1. What and Where is Nubia?
2. Geography and Environment
3. Nubian Peoples
C. The People: Ancient and Modern Ethnic Groups of Nubia.
1. Who are the modern Nubians?
The "Nubians" are those who either presently speak dialects of the Nubian language, or who trace their descent from these people. The Egyptian Nubians are called Kanuz; the northern Sudanese Nubians from the Second Cataract to the Third are called Mahas; and those in the south, in the vicinity of Dongola, Sudan, are called Danagla. Before the spread of Islam into the Sudan, about the fifteenth century, Nubian-speaking peoples occupied a much larger area, including the land southwards up the Blue Nile. Their descendants live there still, but today they speak only Arabic.
The Nubians are traditionally settled farmers, who tend date palms and gardens, and whose villages always lay close to the Nile. The houses of the Kanuz are famed for their domes and beautiful painted facades. The Nubians differ culturally from the Arab nomads, who wander with their flocks in the neighboring deserts and who have tents or temporary dwellings. The Nubians are characterized by very dark skin and are noticably darker than the typical modern Egyptian. Many of them have what might be called "Arab" or "Mediterranean" features, while others have more "central African" features. Clearly they are not and never were a "pure race," since from ancient times they have intermingled with peoples both north and south. Many Nubians have traditionally taken and owned slaves from the southern regions and have intermarried with them, so that today they are a mix of African physical types. They are unified, however, by their strong cultural allegiance, by their langauge, and by a recognition that they are a people with a very ancient and glorious past. The flooding of their lands by the Aswan Dam in the 1960's, ordered by the Egyptian Government, and the proposal by the Sudan government to flood much more of their lands with new dams have led to the formation of militant Nubian preservationist societies and Nubian ethnocentric or nationalist movements.
2. Who were the ancient Nubians?
Ancient Nubia, like modern Sudan, was a land of many different peoples who identified themselves primarily by tribe and probably spoke many different languages. We now refer to them all as "Nubians" but they were not all the same, nor were they unified. In Egypt the Nile, by its unobstructed flow from Aswan to the Mediterranean, formed a convenient water highway which at the dawn of history (about 3200 BC) tended to unify the Egyptians by language and culture; this early worked to break down tribal distinctions. In Nubia, however, the Nile had so many treacherous rapids ("cataracts") and so many long desolate stretches poorly suited to settled life that the peoples unified into smaller groups. This encouraged the growth of tribes, and, thus, many smaller independent cultures and political units were formed. Only with the emergence of the strong state in the third millennium BC could some of these tribes be brought together by force.
In ancient times people probably identified themselves, as they still proudly do today, by their tribe and their way of life. Some were tillers of the soil and lived along the river in permanent settlements; others were nomads, who lived in the deserts on the fringes of the Nile and moved constantly about with their herds in search of new pastures. Traditionally, the settled farmers have always been hostile to the nomads, whose herds ate or destroyed their crops, and the nomads have always been hostile to the farmers, who controlled the richest lands and the best water. Tension between these two peoples has existed for millennia, and their struggles would have comprised the major annual events in any period of Nubian history.
Because the peoples of Nubia had no writing of their own until the first millennium BC, our earliest historical (written) knowledge of them comes from ancient Egyptian texts. Most Egyptian inscriptions, however, are frustratingly vague about Nubia. Since the Egyptians - like all people throughout history - generally mistrusted the foreign peoples around them who were different from themselves, their words are also often tinged with negative bias. Consequently, to really understand the ancient Nubians by using Egyptian (and other non-Nubian) sources, we must always try to understand the peculiar biases or perspectives of the reporters.
The Egyptians had a generic name for the Nubians: Nehesy. And there was a popular Egyptian personal name Pa-nehesy, which meant "the Nubian." The Greek name Phineas is thought to have derived from this. But the Egyptians in their writings also distinguished by name many different Nubian tribes and places - sadly, without telling us much about them. There were, for example, nomadic dwellers in the eastern desert called Medjai (probably the ancestors of the modern "Beja": see below) and others in the western desert called Tjemehu. About 2300 B.C., three small independent states emerged in Lower Nubia called Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju, and each was said to have been ruled by a "great man." In Upper Nubia (south of the Second Cataract in northern Sudan), there was at the same time a kingdom called Yam, which after 2000 B.C., was replaced by another called Kush. In time, Kush absorbed the others and ultimately gave its name to most of Nubia. Beyond Kush to the south was another vaguely defined area called Irem. The Egyptians listed many other Nubian and African peoples and places, but of these we know very little. Looming very large in importance, though, was Punt, a region that supplied a variety of precious commodities to the Egyptians. Located well inland from the coasts of the Red Sea; it could be reached both by sea-going ships and by overland caravans moving southward up the Nile. It is thought to have been located somewhere in the eastern Sudan or in Eritrea and was quite disconnected from the Nile Valley.
