books Inc., 2005. ISBN 1574887262)
  15. 15.0 15.1 David M. Gutenberg. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Princeton University Press, 2003)
  16. J.R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman. Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context. (Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0415085071), 117–118
  17. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Nubian Queens in the Nile Valley and Afro-Asiatic Cultural History. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  18. The Arab Dynasty of Dar for (Darfur). Part II, by Arthur E. Robinson, 1928 The Royal African Society.
  19. THE ARAB DYNASTY OF DAR FOR (DARFUR): PART II, ROBINSON in African Affairs (Lond). 1928; XXVIII: 55-67. Oxford Journals (by subscription) Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  20. The Story of Africa: The Nile Valley: Nubia. BBC World Service. Retrieved December 7, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures, and Environments. by Joseph O. Vogel, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1997. ISBN 076198903X.
  • Fox, C.L. "mtDNA analysis in ancient Nubians supports the existence of gene flow between sub-Sahara and North Africa in the Nile Valley," in Annals of Human Biology 24 (3): 217–227.
  • Jones, David E., Women Warriors: A History. Potomac Books Inc., 2005. ISBN 1574887262.
  • Morgan, J.R., and Richard Stoneman. Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0415085071.
  • Morkot, Robert G., The Black Pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian Rulers. Rubicon Press, 2000. ISBN 0948695234.
  • O'Connor, David B. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. ISBN 0924171286.
  • Smith, Stuart Tyson, Dept. of Anthropology, UCLA, History of Nubia. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  • Thelwall, Robin. "Lexicostatistical relations between Nubian, Daju and Dinka", Études nubiennes: colloque de Chantilly, (2–6 juillet 1975), 1978., 265–286.
  • Thelwall, Robin. "Linguistic Aspects of Greater Nubian History," in C. Ehret & M. Posnansky, eds. The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1982, 39–56.
  • Valbelle, Dominique and Charles Bonnet. The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile. AUC Press, 2007. ISBN 977416010X.

External links

All links retrieved November 16, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.