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Field of Nubiology - KNC
David Roberts lithograph: Excavated Temples of Abu Simble (Nubia)

Field of Nubiology

At this stage in the growing field of ancient Nubian studies, there are three significant problems which prevent an accurate understanding of classical Nubian civilization and its pivotal role in shaping early Nile Valley civilizations.

King Tantamani

Nubian King Tantamani

First, western Nubiologists from North America and Europe look at Nubia from an outside perspective and place Nubia on the periphery of Greek, Rome, Egypt, or the “more important Mediterranean cultures” in general, and discuss Nubia as a region that enters the main stage in a backup role only during certain historical episodes. Nubia is presented as a satellite culture worthy of study when it can help explain references to it in records from ancient Egypt. This has resulted in large gaps in our knowledge about Nubia and explains why new developments within its civilization are usually seen as either an imitation or influence by another culture. There is rarely any serious consideration of the local and internal factors within Nubia which led to its cultural or political changes. Nubia is viewed as inherently incapable of influencing the “Mediterranean” cultures.

Second, Nubia is viewed as “the corridor to Africa” as William Adams’ 1977 book Nubia: Corridor to Africa indicates. From 1959 to 1966, Adams was the head of the UNESCO salvage effort resulting from the construction of the Aswan High Dam, and his conclusions about Nubia are still well received today. This view arbitrarily removes Egypt from its native African cultural milieu and presents Nubia as the lone ancient black kingdom capable of opening a doorway to understanding Africa. Thus, the entire Middle Nile region, covering nearly all of Sudan, is presented as ancient “Nubia,” which grossly simplifies and distorts the ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of the region.

Nubian Prince Arikankharer slaying his enemies

Third, Egyptologists actually dominate the field of “Nubiology” and look at Nubia only in terms of its relationship to ancient Egypt. Rarely can one find a scholarly (or even popular) article about ancient Nubia that does not mention Egypt, Greece, or Rome in the opening sentence or paragraph. Although Nubiology technically began in the 1960s, the real focus on Nubia by Egyptologists began in the 1990s. The field entered a new and more intensive phase in the early 1990s, because it was responding to Black scholars and their reclaiming Egypt as a classical African civilization which had its origins in the south, from Nubia and beyond. The formation of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) and the convening of the First International Nile Valley Conference both in 1984, began a new and dynamic era of African Americans embracing ancient African civilizations. The Nile Valley Conference gave greater international exposure to the leading Journal of African Civilizations, edited by Ivan Van Sertima, and in July 1987 at its 4th annual conference held in Aswan, Egypt, ASCAC attracted over 800 (perhaps 1,000) Black people from the US, Canada, England, and the Caribbean to the conference. The city of Aswan and the surrounding villages is a major Nubian area, and thus this event had a great impact on the Nubian communities in the region for years.

The impact of the conference was also huge in the U.S. ASCAC chapters and dozens of study groups soon spread throughout the country, and the leading ASCAC scholars were in great demand as lecturers at colleges and universities, associations, professional organizations, civic clubs, churches, and independent community schools. This enthusiasm created significant momentum among African Americans as they embraced and promoted the Nile Valley civilizations as one African cultural continuum, with the origin of this civilization complex originating in the south. Further, the ASCAC scholars argued that Kemet (the original name of “ancient Egypt”) in the north was the newest and most spectacular phase of these African civilizations.

This formidable effort caused a major scholarly clash between these Black scholars (or Kemetologists) and mainstream white Egyptologists. This led to a new strategy by various public museums to open new permanent Kushite and Nubian galleries to highlight the real “Black Pharaohs,” who were brazenly presented as culturally, racially, and technically different than the “non-black” ancient Egyptians. This is not surprising because most Egyptologists are employed at museums, or at universities with close ties to museums.

Mirror, Kerma period, 1700-1550 BC, part of the “Land of the Black Pharaohs” exhibition at Boston, Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy: wikipedia.

In the early 1990s, as a response to the growing influence of these Kemetologists, various museums in the US, Canada, and Europe removed Kushite and Nubian artifacts, stored in their basements for a half century or more, and put them on permanent display for the first time. This was done without any new acquisitions or excavation work being done. Rather, it was a political response to Black scholars and their scholarship, and not an academic one, and this led to Kush and Nubia being presented as rare “Black Pharaohs” not quite worthy of the high status of their “non-Black” Egyptian neighbors to the north. Timothy Kendall, former associate curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), articulated in an interview that the opening of their Kushite exhibit was a “response to the Afrocentric Movement.” The MFA’s expeditions to Kerma, Napata, and Meroe were between 1913 and 1924, yet the collection was largely in storage until there was a political need to display them.

King Tantamani

Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa

This is the scenario of how Egyptologists became “Nubiologists.” Most white Nubiologists slowly began to finally acknowledge that there were Nubian kings who were not merely local “chiefs” ruling over a small area. Thus, it appeared that Nubian Studies in the 1990s was developing into a new independent field of archaeology, no longer viewing ancient Nubia as merely an appendage of Egyptology, and now able to see Nubia was as an independent civilization capable of its own innovations and influence on other civilizations. Unfortunately, this positive trend has stopped with the passing of the late African American scholars and four of the six co-founders of ASCAC: Yosef ben Jochannan, Asa Hilliard, John Henrik Clarke, and Jacob Carruthers.

Ampim, Manu. “History Of African Civilizations, History 110 Course Reader.” Unit 4: Classical African Civilizations (Nubia). Oakland, CA: Advancing The Research, 2016. 73-75.

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