The Nubians possessed no writing of their own until the eighth century BC, when they adopted the Egyptian language and writing for their written inscriptions. In these inscriptions (eighth to third centuries BC), other Nubian peoples are mentioned as enemies of Kush. Most were cattle-herding desert nomads. These peoples were called by such names as Makarasha, Bulahau, Rehrehesa, Meded and so on, but we know little about them. The Meded were probably the descendants of the Medjai of the earlier Egyptian texts, and these were probably the ancestors of the modern Beja peoples of the eastern Sudan. Today the Beja are camel-herders, who, in the 19th century, were the fearless, wirey enemies of the British, who called them "Fuzzy-Wuzzies" after their characteristic bushy hairdos. Occasionally in the wall paintings and reliefs of Egyptian Middle Kingdom tombs individual herdsmen are represented who look exactly like them, suggesting that the Egyptians may have hired some of these men to care for their own cattle. Such images attest to the great antiquity and stability of peoples in certain areas of the Sudan.
After the third century BC the Nubians began writing in their own language with their own newly invented, native alphabetic script. The language and script are called "Meroitic" since at this time the city of Mero‘ was the capital of Kush. Unfortunately, although the sound values of the letters are known, the Meroitic language remains undeciphered, and we are unable to read any of their later historical texts.
When the Greeks entered the Nile Valley, a few of them went southward into Nubia, lived there for several years, and wrote accounts of the places and peoples they saw. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus and the Roman historian Pliny both consulted the works of these travelers, who had visited Mero‘ for some time and had explored the Upper Nile already by the third century BC. Sadly, however, their original works did not survive and were perhaps destroyed in the fire that gutted the famed Library of Alexandria. Although the Greeks and Romans knew the name of Kush, they did not call the Nubians "Kushites", as did the Egyptians, the Hebrews, and the other peoples of the Near East. They called them "Aithiopes" or "Burnt-Faced People", as they did all Africans south of Egypt.
The Greek and Roman accounts mention many different groups of "Aithiopians." They were aware that one group of "Aithiopians," whose principal city was Mero‘, was highly developed and was renowned for wisdom and piety, was beloved by the gods, and was, according to some legends, even the forebear of Egyptian civilization. On the periphery of these people, however, they knew there were others who were less developed. There were, for example, the so-called Troglodytes and Megabaroi, who dwelt between the Nile and the Red Sea, raised cattle and were said to live in caves or primitive huts. These were probably the Greek names for the Medjai (modern Beja), who still live very simply but who now raise camels and call themselves Muslims, although they still speak their own language. Greco-Roman scholars provided the names of other "Aithiopian" tribes living south of Mero‘, but without giving any more specific information. Beyond these, probably in the far south, were other peoples described only by the food they ate: Agriophagi ("Wild animal eaters"), Pamphagi ("Those who eat anything"), Anthropophagi ("Man-eaters"), or how they looked: Cynamolgi ("Dog-headed"), and Artatabitae ("Four-footed"). Beyond these were people only of fairy tale, who had only one eye, or no noses, or lacked mouths, or whose faces were completely flat, etc. Here, it seems, the limits of ancient (European) knowledge had been reached.
3. How were/are the Nubians different from the Egyptians?
The oversimplified American concept of race ("black" and "white") is challenged along the Nile Valley, for nowhere is there a clear transition from one to the other. In America some people use these terms passionately to identify their own cultural or ethnic allegiances within our own society. The truth is, though, most of us are also of mixed ethnic background (even if we may not show it), and many of us - in a bias-free world - could objectively describe ourselves as belonging to both.
