The Pan Grave Culture

The carriers of this specific Nubian culture are thought to have been nomads from the Eastern Desert and are identified with the Medjay (later the Bedja) of the Egyptian texts – a designation of the desert Nubians in contrast to the Nehesy-Nubians of the Nile valley. This may be the correct assessment for a part of this population. The Medja land is known, however, since the late Old Kingdom and seems to have been situated near the Nile. Since king Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (c. 2043-1992 BC) of the 11th Dynasty had married, besides other Nubian consorts, a dark skinned princess from Medja with the name Ashait, one may assume that this land was an established kingdom at that time, probably sited near the Kerma kingdom and was absorbed by the latter during the Middle Kingdom. This may have triggered the move of the Pan Grave people to Lower Nubia and Egypt. According to both the Semna Despatches, dating from the late twelfth Dynasty (c. 1850-1800 BC), and the name of the 10th Nubian MK fortress “Khesef-Medjayu” -“The one which repells the Medjay”- the Egyptian military authorities tried to stop this immigration from the desert, but in vain. Pan Grave cemeteries can be found in Lower Nubia and at many sites in Egypt dating principally from the time of the late Middle Kingdom and early Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1600 BC). Normally the cemeteries are small and situated on the fringe of the desert, often in the vicinity of cemeteries belonging to the local population. The most important sites are Deir Rifeh, Mostagedda with the largest cemetery, Qau, Balabish, Hu, Tôd, Daraw, and in Nubia at Shellal, Dakka, Wadi Allâqi, Sayâla, Aniba, Toshka, and at several places between Faras and Gammai. Sherds of this culture have been found at many other sites in Egypt extending as far north as Memphis. The most distinct cluster is, however, in Middle and Upper Egypt and in Lower Nubia.

The name Pan Grave Culture comes from the typical circular pit graves, which sometimes have a small stone circle as their superstructure. The dead are buried in a crouched position, on their right side, oriented either according to the absolute co-ordinates north-south with the head in the north, looking west, or oriented east-west, with the head in the east, looking south. The bodies rest on mats and are wrapped in leather or fur. They seem to have also imported Egyptian linen according to the representation of a Medjay man painted on a bukranium. This painting also shows the coiffure bulging backwards, in a similar manner to that worn in modern times by the Watussi men.

Pan-Grave pottery consists of open, flat, round-bottomed bowls with polished surfaces, and ledged rims. They are either plain polished with a black polished interior, which extends over the rim in the form of a black top. Other types of such bowls show an incised pattern, produced by a rough comb in criss-cross fashion. Beadwork of ostrich egg shell and nerita snails can be found with burials of both genders and are typical for this culture. The latter show connections via the eastern desert to the Red Sea. The Pan Grave people also had shell strip bracelets which seem to occur only in this culture. Very specific is the deposition of the bukrania of gazelles or goats, often painted with red dots, within the superstructure of the tombs. We also meet a similar custom with bull bukrania among the Kerma Culture.

No domestic architectural features are known from the Pan Grave Culture. Camps only display open-air features. The physical population type is very specific, showing long isolation and archaic African features such as long jaws with large teeth, the third molars being the biggest. They were taller than the Egyptians and had strong muscular features. This made them very suitable for the warrior profession. Often weapons of Egyptian typology such as daggers and battle axes, as well as bowstrings and arrow tips are found in their graves. This documents the employment of those people as warriors of the 13th and early 17th Dynasties. Records of the 13th Dynasty show different Medjay delegations being received at court.

Towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period the Medjay seem to have completely adopted the Kerma Culture which shows that new waves of immigrants had arrived. We may conclude this since according to Egyptian records the Medjay were engaged by the Theban late 17th and early 18th Dynasties as soldiers against the Hyksos. Nubian graves and settlement remains in Egypt from this period at Deir el-Ballas, Avaris and elsewhere reveal, however, no Pan Grave features but only signs of the Kerma Culture.

During the New Kingdom the Medjay were formed into a special force in charge of the deserts and the necropoleis. They served under Egyptian officers and, by means of documents can be followed up to the time of the 20th Dynasty, although nothing of their original culture has survived so late within the archaeological record. Nevertheless the Medjay were still remembered in Ptolemaic times as being associated with the eastern desert and bringing the traditional product of this region, gold.

Manfred Bietak,
Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo

Bibliography for C-Group and Pan Grave Culture:

W.Y. ADAMS, Nubia, Corridor to Africa, Princeton 1977;
M. BIETAK, Ausgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien 1961-1965, Denkmälerler der C-Gruppe und der Pan-Gräber-Kultur Vienna (Austrian Academy) 1966;
IDEM, Studien zur Chronologie der nubischen C-Gruppe, Vienna (Austrian Academy) 1968;
IDEM, The C-Group and the Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia”, in: Nubian Culture: Past and Present, Kunigl. Vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademiens Konferenser 17. Stockholm (Swedish Academy of Letters) 1987, 113-128;
C. BONNET, Kerma, Royaume de Nubie, Geneva 1990;
J. BOURRIAU, “Relations between Egypt and Kerma during the and the New Kingdoms”, in: Egypt and Africa, Nubia from Prehistory to Islam, ed. by W.V. Davies. London (British Museum) 1991;
B. TRIGGER, History and Settlement in Lower Nubia, New Haven 1965.

The Museum

In the early 1960’s, when Egypt built the High Dam at Aswan, Egyptologists and archaeologists the world over heeded UNESCO’s appeal to salvage the monuments of Egyptian Nubia before the rising waters of Lake Nasser submerged them forever. More than sixty expeditions ultimately joined the “Nubian Rescue Campaign”, which resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, and the salvage and translocation of a number of important temples to higher ground.

Due to the quantities of material recovered from tombs, temples and settlements, UNESCO was encouraged in the 1980’s to plan a new Nubian museum in Aswan where the objects could be stored and exhibited. It was universally felt at the time that they should be kept as close as possible to their principal places of origin.

Nearly twelve years later, the Museum became a reality and opened its doors in November 1997. It was designed by the late Egyptian architect Mahmoud al-Hakim, and Mexican architect Pedro Vasquez Ramirez designed the museum’s interior display. The Museum won the Agha-Khan Award of Architecture 2001.

The total area of the complex is 50,000 square meters: 7,000 allocated for the building, and 43,000 for the grounds. The architecture of the Museum and the enclosure walls are intended to evoke traditional Nubian village architecture, as it was along the Nubian Nile before the region was flooded by Lake Nasser.

The building is set within a landscape, on graded levels, that includes a sequence of waterfalls. When the waterway reaches the lower part of the garden, it divides into 2 branches to surround an open-air stage and amphitheater where already many local and foreign groups have performed. The remaining 43,000 sq. m. have been planted with palm trees, flowers, and climbing plants, spread over natural rocks. An outdoor exhibit is planned for the garden, but at the moment only a small section is ready. The project is a beautiful resolution of a long-awaited dream.

Abdalla Nirqi

Central church of Abdalla Nirqi

“The site of Abdalla Nirqi on the west bank of the Nile, about 3.5 Km to the East (locan north) of the temple of Abu Simbel, belonged to the area of the concession granted to the Netherlands by the Egyptian Antiquities Department in consultation with Unesco.

” The concession Abu Simbel North, contained two settlements, the ruins of which had been analyzed during a Survey undertaken by the Egypt Exploration Society”…

“The two settlements, both along the river’s edge, were called respectively “Town B” a Meroitic and later town site, and “Town A” a walled town of the Christian period..”

” The Central Church appeared to be surprisingly well preserved up to a height of about 3 meters, the level of the springing of the vaults covering the different parts of the church. The rooms were filled with almost clean sand which had protected the remaining paintings on the walls of the north aisle, the nave and in particular of the south aisle and inside the arched doors leading from the nave to both aisle, altogether providing the most complete series of Christian paintings in the whole of Egyptian Nubia.

” It appeared that the church, at the time of its abandonment, possibly as late as the 15th century, was already completely buried in the sand and could be entered only by means of a secondary staircase at the south-western end leading down from the roof-level and similar secondary entrance in the west-wall. When the bricks of the vaulted roofs were taken away and used for some other purpose as no traces of them were found, the church was probably very quickly filled with the clean and protecting sand…”

“…The paintings in the two church were clearly of two different styles, at the time of their discovery called ” Byzantine”, applied on a thin layer of whitewash and a “Nubian”, applied on a thicker layer of so-called Coptic plaster “…
“..The church was built in the middle of the 8th century, when it also received its first paintings of the “violet style”. The flourishing period was around 1000, when the paintings of the “white style” were applied, partly covering the paintings of the “violet style”. The church probably was used until the 15th century when it finally was abandoned and left to be filled up with the sand which already for a long time had covered it from the outside up to the level of the roof.

Adolf Klasens, “The Central Church of Abdalla Nirqi”, 1975

Fresco from the Central church of Abdalla Nirqi

Ballana and Qustul

Tumulus of Ballana

“Beyond the gorge of Abu Simbil and Gebel Adda, the desert cliffs and Pleistocene gravel terraces recede from the vicinity of the river and leave plains on both banks of modern alluvium and upper Paleolithic silt. The scanty vegetation is mainly composed of a few palms and “sunt” trees, which border the river’s edge.”

“We moved forward in extended order noting each possible site, and on November 3rd we came within view of a vast field of tumuli scattered over an area of more than two kilometres. As the tumuli partly obscured by banks of drift sand and decayed vegetation they did not at first appear to be anything other than natural formations, but as we drew nearer we noted that most of them were covered with large schist pebbles and were so regular in shape that their artificial nature was apparent.”

“On November 7th we received reports of plundering on the east bank of the river at Qustul, and visited the site consequence. We were amazed to discover a further series of tumuli directly opposite those on the west bank, at Ballana, which differed only in their smaller size and absence of pebble covering. Between some of the tumuli at the south end were a few small graves of the X-group period, and it was these graves which had attracted the attention of the plunderers.”

“Work was started on November 8th with 150 men and boys, and examination of depressions noted on the east side of most of the tumuli revealed the entrances to robbers’ passages which had been cut below the ground level on which the mounds were built. The clearing of these passages revealed the fact that they broke into burial chambers of large tombs, which had been constructed beneath the tumuli. Although varying considerably in the size and number of the rooms one feature remained the same in all of them: the entrance of the east side was always found blocked and intact. And it was obvious that the plunderers had realised that beyond this blocking was an open court, or pit, and that the opening of the door would cause an inrush of debris into the tomb”.

“The few object and pottery left by the plunderers served to show us that these tombs were built for persons of considerable wealth, and were to be dated to the X-group period. The possibility of offerings, etc., left in the open court before the entrance persuaded us to risk a considerable sum of money to get to that entrance by the removal of the tumulus… And on November 10th we commenced the excavation of the Tomb No.2.”
“Some days were spent in the removal of the tumulus and by the end of a week a large pit was revealed which contained a vaulted chamber of mud brick. This chamber, which was connected with the main rooms of the tomb, had been spared by the plunderers and in it were found, comparatively undisturbed, a large amount of pottery and some leather bags containing dates.”

“Clearing the debris to the east of this pit we uncovered a ramp which led down from the surface to the entrance of the tomb. By November 23rd the bones of sacrificed horses with their silver trappings and harness were uncovered, and it was then that we realised the true value of the discovery. The excavation of Tomb No.3, which was completed early in the following month, yielded even richer rewards”.

“At Ballana and Qustul the method of burial and the design of the royal tombs was the same, varying only in the degree of richness and size, according to the importance of the owner. In the construction of the tombs the procedure was as follows: An inclined passage was cut in the hard alluvium leading down to a large pit and a series of brick rooms were constructed in this pit with a small open court into which the inclined passage opened. In some cases each of the brick rooms have been built in separate pits and are connected by short passages tunnelled in the alluvium. The roofing of each room was barrel-vaulted, and in the larger tombs the doors had stone lintels”.

“Due, no doubt, to the moisture of the ground at the bottom of the pits at Ballana the walls were built with stone foundations.” It is evident that the owners of these tombs held to the Ancient Egyptian belief of the material survival after death of both animate and inanimate objects, for they buried with their dead wine and food, furniture, cooking utensils, jewels, weapons and tools and materials to make them, but in place of the ushabtis of the Egyptians they sacrificed their slaves and animals”.

“One room was usually reserved for the wine jars and drinking cups, and another was devoted to bronze and silver cooking utensils, lamps, jewels, weapons and tools. In the Tomb 80 at Ballana, for example, we found spears and axes together with metal working tools and iron ingots. In the larger tombs a separate chamber was reserved for the burial of the queen, who was undoubtedly sacrificed, with her attendant slaves. But in the smaller tombs the sacrificed queen was placed beside her consort.
The king was placed in the chamber nearest the main entrance to the tomb, and it is evident that his installation was the last act before the final closing. His body was laid on a canopied wooden bier, below which were placed bronze and silver vessels for his immediate use. He was dressed in his royal regalia and weapons for his protection were left leaning against the foot of the bier, and at its head lay the sacrificed bodies of a male slave and an ox. An iron folding chair was frequently placed by the side of the bier. The entrance to the tomb was then blocked with bricks and stone and the owner’s horses, camels, donkeys and dogs, together with their grooms and possibly soldiers, were then sacrificed in the courtyard and ramp. The animals were buried wearing their harnesses and saddles, the dogs in some cases had collars and leashes. The sacrificed humans met their deaths either by the cutting of the throat or by strangulation, and the animals were pole-axed. Finally the pit and the ramp were filled and a great earthen mound was raised over the tomb; in many cases offerings such as weapons, jewellery, vases, game etc., were buried in the mound. And at Ballana most of the mounds were covered with a layer of large schist pebbles”….

W.B. Emery, “The Royal Tombs of Ballana and Qustul”, 1938.


Ptolemaic period Philae

General view of Philae temples, now relocated on Agilkia Island

The temples of Philae are the creation of several dynasties. The island was dedicated to the cult of Isis.

The oldest structure on the island is the kiosk built by Nectanebo I (380-362 BC). To the north of the kiosk he also built a temple gate which was eventually integrated into the first pylon of the Temple of Aset (Isis). From this time until the Roman occupation in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, many different temples were added to the island.

Worship was continued on the island of Philae into the 6th century AD, and both the last hieroglyphic inscriptions, written in 394 AD, and the last demotic inscriptions, from 452 AD, are also found there. One reason that Philae was able to continue the Ancient Egyptian religion well into the Christian Era of Egyptian history was due to its location in Lower Nubia, far into Upper Egypt near the southern border, where it became a haven for the faithful.

Philae served to disseminate Egyptian religion to Lower Nubia and Upper Nubia (Sudan) in the south during hundreds of years. Many of the reliefs and inscriptions of Meroe in Upper Nubia in the Sudan show influence from the texts of the Temple of Aset at Philae.

In May 1968, Unesco endorsed the decison taken by the United Arab Republic to dismantle and re-erect the monuments on the neighbouring Island of Agilkia which is sufficiently elevated to be above the maximum level of the water. Work started in 1974 and finished at the end of 1979. The new site was inaugurated on March 10, 1980.

Work in progress for the reconstruction of the Philae temples

Qasr Ibrim

Ibrim, lay on the east bank of the Nile in Lower Nubia at a distance, by river, of approximately 238 Km or 148 miles north of Wadi Halfa…

The Pharaonic monuments at Ibrim come to be entirely and perennially submerged in mid-July 1966… … With so much cliff space available it is remarkable and, as we shall point out, probably not fortuitous that all the rock-cut shrines of the sites should be clustered together in one spot only, namely the south lower corner of the west- or- river face of the central cliff at Ibrim, the massive headland crowned by the ruined citadel. There the four shrines, inscribed and datable, were built in close spatial proximity in the course of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties within the compass of 250 years grosso modo, in the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BC, under Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis III, Amenophis II, and Rameses II to be precise.

The four monuments which we call shrines 1, 2, 3, 4, have several significant features in common. In the first place they are extremely simple in design, each shrine consisting of a small single chamber hewn in the living rock, open to the west and overlooking the river. The facade consists simply of a narrow doorway surmounted with an engraved lintel and bounded by jambs which also bear inscriptions, except for the jambs of Shrine 3 which are blank. The inner chamber is in all cases rectangular in plan, with its long dimension perpendicular to the entrance, and with a flat and relatively low ceiling which one suspects was originally painted with coloured patterns in all four shrines. The walls are ornamented with texts and scenes in basso- and cavo-rilievo, all probably painted in antiquity, while the rear or east wall of the chamber is invariably occupied by a niche holding seated statues that face the entrance doorway. The four shrines are of rather modest size.

… The elements of decoration and writing extant in the Qasr Ibrim shrines fall, then, into two categories: (1) religious and (2) profane…
… Shrine 2 faces west, looks over the Nile, and is at a distance of 2,76 m. north of shrine 1. These two adjoining monuments have been subjected, with equally disastrous effects, to the complete submersion in the corrosive muddy waters of the Nile for the space of several months every year since the beginning of the present century.
Shrine 2 was built in the Nineteenth Dynasty professedly by the renowned viceroy of Kush, Setau, and therefore dated from the reign of Rameses II (c. 1290- 1224 BC) or more precisely from the latter half of that reign.

