Background

 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”.


Architecture

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


Jewelry

 

 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.


Music

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).


Language

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


Perspectives

“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…”