In the first half of the twentieth century, most European and American scholars identified the Egyptians as "white" and primarily "Near Eastern" in order to remove them from the African cultural sphere and to serve their ignorant and bigoted views that high civilization could only have been created by non-Africans. In the latter twentieth century, Afrocentric scholars indignantly challenged this model, asserting the "blackness" and "African-ness" of the Egyptians. In each case the aim of these scholars was to claim "ownership" of the Egyptians for their own "race" within the context of the modern, primarily American racial debate. In fact, the Egyptians are certainly Africans, but they are neither "white" in the European sense nor "black" in the (central) African. Whether they are "white" or "black" in the American sense will have to remain the personal view of the researcher. The Egyptians really possessed a wide range of skin color and many differing physical characteristics, as did the ancient Nubians. It is therefore interesting to examine the evidence from ancient art for these ancient dwellers of the Nile Valley, for they were probably little different than the present Egyptians and Nubians - and probably no less diverse than we are ourselves.
In northern Egypt, as in all of North Africa along the Mediterranean, most people are light-skinned not because Arabs or Europeans settled there but because the indigenous North African Berbers were light-skinned. Northern Egypt, being linked to Asia, also saw from very early times an influx of lighter-skinned, non-African peoples, who settled there, intermingled with the local people or drove them out. From Egyptian history we have clear evidence that northern Egypt was periodically settled by peoples of non-African origin, who invaded from the north or east. For example, during the Second Intermediate period (ca. 1700-1580 BC), all of northern Egypt and much of the eastern Mediterranean and coastal Palestine (modern Israel) was under the control of the so-called Hyksos kings. The word "Hyksos" comes from an Egyptian word meaning "rulers from foreign lands." These people were of Near Eastern origin and maintained their capital Avaris in the Nile Delta. Recent excavations at Avaris (modern Tell ed-Daba'a), have even revealed remains of a palace decorated in the style of those on Crete! This has suggested to the excavator, Dr. Manfred Bietak of the University of Vienna, the strong presence there of Minoan (Cretan) royalty. This palace appears to date to the period soon after the Egyptian king Ahmose drove the Hyksos into Palestine about 1550 BC. It is thought possibly to have belonged to a Minoan princess sent to marry the Egyptian king. Obviously she and her servants from Crete would have been very light-skinned. On the other hand, there were also certainly black-skinned people in the Delta at the same time. Nubian pottery has been found in one area of Tell ed-Daba'a, which strongly suggests that Nubian troops were also living there in large numbers. Black people were probably also living on Crete and mainland Greece at the same time, for at Pylos in Greece black-skinned warriors wearing contemporary Cretan and Mycenaean Greek armor are depicted in the palace frescoes, suggesting that African troops were being used not only by the Egyptian king but also by his European counterparts across the sea.
The Book of Exodus reveals that during the time of the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1300-1200 BC), northern Egypt was a land full of Hebrew and Western Asiatic nomad settlers. Proof that the northern Egyptians at that time probably did not look very different from the Hebrews is revealed by the fact that Pharaoh's daughter could take the baby Moses from the basket on the river and bring him up as her own. The Egyptian royal family of Dynasty 19, which came from the Delta, appears in art as light-skinned. Likewise, the rulers of Dynasties 22, 23, and 26, which were of "Libyan" ancestry, were probably also light-skinned like their Berber forbears. By Dynasty 26 (ca. 650-525 B.C.) the Delta had also become a magnet for the Greeks, who began to settle there in large numbers. Herodotus says that King Amasis of Dynasty 26 even had a Greek wife. With the Ptolemies and Romans, more Europeans moved into Egypt, adding an even stronger dose of north Mediterranean genetic influence.
As one moves further south along the Nile people become darker in complexion. In Upper Egypt, the people typically are much darker than in northern Egypt. In Nubia, they become darker still, and in the southern Sudan, people are much darker than the Nubians. African-Americans, however, might describe all of these people as "black" (as a label of their claims to ancestry or ethnic affiliation with them). The term "black", however, does not really help us to distinguish these people, for they look quite different from each other.
The same ethnic situation that exists today in the Nile Valley seems to have existed in antiquity, for all the same physical features and skin colors visible today in Egypt and Nubia can be found represented in ancient Egyptian and Nubian art. It should be stressed, however, that in no text we have from ancient Egypt is there a suggestion that anyone was judged inferior by the color of his or her skin.