[From R. Caminos: “The Shrines and Rock-Inscriptions of Ibrim”, EES, London, 1968].

The Nubian salvage campaigns

The Nubian salvage campaigns

In 1898, work started on the construction of the Aswan Dam which was to revolutionise traditional irrigation methods in Egypt. The dam reduced the annual Nile flooding and improved irrigation. However, it also changed the traditional way of life of the Nubian people and heralded the beginning of the end of the ancient monuments that abounded there.

“I visited the temples at Nubia, to check on their state of repair and to decide what to do with them once the Aswan Dam had been built. My inspection took seven weeks, from 3rd December 1904 to 21st January 1905, and I visited every site that seemed to be threatened… If we compare them to the sketches made of them and pictures taken of them in the 18th and 19th centuries, we must admit that they have been considerably damaged… it is time to do something about this if we want to save them.”
[Report made by Gaston Maspero, Director-General of the Antiquities Department, to the Egyptian Undersecretary of State (1904-1905). Translated from French].

“The question of raising the Barrage at Aswan at this time began to be discussed again; and as there seemed some probability of the work being carried out, Monsieur Maspero’s help was asked in order to prepare this report, and to make an estimate of the cost of the necessary repairs and excavations, so that it could be compared with his own estimate. The report is thus intended, in the first place, to show the archaeologist how very many antiquities Lower Nubia contains, with a view to encouraging scientific work there. In the second place it is intended to give some idea of the work which will have to be undertaken in that part of Lower Nubia which will be flooded when the Barrage is raised. In the third place it constitutes a statement of the condition of all the monuments of Lower Nubia, with suggestion as to the best means of preserving and safeguarding them… Beside this the water will flood the large number of ancient sites which are not know, but which very certainly exist. Practically all the temples can be strengthened so as to be able to survive their flooding; and if the excavation of every likely part of the desert is carried out, and a full publication of all the material, both in temples and cemeteries, is made, the loss to science will not be great. It cannot, however, be too clearly understood how serious the loss will be if the most elaborate works are not undertaken”.
[Report of A. Weigall, Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Department; 1907.]

“In 1907 the Egyptian Government decided to increase the volume of water… The decision was therefore taken that the height of the dam at Aswan should be increased by seven metres, in order that a much greater volume of water might be stored upstream of it. This involved the submersion of the valley and the cultivated land on either bank about as far as the village of Derr, and in the lower reach the desert margins would also be inundated and the tributary valleys would be flooded for half of the year. So small and impoverished a region as this, two hundred and fifty kilometres in length, seldom more than a kilometre wide, can never have supported a large population, but it had been long inhabited, and it seemed likely that, enclosed by deserts on either side, dwellers in it had opportunity to develop without interference by invasion or immigration on any large scale. Funds were therefore set aside by the Egyptian Government to provide a systematic archaeological survey of so much of the valley as was to be submerged by the reservoir, when increased to the new level, that is, to the height of 113 metres above the Mediterranean Sea instead of 106 metres… The region extended from the head of the first Cataract for some 250 kilometres to about the village of Derr… The task was a formidable one, and had to be carried out on a comprehensive scale, in order, once and for all, to search the whole of this belt of country on either bank throughout the entire reach which was to be affected…
Under his [Dr. G.A. Reisner’s] direction each site was carefully exposed, each interment was photographed, every object was registered and full records kept, in order that as much information as possible should be preserved in addition to the collection of objects found. Dr. Reisner’s intimate acquaintance with early Egyptian art and civilization was especially valuable in the study of this region, for it enabled him to date each interment, and thereby provide a firm basis for anthropological studies; for a thorough study of such a region involved not only the collection of objects and reconstruction of the culture of the people who had once inhabited the valley, but also the determination of their race and ethnological affinities”.
[H.G. Lyons, Preface to the “Archaeological Survey of Nubia, 1907-1908”. December 1909].

At the same time, other missions, more closely concerned with the archaeological sites themselves, offered their support to the major mission.

Between 1929 and 1934, the height of the dam was raised further, reaching its maximum height of 41.5m. This meant the water would reach as far as the Sudanese border. To avoid serious damage to the monuments of the area, Professor W. Emery, supported by the Egyptian Government, undertook the ‘Second Archaeological Survey of Nubia’. Again this was between 1929 and 1934. Other, smaller missions were working simultaneously in the area.

But the days of the Nubians’ land were numbered. The creation of the Aswan Dam resulted in changes in irrigation patterns and reduced the problems of the Nile floods, but it did not solve the two problems completely. The fact that Egypt’s population was beginning to spiral exacerbated the situation. In 1954 an international committee of experts concluded that the only solution was to construct a High Dam. A bonus would be the ability of such a dam to provide large amounts of energy to boost the development of local industry. On this basis the Government took the decision to construct the High Dam.

“When I was appointed General Director of the Antiquities Department, the investigations concerning the construction of the High Dam were already advanced. I naturally felt that it was my immediate duty to bring to the notice of the responsible authorities the necessity of considering the fate of the monuments of Nubia, which would be threatened by submersion as a result of the execution of the project, and to stress the pressing need of a study of the means of preserving, protecting and registering, as well as saving what ca be saved of these monuments both for history and for coming generations. In April 1953, I made the necessary contact with the Ministry of Public Work regarding this matter, and steps were at once taken to form a Committee from amongst the staff of the Department to make a preliminary investigation of the problem. The Committee immediately set the work and finally presented a brief report containing the results of its studies… ”
[Mustafa Amer, March 1955]

“… We have not restricted our investigations to those monuments, which will be directly affected by the High Dam. We wished that the registration should be as comprehensive as possible, and include all the monuments of Nubia, and thus complete any lack found in the previous publications. The reason for this lies in the fact that all the temples of Nubia and all the zones containing ancient sites will be covered by water… It is worthy of note that this report is limited to the monuments occurring inside the Egyptian zone… The question of the antiquities which will be covered with the water of the High dam in the Sudan is thus left for a future opportunity, and we hope that the necessary steps will be taken to formulate a programme for the excavation and registration of monuments in that zone, so that the work in Egypt and Sudan would go together hand by hand”…
[Report of the Egyptian Archaeologist Selim Hassan, 26 January 1955].

“In our country, according to the Antiquities Ordinance, every excavator has always been, and is still, entitled to fifty per cent of the objects discovered by him; but this is the only counterpart we can offer. We don’t possess important reserves in our museum which we could cede; we have no attractive sites like Sakkara to offer as a favour in return if the finds from an endangered site are insufficient; furthermore we don’t have enough temples and chapels in the threatened area to allow some of them to be transported to foreign countries. So the only hope that is left to us, after the United Arab Republic’s offer, lies in the fact that the prehistory, history and archaeology of the area endangered in our territory are much less know than the Egyptian Nubia and for this reason might attract scholars to help us to undertake in the short time available the work of the survey, prospection, excavation, removal and documentation, necessary to ensure that at least part of the history of our country- and thus of the world in general- will be safeguarded for future generations…”
[Appeal signed by the Sudanese Minister of Education H.E. Ziada Arbab, 24 October 1959.]

“Work has begun of the Great Aswan Dam. Within five years, the Middle Valley of the Nile will be turned into a vast lake. Wondrous structures, ranking among the most magnificent on earth, are in danger of disappearing beneath the waters. The Dam will bring fertility to huge stretches of desert; but the opening of new fields to the tractors, the provision of new sources of power to future factories threatens to exact a terrible price….” “It is not easy to choose between a heritage of the past and the present well being of a people, living in need in the shadow of one of history’s most splendid legacies; it is not easy to choose between temples and crops. I would be sorry for any man called on to make that choice who could do so without a feeling of despair; I would be sorry for any man who whatever decision he might reach, could bear the responsibility for that decision without a feeling of remorse. It is not surprising, therefore, therefore, that the governments of the United Arab Republic and Sudan have called on an international body, on UNESCO, to try to save the threatened monuments. These monuments, the loss of which may be tragically near, do not belong solely to the countries who hold them in trust. The whole world has the right to see them endure”…
[World Appeal of Vittorino Veronese Director-General of Unesco, 8 March 1960, Translated from French].

“The conservation and protection of works of art and monuments of history and science in one of the essential tasks laid on Unesco by its Constitution. The international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia was the first major operation where this task was accomplished on a grand scale in practice and not just through recommendations and conventions. The principle of international cooperation for the conservation and protection of the world’s common cultural heritage in the form of historical monuments was here applied to a concrete situation…”
“Monuments and objects of art and great beauty and historical importance had been saved for future generations and an important chapter in the history of Africa and of the world had escaped oblivion thanks to the archaeological investigations…”
“This success, achieved in so short a time and against unfavourable odds, with little time for proper preparations, often improvized and with no precedents, was brought about by world-wide cooperation, a result in which the governments of Egypt and the Sudan together with UNESCO with its Member State played fundamental roles….”
“The mechanisms of this success are apparent from the development of the Campaign, from hesitant start to final triumph, and its continuation in the International Campaign for Egyptian Museums: the Nubia Museum in Aswan and the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.”
[Torgny Save-Soderbergh, 1987].

The C-Group culture and the Pan Grave culture

The C-Group culture

King Snofru (c. 2617–2593 BC) made a raid into Nubia, bringing back 7000 prisoners of war and 200 000 big and small flock. Most probably this was intended as a pre-emptive strike against the immigration of the so-called C-Group People (an abstract terminology introduced by the American archaeologist George A. Reisner at the beginning of the 20th century during the first Archaeological Survey of Nubia). Snofru, however, was unable to stop the C-Group immigrating into the nearly empty Lower Nubia thus becoming a neighbour of Egypt.

The C-Group is closely related, if not identical, to the earliest phase of the Kerma-Culture which settled about the same time, or slightly earlier, in the Kerma-basin, south of the Third Cataract in the Sudan. Most probably, the C-Group came therefore from the south or south-west and settled mainly on the West Bank in the most fertile places between the First and the Second Cataract. At the beginning they were mainly pastoralist herders of, especially, sheep, goats and cattle. Settlements consisted at the beginning of round huts enclosed by rubble walls and probably thorn hedges, leaving enough space to also protect their flocks over night. By and by settlement centres developed along the Nile at areas where the alluvial land was more spacious such as Dakka, Aniba, Qustul/Ballana and Faras. One may assume that the habitats offered by the Nile within places of seasonal lush vegetation, made agriculture and the accumulation of people possible. This lead to the development of larger tribal organisations headed by powerful chieftains. This picture is reflected in the inscriptions of the 6th Dynasty monarchs of Elephantine who mention different lands held by tribal leaders such as Irtjet, Satjw, Wawat. Egyptian trading expeditions, heading to the country Yam – most probably Kerma – had to pass these lands. The C-Group countries surely benefited for letting such caravans pass. By and by they seem to have united under a single leader who imposed more difficulties for the caravans and triggered military action by the Egyptians towards the end of the Old Kingdom.

The C-Group population was smaller and significantly more dark skinned than the contemporary Egyptian population. This shows not only in the results of osteological investigations but can also be seen in a wooden model of a company of archers from a tomb in Assiut, today in the Cairo Museum. There they wear a half-length coiffure with a headband and tight kilts, covered with beadwork. They were already employed in the Egyptian army in the Old Kingdom and played an important part in wars between the monarchs and in the unification process of Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. In the Theban tomb of the 11th Dynasty general Antef, and on the reliefs of the royal mortuary complex of Nebhepetreë Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahari, Nubian soldiers are seen shooting their arrows at fortresses probably situated in Lower Egypt, manned by Asiatic mercenaries. Their unsurpassed speciality was archery, besides oaring boats, hunting and tending hunting dogs as seen on the Gebelein stelae. This employment may explain the numerous Egyptian imports of pottery containers in Lower Nubia during the 11th and first half of the 12th Dynasty – commodities, perhaps sent to the families of the archers.

The employment of large parts of the male population in Egypt was probably already an important factor in Nubian economy at that time. The constant demand for soldiers led, at the same time, to a continuous influx of Nubians into Egypt where they were absorbed and contributed to the population type, especially that of Upper Egypt.

 C-Group cemetery

We know the C-Group especially from its cemeteries, which signal to the archaeologist the sizes of settlement over the country. A carefully constructed stone circle, covered by a tumulus of sand and pebbles protected the mainly oval to rounded rectangular pit tombs. The bodies were placed primarily in a crouched position on their right side in a local east-western orientation looking north as the burials of the Kerma Culture. Later, from the time of the 12th Dynasty onwards, this changed generally to a local north-south orientation with the head looking West. They rested on reed mats or sheepskins and were protected by a cover of mats. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, stone slabs covered the pits and from the late Middle Kingdom onwards, richer tombs were given vaulted chambers in mud brick. The offerings were partly placed in the pit, partly to the east of the superstructure, buried in sand. They consisted partly of beautifully ornamented pottery such as hemispherical cups, imitating ornamented basketwork. The love for geometric ornamentation, which shows not only on pottery and basketwork, but also on beadwork and body tattoo, can be considered as a specific feature of the C-Group Culture.

During the late Middle Kingdom, under the influence of the Kerma culture, the construction of a stone or mud brick chapel developed from this offering place at the east of the tumulus. At this time a significant hierarchical structure is observable in the cemeteries with some tombs having a diameter of 15 m and more.

It is difficult to assess the religious beliefs and activities of the carriers of this culture. They prepared for an afterlife. Female idols with signs of tattooing and animal figurines played a part in such preparations. Representations of cows and calves on funerary stelae of the early C-Group, on pottery, and rock art, reveal that an abundance of such animals was an eternal wish. In Sayala a rock cave with paintings from the time of the A-Group and the C-Group with cattle representations are a sign that specific cult places existed.

During the Middle Kingdom, the settlements of the C-Group Culture became more solid with a tendency to construct rectangular houses, partly of stone blocks, but also in mud brick alongside the traditional round huts. The Egyptians dominated the most important living areas of the C-Group by means of enormous fortresses, situated in the strategically important places of the country. After the Egyptian garrisons were disbanded at the end of the Middle Kingdom, some villages were built by the C-Group at Wadi es-Sebu‘a and Areika.

According to the evidence of the cemeteries the large communities of the C-Group Culture must have disappeared during the Second Intermediate Period. Small cemeteries are typical for this time. The Kingdom of Kush (the Kerma Culture) now politically dominated Lower Nubia. The archaeological picture shows influences from both the Pan Grave Culture (see below) and that of the Kerma Culture. Altogether the unity of culture is dissolved and shows a cultural mix. In this latest stage of the C-Group Culture, its original appearance has been lost. One gets the impression that thinly scattered small communities of different ethnic origin (the remains of C-Group- Pan Grave- and Kerma-populations) inhabited Nubia at that time. The unstable political situation between 17th Dynasty Upper Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush with armies rushing through from both sides did not permit stable conditions for the maintenance of the Culture, the C-Group had once been. The vacuum, which developed in the Second Intermediate Period in large parts of Lower Nubia, could also be felt in the New Kingdom.

Kerma culture

When George Andrew Reisner carried out, in 1907, the first campaign of rescue of the Antiquities of Lower Nubia and that he establishes the classification of the cultures which he met there (Group A, Group C …), he ignored the vestiges Kerma. Because these remain rare in Lower Nubia; it was only between 1913 and 1916 that he was commissioned to carry out salvage excavations in the Kerma region of Sudan and was confronted with exceptional and totally new material. He interpreted the ruins as the remains of an Egyptian governorate, placed under the orders of a leader whose first would have been Hapidjefa in the twelfth dynasty, this because he had found in a tomb fragments of one of his statues and that of his wife, Senouy. He later thought that Egyptian traditions would have been lost and that native rites would have become predominant in this remote colony.

But we must definitely abandon his interpretation. In fact, the many studies that have taken place in Sudan in recent years have proved that Reisner reversed the chronology and that Kerma is a totally Nubian culture, very old and local, since it began in the middle of the third millennium BC. -C in the “pre-Kerma”, contemporary of Group A, and that it continues until the conquest of Upper Nubia at the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty.

If Lower Nubia is a buffer state that will switch to one or other of its powerful neighbors, Egypt and Kerma, Kerma is a real state, led by a heqa prince, who is well known to the ancient Egyptians. The northern border is located on the second cataract, with the exception of the Second Intermediate Period during which the Kouch princes take control of Lower Nubia. We do not know the extent of the territory; recently Kerma remains have been discovered upstream of the 4th cataract and at Gebel Barkal. The centralization of power will be around the ancient city of Kerma, the capital, seat of political power in the palace and religious power in the temple. The kingdom is ideally located at a crossroads of trade routes which it takes control, on the Nile and the tracks between Red Sea and Sub-Saharan Africa, a situation on which relies its fortune. But agriculture and livestock are also the foundations of its economy.

Middle Nubia can provide human labor – it is renowned for the value of its soldiers and archers -, building materials, gold, small and large cattle, but through its territory transits southern products, ivory , ebony, feline skins, incense … In exchange, the shipments deliver for example perfumed oils and ointments in alabaster or faience vases, amulets and jewels, dairy products and oils in the numerous ceramics found on the sites …

The recent excavations conducted by Charles Bonnet and the University of Geneva in the capital, Kerma, those carried out by the University of Lille and myself in the regional metropolis of Saï and on the rural habitat of Gism el-Arba between Kerma and Dongola, completed by the English, Canadian, Polish explorations of Wadi el-Khowi, Letti Basin and Dongola Reach as well as the 4th cataract, have completely renewed our knowledge.

