Soleb Temple, Nubia

Ancient Nubia: An Introduction

The details of Ancient Nubia’s origins and the extent of its boundaries are not well understood by specialists in the field. The field of Nubiology began in the 1960s with the construction of the Aswan High Dam (completed in 1970), which flooded a 340 mile long area of lower Nubia, namely in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Before the construction of the dam began, UNESCO sent out an international call for archaeologists to save the monuments at risk. The Nubia Campaign led to renewed interest in the ancient civilizations in that part of the Nile Valley. The label of Nubia is often incorrectly used as a general name for the entire vast regions south of Egypt, stretching roughly two thousand miles to south Sudan and representing many different kingdoms and African regional groups. Even while various groups are actually named in the ancient texts, it is common for scholars to overlook these details and still assume these groups are somehow sub-groups of Nubians. As stated above, “Nubia” is often used as a blanket name for all groups to the south of Egypt.

Map incorrectly labeling regions south of Egypt as Nubia

Map incorrectly labeling regions south of Egypt as Ancient Nubia

The name “Nubia” appears for the first time in Strabo’s Geography to designate a land the Greeks called Ethiopia. Nub (nbw is plural) in the language of the Egyptian pharaohs means “gold,” and although Nubia is a rich source of this precious (as is evident by the current gold rush in northern Sudan), it is not certain if this term is the origin of the name Nubia, although this is the likely origin. The ancient Egyptians, in pharaonic times, usually referred to the land as “Ta-Seti (“land of the bow”), or for further south “Kush,” or simply “Southern Land(s)” referring to black peoples in general.

In his book, Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa (1994), David O’Connor describes the confusion the term Nubia for even specialists in the field:

“ ’Nubia’ and ‘Nubian,’ for the periods covered in this book, refer only to geographical locations, not to the ethnicity or language of the peoples involved. Nubia is a word of uncertain origin.” He continues, “Often the people or place involved is obscure to us. Are the people named the entire Nubian nation or those of a subregion, or even a small village? Is the place all Nubia, part of it, or a single site? And which are located in which place? These questions can puzzle scholars.”

Lower Nubia now refers to the area near Aswan at the first cataract, reaching up to the Second Cataract, roughly corresponding to Egyptian Nubia, and Upper Nubia which extends further south into Sudan. Ancient texts describe this southern kingdom during the periods when Kush was in contact with Egypt. There is much ambiguity surrounding Nubia, particularly during its earliest periods, and the study of the southern Nile region would increase the recognition of Nubia as an independent state, rather than merely as a secondary state on the periphery of Egypt. The problem with Nubiology is the same as Kushology in that little is known about ancient Nile Valley civilizations south of Egypt in pre-dynastic and early dynastic times in Egyptian history, which leaves many conclusions speculative.

As stated in the previous section in the description about Kush, most Egyptologists confuse groups south of the Egyptian border and classify them under the convenient but misleading term “Nubian,” even when the text or inscription actually names the said group(s). The people are termed “Nubian” and maps are created to show the entire vast area south of Egypt as “Nubia,” even up as far as the 6th cataract. However, it is clear that both ancient and modern Nubia did not extend much further south than the 3rd cataract area (see map for cataracts). For much of antiquity, the region south of the 1st cataract of the Nile was called “Kush.” The name is known from ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and biblical texts. Whether “Kush” reflects an indigenous term used by the Kushites themselves is not known.

Soleb Temple, NubiaSoleb Temple, Nubia

Ampim, Manu. “History Of African Civilizations, History 110 Course Reader.” Unit 4: Classical African Civilizations (Nubia). Oakland, CA: Advancing The Research, 2016. 69-70.

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