While some ancient Egyptian statues and relief images indicate that one segment of the population was fairly light-skinned; other images show Egyptians with very dark brown skin. Most, however, show people with reddish brown skin, which was the Egyptians' conventional mode of coloring themselves in art. In Old Kingdom art, men were normally painted red-brown, while women were normally colored yellow. In later Theban tomb paintings, women are regularly painted red-brown, probably because in the latitude of Thebes people were darker. Based on their depictions of themselves, it is clear that the Egyptians saw themselves as generally darker than the peoples of Asia to their northeast and the peoples of Libya to their northwest, whom they colored white. They also saw themselves as lighter than the peoples of Nubia to their south, whom they traditionally colored dark brown or black.
Because Egyptians and Nubians intermingled along the southern Egyptian Nile corridor, the southern population of Egypt naturally was quite dark and many people were perhaps physically indistinguishable from the Nubians. At least as early as the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 BC), many Nubians had also come into Egypt as hired soldiers and settled there easily. Many intermingled with the Egyptian population throughout the length of the country, since we know that Nubian soldiers were also very early employed by the pharaohs to help them fight their wars in Asia. A number of Egyptian funerary stelae (grave stones) belonging to Nubian warriors are known, and a few reveal that the owners married Egyptian women.
Several of the wives of Theban king Mentuhotep II of Dynasty 11 (ca. 2061-2010 BC) are shown with black painted skin, perhaps revealing their southern Egyptian or Nubian origin, while their ladies-in-waiting are shown with yellow painted skin, perhaps suggesting their northern origin.
By one Egyptian tradition the mother of the founder of Dynasty 12, Amenemhet I (ca. 1991-1962 BC), was said to be a "woman of Ta-Seti" or Lower Nubia, meaning that the dynasty was of partly Nubian origin. In Dynasty 18 (ca. 1550-1307 BC), the kings are known to have had harems of wives from all over the known world; the origins of the great queens, Tiye and Nefertiti, however, remain a subject of controversy.
The royal letters found at Tell el-Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, capital of King Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BC), reveal that the pharaoh deployed garrisons of Nubian troops ("men of Kush") in his cities in Asia, such as Sidon and Tyre and Jeruslaem. We can thus be certain that some of these troops fathered children with some of the local women, so that many Canaanites would ultimately have had some African ancestry. Biblical texts (like II Samuel 18: 19-33) also indicate that Kushites lived at the court of King David, that Pharaoh Seshonq I (ca. 945-924 BC) employed Kushite troops in his sack of Jerusalem (ca. 925 BCE), and that the army of Pharaoh Osorkon II (ca. 924-909 BC) in Judah was led by a Kushite general named Zerah.
While it is clear that many Egyptians and many of the early Egyptian kings were very dark-skinned (we would say "black"), it would be a mistake to assume that every statue painted pure black was intended to indicate that the owner's skin was literally "black." The color black had other meanings for the Egyptians that it no longer has for us. Black - actually dark grey - was the color of Nile silt and was associated with fertility; thus the Nile Valley and Egypt became the "Black Land" (Kemi or Kemet) after the inundation, just as the desert was the "Red Land" (Djeseret). Because of its associations, black was thus identified with Osiris, the god of fertility, as was the color green. In his images Osiris' skin is often painted black or green.
Since Osiris was the god of regeneration (after death) and god of the
underworld, and since all people, when they died, believed they would
become Osiris, they often commissioned mummy masks of themselves painted
with black or green faces. After death a person was even called "Osiris
so-and-so." Images of the same people, representing themselves in life,
however, are painted with red-brown skin color.
If the statues and relief images of Mentuhotep II (ca. 2061-2010 BC) normally represent the king with red-brown skin, one famous statue of him in the Cairo Museum is painted black. Queen Ahmose-Nofretari of Dynasty 18 is always shown black in her role as patron goddess of the Theban cemetery, but when she was shown in her role as queen, she was colored red-brown. In these cases, the black color did not indicate that they had literally "black" skin (which is never really black) but rather the ability to come to life again. Despite this, there is no question that many ancient Egyptians, especially southern Egyptians, had very dark skin, which Americans would call "black." One Egyptian statue in the Louvre shows a man with dark choclatey brown skin, which probably acurately depicts his true skin color. There is also clear evidence that the black skin of Osiris was understood in different ways even in ancient times. By the first century BC, for example, the Greek historian Diodorus reported a legend that Osiris, the mythical first king of Egypt, was really a Nubian and that he had come from the south to colonize Egypt. This tradition would surely have been encouraged by his traditional black skin color.