Kerma’s history is divided into four main phases: Ancient Kerma (circa-2400 / -2000), Middle Kerma (circa-2000 / -1750), Classic Kerma (circa -1750 / -1550) and Kerma recent (after – 1550), proposed dates parallel to Egyptian history.

The old Kerma, at the end of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, could correspond to the country of Iam, such as Herkhouf or elephantine greats we describe in the autobiographical stories they have engraved on the walls of their graves. Egyptian inscriptions have been discovered in the ancient levels of Kerma, the name of the lady Senet-its on a mirror, and, on a stele reused in the foundations of a chapel, those of two captains of ships, Iy- Meri and Merri, a title frequently worn on this date by expedition leaders. We still know very little about this phase. Habitats are essentially made up of light structures, as before with pre-Kerma, huts 4 m in diameter on average; the tombs are narrow, deep, and already indicated by circles of black and white stones, by slabs of black stone, or by stelae of white sandstone. The dead bear his personal ornaments and weapons, but some of the furniture is on the surface. Sometimes an animal is sacrificed, a sheep, a goat … and bucrânes placed at the edge of the pit. We remember the tomb of the Kerma archer on an ox hide, holding the bow and arrows in his hand. and already indicated by circles of black and white stones, by slabs of black stone, or by stelae of white sandstone. The dead bear his personal ornaments and weapons, but some of the furniture is on the surface. Sometimes an animal is sacrificed, a sheep, a goat … and bucrânes placed at the edge of the pit. We remember the tomb of the Kerma archer on an ox hide, holding the bow and arrows in his hand. and already indicated by circles of black and white stones, by slabs of black stone, or by stelae of white sandstone. The dead bear his personal ornaments and weapons, but some of the furniture is on the surface. Sometimes an animal is sacrificed, a sheep, a goat … and bucrânes placed at the edge of the pit. We remember the tomb of the Kerma archer on an ox hide, holding the bow and arrows in his hand. a goat … and bucrânes placed at the edge of the pit. We remember the tomb of the Kerma archer on an ox hide, holding the bow and arrows in his hand. a goat … and bucrânes placed at the edge of the pit. We remember the tomb of the Kerma archer on an ox hide, holding the bow and arrows in his hand.

All are seduced by the quality of ceramics, beautiful red bowls with black edges, polished, sometimes simply decorated with a geometric pattern under the lip, sometimes covered with impressions on the whole body; other cuts take the motifs of Group C contemporary, vases incised ribbon patterns, or imitating basketry, or sometimes covered with a procession of bovine. Others are inspired by the productions of Eastern Sudan and covered with buttons in relief.

During this period, the society seems to be still little hierarchical, even if it is possible that different social groups coexist in the capital; Ceramic production is uniform and of similar quality throughout the valley. Mirrors and copper tools, carnelian or hard stone jewelery, vases made of alabaster, ivory toilet articles, earthenware amulets … are everywhere and testify to the access by all to imported goods. Livestock is already one of the bases of the economy.

The average Kermawhich roughly corresponds to the Middle Kingdom sees the structuring of power between capital and regional metropolises, those perhaps mentioned in the texts of execration, but also the confrontation with Egypt. It is at this date that the term Kouch appears, which corresponds according to Georges Posener to a small territory upstream of the 2nd cataract, then will extend to the whole region. And it is therefore justified to make the connection with the average Kerma culture. Sesostris I and General Mentuhotep conquered Lower Nubia; the king fixes the southern border of Egypt to Semna. The pharaohs will build a series of powerful fortresses on the river,

Agriculture and livestock are growing; the hinterland is densely occupied; the villages are now composed of small brick dwellings, the capital is growing around the sanctuary. The social status is recognized in the burials. The furniture is now placed in the pit indicated by a tumulus bordered by a ring of stones; the deceased is lying on a low bed with his personal belongings; the food is deposited in many jars, and animal offerings accompany the dead, rams, sheep, goats placed whole or cut, sometimes a dog or a gazelle, sometimes a human sacrificed. But the rank and fortune are also reflected in the number of bucrânes deposited south of the well: Louis Chaix, in Kerma, has counted about 4000 around one of the royal tombs, a real herd of animals of all ages and all sex; some were painted, others had deformed horns; they came from all parts of the kingdom. A chapel adjoins the most important tombs. they came from all parts of the kingdom. A chapel adjoins the most important tombs. they came from all parts of the kingdom. A chapel adjoins the most important tombs.

The craft industry is diversifying, as well as the ceramic production where the storage jars and cooking pots for the kitchen are next to the drinking vases of very good quality. We work textile, basketry, leather, copper, ostrich egg, faience …; from the north come vases, amulets, food products in large jars; southern, ivory, ebony … The average Kerma is a favorable period in the history of Nubia.

The classical Kerma is however the most famous phase, partly because of the excavations of Reisner and the good state of conservation of the last state of the city of Kerma. The expanse of the territory reaches its greatest extension when the control of Lower Nubia and the Egyptian cities of the second cataract, whose garrisons pass to the service of the king of Kush: Sepedher rebuilds for him the temple of Horus . It seems that the power is therefore concentrated in Kerma, because the provincial graves are very modest.
The city of Kerma is dominated by the temple, the western deffufa, which, in its last state and perhaps under the influence of Egyptian architects, presents the appearance of an Egyptian temple with its pylons. But this massive building in raw bricks still rises to about ten meters and consists of a room with an altar of blue enamelled white marble, a narrow and blind corridor, the holy of holies; a staircase leads to the roof where other ceremonies were to take place. The religious sector also includes many chapels, shops, workshops including bakeries …

Nearby, a ceremonial hut, for a very long time in use, must be a ceremonial hut of the king, with granaries and shops; a palace is distinguished by the throne room, a public part where an “office” controls by affixing seals what circulates in the residence, a private party, and also attics and stores. Inside ramparts, palisades and ditches constantly repulsed, the city develops around four main axes leading to the temple; the houses are generally large and organized around a central courtyard, according to a model that can still be seen today in the region. Outside, a secondary agglomeration gathers chapels,

Some thirty kilometers away, the villages of Gism el-Arba give a less glitzy image of the rural habitat; the construction of large “farms” is spreading: buildings of 20 x 20 m always distributed around a central courtyard, where rooms and places of craft activity are distributed around the perimeter, while a part of the activities take place outside, for example the manufacture of utility pottery in primitive ovens. All Wadi el-Khowi is then exploited, and the hinterland provides for the needs of the capital. Livestock rearing must still be one of the foundations of the economy; however, it seems to become less, perhaps because the climate is changing, the pastures are getting poorer; this is reflected in the scarcity of sacrifices, both of the large cattle outside the graves and the small cattle. At the river’s edge, it has recently been discovered in the same area what seems to be a storage center; around an official building there were “shops”, in earth and wood on stone foundations, of an African type. The rich furniture came from both Egypt and Nubia; the Kerma and Egyptian prints and seals seem to support this hypothesis. both large cattle outside the graves and small livestock. At the river’s edge, it has recently been discovered in the same area what seems to be a storage center; around an official building there were “shops”, in earth and wood on stone foundations, of an African type. The rich furniture came from both Egypt and Nubia; the Kerma and Egyptian prints and seals seem to support this hypothesis. both large cattle outside the graves and small livestock. At the river’s edge, it has recently been discovered in the same area what seems to be a storage center; around an official building there were “shops”, in earth and wood on stone foundations, of an African type. The rich furniture came from both Egypt and Nubia; the Kerma and Egyptian prints and seals seem to support this hypothesis. in earth and wood on stone foundations, of an African type. The rich furniture came from both Egypt and Nubia; the Kerma and Egyptian prints and seals seem to support this hypothesis. in earth and wood on stone foundations, of an African type. The rich furniture came from both Egypt and Nubia; the Kerma and Egyptian prints and seals seem to support this hypothesis.

In the necropolis of Kerma, for example, the royal tombs become gigantic and the dead person is deposited in an apartment and accompanied by hundreds of sacrifices; it is here that the fragments of the statues of officials of the Middle Kingdom were found, perhaps acquired by the kerma kings during the looting of the Egyptian sites at the northern margin of the kingdom. The funerary temples adjoin the tombs, thus the eastern deffufa, consisting of two rooms with columns. The walls are decorated with frescoes: friezes of hippos at the entrance, and inside, more “African” scenes on the south wall, and rather “Egyptian” on the north side,

The more modest tombs are always indicated by a tumulus; the deceased may carry arms, daggers and knives; under its cover, we sometimes discover one or two sacrificed and a sacrificed ovi-caprine. But the classic Kerma is especially famous for the quality of its ceramics, especially the famous vases-tulips, red with black edge and luster, decorated with a white band, a thickness of a few millimeters. The forms are complicated: stacked vases, animal shapes, spouted vases, vases in the form of huts, not to mention the utility pottery such as storage jars with printed lip and cooking pots …

Kerma is still in contact with Egypt: ceramic shards, and also some burials, have been found in the valley, in the western oases and even in the eastern Delta. The letter of the Prince of Avaris to the King of Kerma, intercepted by Kamose in the desert, proves the connections; King Hyksos kept himself perfectly informed of the Nubian events. Egyptian products continue to arrive in Nubia. However, the situation changed rapidly at the beginning of the 18th dynasty when the pharaohs began the conquest of Kush. We can follow the progress through the Egyptian texts. Thus Thutmosis I penetrates as far as Tombos where he engraves the story of his campaign, and transforms the rock of Haggar el-Merowe in Kourgos into a gigantic border stele. Fortresses and new towns are built and the temples of Egyptian divinities multiply, such as the Temple of Amun in the holy mountain, the Gebel Barkal. The takeover of the country will not be easy and it will take almost a century to pacify it. One of the dignitaries Kerma is buried in a tomb stone masonry. The town of Kerma will be abandoned and a new agglomeration built a few kilometers as evidenced by the recent work of Charles Bonnet who has just discovered there several temples of the XVIIIth dynasty. The royal children are sent to the Residence, where they will acquire an Egyptian education, probably according to the method that the Romans will apply in the future. As for the villages, they only have a few cells like Gism el-Arba, and their inhabitants adopt the Egyptian techniques, for example the beautiful red ceramic on board disappears in favor of a common ceramics tour. The population is gradually acculturated as it appears in the funerary ritual. The management of the country is entrusted to the royal son of Kouch. and their inhabitants adopt the Egyptian techniques, for example the beautiful red ceramic on board disappears in favor of a common ceramics tour. The population is gradually acculturated as it appears in the funerary ritual. The management of the country is entrusted to the royal son of Kouch. and their inhabitants adopt the Egyptian techniques, for example the beautiful red ceramic on board disappears in favor of a common ceramics tour. The population is gradually acculturated as it appears in the funerary ritual. The management of the country is entrusted to the royal son of Kouch.

Thus, the first independent African kingdom known to the south of Egypt is extinguished. It will be seven centuries before the Nubian traditions reappear in that of Napata.

Brigitte Gratien
research director at CNRS
UMR 8027 CNRS / University of Lille 3


– GA Reisner, Excavations at Kerma, Harvard African Studies, vol. V and VI, Cambridge, Mass., 1923
– B. Gratien, Kerma cultures. Classification test, Villeneuve d’Ascq, 1978
– Ch. Bonnet, Kerma, territory and metropolis, Paris, 1986
– Ch. Bonnet, Kerma, Kingdom of Nubia, Geneva, 1990
– Sudan, kingdoms on the Nile, exhibition catalog , Paris, 1997
– J. Reinold, Archeology in Sudan. The civilizations of Nubia, Paris, 2000
– Charles Bonnet, Edifices and funerary rites in Kerma, Paris, 2000

The Egyptian Domination

The Egyptian Domination

In the mid – sixteenth century BC Egypt recovered from the weakness of the second intermediate period, during the reigns of Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I.
After the end of the Middle Kingdom and the time when foreigners, the so-called Hyksos ruled Egypt, the military control of Lower Nubia passed into Egyptian hands.
Three archaeological groups probably corresponding to different groups dominate the picture of lower Nubia during the time of the Hyksos and the early New Kingdom, the C Group, the Kerma group, and the Pan-Grave group representing a desert tribe called the Medja. All three seem to have had a common origin in Dongola.
The end of the Hyksos rule in Egypt is marked by several texts of the Theban liberator of the country. King Kamose, in whose reign the struggle began in earnest, was faced with enemies both to the north and to the south of his small Upper Egyptian state. The Hyksos rulers controlled all of Egypt from the Delta almost to Assuit, and the rulers of Kush exercised control over the whole of Nubia as far north as Aswan.

Ahmose I, founder of the New Kingdom who, expelled the Hyksos from Egypt and began the reconquest of lower Nubia. During the reign of Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I, the Egyptian armies gradually pushed southward. The second cataract fortresses were recaptured and the fortifications at Buhen were repaired.

Against this background, the Egyptian hostility toward Nubia and contact between the inhabitants of the two lands continued unabated. Both Kushite and Medjay Nubians had served in the Egyptian army during the war of liberation and were to continue to do so throughout the New Kingdom. Some Kushites may have moved to the north of Egypt after the expulsion of the Hyksos. During the next half century Egyptian armies had to quell numerous rebellions from which they brought away many intention probably being to secure Egypt’s southern boundary which was known as Karoy, by the end of Thutmose III reign Egypt had secured substantial imperial possession in the Levant as well as in Nubia.
Two tombs from the reigns of Queen Hatshepsut and Thutmose III about 1450 BC were investigated by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition in the northernmost part of the Sudan in the district of Debeira. They belonged to two brothers Djehutihotp and Amenmhet born to Nubian parents to judge by their names. The tomb of Dyehutihotep, the elder brother, is decorated in the style of the tomb in the capital.
The tomb of the younger brother Amenmhet is also entirely Egyptian and all the finds in the tomb are of good Egyptian craftsmanship.
An Egyptian imperial government was imposed to oversee the administration of the land at every level. At the head of the civil administration was the viceroy who acted as the pharaoh’s deputy. He was appointed directly by the title overseer of the southern lands, and King’s son of Kush. His main duties were the running of the administration of Nubia and the exploitation and collection of the valuable resources obtained from Nubia itself and from the south.

 Temple of Abu Simbel

There were two main periods of temple building in Nubia during the New Kingdom. The first is associated with the reigns of Thutmos II and Thutmos III. It is Thutmos who built templates in several of the second cataract forts and temples of Semna and Kumma not reconstructed in Khartoum. These are among the most complete surviving examples of eighteenth Dynasty temple architecture. The temple of Amenhotep III built in the Abri Delgo was the second temple for his wife. The temple of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton was built at Sesbi and Kawa. Tutankhamon, one of the last kings of the eighteenth Dynasty, built minor temples within existing settlements at Faras and Kawa.
The second great wave of temple building in Nubia begins and ends with the reign of Ramses II. He had built temples in Abu Simbel, Beit al Wali, Gerf Hussein, Wadi El-Sebua, Elderr and Gabal Barkal.

The Viceroy of Nubia
In Nubia, an Egyptian imperial government was imposed to oversee the administration of land at every level. At the head of civil administration was the viceroy, who acted as the pharaoh’s deputy. He was appointed directly by the Egyptian king and usually bore the titles “overseer of the southern lands” and “king’s son of Kush.” The title king’s son of Kush was held by more than twenty-five rulers who governed both Nubia and the southernmost district of Egypt as deputies of the pharaoh.
The authority of the king’s son depended on many factors, the most important being the vast extent of land controlled by the Egyptians in the south, sometimes including the area of Hieraconpolis in the north to Gebel Barkal in the south. He was helped by a commander of the Bowmen of Kush and two deputies one for Wawat, and the other for Kush. Most of the viceroy’s officials were no doubt Egyptian but they included some Egyptianized Nubians. The center of administration was usually Aniba.

 Nubians bringing tribute to Pharao, from the tomb
of the viceroy of Nubia Huy, West Bank of Luxor.

The main duties of the viceroy were the running of the administration of Nubia and the exploitation and collection of valuable resources obtained from Nubia itself and from the south. He also organized construction on the king’s behalf and was responsible for military operations in the region of Nubia. The viceroy was responsible for the punctual payment of the tribute of Nubia, both from Wawat and Kush. He was usually chosen from the royal entourage to ensure his fidelity and responsible for the tribute of their people.
He was directly responsible to the king. He seems to have brought the tribute personally and to have handed it over with ceremony to the vizier or treasurer.
These titles first appeared in the time of Ahmose as the “commander of Buhen”, and during Amenophis I’s reorganization of the administration became “overseer of the southern countries.” For example, Twrj, who is the first well documented viceroy of Nubia, was promoted from “scribe of a temple” to “father of the god, overseer of cattle, mayor and first prophet,” then later to “commander of Buhen” and “king’s son.”
Later, the Egyptian pharaohs started a new policy in Nubia: they started taking the children of Nubian chiefs to Egypt, originally as hostages, but they were given both Egyptian education and rank to prepare them to be as a “king’s son of Kush”.
It was clear that the general character of the titles of the viceroy of Nubia has long been a matter of common knowledge. The essential title was “king’s son” which conferred a rank as well as an office. For many purposes, especially in his own territory, this was a sufficient designation; and in Nubia the viceroy was probably mentioned simply as “the king’s son” just as a modern governor is called simply “the pasha” in his own Province.
Parallel to “king’s son” occurs the more definite title of rank and office “king’s son Kush”. Both of these essential titles are often accompanied by the secondary titles “overseer of the southern lands” or “overseer of the Gold lands of Amun” or “overseer of the Gold Lands of the Lord of the Two Lands”. Just as in the case of some other titles to which they are attached, the secondary titles define the geographical limits of the administration indicated by the chief title. They are, therefore, not essential and are, in fact, often omitted. They occur most commonly in the personal monuments, the prayer-stelae cut on the rocks of Nubia and the inscriptions of the funerary monuments, both of them places where an effort is made to accentuate the honourable position of the man in question.

