Nubia and Egypt have been neighbours since time immemorial. The Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Seti (Land of the Bow), after the weapons for which the Nubians were renowned, while its modern name is thought to derive from nbw, the ancient word for gold, which was mined there until Greco-Roman times.
A Nilotic people living between the First and Sixth Cataracts of the Nile (roughly from Aswan to Khartoum) may have been the forerunners of Egypt’s civilization. Archeologists have found exquisite figurines predating prehistoric finds in Egypt by three thousand years, and the world’s oldest solar calendar of standing stones, dating from around 6000 BC, at Nabta Playa, 100km from Abu Simbel. Pharaonic and ancient Nubian civilization evolved in similar ways until 3500 BC, when Egypt’s unification raised the Old Kingdom to a level from which it could exploit Nubia as a source of mineral wealth, exotic goods and slaves. The onset of the Middle Kingdom saw the annexation of Lower Nubia – the land between the First and Second Cataracts – while under the New Kingdom, Nubia was ruled by a viceroy entitled the King’s Son of Kush. It was only at the end of the Third Intermediate Period that Nubia got its own back, as the local rulers of Napata took advantage of Egypt’s disunity to invade and establish their own Kushite Dynasty of pharaohs (747–656 BC), who reigned until the Assyrian invasion of Egypt in 671 BC.
Reconsolidating itself beyond the Fourth Cataract, the Kushite Kingdom of Meröe marked the apogee of Nubian civilization, building remarkable pyramids and maintaining relations with the Ptolemies, but angering the Romans, who occupied Lower Nubia from 23–272 AD. Before withdrawing, they invited warriors called the Nobatae (perhaps Nubia from the Red Sea Hills of Sudan) to fill the vacuum, hastening the decline of Meröe. In the seventh century the Nobatae were converted to Christianity by monks from Aswan’s Monastery of St Simeon, and later became the main bulwark against attacks by the Islamic rulers of Egypt during the Fatimid era, until in 1315 the last Christian king was replaced by a Muslim one and most of the population accepted Islam.
Egypt’s rulers made little attempt to control Nubia so long as it supplied the ivory and exotica they prized until Mohammed Ali visited devastation on Nubia when he sent his son to enslave its male population as cannon fodder for his new army. Resentment smouldered through the reigns of the khedives, drawing in the British, who began by supporting khedival forces and ended up underwriting an Anglo-Egyptian government in 1899, when the border between Egypt and Sudan was drawn 40km north of Wadi Halfa and Nubia was divided, yet again.
Nubian culture and contemporary society
Meanwhile, the Nubians remained true to their ancestral homeland and traditional life centred round villages of extended families (each with its own compound of domed houses), living by farming the verges of the river, fishing and transporting trade goods. Socially and spiritually, the Nile formed the basis of their existence; villages celebrated births, weddings and circumcision ceremonies with Nile rituals.
This way of life – which had existed pretty much unchanged for five millennia – was shattered by the Aswan Dams. The first dam, built in 1902, forced the Nubians to move onto higher, unfertile ground; many menfolk left for Cairo, sending back remittances to keep the villages going. With construction of the High Dam, the Nubians’ traditional homeland was entirely submerged, displacing the entire eight hundred thousand-strong community, around half of whom moved north, settling around Aswan and Kom Ombo. Meanwhile the ancient monuments of Nubia were moved to higher ground or foreign museums, under a huge project coordinated by UNESCO.
In Egypt, many Nubians took advantage of higher education and business opportunities to make their mark. Others resettled as farmers in villages named after their ancestral homes, maintaining Nubian traditions. Since the 2011 Revolution the desolate shores of Lake Nasser have been reclaimed by settlers (both Nubians from Egypt and other ethnic groups from Sudan), as the state’s grip has loosened.
The Nubian language is still spoken, but not written; its linguistic ancestor Old Nubian was recorded in a modified Greek alphabet which some scholars maintain has 26 letters, others 30. Among websites devoted to Nubian history and culture are w homestead.com/wysinger/nubians.html (for prehistory and the Meröe pyramids), w thenubian.net (for cultural commentaries) and w napata.org (with recordings of spoken Nubian, contemporary and traditional music).