The 25th dynasty

The Nubian Conquest of Egypt: 1080-650 BC

Egyptian control over Nubia lapsed after the death of Ramesses II (ca. 1224 BC), just as the pharaoh’s control over Egypt itself began to wane. In the early eleventh century BC Egypt split into two semi-autonomous domains: Lower Egypt was governed by the pharaoh, and the much larger tract of Upper Egypt was governed in the name of the god Amun by his high priest at Thebes. Nubia’s last imperial viceroy, Panehesy (“The Nubian”) became a renegade by waging war against the Theban high priests who were themselves military commanders seeking to extend their authority southward. By early Dynasty 21, most of Lower Nubia had become a no-man’s land. Upper Nubia (the northern Sudan) became independent under authorities unknown.

From the meager data available, it would appear that those who ultimately gained control in Upper Nubia were people who had been little influenced by Egyptian culture. The old centers of the New Kingdom show poor continuity of occupation, and their temples became derelict.

Not until Dynasty 22 are African products again listed among gifts dedicated to Amun of Karnak by an Egyptian king. The donor, Sheshonq I (ca. 945-924 BC), and his successor Osorkon I (ca. 924-889 BC) are also said in the Bible to have employed Kushite mercenaries and officers in their campaigns against Judah. Assyrian texts of the later ninth century further note that the pharaohs were sending African products to the Assyrian kings. Such evidence suggests that the Egyptians during this period had re-established trade relations with the far south, but they never reveal with whom they were dealing. One can only assume that from the tenth century on one or more dominant chiefdoms had emerged in Nubia – again, as in the case of Kerma centuries before, beginning a process of material, cultural, and political enrichment through commerce with Egypt.

The history of Kush begins again with the royal tombs at el-Kurru, the earliest of which were rough stone circular structures, reminiscent of C-Group graves. Rapidly, however, these round tombs became small steep-sided pyramids; the narrow burial pits became spacious chambers; and the dead were mummified and laid in coffins. Why the chiefs buried here abandoned their native customs and suddenly embraced the Egyptian – and the Egyptian Amun cult – remains unclear, but the process was sure and swift. The possibility that they were being missionized by expatriate Amun priests from Thebes – refugees from the civil war of the reign of Takelot II (ca. 850-825 BC) – seems likely.

The first of the el-Kurru chiefs known by name is Alara (ca. 785-760 BC), who seems to have been accorded special status by his descendants as the inaugurator of a new age. We may suspect that it was Alara who first united all of Upper Nubia into a single political entity. He was followed by Kashta (ca. 760-747 BC), who conquered all of Lower Nubia and first assumed the title of Pharaoh: “King of Upper and Lower Egypt. ” This meant that he ranked himself an equal with the contemporary co-reigning kings of Dynasties 22 and 23 in Egypt.

 Aerial view of the Great Temple
of Amun, Gebel Barkal

Kashta’s death brought to the throne one of the most remarkable characters in the history of the Nile Valley. This was Piye, formerly known as “Piankhy.” His reign (ca. 743-712 BC) is reconstructed primarily from two stelae set up inside the great temple of Amun (B 500) at Gebel Barkal. On one he proclaimed himself king of Egypt and “of all lands” by joint authority of Amun of Thebes and Amun of Napata. At the top of Piye’s monument, however, it is the ram-headed Amun of Napata who is shown handing Piye the crowns of Egypt and Kush. The accompanying text reveals that while Piye tolerated the existence of other kings in Lower Egypt, he considered his own kingship, granted by the god of Gebel Barkal, to give him emperor status over them all. Soon after his reign began he was able to install his sister Amenirdis into the office of high priestess (“God’s Wife”) of Amun at Karnak, which gave his family political control of southern Egypt.

Kushite control of the Thebaid was not long to be tolerated by the ruling families of Lower Egypt. By Piye’s 20th year they had formed an aggressive military alliance, led by a chief named Tefnakht. Piye’s famous second stela, now in Cairo and dated to his year 21, describes in magniloquent prose his campaign northward to put an end to the “rebellion” and describes how he achieved an even more remarkable success. After receiving the surrender of Hermopolis in Middle Egypt, and taking Memphis by storm, he received oaths of fealty and tribute from all his humbled adversaries. The stela is especially interesting in revealing some unusual royal personality traits: he sought to avoid bloodshed; he forgave his enemies; and he made special devotions to the gods of the northern towns fallen to his arms. Despite his victory, Piye had no interest in consolidating his rule over the north; he was content merely to control the Thebaid and the western desert oases. He thus withdrew again to Napata to proclaim his triumphs and to memorialize them on the walls of his new temple.

There is a wonderful irony in the surviving remnants of Piye’s art. Here is a native Nubian prince, whose ancestors were once depicted trodden beneath the sandals of Egyptian pharaohs, who has now become Pharaoh himself, a brother king to Thutmose III and Ramses II – whose throne names he adopted and used interchangeably throughout his reign. He employed master Egyptian sculptors to depict his conquest of Lower Egypt just as pharaohs of an earlier age might have depicted a victory over Asiatics, Libyans, Hittites, Sea Peoples, or even Kushites. The cities falling to his armies are not in Palestine or Syria but in Egypt. The kings bowing at his feet are Egyptian, as are the treasures seized from them. Yet strangely, throughout, Piye presents himself as the reincarnation of the great pharaohs and the devoted servant of Amun and all the Egyptian gods.

 Temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal

One of the walls in B 500 depicts Piye’s Heb-Sed, the ancient Egyptian 30-year festival by which the pharaoh was thought to renew his powers. From these scenes we may suspect that the king ruled a minimum of thirty years – or at least anticipated doing so. Upon his death, he was buried beside his ancestors, beneath a modest pyramid at el-Kurru, now with a subterranean chamber accessed by staircase. It was a tomb type that would remain in use, in one form or another, by Piye’s successors for the next ten centuries. Besides tombs for his major and minor wives, he also provided tombs for four of his horses, which were buried side by side, standing up and facing east. Burying horses – sometimes up to eight at a time in neighboring individual tombs – was a custom continued by each of Piye’s successors at el-Kurru.

The earliest Dynasty 25 state organization in Nubia is poorly known. Like the kingship, it was probably set up to mirror the Egyptian. Upper Nubia was apparently divided into “nomes,” ruled by “nomarchs,” who, like the generals of the army and the religious elite, were probably all members of the royal family. Already by the reign of Piye, the principal towns of Upper Nubia were well established – Pnubs, Kawa, Sanam, Napata, and Meroe – and each would have had its modest shrines to Amun and other Egyptian deities in their Nubian forms. However, the people, both agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists, were only marginally Egyptianized – if Egyptianized at all. The few excavated cemeteries of this era reveal a population utilizing both Egyptian and Nubian burial customs simultaneously.

After Piye’s death, his Lower Egyptian “vassals” again erupted into rebellion, and his successor, a brother named Shabaqo, reinvaded to maintain control. It is Shabaqo rather than Piye whom the classical historians remembered as the founder of the 25th Dynasty, doubtless because he was the first of his line to take up permanent residence in Egypt. At this point, the kings moved to Memphis; they became fully Egyptianized and cosmopolitanized; and, as far as we know, they returned to their homeland only for burial. If they have traditionally been portrayed by historians as “foreigners” in Egypt, they surely did not perceive themselves as such, despite their different ethnic, cultural and linguistic origin. In their minds Egypt and Kush were northern and southern halves of an ancient original domain of Amun. These two lands, they believed, had been united in mythological times; subsequently they grew apart, to be united again in historical times only by the greatest pharaohs. As “sons” of Amun, the Napatan monarchs saw themselves as heirs of those pharaohs, who thus became their “ancestors.” Shabaqo (ca. 716-702 BC) and his successors Shebitqo (ca. 702-690 BC) and Taharqa (690-664 BC) believed they were the god’s representatives – from his southern pole – chosen to unite and protect his ancient empire and to restore ma’at – truth, order, and propriety in the Egyptian sense – throughout the land.

In their search for religious and cultural purity, the Napatan kings developed a keen interest in all ancient Egyptian ideals, rituals and traditions, especially those that had fallen into disuse – and they tried to revive them, even reinvent them. They attempted to archaize the written – if not the spoken – language. They encouraged the state artisans to draw their inspiration from the masterworks of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They also revived the pyramid as proper royal tomb type. They undertook extensive renovations and renewals of ancient temples the entire length and breadth of their empire, and they poured their energies into making over Egypt’s decadent present into the image of her glorious past.

 Head of King Taharqa
wearing the “cap crown”

It has always seemed fascinating to us that, for all their Egyptianization, the Kushites made no attempt to conceal their Nubian ethnicity in art or to hide or alter their Nubian names. Equally un-Egyptian in appearance was the king’s costume. The preferred crown was a kind of tight-fitting head-cap (“cap crown”) to which were affixed two uraei (cobra diadems) rather than the usual single uraeus worn by Egyptian kings. Often, this was accompanied by a distinctive cord necklace, which wound once about the neck and left the ends to fall forward over the shoulders. Ram-head pendants, representing the face of the Napatan Amun, were fastened to it at the throat and from each end. Identical pendants were sometimes worn as earrings. Also distinct from Egyptian custom was the method by which the royal successor was chosen. In Egypt he was normally the eldest surviving son of the king; in Kush he was chosen from among the previous king’s living brothers, sons, cousins or nephews – officially by an oracle of the god. Just as the Egyptian kings seven centuries earlier had identified Gebel Barkal as the source of their kingship, so did the Kushites identify it as the source of theirs and so justified their own rule over Egypt as the continuity of the rule of the New Kingdom pharaohs. They could prove themselves possessors of the original – and long-lost – form of kingship, which no other dynasty of their time possessed. Their era, thus, would be conceived as a renaissance of the First Time, in which all aspects of the antique had to be revered and revived.

Taharqa’s reign of twenty-six years was the most glorious of the dynasty. A son of Piye by a minor wife, he came to Egypt as a youth. After a distinguished career in the army, he succeeded to the throne of Shebitqo in 690 BC at the age of about 32. In his first decade, he won significant military victories over Libyan and Asian peoples, controlled the western oases and established an Egyptian sphere of influence over the Phoenician port cities and Philistia. He was also the most prolific and original builder of his age.

Taharqa’s misfortunes came in the latter half of his reign. His two predecessors had provoked the Assyrian kings by conspiring with the petty rulers of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Judah to block their military advance to the east. The effort had been futile. By 674 BC the Assyrians had brought all of Taharqa’s vassals into submission and focused their wrath on Egypt itself, invading almost annually and finally forcing Taharqa in 669, after losing his army, his capital, his treasure, his chief wife and sons to the enemy, to withdraw ignominiously to Napata, where he had probably not been since his adolescence. Within five years he was dead.

Taharqa’s nephew and successor Tanwetamani (ca. 664-656 BC), a son of Shabaqo, was able to re-enact successfully the achievement of his father and uncle, reconquering Egypt one more time in 663 BC, but the Assyrians returned the following year with a vengeance to drive him and his dynasty from Egypt for the last time. The Assyrian sacking of Thebes was a disaster from which the Egyptian Amun cult never fully recovered. The subsequent seizure of Upper Egypt by the Saite rulers – Assyrian collaborators – must have been perplexing events for the Kushite theologians and galling events for the rulers, who were now exiled in Napata.

The Napatan State: Nubia as an Egyptian-style Kingdom: 660-300 BC

After the expulsion of the Kushite court from Egypt, the royal family regrouped in Nubia and consolidated its hold over all their lands south of Egypt. Although their armies were too weakened to attempt another assault on the north, the kings merely ignored their new rivals of Dynasty 26 and continued to use all the proper Egyptian royal titles, steadfastly maintaining that they were still the true kings of Egypt… By the late seventh century, the continued pretensions of the Kushites to the Egyptian throne must have become almost intolerable to the new Egyptian kings. Thus in 593 BC, with an army composed largely of Greek and Carian mercenaries, the pharaoh Psammeticus II invaded Kush, met and destroyed a Kushite army at the Third Cataract, and marched on unopposed to Napata, finally sacking and burning the city and destroying the palace and Gebel Barkal sanctuary. The Kushite king Aspelta (ca. 600-580 BC) probably fled to Meroe for safety, but after Aspelta our historical records become very scarce and our knowledge of historical events in Kush becomes very imperfect.

The 250 year period in Nubia following the Kushite occupation of Egypt has traditionally been known as the “Napatan Period,” since it used to be thought that during this period the capital of the kingdom lay at Napata, beside Gebel Barkal. It is now generally assumed that Napata may never have been more than the religious center of the kingdom, while the political capital may always have been at Meroë, about 170 miles to the southeast. Throughout this period, however, all the royal burials took place in the Napata district – at Nuri, about 6 miles north-east of Gebel Barkal and within sight of it, and on the opposite side of the river. The term “Napatan”, however, defines the era of Kushite culture when it looked to Egypt for all inspiration, rather slavishly followed Egyptian models in art, architecture, and burial practices, and when royal inscriptions were written only in the Egyptian language with Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. All of this, in fact, may have been religiously inspired and dictated by the powerful priesthood of Amun at Gebel Barkal. During these centuries, in fact, the entire official state culture may have been held hostage to the imagined requirements of the god Amun, dictated by the priesthood, and prevented from any change that departed from the age-old Egyptian norm. They apparently believed that by following rigidly the antique practices and rituals of Egyptian-style kingship, supposedly granted by the gods to both Kush and Egypt in the mythological past, the kingdom would continue to be favored by the gods and would one day resume its rightful hegemony over the entire Nile Valley. Although the royal inscriptions of the period are not many, and little or nothing is known of most of the kings, the surviving texts are interesting in revealing that the kings travelled to Napata for their coronations and to consult the famous oracle of Amun there on the affairs of state; they also made periodic journeys of state to visit and make offerings to all the sanctuaries in the kingdom. Additionally, the kings also waged wars against the nomad tribes of the desert and the peoples of the south. Most of the time, the kings dwelt in a god-like seclusion at Meroe and upon their deaths, they were brought to Nuri and buried in huge pyramid tombs.

 Pyramids at Nuri

The most important surviving monuments of the Napatan Period are the royal pyramids at Nuri. The cemetery was founded by Taharqa, and it was used by nineteen of his successors and fifty-four queens. Only five of the rulers after Taharqa are known by any lengthy historical documents; the rest remain shadowy figures known only by the names found associated with their tombs. The pyramids were erected on a pair of parallel ridges about 1 1/2 km from the Nile, about six miles north-east of Gebel Barkal on the opposite bank. Taharqa was the first king to use the site, and the special honor in which he was held among all future generations of his dynasty is revealed by the fact that his pyramid was enlarged, almost certainly after his death, and always remained more than twice the size of any of those of his successors. It was 100 Egyptian cubits (171 ft.) on a side, had a 69 degree angle, and stood originally about 260 ft. high. Generally the other kings’ pyramids were half that size at the base. Their angles varied, and stood between 65 and 130 ft. high. The queens’ pyramids averaged about 30 ft. on a side, although near the end of the period the pyramids of the primary queens reached 56 ft, attesting to their increasing political importance. Small chapels were built on the eastern sides of the pyramids (facing away from the river toward sunrise); and within these chapels offerings of food and drink were made to the deceased.

The tombs were cut in the bedrock beneath the pyramids, which were of solid masonry. The kings’ tombs regularly consisted of three interconnecting chambers; the queens tombs, only two. When well-finished, these rooms were completely painted and carved with Egyptian texts from the “Book of the Dead.” Each was entered by a long flight of stairs cut in a descending trench in the rock ledge, far out in front of the chapel entrance. After the burials, the stairway was filled in and camouflaged from the ground. This, however, did not deter tomb robbers. Although the tombs were all thoroughly plundered in antiquity, much remained in them that revealed what the burials had been like. All but two of the tombs were excavated in 1917-18 by George A. Reisner of the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, expedition. Many of the finds are presently on permanent exhibition at the Museums in Khartoum and Boston.

Typically Napatan royalty were mummified according to Egyptian fashion; their bodies were wrapped holding gold crooks and flails, and green stone heart scarabs and gold pectorals were placed over their chests. Their fingers and toes were capped with gold, and their faces were covered with gold masks (although the only existing examples were found in queens’ tombs, where the masks were only gilded silver). The viscera were removed and placed in large canopic jars. The royal mummies were encased within carved wooden anthropoid coffins covered with gold foil, and inlaid with colored stones set in designs of falcons or vultures with outstretched wings. The eyes were inlaid with gilded bronze, calcite, and obsidian. These coffins were then placed within larger anthropoid coffins, covered with gold leaf. In two cases the kings’ outer coffins were placed within huge fully decorated granite sarcophagi. Around the walls of the burial chambers shawabti figures of stone or faience, numbering between several hundred to over a thousand, would be arranged standing. Evidence suggests that the kings were also buried with chests of valuable jewelry, perfume and unguent vessels, and other personal possessions. The first chamber also contained large numbers of storage jars containing food and drink for the afterlife.

Nuri was abandoned as a royal cemetery in the late fourth century BC. Subsequent kings initially built their tombs at Gebel Barkal, but by the mid-third century BC the royal cemetery moved to Meroe.

The Meroitic State: Nubia as a Hellenistic African State. 300 B.C.-350 AD

The Napatan Phase of the Nubian culture ended when the royal cemetery was transferred from Napata to Meroe in the early third century BC. This inaugurated the phase called the “Meroitic,” in which the culture seemed to free itself from the strict adherance to Egyptian norms and developed many original traits. The dramatic shift in the Kushite culture almost certainly had to do with an event recorded by the Greek historican Diodorus. He stated that prior to the reign of a king named Ergamenes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 BC), it had been the custom for the high priests, probably at Napata, to send a message to the king, supposedly from the great god himself, advising him that the time of his rule on earth was finished and that he must die. Traditionally the kings had obeyed the divine orders and had taken their own lives. Ergamenes, however, “who had received instruction in Greek philosophy, was the first to disdain this command. With the determination worthy of a king he came with an armed force to the forbidden place where the golden temple of the Aithiopians was situated and slaughtered all the priests, abolished this tradition, and instituted practices at his own discretion”. It was about this time that the first royal tomb was built at Meroe: of a king named “Arkamani” (=Ergamanes). Soon thereafter, Kushite art and architecture began to develop individualistic styles. The royal family appeared much more “African” in their images and in their standards of beauty. The royal costumes and crowns were unique. A lion god, unknown in the Egyptian pantheon, became pre-eminent in the southern part of the kingdom. And Egyptian language and writing were largely abandoned for official monuments and were replaced by the native Nubian language (called “Meroitic”), which was for the first time written down in newly devised hieroglyphic and cursive alphabets.

Meroe seems to have been a flourishing town at least as early as the eighth century BC. It was situated at the junction of several main river and caravan routes, connecting central Africa, via the Blue and White Niles, with Egypt, and the Upper Nile region itself with Kordofan, the Red Sea and the Ethiopian highlands. Since it lay within the rainbelt, the land about it was seasonally more productive than the region of Napata, and it was thus a somewhat more pleasant place to live. By the third century BC it was only one of several large towns that had arisen in the same region. Bounded to the west by the Nile, the north by the River Atbara and to the south by the Blue Nile, this area, now known as the Butana, was the heartland of the later Kushite kingdom, and came to be known in classical literature as “the Island of Meroe.”

Our historical knowledge of Meroitic history is scant. When the kings ceased writing in Egyptian and began writing in their own Meroitic language, we suddenly cease being able to understand their official inscriptions. Meroitic, unfortunately, has not yet been deciphered; the key has never yet been found. All our knowledge of Meroitic history is thus based on the few surviving Greek and Roman reports, and on data recovered archaeologically.

The rulers of the Meroitic Period were contemporaries with the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Romans. In the third century BC, they maintained friendly relations with the Ptolemies, since the kings of the two neighboring Nile states collaborated in renovating the temples of Lower Nubia, sacred to both Kush and Egypt. Agents of the Ptolemies also traveled up the Nile as explorers and emissaries, some perhaps traveling to Meroe to haggle with the Kushite ruler over the price of war elephants which they sought to purchase for the armies of Egypt. The Roman historian Pliny preserves the names of several Greeks who actually resided at Meroe. One, named Simonides, was said to have lived there five years and to have written a book about his adventures. There was obviously a brusque trade between Meroe and Egypt and even beyond, since numerous Greek and Roman object have been found at Meroe: a wine jar from one of the royal tombs, in fact, is stamped with a mark indicating it had come from a region of Algeria. By the first century AD some of the Meroitic gods had even taken on aspects of some of the Olympian deities, and some temples were built using Greek measurement, and incorporated on Hellenistic features and ornament.

Scanty, but certainly accurate accounts of the capital Meroe have come down to us in the works of Pliny and Strabo, both of whom had at their disposal the reports of the team of explorers sent to Meroe by Nero about 60 AD to seek the source of the Nile. Pliny stated that Meroe was in an area where the grass became greener where scrub forest first began to appear and where elephants and rhinoceros could be seen in small numbers. The buildings in the town, at that time, he said, “were few in number,” but there were temples to “Jupiter Hammon” (Amun), besides “smaller shrines erected in his honor throughout all the country.” Strabo had noted further that the palace at Meroe had a garden full of fruit trees, and that the houses of the common folk were constructed of bricks or “interwoven pieces of split palm wood.”

Today Meroe is the largest archaeological site in the Sudan. Lying about a half a mile from the river, the city ruins alone cover about a square mile in area. Today they lie in an acacia scrub forest. Most prominent among the ruins is the huge stone walled enclosure containing the rubble remains of the palace and government buildings, several small temples (one with painted frescoes), and a so-called “Roman bath” or nymphaeum. Immediately behind it sprawls another walled com-pound enclosing the Amun Temple, a near copy of the one at Gebel Barkal. The remains of several other major sanctuaries lie nearby among the trees. Between these and the palace compound there are the extensive unexcavated mounds of the settlement, and on the east end of the city, on the edge of the desert, there are great slag heaps which have suggested that Meroe was an important iron working center. While cattle raising and the farming of millet and barley seem to have been the major occupations of the people at large, the city prospered by its river and overland trade. According to Strabo this trade probably involved the procurement and transshipment of salt, copper, iron, gold, various kinds of precious stones, valuable woods and animal products such as ivory and the skins of lion and leopard. Oddly enough, unlike the principalities within the Graeco-Roman sphere, Meroe never made use of coinage, instead doing all business only in barter.

 Northern Cemetery, Meroe, Sudan

Behind the city in the eastern desert lie its vast cemeteries. Those nearest the town were reserved for the common people. Those about a mile and a half distant bear the small masonry pyramids of the nobles and lesser members of the royal family, and finally, about three miles away, lining the tops of two ridges, are the towering pyra-mids of the rulers, of which over forty can be counted.

If Meroe was the major city of the kingdom, it was not the only one. The Butana Steppe is dotted with other Meroitic remains. Some up to sixty miles east of the Nile. Other settlements have been identified further south along the Blue and White Niles, and many Meroitic settlements arose in Lower Nubia, some barely a hundred miles south of Aswan. Apart from the capital, the most monumental sites are three, which lie between forty and fifty miles south of Meroe. At Wad Ban Naga, on the east bank of the Nile, there may be seen the remains of an enormous palace, together with two temples and a town. This was apparently a river port leading to the two great inland centers Naga and Musawwarat es-Sufra, built on the plain some twelve to eighteen miles inland. The first of these was clearly an important religious center, for it possesses the ruins of seven stone temples, a town, and a cemetery. On-going excavations here have revealed that the town was also surrounded by numerous manor houses with plantations.

 The Great Enclosure, Musawwarat es-Sufra,
Sudan, 3rd century BC

The latter site, ten miles to the north, was also a cult center and perhaps, too, a caravanserai. The most spectacular site in the Butana, Musawwarat contains the sprawling ruin known as the “Great Enclosure”, a labyrinth of stone buildings, temples, corridors, ramps, and courtyards. Tremendous stone walls partition the complex into no less than twenty separate compounds, which have recently been found to be protected gardens of fruit trees, all brought, together with their appropriate soil, from the banks of the Nile and watered by an elaborate underground pipe system. The function of the complex is not really known. Some have suggested that it was a seasonal palace; others, a pilgrimage center; and others, a royal hunting pavilion. While both the sites of Naga and Musawwarat now be in virtual desert, careful management of somewhat greater rainfall in ancient times made the area much more fertile than it is today. Huge hafirs (catch-basins) were constructed at each site to collect the annual rainwater and keep it until needed. The largest hafir at Musawwarat is 800 ft. across and 20 ft.. Stone statues of guardian lions and frogs ringed many of these artificial lakes magically protecting their contents.

The major god of the region of Meroe was a divinity of local origin, called Apede-mak. He was perhaps a lion form of Amun and was often identified with the moon. He normally took the form of a powerful lion-headed man, dressed in armor. He usually appeared in the reliefs of his temple in a warlike aspect, standing or seated on a throne or on an elephant, grasping prisoners and weapons of war, or holding elephants and lions on leashes. Magnificent temples in his honor were built at every major site in the Butana.

 Apedemak Temple at Naga, Sudan

The finest surviving examples being those at Naga and Musawwarat. The Apedemak Temple at Naga is adorned with reliefs depicting the imposing figures of its builders, King Natakamani and Queen Amanitore doing homage to the lion god. (This royal pair, who lived at about the time of Christ, seem to have presided over a Meroitic “Golden Age,” as the remains of numerous buildings bear their names.) In the decorative scheme of this temple the figure of the queen appears just as prominently as that of her husband, providing a clear indication of the unusual status accorded women in the Meroitic monarchy. Judging by the many large pyramids of queens and the remains of buildings bearing their names exclusively, Meroe after the third century BC seems to have been ruled by many queens in their own right. Classical writers were so impressed with this fact that they often assumed that Meroe was ruled only by women, who, they thought always bore the name “Candace.” This name, the origin of our modern female name, was in fact a Meroitic queenly title, which may have meant “Queen regent”.

In 24 BC, soon after Rome had wrested Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra, the Kushites invaded Lower Nubia, attacking and plundering even Aswan to test the new northern power. This is virtually the only incident in which Meroe appears directly on the stage of Roman history. Following this challenge to Augustus’ authority, the Roman general Petronius was immediately dispatched into Nubia. He met and defeated a Meroitic army and drove on to Napata, which was said to have been captured and destroyed by him, and its inhabitants enslaved. The Meroites and Romans ultimately made a peace treaty, which endured for three centuries. Curiously, in the Roman account it was noted that the Merotic queen was “a very masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye.” This strange description is given substance by the even stranger portrayals of these ladies that appear in reliefs in their tomb chapels and temples. The successive Candaces Amanishakheto and Amanitore, for example, both of whom are nearly contemporary with Petronius’ campaign, are depicted as massive, powerful figures, enormously fat, covered with jewels and ornament and elaborate fringed and tasseled robes. Their huge frames tower over their diminutive enemies, whom they are shown grasping brutally by the hair with one hand and dealing the coup de grace with the other. The social and aesthetic implications expressed by these reliefs are very different from those of Egypt, where women preferred to be portrayed as lithe and slim. This attribute, together with the facial scars worn by both the kings and queens of the Meroitic period, were the marks of physical beauty, common to central Africa, and suggest how much more southern oriented the kingdom had become since the days of the 25th Dynasty. Doubtless, over the centuries, the Meroitic ruling house had been infused many times with new ethnic strains and tribal affiliations

During the Meroitic Period over forty kings and queens were buried at Meroe. Their pyramids, which are better preserved than those at Nuri, continued the same basic royal tomb form. Of all the tombs, not one was found unplundered. There is even reason to suppose that in some cases the robbers were the very men who were employed in cutting the tombs. From reliefs preserved in the tomb chapels it is clear that the royal mummies were laid in wooden anthropoid coffins; these were placed in the inner-most chambers of the tombs on raised masonry benches carved with divine figures. The bodies were evidently weighted down with jewelry. The larger tombs contained remnants of weapons, bows, quivers of arrows, archer’s thumb rings, horse trappings, wooden boxes and furniture, colored glass vessels and bottles. fine and coarse pottery, bronze lamps, elegant bronze and silver vessels and other utensils, many of them imported from Egypt and the Greek and Roman worlds.

Many of the tombs at Meroe contained multiple human skeletons, again reminding us of the Kerma burials in which people were sacrificed to accompany the dead. Writing in the first century BC, the Greek writer Diodorus remarked of the Meroites that it was “customary for the comrades of the kings even to die with them of their own accord and that such a death is an honorable one and proof of true friendship.” He added also that “it was for that reason that a conspiracy against the king is not easily raised among the Ethiopians, all his friends being concerned both for his safety and for their own.” Excavations have revealed that it was not only the kings who took others with them in death. Many tombs of lesser importance contained small groups of subsidiary skeletons and it was clear that most wealthy persons were buried with servants. For the royal tombs, animals too were slaughtered, usually on the landings of the deep stairways, just outside the sealed entrances to the burial chamber. Here were found the remains of yoked horses, oxen, or even camels and dogs, and bodies of attendants.

Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

The story of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt should be projected on a broad background. Starting from 1580 a. C. Nubia was ruled by the Pharaohs as viceroyal and cultured. The Egyptians had learned the language and writing, the arts and religion of the Egyptians.
This is a wise transplant of the Egyptian deities, all of which were “towns” of one or another place, similarly “towns” in Nubia; in addition, Nubian deities were configured alongside the Egyptian. For one and for the other they built temples, and for the deceased sepulchres in all similar to the Egyptians.

The decadence of the Egyptian monarchy, begun in the tenth century to. C., dragged down the fall of the Viceroyalty, but also gave space, in the region made independent, in years around 750 a. C., to the formation of a kingdom, which was consolidated in the South with a splendid capital, Napata, later, flanked and then replaced by another, with Meroe.
Together with these monarchies there flourished a remarkable Mischkultur: real pyramid tombs, but much more pointed than the Egyptian; tombs of indigenous “pie” type principles, in stone, gigantic; temples, Egyptian as regards the structure and the layouts of the sculptural integrations, but realized for robust hypervolumetry; palaces of the Greek-Oriental type.
More important for growth from state to state, the fixation of the local language in writing, in Egyptian writing first, then in a new one, which no longer used, like Egypt, a consonantal alphabet and some hundreds of poly-consonantal signs, but only alphabet – second perfection already implemented by the Phoenicians, here, in the III cent. to. C. by King Atakamani, Ergamene in Greek diction, which had been instructed by sophists – and therefore perhaps by imitation of Greek writing. However, this alphabet was still consonant: more likely an imitation of the Aramaic one, brought by groups of Jews descended to Nubia in two rounds, in the sec. VIII and then in the VI.
The kingdom built in this way was however formed of populations linked to the sovereign only by fidelity pact. Therefore, he was unable to prevent repeated raids, which began in the third century. d. C., of another population, and aggressive, from the Eastern Desert, the Blemmi, who headed for Northern Nubia and eventually settled there. The powerful Axumites in Africa, in 350, gave him the coup de grace – they destroyed Napata and Meroe.

This event followed a dark Middle Ages, which lasted until the sixth century. and the formation of three solid Christian kingdoms.
The cosmopolitan culture of Napata and Meroe that we have described, can explain the reason for a peaceful relationship that can be defined as “religious coexistence”, always entertained by the two capitals with the Ptolemies.
Too busy, the Ptolemies, in fact, in the harsh wars in Syria against the Antigonids, turned to the South only with Ptolemy II, who drove a scientific expedition; the successors then occupied the Nile Valley over Aswan to Hierà Sykaminos-Maharraka, along a strip called Dodekaschoinos, “of the twelve miles”; in certain periods they went further, up to Primis-Kasr Ibrim: they entrusted the relative territory to the strategist of Elefantina, dependent on the epistratego of the Thebaide or rather of Upper Egypt.
For the rest they devoted themselves above all to building temples, some on Egyptian shrines: a grandiose at File, for Isis; others modest to Debod, Uadi Hedid, Kalabsha, Aguala, Pselcis-Dakka and in the same Maharraka, for other deities, both Egyptian and Nubian. Egyptian temples in terms of architecture, but with innovative relief decoration, made full-bodied – much less however of the Nubian. Temples including the ones located at File, Debod and Dakka, bear signs of Meroiti interventions.
On the same register of religious coexistence a Ptolemaic Act falls, according to which the territory extended from Aswan to the II Cateratta, called Triakontaschoinos, was to be considered sacred to Isis – dea, to which the Nubians were very devout; they celebrated it with a grandiose annual pilgrimage by ship, which carried the idol of the goddess on a visit to her husband, here not the ancient Egyptian Osiris, but the Nubian Mandulis residing in Kalabsha.
The main authors of this monumental flowering were Ptolemy IV and the VI with the coeval Ergamene, in the years between the end of the III century. and half of II a. C.

In the following years, after Azio, 31 a. C., Rome took over.
Rivers of ink have been spent to recall the story of Cleopatra (VII), Ottaviano and Antonio, but not a drop for other figures of that time just as worthy of literary “digging”.
Julius Caesar, who in Egypt learned the scheme of the state with administration of the “pyramid” territory, as never built elsewhere in antiquity; he proposed to trace it back to Rome; he paid that design in the Ides of March.
Cornelio Gallo, delicate poet novus of the circle of Tibullus and of the young Virgil, a classmate of Ottaviano and a talented leader at his side in Azio: sent by his friend to occupy the Nile Valley and winner against bitter resistance in the Thebaid – cradle of all time , of a strong and riotous population – and in the Triakontaschoinos, he raised a large stele to File with hieroglyphic and Greek and Latin inscriptions to his own glory; he was immediately recalled to Rome by Octavian. He also learned that he had been betrayed by his beloved woman; he did not stand, and stoically gave himself death; Virgil erased a panegyric that he had written in the Georgics for him.

Neither a drop was spent for a Candace (ie “queen” in the Nubian language, but the name was believed by the personal Latins) of Napata, who led a revolt of the Nubians against the dominion imposed by Cornelio Gallo; a warlike horde pushed to File: it sacked the temple of Isis and brought back to Meroe some statues of Augustus, which the archaeologists have recently found. He was driven back to the south by the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Petronius, who inflicted a severe defeat in 23 a. C. to Dakka; he locked himself in the fortress of Primis but did not stand to assault on Petronius; he went on to Napata, offering peace to the citizens against the restitution of the hostages and statues of Augustus;

But Candace once again returned to the offensive and attacked Primis, now the cornerstone of Rome; another time Petronius intervened, and he imposed very hard pacts of peace. She did not resign herself however: she asked and obtained to deal directly with Octavian; he went as far as his General Headquarters to Samos, and he obtained to mark the border between Rome and Meroe to Maharraka – the date of this event is in the 22nd or 21st. C.
It was therefore, Candace, a counter-Cleopatra. On the one hand Cleopatra, not as beautiful as it is painted – see the portrait on her coins – but certainly refined and certainly fascinating in speaking animated by a vast culture, as described by the historians, so that managed to seduce a Julius Caesar – for meeting comparable to those of Vittoria Colonna with Michelangelo and of the Lady of Staël with Vittorio Alfieri. But he did not move a Octavian finger. Candace succeeded, not even her beautiful – she was described as an orba – nor perhaps equally cultured, but she met the wisdom of the politician: Octavianus never wanted to avenge the defeat of Carre, nor that of Teutoburg; the Empire was closed within safe boundaries,

The peace of Samos held for two centuries, up to 250, the year of a first, ruinous raid of the Blemmi, extended to the Thebaid, barely rejected by Traiano Decio. Others followed, similarly and uselessly rejected, until Diocletian, in 197, withdrew the frontier to File. In this way he initiated a Middle Ages, which later welded to the one in the South, and closed a season in which North Nubia was anthropized as never before.
First of all, with a chain of strong elevations on the nodes of the slopes along the Nile and of the connected caravans, to defend against raids of nomads of the deserts.

Referring to Roman itineraries and archaeological remains, it was found that the first link in this chain consisted of Siene-Aswan and Contra Siene, the second from File and Shellal; followed on the west bank only Parembole – today Debod – and Tzitzis – today Uadi Kamar – in a stretch where the opposite coast is inaccessible, and therefore Kertassi, without a bridgehead on the eastern region of Dehmit, flat but not dangerous, because open on a wadis who turned to Aswan.

Further south, the valley narrows into the narrow of Bab el-Kalabsha, forming an important strategic point, protected by Tafis – today Tafa – and Contra Tafis, located at the point where the two slopes turned inward to circumvent the headlands, and at the subsequent outlet of the same on the river, to Talmis – today Kalabsha – and Contra Talmis; small forts also stood on islets that emerged from the current in the same narrow. Beyond were the stable Aguala encampments on the eastern bank, and Tutzis – today Dendur – on the western one; then another pair of forts in Pselcis – today Dakka – and Contra Pselcis, this second placed on the site of the ancient Kuban forts, but no longer with the function of looking at the access road to the now abandoned gold mines of Uadi Allaki. Finally, on the only west bank, the Court’s defenses – today Kurta – and Hierà Sykaminos – Maharraka – were on the border. Again, there was no need to look at the caravans on the Arabian Desert; instead those towards the Red Sea were fortified.
The entire system was completed by sighting and guard towers, elevated at regular intervals from strong to strong.

Rome also sealed its presence in the Dodekaschoinos as the Ptolemies had already done, in a good number of temples. Of these we will indicate the main ones, following a route from north to south “forward-submersion”.
At File, the Ptolemaic temple of Isis was enriched under Augustus, Tiberius and Antoninus of extensive reliefs; Augustus himself had two long porticoes built on the sides of the courtyard to access the sanctuary – perhaps completing a Ptolemaic work; Hadrian added a large and magnificent portal to the enclosure of the same sanctuary on the eastern side. In the northern part of the island, Augustus walled a temple – where archaeologists found the stele of Cornelio Gallo – unfortunately today in complete ruin; in the Occidental, Claudius built a temple dedicated to Harendotes, a form of the god Horus. Later that “Trajan’s kiosk” was elevated on the eastern bank, which is inserted among the jewels of the
Proceeding further, after the Ptolemaic-Meroite temple of Debod, attacked by Augustus, after a kiosk in Kertassi and another temple in Tafa, Augustus, they met, in Talmis-Kalabsha, a temple also augustus, that to be the eldest of Nubia , was called “the southern Karnak”. Built over the Ptolemaic building already mentioned, it kept the dedication to Mandulis. Then, in Aguala, a less known place, on the eastern bank of the Nile, just south of Kalabsha, a shrine dedicated to the same god in the same period. And still further, to Dendur, and still Augustus, a temple not large, but of very fine execution, consecrated to different deities, including two local characters taken from demigods, Pedeisi and Pehor.

Last meetings, the ancient Ptolemaic and Meroitic sanctuary of Thot at Pselcis-Dakka completed with a large “pylon” portal, a shrine of Isis at Kurta, and one at Hierà Sykaminos-Maharraka of Serapis, new god created by the Ptolemies and made spouse of a Hellenized Isis in Alexandria.
In all these reconstructions or completions or new constructions, the Ptolemaic patterns and style were faithfully reproduced. Only in the courtyard with a trapezium facing the Temple of File, one could point to a search for all-Roman theatricality, also visible in Egypt, in the temple of Esna.
It should be noted that the temples themselves are indicative of nearby cities, unfortunately rebuilt later – the most important in Kalabsha.

However, at the end of this quick report, the remarkable progress made to agriculture by the Ptolemies and increased by the Romans should not be ignored. To the cultivations of the dura and the date palm, certainly already existing there, were added the olive tree, the vine and the lemon. The findings of large olive crushers for olives in Kalabsha and Uadi Kamar, of grapes for grapes in various localities, testify to this; an inscription in File in which it refers that in 176 Marcus Aurelius donated vineyards to the temple. An incentive for this progress was given by the introduction of noria, which can be used with animal strength, much more effective for lifting the ancient balanced bucket or mazzavallo.

It was probably then created the landscape that North Nubia still held before the recent submersion – in combination with Egypt, similar to that of Switzerland compared to Italy. Villages with a precise urban layout and houses with climate-friendly facilities that are still waiting for a study and publication, the neat streets; the small, perfect cultivations.

Unfortunately, the grandiose work of archaeological salvation of Nubia wanted by the Egyptian Government, could only save the temples, because in stone. Among them, those of Debod, Tafa and Dendur were donated to Madrid, Leiden and New York, to bring their message of culture – along with that dedicated by Thutmosi III in Ellesija, now in Turin. The others have risen in their land, on the shores of Lake Nasser; the only monument still visible on the site, emerging from the body of water, the fort of Primis, abandoned by the Romans with the peace of Samos and variously remodeled in the new times.

Silvio Curto

S. Curto, Nubia [from the Palaeolithic to Islam], De Agostani Geographical Institute – Novara 1965; Nubien, Wilhelm Goldman Verlag München 1965.
L. Habachi (ed.), Actes du II Symposium International sur la Nubie – 1971, Supplements aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Egypte, Le Caire 1981.
E. Winter, Untersuchungen zu den ägyptischen Tempelreliefs der griechischen-römischen Zeit, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 1968.
For other contributions on this chapter, rare: MR Orsini, D. Bauchiero, Catalog of the Egyptian Library of the Egyptian Museum of Turin, I, Turin 1993; II, ibid. 1997; III, ibid. 2000: v. “Repertoire with subject”, sv “Nubia”.

The X Group or Ballana Culture

…”Archaeologically, the post-Meroitic dark age in Lower Nubia is filled by the cultural remains which Reisner designated sixty years ago as the “X Group”. …
…”As always, Reisner interpreted the unfamiliar “X Group” grave type as evidence of the coming of a new people… The cultural theories of Reisner found instant confirmation in the anatomical evidence of the X-Group skeletons as adduced by Elliot Smith: “The X Group people were strongly Negroid aliens who had suddenly made their way north into Nubia, bringing with them a mode of burial and type of pottery which Dr Reisner has declared to be distinctly non-Egyptian…”
“It seemed, in sum, that a new group of southern barbarians had taken possession of the whole of Lower Nubia, displacing Romans and Meroitic alike”…
…”Modern anthropological research has not confirmed the theory of “X Group” racial distinctness vis-à-vis the preceding Meroitic population in Lower Nubia”….
…”Given the present state of our knowledge, the continued use of the non-committal and misleading ‘X-Group’ designation seems unjustified. The name ‘Ballana Culture’, proposed several years ago by Trigger, is manifestly preferable… It identifies a particular stage of Nubian cultural development with its principal monumental expression, and provides a name which instantly enables us to differentiate between the culture of Lower Nubia and the related but in some ways distinct post-Meroitic culture of the steppelands, which is designated by Trigger as the Tanqasi Culture…
“If the archaeological remains of the Meroitic and Ballana phases point unmistakably to cultural and social continuity, there nevertheless remain important differences between them which must be explained. In the cultural sphere we have to account for the disappearance of many of the higher art which had long been characteristic of Kushite civilization, and at the same time for the revival of burial rites which seem to hark all the way back to pre-pharaonic Kerma. In the political sphere we have to recognize the appearance of a new, independent monarchy in Lower Nubia which nevertheless represents the last, barbarized manifestation of the pharaonic tradition. To further complicate the picture we have a fairly considerable number of late classical texts which make no mention of Meroe or Meroites, but allude repeatedly to two seemingly new peoples, the Blemmyes and Nobatae. Finally, we have possible evidence of linguistic discontinuity between the Meroitic and Post-Meroitic periods which cannot be ignored….”

“Remains of the Ballana Culture have been found from Shellal in the North to Sesebi, in the Abri-Delgo Reach, in the South… Ballana sites-both villages and cemeteries- are notably smaller and more dispersed than are those of the Meroitic period….”

 X-Group grave

“The typical Ballana tumulus was from 12 to 40 feet in diameter, and might rise to a maximum height of 15 feet… The tumuli of kings and nobles could reach far larger proportions. In the ordinary tombs there was no adjoining offering chamber or surface decoration of the earth mound. As in the Meroitic period, many graves seem to have lacked any kind of superstructure; in some places there are whole cemeteries without any tumuli. In their subterranean arrangements, the Ballana graves show the same variety of chamber types as do Meroitic graves. Although cave graves are rare, the basic two-fold division between vaulted chamber-tombs and niche graves, and the further division of the latter into end-niche and side-niche types, persists throughout the Ballana period. However, the relative proportions of the two main types are reversed: simple niche graves are much more common than are vaulted tombs in the Post-Meroitic period. A further innovation may be seen in the re-introduction of the contracted burial posture, and of the southward orientation of the body in place of the traditional westward orientation of Meroitic times. The great majority of contracted burials are found in niche-graves; they may represent nothing more than a natural adaptation to this rather constricted type of grave chamber. The bodies in chamber-tombs are most often extended on the back, as in Meroitic times. The practise of wrapping the dead in a shroud remained usual throughout the Ballana period. The funerary offerings in Ballana graves are of the same general types as are found in Meroitic graves, but are considerably reduced in number and variety. Quantities of cheap, locally made pottery are the most common grave furnishings. Other objects, except beads, are rare, and imported goods exceptionally so. Weapons of one kind and another are found in a good many cases; they include iron spear and arrow heads, leather quivers of a striking and elaborate design, leather bowguards, and archers’ stone rings…”
“The absence of monumental architecture is one of the most distinctive and surprising features of the Ballana period. Not only was there no further building in stone, but the older temples and/or palaces which had been built at Gebel Adda and at Meinarti in late Meroitic times were deliberately destroyed. This seems to have been a matter of policy rather than an accident of war…”

“What little we know of everyday life in Ballana times comes chiefly from the remains of a few towns and villages which were founded in Meroitic times but continued to be occupied later… At none of these places was there any significant break in the continuity of social and cultural development between Meroitic and post-Meroitic times…”
“…One of the few Nubian manufactures which seems to have flourished widely in the Ballana period was the pottery-making. It shows, however, an almost complete break with the traditions of Meroitic times, and the final disappearance of any vestige of ancient Egyptian influence. The lack of correspondence between Meroitic and X Group pottery was one of the factors long regarded as evidence for an “X Group” invasion…” “…Ballana pottery is so closely similar to that of Byzantine Egypt, and so different from its Meroitic predecessor….” “Pottery vessels seem to have been the only luxury goods which were enjoyed in any quantity by the Ballana people. They are found in enormous numbers not only in the graves, but even abandoned on the floors of houses…”
“Iron was certainly another industry of the Ballana period, although it is by no means abundant either in houses or in graves”…..” Another industry of Ballana times which is attested by a few chance finds is that of basket-making…”
“Most of the other manufactured goods which are sometimes found in Ballana graves are the same as, or closely similar to, those of the Meroitic period, and many of them appear to have been imported…”
” Throughout most of Nubia, archaeological remains of the Ballana culture give the impression of a decentralized agrarian society, poorer but more self-sufficient than the society of Meroitic times. Although differences of wealth are perceptible from family to family and from village to village, there is no conspicuously differentiated middle class….”

Christian Nubia and its churches

During the late antique and medieval period Nubia was divided into three kingdoms, from North to South: Nobadia, which largely corresponds with the modern Lower Nubia, Makouria in the middle, and Alwa in the south. The most powerful state was Makouria with its capital in Old-Dongola. Since the 6/7th century the kings from Dongola predominated also the state of Nobadia. It was governed by an eparch from Makouria with the authority of a viceroy who resided in Faras (ancient Pachoras), the capital at that time of Nobadia. When, in the 13/14th centuries the situation became unstable, due to invading nomads and power struggles among the members of the royal family of Makouria, the eparch of Faras moved to Qasr Ibrim (ancient Primis) and later to Gabal Adda.

 Basilica of Qasr Ibrim

According to the church history of John of Ephesos, the most important source on the early Christian period of Nubia, the Christianisation of Nubia started officially around a decade before the middle of the 6th century (between the years AD 538-546) with the Mission of Julian, send from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora. He was accompanied by Theodoros, the monophysite Bishop of Philae. There were also some earlier conversions arranged by monks settling in Nubia, and some different tradesmen but, apart of a few Christian artefacts and some textual records, they did not leave important traces. After two years Julian returned to C/pel, while Theodoros remained in Nubia until 551. The Mission was successful. The two men succeeded also in baptizing the king of Nobadia. In 569, after an interruption of 18 years bishop Longinos continued the Evangelisation of the country. He stayed six years in Alwa, baptised the king and put also the foundation for the ecclesiastical organisation by consecrating priests. Makouria was the last Nubian kingdom to become Christianised. As all missionaries were representatives of the monophysite belief that was predominant already at that time in Upper Egypt, it is only natural that the Christianized Nubians as well followed the same belief of their missionaries.

Five bishoprics are attested in Nubia: Kurte, Qasr Ibrim, Faras, Sais, and Old-Dongola. Probably also in Soba, the capital of Alwa was a bishop (P. Vansleb speaks of 13 bishops, seven in Makourios, six in Alwa). As all of these bishops stood under the supervision of the patriarchate of Alexandria. They were all to be consecrated in Alexandria and were apparently sometimes even Egyptian personalities, chosen among the monks of the various monasteries in Egypt.

Under these circumstances it is easily understood that the Christian art and architecture of Nubia followed in a broad sense, although not in every detail, the development in Egypt. The early basilicas have – as in Egypt – a western return aisle (not to be found in any other country or province of the Roman Empire), and since the 7th and 8th cent., at least in the region of Faras, there are several examples with a primary triumphal arch at the eastern end of the central nave, slightly in front of the opening of the apse became fashion, as it was the case in the Egyptian basilicas. But there is only one Nubian example, the church of Shaikh Badawy, which shows also the further development of the primary triumphal arch in the form of the khurus, separated from the nave of the church, as an independent spatial unit in front of the apse, as it was introduced during the second half of the 7th century in the Egyptian monastic church architecture. Since bishops from Egypt were the main personalities who brought Egyptian ideas of the design of the churches into Nubia, it seems likely that bishops living at that time and send from Egypt introduced this way of church construction to Faras, which was after them again abandoned. Apparently also in the Nubian monasteries this development did not find a total acceptance.

When in Egypt, during the Fatimid period, smaller centralized domed churches constructed over four inner pillars or columns (similar to the Byzantine cross-in-square type) were introduced, shortly after similar churches came into being also in Nubia. Contrary to the conditions of Egypt, where the majority of these churches have been lost, these centralized domed churches survived in a considerably large number in Nubia. Therefore the Nubian churches of this type are of very great value for the understanding of the development of these churches and also for gaining an idea of their development among the lost examples of this type in Egypt.

On the other hand, the Nubian churches also have a number of characteristics of their own. Apart from the early basilicas the western end of these churches was always divided into three sections: an open bay in the centre connected usually in its full width with the central nave of the church and two lateral chambers, of which one is usually occupied by a staircase leading up to the roof. Only at the very end of the development of Christian church architecture in Nubia this arrangement was abandoned. As in Egypt the sanctuary consisted of a central altar chamber, usually acting as a central apse, and two side chambers (pastophoria) to be used as liturgical auxiliary chambers. However, somewhat unique is the existence of a narrow corridor behind the apse which was introduced into Nubian church architecture about the middle of the 8th century. It offered the possibility of a direct communication between both pastophoria without disturbing the holy actions in the altar chamber. In Egypt no example of this feature is known.

The end of Christianity in Nubia started with the Mamluk in Egypt period under whose rulers the religious politic was changed and the religious tolerance of the Fatimid rulers was not practised anymore. Since that time the patriarchs in Alexandria then Cairo were fully occupied with their own problems and faced additional difficulties in taking care of their flock in Nubia. Only rarely could new bishops be sent to Nubia. Apparently in 1372 the last bishop Timotheos of Faras, a former superior of a monastery in the region of Faras, was appointed bishop to Qasr Ibrim. Consequently the Nubian people faced the problem of not having sufficient priests and their number decreased continuously. In this way Christianity in Nubia slowly dried out in the true sense of this word. The last churches were built on a very modest scale during the end of the 15th century. However, the Nubian population still demonstrated great respect for the ruins of the old churches, understanding that they were the religious buildings of their parents and grandparents.

Already since the Fatimide period Islam entered into Nubia. It did not spread out as a result of a official Mission but was infiltrated gradually by Arab immigration which slowly caused the Arabization of the country. The most important mosque in Nubia is the mosque of Derr some km to the north of the fortress of Shaykh Dawd. It is datable to the beginning of the 11th century.

Main building types of Nubian church architecture

1) The earliest examples of Nubian churches were true copies of the early Christian basilicas in Egypt, having three or five aisles, the typical Egyptian return aisle in the West and a tripartite sanctuary in the East divided into a central apse and two lateral side chambers (pastophoria).

1a) Apparently for technical reasons (to allow the construction of a continuing barrel vault over the central nave) the western return aisle was soon abandoned and reduced to a narrow western bay corresponding to the width of the nave and flanked on both sides with two western corner rooms, an arrangement which remained standard in the Nubian church architecture until its very end. During the 8th century a new feature, influenced as well from Egypt, but surely attested only in the neighbourhood of Faras, was introduced by the erection of a primary triumphal arch in front of the apse at the eastern end of the lateral colonnades of the central nave. However, it never developed to the khurus, as it was the case in Egypt. (Fig. 2. Riverside church of Adindan)

1b) Generally in Nubia the nave was shortened and the colonnades on both sides of the nave were reduced to two oblong pillars on either side. In this time, apparently about the middle of the 8th century also a narrow corridor behind the apse came into being which offered the possibility of a direct communication between both pastophoria.

2) After the 9th century, and probably under Byzantine influence submitted via Egypt, the so-called cross-in-square type was introduced also in Nubia with the insertion of four regularly distributed columns or pillars which divide the square groundplan of the nave into nine bays roughly of equal sizes of which the one in the center was in all cases covered with a dome. The surrounding bays are covered either with sailing vaults or barrel vaults. The type is represented in two main versions either with square or with cross shaped pillars. All the other features of the Nubian churches remained as they were before.

2a) A short number of roughly contemporaneous churches are furnished with corner pillars. They belong to a different devolopment originating from centralized churches of the early Christian architecture. The aisles are not divided into different bays but form a kind of continuing ambulacrum around the central domed bay.

3) The last building type of Nubian church architecture is a reduction of the cross-in-square type with only one pair of inner pillars or even non.

Peter Grossmann
German Archaeological Institute in Cairo


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B.G. Trigger, The Late Nubian settlement at Arminna West, Publ. of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Egypt 2 (1967)
K. Weeks, The classical Nubian townsite of Arminna West, Publ. of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Egypt 3 (1967)
C.L. Wolley, Karanòg the town. Eckley B. Coxe Junior Expedition to Nubia 5 (1911)

Islam in Nubia

In the middle of the seventh century there were two fully established kingdoms existing in the Nile Valley south of Aswan: Makuria in the north and Alodia to the south. The former occupied the territory from the First Cataract to the tributary called Atbara in the south, the latter stretched south of the Fifth Cataract all the way to the Ethiopian uplands. The actual border between the two has yet to be determined. Most likely in the late twenties of the seventh century, at a time when the Sassanids were in retreat from Egypt, Makuria incorporated the kingdom of Nobadia, which had existed independently since the fourth century.

From the mid sixth century the kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia had had strong ties with Byzantium and Egypt. They had accepted Christianity from missionaries sent by Constantinople. At Alodia, where Axum influence was already strong, missionary work was carried out after 580 by the first Monophysite bishop of Nobadia Longinus. In Makuria, the missionaries arrived straight from Constantinople. A bishopric with ties directly to the Byzantium capital was founded at Dongola in the mid 570s. The church of Alodia remained subordinate to the bishop of Alexandria right from the start. Makuria did not accept the superiority of the Monophysite patriarchate in Alexandria until the turn of the seventh century, when Merkurios was king.

 Fatimid mosque, Aswan

The Arab conquest of Egypt changed the geopolitical situation of the two kingdoms dramatically. The raid that the second governor of Egypt, Abdullah abi Sarh, led against Makuria in 651/652 was nothing less than an attempt to subjugate the kingdom. The successful defense of the heavily fortified citadel of Dongola resulted in negotiations that led to the signing of a political and economic treaty between the parties (baqt), stabilizing the peaceful relations of Makuria with the caliphate for the next 520 years. Both Arabs and Makurians respected the border at Aswan, abided by their religious and cultural differences, established rules of travel and settlement, as well as a parity in trade exchange according to which Makuria supplied African slaves and goods, while the caliphate provided food and luxury goods.

The great rulers of eight-century Makuria, Merkurios and Kyriakos foremost, pushed through reforms introducing a new territorial division that granted the eparchy of Nobadia special importance in maintaining good relations with Egypt and the caliphate. The Church was also reorganized at this time. A number of new bishoprics was established: Qurta, Qasr Ibrim, Faras, Sai , Dongola and, finally, Termus and Sciencur. The last two has not been localized yet, but the general location was presumably between the Third and Fourth Cataracts. Kyriakos even cultivated closer contacts with the family of the reigning king of Alodia, which kingdom did not have a stabilized relation with the caliphate.

The seventh and eight centuries are a period of significant development in Makurian art, expressed in particular by a new type of cathedral that replaced the earlier sixth-century five-aisled basilicas. The Dongola Cathedral, the Church of the Granite Columns and the Cathedral of Paulos in Pachoras which was modeled on it, are all built on a central plan, but furnished with a columnar naos and narthex, and numerous side annexes. This type of cathedral, which was a creation of the Dongolan architectural milieu in the late seventh century, exerted a visible effect on the churches A and B in Soba in Alodia. Religious painting known from the churches of Makuria (Abu Oda, Abdallah Nirqi, Wadi es Sebua) but foremost from the Cathedral of Paulos at Pachoras, displayed a high level of artistic achievement combined with features of the local school which had grown under the influence of Egyptian styles and iconography adopted from Egypt and Palestine, if not also likely from Constantinople. This process can be recognized even more clearly in the murals decorating House A in Dongola. Civil architecture and the process of urbanization changing the face of Makurian settlements testify to the economic prosperity of the kingdom, the cultural and social aspirations of its subjects and their civilizational status.

 Minaret of Fatimid mosque of Der

A dynasty established in the thirties of the ninth century by King (Augustus) Zacharias ruled Makuria until the middle of the eleventh century. This period is frequently referred to as the golden age of Makurian culture. Resuming good relations with the caliphate loomed large on the new rulers’ task list. The visit of the caliph’s envoys to Dongola served this purpose, as did the official delegation to Baghdad in 836 of King Georgios I (Caesar), Zacharias’ son and co-ruler. In Baghdad, he renegotiated the treaty (baqt), upholding all the principal tenets of bilateral political and economic relations. A further rapprochement between Makuria and Egypt took place in the Fatimid period in particular (9th-12th centuries). In the reigns of Zacharias I and Georgios I, Georgios II, Zacharias II and Zacharias III, the kingdom experienced rapid growth despite initial strife marring the reign of Georgios I (Nyuti’s rebellion, conflict with el Omarim). New inspirations were especially well visible in Dongola. A new royal palace was erected in the capital of the kingdom, incorporating a throne hall situated on the upper floor (later Mosque). Also constructed at this time was the most monumental architectural complex in the kingdom – the Cruciform Church with its central dome. The building was designed in commemoration of Georgios’s visit to Baghdad and became a symbol of the kingdom. The cathedrals in Dongola and Pachoras were renovated. The murals preserved from this period in the Pachoras cathedral are among the finest in the entire kingdom. Next to the grand compositions of Christ Enthroned, Nativity and Three Youths in a Fiery Furnace, there are countless representations of the rulers of Makuria, mothers of kings and the eparchs of Nobadia and bishops of Pachoras, the latter playing an exceedingly important role in the kingdom as primates of the Church. Smaller churches, such as the complexes at Abdallach Nirqi, Tamit and Sonqi Tino, provide many other examples of wall painting from this period.

The fall of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and the rise to power of the Ayyubids, as well as internal fighting between the Black Sultans and the Turks led to a cooling in Makurian-Egyptian relations. The expedition that Salaheddin’s brother led against Makuria, which terminated in the taking of Qasr Ibrim and the garrisoning of troops in the fortress there for a period of several years, resulted in growing animosity. The baqt was forgotten. Despite the efforts of Moise Georgios of Makuria no peace was negotiated. The consequences were serious for the Nubian kingdom. Food imports from Egypt were reduced substantially, forcing Makuria toward greater agricultural self-sufficiency. The granary supervisor became one of the leading officials in the kingdom. Considerable effort was put in building new fortifications or refurbishing existing but neglected defenses. A progressive Nubianization of church and state administration occurred with Greek and Coptic losing preference as the official languages in favor of Old Nubian. All of the literature in the kingdom was translated into the kingdom’s vernacular at this time.

Relations with Alodia were also strengthened, apparently by blood ties between the two ruling families. Royal marriages were facilitated with the restoration in the middle of the eleventh century of the principle of the son of the royal sister inheriting the Makurian throne. Strong royal authority diminished in the face of progressing feudalization, leaving the kingdom in the hands of an extensive group of local dignitaries drawn from the royal family and the state administration. The Makurian Church retained its strong economic position. The sons of the ruling king increasingly often became bishops and a number of the rulers spent the remaining years of their lives after abdication in monasteries, sometimes outside the kingdom. This obviously did not favor political stability within the state.

A declining economy did not at first impact Makurian culture, which continued to represent a high level of achievement. This was true of the architecture, even though the new religious structures were on a much more modest scale and the role of civil and military building had grown substantially. No trace of falling standards can be observed in Nubian painting of the period, as evinced by murals preserved in the cathedral at Pachoras, the N-W monastery annex in Dongola and numerous local churches. The twelfth century was hardly a period of decline in the art of Makuria, but there is no denying a spreading stagnation and a drying out of new inspirations. Dongola increasingly dominated the artistic life of the kingdom, one example of this being the intensive development of the monastery of the Great Anthony in this period. Bearing witness to the times is an extensive archive of literary texts, notarial documents and letters uncovered at Qasr Ibrim.

Strained relations between Makuria and the Islamic world marked the beginning of Mamluk rule in Egypt. An ill-advised attack on the port of Aidhab on the Red Sea and on Aswan in the times of King David triggered repressions on the part of Egypt. Open conflict could no longer be avoided in the reigns of the sultans Baybars and Qalawun. Mamluk troops took Dongola, Makurian economy suffered from looting, imposed taxes, and an administration in a state of havoc. Independence was lost with Nubian rulers depending heavily on Mamluk support to wield any kind of influence. All resistance crumbled under the weight of Arab military forays. A new threat appeared from the desert with the incursion of the Bedouin tribes, part of which settled in Makurian territory. Economical collapse was imminent with little chance for meeting imposed levies, anarchy grew. The ruler who inherited the Makurian throne in 1316 was a descendant of King David and a convert to Islam. In 1317 the throne hall of the Makurian kings was turned into a mosque. Further anarchy in the kingdom resulted in the death of the king. Makuria stopped paying tribute and Egypt ceased to meddle in the internal affairs of the kingdom.

In 1364, in the face of a threat from the Jaad and Akarima tribes, the king and his court fled Dongola. With assistance from Egypt the Nubians managed to stop these foraying tribes at the fortress of Gebel Adda, which then became the new royal seat. The territory of Makuria (Nubian Dotawo) shrank to the region between the First and Second Cataracts, originally the southern part of the kingdom with the main centers at Qasr Ibrim and Gebel Adda, and to Batn el Hagar. In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the territories situated south of the Third Cataract descended into ever deeper anarchy, considerable ethnic changes took place, church administration all but vanished. Alodia collapsed at about the same time, it, too, having been disrupted by foraying Bedouin tribes and subsequently subordinated to the new Funj sultans, whose authority in the sixteenth century extended even as far as the Third Cataract in the south.

To believe the evidence of documents from Qasr Ibrim and Gebel Adda, the kingdom of Dotawo (Makuria) in the region of the Second Cataract still existed in the fifteenth century. Its final collapse presumably followed the invasion of the Ottoman Turks who occupied the Nile Valley all the way to the Third Cataract. They established in this region two provinces with garrisons at Qasr Ibrim and on the island of Sai.

Nubia today


 Nubian family in front of their
house, Sudan

“Unlike their ancient history, which has been thoroughly studied, little has been recorded in English about the social and economic aspects of the existing Nubian tribes. This, perhaps, is partly because the countless ancient Egyptian remains in the locality are more attractive to the visitors than the cultural life of the inhabitants. The famous travellers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mentioned only random details which they came across in passing through Nubia”.

From Hassan Dafalla (district administrator of the area of Wadi Halfa during the crucial period of the migration and resettlement of the Nubians), “The Nubian Exodus”, 1975

The life of the Nubians living from Aswan to the Second Cataract from the beginning of the past century is linked to the building of the two Aswan Dams, which caused the flooding of their traditional environment and opened a new chapter in their history, a chapter which we are still writing.

“The land of Egyptian Nubia which was first inundated by the water of the Aswan Dam, was inhabited by three major ethnic groups: from north, the Kanzi, who speak Nubian; the Arab, who as the name suggests, speak Arabic, and the Fadjga who lived in the southern district and also speak Nubian.
This land was composed of 42 administrative areas called nahiyat, each one containing several villages. The Kanzi area was composed of 20 nahiyat, the Arab of 5, the Fadjga of 17. All the villages were located on both banks of the Nile.
The agricultural land was formed by small areas of artificial mud isolated from each other, stretching along the valley for more than 300 Km. All the area covered a surface of about 32,000 acres. The land was regularly cultivated using the sagiya or waterwheel and the shaduf as in Egypt.

The economy of Nubia was based mainly on agriculture. The cultivation of date palms was very intensive. There were in Nubia about 4,000,000 palm trees of different species. The export of dates was the most important income before the construction of the First Aswan Dam. The building of the Dam as we know caused a lot of changes and allowed the cultivation only for four months in the year in most of the areas. Cereals were grown during the summer and for consumption during the winter. Vegetables were cultivated instead, in a small amount

At the end of 1912 after the construction of the first Aswan Dam, the Nubians asked the Government to develop projects aimed to improve the agriculture and to save it from the inundation. Therefore from 1913 to 1924 the authorities carried out several surveys throughout the Nubian area to find a solution. At the beginning of 1931 several projects were developed, consisting of irrigation projects or the construction of walls to protect the land from inundation.”

Prof. Mohamed Alim Ahmed Gadkab,
Director of the Center for Nubian Heritage in Cairo

The peculiar character of the Nubian culture was not immediately affected by the building of the first Dam. W. B. Emery, director of the second major Archaeological Survey of Nubia in the years 1930-40, reported that “Nubia remains as it always has been, a barren highway between the fertile lands of Egypt and Sudan and …. (as) tourist steamers pass up and down the Nile between Shellal and Halfa, life in this ancient country continues unchanged with a steady adherence to old customs and traditions long since forgotten in the north”.


The folk heritage of the contemporary Nubians is various and rich since it has been produced by several groups of people which make up the Nubian population.

“A miracle in architecture passed all but unnoticed until the time had come for it to disappear. This happened in Nubia in 1933, when the Aswan Dam was elevated for the second time and all the villages of Nubia were to be submerged.
The Egyptian government had allotted the relatively trivial sum of LE 750.000 as an indemnity to the Nubians for the 35.000 houses which were to be destroyed. It was only natural that the Nubians resented and were reluctant to accept this indemnity, and, in consequence, they started negotiating with the government. Finally the Nubians accepted the government’s offer with reluctance and started building just one year before their houses were to be submerged. In no more than twelve months, they rebuilt their houses. No two houses were the same, each was more beautiful than the last; each village created its own character. Construction in the villages went ahead unimpeded. All were built at the same time at normal cost price. This happened because the Nubians, being remotely situated and living in isolated villages, had always depended on their own resources to build their houses. They had no contractors, engineers or architects to help them. If they managed, it was mainly because they had retained a technique for roofing in mud brick, using vaults and domes, which had been passed down to them from their forefathers… ”

From Hassan Fathi (famous Egyptian architect), Sidi Kreir, 1978

“The homes in Nubia which made up the nugu (village) extended 320 Km along the Nile at irregular intervals in a staggered line more or less parallel to the river”…

raditional Nubian hous“Throughout Nubia, the principal entrance to the houses faced the river, whether they were on the east or west banks of the Nile”….

“The threshold was highly decorated. It symbolized the heritage of the household and was the chief feature of ornamentation, which might be carried from the doorway on throughout the whole house. Usually the designs were inspired by nature”…
“The main entrance led into an open courtyard or haush, with rooms adjoining the exterior walls on one or more of its sides”…
“Some living rooms had a high wall-to-wall opening above the door or would be completely open on to the courtyard. In front of these rooms there was a flat roofed space known as the khayma (literally “tent”), covered with palm stems and branches… it was a covered sitting area along the open courtyard”…
“The guest room or mandara usually had separate entrances, allowing the guest freedom of movement, while sustaining the privacy of the inner family quarters. The mandara was considered an important part of the house, as was hospitality, which continues to be an important obligation to Nubians”…
“In the South were the Nile was wider and alluvional mud was plentiful, a method know as the galos or tuf technique of construction prevailed. The walls were made of mud, mud brick (adobe) or stone, and were a dira’a (half an arm’s length) thick”…
“They constructed their roofs by using split palm trunks and acacia wood beams”…
“The women and the children of the household plastered and decorated the interior and the exterior of their homes with bright, bold and colorful designs representing man-made objects such as cars, airplanes, trains, and ships, or sometimes depicted the owner’s pilgrimage to the holy city of Makka”.

From Omar el Hakim, Nubian Architecture, Second Edition, 1999



 Gold necklace with semi-precious
stones, modern, Aswan

“Among the crafts which characterized the Modern Nubian culture, the most important is jewelry. Necklaces, earrings, anklets, nose rings, pendants, rings, made mainly of gold and silver, sometimes inlaid with semi precious stones, had several shapes according to the material and also to the person to whom they were destined.
The wedding party was an important occasion to wear these jewels. They played an important role in the Nubian marriage tradition. The donation of the colt to the bride was a moment of big feast known as the fadgab. Jewelry was a way for most women of keeping capital and of showing their status.
The marriage among the Nubians is one of the important moments during which the deepest personal emotions and traditions of the people are expressed (songs, dances, music, dresses, jewelry, drawings). It was often arranged also to combine for example, shares in land, palm tress, cows, etc. To this event many people and family members coming from distant villages were invited.


Nubian music consisted in the beginning of a kind of poem, shar, composed using only five musical notes (Pentatonic rythm) and inspired from the war sounds of the Pharahos during the Ancient and Middle Kingdoms. The most used instruments were the tar, a kind of drum, the tambour, the daraboukka and the qirba, similar to a bagpipe. An important occasion for singing and dancing was, as said, the wedding party, which was accompanied by a background of music, ululation, clapping, drums, etc. (Nubian wedding) Many dances were also performed during the seasons of sowing and harvest with the auspices of prosperity and plentiful crops. The music and songs of the modern Nubians have been very commercialized. They use the old Nubian melody with Arabic words (Rasha, “Hadada” (lullaby), Sudaniyat, 1997).


The Nubians also have their own language. The old Nubian characterized by a writing system, was a unique language used in all the area, as many manuscripts found in many different places of Nubia testify. It uses the Coptic alphabet with the addition of other letters to write the typical Nubian sounds. The oldest manuscripts in old Nubian go back to the beginning of the Christian period in Nubia (middle of the 6th century). With the appearance of Islam in Nubia (about 13th century) Arabic became the dominant language. However Nubian continued to be used until today. The modern language is formed by many dialects (Fadiga, Kenzi, Sikut, Mahas, Dongolawi), which derive from the old one. Since they do not respect a fixed model of writing, everyone tries to create his own model in such a way that sometimes the writer himself cannot read it again especially after a long time!”. Today many Nubians and foreign scholars are interested in the study of the Nubian language. This interest in its maintenance is very important for the Nubians since the language is the most important instrument to perpetuate the memory of a culture.”

Prof. Mohamed Alim Ahmed Gadkab and Mohamed Saleh Awad


“This is the last chapter of the history of this population inside their own country. Today 50,000 Egyptian Nubians are resettled at Komombo and Esna north of Aswan. While also many Sudanese Nubians were moved to Khasm el-Girba on the Atbara River with the building of the High Dam. What about their future? Of course the nostalgia (mostly for the old generation) for their country is enormous. The Egyptian Government is trying to support projects for the creation of settlements in the lake area with the participation of both government agencies and international funding programs. But what to say about the people for whom the hope of creating a new life in the country of their forefather is far, and who are destined anyway to constitute a minority in the new countries? “… in the mosaic of Middle Eastern life, many groups of people have retained their individuality and vitality for generations while living close to other groups distinct from themselves. I believe a Nubian society is likely to persist, for, until the still long distant day arrives when individual achievement and social mobility are the major factors in personal survival and success, bonds of kinship and group allegiance will remain relevant. Rather then indulge in romantic nostalgia for what is indisputably gone, we who care about the fate of this people must take pleasure in the fact that they are so well equipped by experience and circumstance to make the adjustments necessary for their survival. We can only hope that their attachment to what is culturally unique in their own heritage will find new expressions among future generations…”

The Nubian A-Group

The A-Group, an indigenous Nubian culture, emerged in Lower Nubia c. 3500 BC, during the Predynastic period in Egypt, and it reached its climax about the time of the Egyptian unification, c.3000 BC. George A. Reisner introduced the term “A-Group” in his chronological model of the Nubian cultures (1910). A-Group remains, mainly cemeteries, have been found between Kubaniya, 10 km (6 miles) to the north of Aswan, and Saras East in Bam el-Hagar, 30 km (20 miles) to the south of the Second Cataract. The rocky tract at Semna and Kumna may have constituted the southern border of this culture.

The most important archaeological source material related to the Nubian A-Group came from about seventy-five village cemeteries. Many graves had rich and varied funeral offerings that consisted of a whole array of indigenous and imported pottery types, including Nubian bowls and dishes with rippled surfaces, delicate thin-walled vessels with red-painted geometric patterns, and Egyptian bowls and wine jars. Among the other finds there were ivory bracelets, stone beads and amulets, mollusc shells from the Red Sea, copper tools, quartzite palettes, mortars and grinders, and female pottery figurines.

The general characteristics of the A-Group culture can be summarised as follows. The population, estimated at less than 20 000, lived in small communities along the flood plain. Structural remains of houses have been found only occasionally, most notably stone foundations and Afia, near Korosko. Animal husbandry, primarily cattle raising, formed the basis of their economy. They also practiced agriculture, growing cereal grains and leguminous plants. Fishing, hunting and food gathering were probably complementary parts of their subsistence. On the whole, the material remains of the A-Group display a blending of Egyptian and Sudanese designs and influences. The distribution of the funerary remains indicates a social inequality that became strongly emphasized towards the end of the period.

The control of trade and exchange in Nubia might have become the decisive factor in the development of the A-Group’s socio-economic and political structure. The leaders of the A-Group communities probably played an important intermediary role among the fast-developing Egyptian economy, the communities in Upper Nubia and those in surrounding regions, furnishing raw materials of various kinds, including ivory, hardwoods, precious stones, and gold, perhaps also cattle. There are three chronological phases of the A-Group. These are characterized as follows.

1. The Early A-Group inhabited the northern part of Lower Nubia and was contemporary with the latter part of Egypt’s Amratian, culture and early Gerzian. The richest cemetery was located at Khor Bahan. This phase was also coexistent with a Sudanese Neolithic culture called the Abkan, which dominated the region at the Second Cataract in Batn el-Hagar. The true relationship between the Egyptian Predynastic culture and the Early A-Group is not yet fully understood.

2. The Middle A-Group was contemporary with Egypt’s middle Gerzian and is considered to be a formative phase of the A-Group proper. The communities in Lower Nubia and the northern part of Batn el-Hagar developed a uniform culture, characterized by lively contacts with Egypt but also with Upper Nubia. There was a clear and unbroken continuation as regards traditions and social development between Middle A-Group and the subsequent Terminal phase.

3. The Terminal A-Group was coexistent with Egypt’s unification stage (end of Gerzian) and the initial part of the First Dynasty. Cultural and economic exchange along the Nubian part of the Nile valley was intensified during this period of prosperity and population growth.
The most affluent area was located in the southernmost part of Lower Nubia, displaying an impressive number of rich cemeteries with a strong social presence of women in both the village cemeteries and in many of the elite cemeteries. An advanced chiefdom that controlled at least the southern part of Lower Nubia may have been formed during the Terminal A-Group, perhaps the result of a consolidation process parallel to that of Egypt. The center was at Qustul near the present Sudanese- Egyptian border, where the Chicago Oriental Institute has excavated an elite cemetery with funerary offerings of outstanding quality. The complete breakdown of the A-Group culture came abruptly when the Egyptian kings of the First Dynasty took full control of the southern trade and the flow of raw materials. The population may have become nomadic, leaving few material remains behind. Between the reign of Djer of the First Dynasty (c.2900 BC) and the Fifth Dynasty (c.2374 BC) there are very few traces of indigenous Nubian settlements or graves. An Egyptian settlement, was found at Buhen opposite Wadi Halfa, dating to the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties.

Hans-Ake Nördstrom
Member of the Scandinavian Joint Expedition in Nubia
(Unesco Nubia Salvage Campaign).

Prehistoric Sites in Egypt and in Sudan

It is entirely appropriate to note that when the international salvage efforts began, there was virtually no information available on the prehistoric development anywhere in Nubia, and even in Egypt little was known concerning prehistoric materials beyond a few scattered and rolled pieces found in ancient deposits along the Nile. From this limited evidence, archaeologists had concluded that the Nile Valley, both Nubia and Egypt, has been a culturally conservative cul-de-sac where the technological and typological attributes of the Middle Paleolithic survived relatively unchanged until near the end of the Pleistocene. The lithic industries of Late Paleolithic age along the Nile Valley were believed to be limited to a few simple tool types, usually made on flakes, and with a high frequency of the Levallois technology which elsewhere is characteristic of the Middle Paleolithic. Those diagnostic elements of the Late Paleolithic -the blade technology and the associated complex of tools emphasizing end-scrapers, burins, and backed pieces -were believed to be absent. These simple flake industries were seen as persisting long after com pound tools, indicated by the presence of geometric microliths, had appeared in Europe and southwest Asia.
At a still later date, the role of the Nile Valley in the origin and development of food production was also discounted as it became fashionable to regard the upland areas around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as the probable center for the origins of agriculture.
Perhaps the major result of the Nubia prehistoric campaign was to lay to rest these concepts of Nilotic cultural conservatism. The Nubian work not only disclosed the presence of numerous rich prehistoric living sites ranging in age from Early Paleolithic to the beginning of written records, but these sites yielded convincing evidence that they had been occupied by groups whose lithic technology and typology were fully as complex and as progressive as those from other parts of the world.
There is no evidence that these early efforts to use grain for food resulted in a corresponding primary development of food production, but they were an important first step which may ultimately have led to the crucial achievement of food production, either along the Nile or elsewhere in the Near East.
The Combined Prehistoric Expedition surveyed and located several hundred prehistoric sites within the assigned concession areas, and of these, 102 sites were excavated and studied systematically. These range from Early Paleolithic to Neolithic. The final reports on these studies have been published in several volumes (Wendorf, 1965 and 1968; Marks, 1970). The Prehistoric sites in Nubia have been grouped into five broad cultural stages, and within each stage several distinct lithic industries were defined. The stages may be summarized as follows:

Nubian Early Stone Age:
The sites of this stage are typologically and technologically within the range of the Acheulean complex and share many resemblances with the Middle and Late Acheulean from further south, especially Klor Abu Anga near Khartoum, Sudan. No living sites of this group are known, only quarries and workshops. Ferrocrete sandstone was preferred for tool production, although quartz was also important in some sites. Bifaces were the most common tools, while cleavers, trihedral forms, and para-Levallois flakes are rare. Levallois technology appears during the middle phase of this stage and becomes increasingly important thereafter. Nubian Early Stone Age sites occur only in the Older Pediments. None are known to occur within the silts of the river.

Nubian Middle Stone Age: This stage is generally equivalent to the Middle Paleolithic elsewhere. It contains four distinct industries the Nubian Mousterian, Denticulate Mousterian and the Nubian Middle Paleolithic and the Khormusan. The latter has affinities with the Sangoan-Lupemban of central and west Africa; the first two are more similar to the Mousterian complexes of the Near East and Europe. The first three of these industries share the following features: a nearly complete absence of handaxes (these are replaced by biface foliates or flake tools); a strong preference for ferrocrete sandstone for tools; and a frequent use of Levallois technology (although this varies among the three industries of this stage). Sites of these three industries occur only in the Older Pediments. The Khormusan sites occur imbedded in the oldest Nile silts known in the part of the Valley and are believed to date between 65,000 and 55,000 years old. Khormusan sites record a diverse food economy.
They contain an abundance of fish remains as well as numerous bones of wild cattle, gazelle and hartebeest. In addition to the typical wide, flat Levallois flakes, the Khormusan sites contain numerous burins (a kind of engraving tool), scrapers and perforators.

Nubian Upper Stone Age:
Three distinct industries are also included in this stage: the Khormusan, the Gemian, and the Sebilian. Each of these industries is markedly different from the others, but as a group they share an emphasis on medium-sized flakes for the manufacture of tools; the biface foliates of the preceding stage are gone, and there are no true geometric, microlithic, or backed microblade tools characteristic of later stage. Except for the Sebilian, which differs sharply from all other known lithic assemblages in Nubia, sites of this stage yield increasing frequencies of artifacts made on Nile pebbles, while burins, endscrapers, and retouched points occur commonly in one or the other industries. The Sebilian retains the emphasis on ferrocrete sandstone preferred during the earlier stages, and the tools of this industry emphasized various kinds of truncations. These differences have led to the suggestion that the Sebilians were an outside, non-Nilotic group who briefly intruded into the area. In some respects they have close affiliations to some of the industries known farther south in central Africa -especially the Tshitolian.

Nubian Final Stone Age:
This stage contains four distinct industries: the Halfan, the Qadan, the Arkinian, and the Shamarkian. All of these industries share a tendency for the retouched tools to be microlithic, suggesting extensive use of composite tools. They also all make frequent use of microblades and bladelets in the manufacture of finished tools, and Nile chert pebbles were used almost exclusively as raw material for these tools. The Nile and its resources, especially fish, become increasingly important, and it is during this stage that the first use of ground grain occurs. There is an overlap in time between the Nubian Final Stone Age and the preceeding Nubian Upper Stone Age. The earliest Nubian Final Stone Age sites (the Halfan) occur in situ in Nile silts and have radiocarbon dates of around 17,000 B.G., while the Nubian Upper Stone Age probably begins before 20,000 B.G., but survives as a technological stage represented by the Sebilian, as late as 9,000 B.G.

Nubian Ceramic Age:
This stage includes at least three distinct lithic industries in Nubia. Pottery, the diagnostic feature of this stage, first appears in the final phase of the Shamarkian industry, and is also present in two distinct and seemingly contemporary groups named the Abkan and Khartum Variant. Both the Shamarkian and Abkan ceramics appear to be stimulated by Egyptian sources; however, the Khartum Variant pottery clearly is similar to that of Shaheinab in central Sudan. All three industries share an emphasis on large flake tools, and the Abkan and Shamarkian sites are dramatically larger than those known previously in Nubia. This change of settlement size may indicate the appearance in Nubia of a new economic resource -possibly cultivation.

History of Nubia

The area now called Nubia extends along the Nile from the South of Aswan to the town of Dabba, near the Fourth cataract, linking Egypt – i.e. the northern part of the Nile valley – to the Sudan in the South. The name Nubia is first mentioned in Strabo’s Geographica; the Greek author is believed to have visited Egypt c. 29 BC.

The etymology of the name Nubia is uncertain, but some researchers believe it is derived from the Ancient Egyptian nbu, meaning gold, referring to the gold mines for which Nubia was famous. The name does not appear in Ancient Egyptian texts. They refer to Nubia generally as Ta-Seti, meaning “Land of the Bow”, a clear reference to the weapon favoured by the Nubians.

  • Prehistory