It is also interesting to observe how skin color is treated on the small twin images of King Tutankhamun on one side of the cartouche-shaped box, found in his tomb, now in the Cairo Museum. Here the king is shown twice, squatting like a child sun god with a sun disk on his head. The figures face each other, and they have skin color created by inlays of yellowish stone or glass. The figure on the left is entirely yellow; that on the right has an inlaid black face, while his exposed arm and leg remain yellow. Almost certainly this symbolized the king's imagined day and night aspects as he traveled daily with the sun god in his divine boat in the sky over the earth and through the river of the underworld. Neither of these skin tones represented his real skin color. This was probably accurately indicated by the artists who created his magnificent portrait bust, which shows him as a typical Upper Egyptian boy with reddish-brown skin.
4. How did the Egyptians portray the Nubians in art?
The Egyptians recognized that peoples darker and different from themselves - and different from each other - dwelt beyond them to the south. Initially, in Dynasty 11-12 (ca. 2040-1783 BC), it was the Lower Nubian mercenary troops who figure in Egyptian art. These men were shown with black-painted skin but they had features indistinguishable from the Egyptians, who were painted uniformly with red brown skin.
As more Egyptian expeditions were sent deeper into Nubia, other peoples began to appear in Egyptian art with more markedly central African features, hairstyles, and characteristics. That Egyptian explorers penetrated the Sudan to a great distance at this period is suggested by the contemporary carved ivory group, preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, which was used as a child's toy. It represents three pygmy men, which could be made to dance when a string was pulled. To the Egyptians, these people were the "horizon dwellers", who were seen only once in many generations. They were famed among the Egyptians for their dancing, and when any of these people were brought to Egypt, they were made to perform "the dances of the gods." They would no doubt have come from the extreme reaches of the Upper Nile tributaries and the northern Congo area.
The greatest number of images of Nubians and other more southerly Africans in Egyptian art date from the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1080 BC), when the Egyptians established direct rule over Nubia as far up the Nile as the Fourth Cataract and even beyond. In these images we can see a tendancy on the part of the Egyptians to categorize the southerners for propaganda purposes. First there were the "generic Nubians;" second, there were the "good Nubians," and third, there were the "bad Nubians." The first appear as exotic props in scenes showing the annual delivery of tribute to Egypt from the south. These people are shown carrying or standing among African products such as bags or ring ingots of gold, baskets of ostrich eggs and feathers, various exotic woods, elephant tusks and animal skins. They might also lead or carry wild animals, such as cheetahs, giraffes, and monkeys. Some of these people are shown with brown skin; others have black skin - clearly an attempt by the Egyptian artists to distinguish between different peoples of the south.
Some wear long, Egyptian-style linen garments, suggesting "Egyptianized" Nubians living within the empire. Apart from their dark skin, these individuals are proclaimed as Nubians by their large ring earrings and their unique hairdos, which look like inverted bowls. The hair is further distinguished by its yellow or red color, which reveals that it has been stained by a red or yellow ochre fat compound. This is a practice still popular, for example, among the Maasai of northern Kenya. Another distinctive detail of style that identifies the Nubians well into later Kushite history is their preference for wearing single large, long feathers in their hair. Nubians beyond the frontier, however, are shown in their native dress: men wear short kilts of animal skins, and the women wear long colorful skirts with their torsos remaining bare.
Some Nubians were Egyptian allies and servants and thus constitute the "good Nubians" in Egyptian art. A few men are shown as having extremely high rank and honor at court. Among these are the "chiefs of Wawat and Kush" who were represented bowing before the pharaoh Tutankhamun in the tomb of the Egyptian Viceroy, Amenhotep-Huy at Thebes. One of these men, identifed by his Egyptian name, Heka-nefer ("Good Prince"), is well known from his tomb at Toshka in Lower Nubia. He and the others were "Egyptianized" Nubian aristocrats and governors within their local territories. Clad sumptuously in Egyptian garments, with long colored sashes and Egyptian jewelry, they are shown approaching the enthroned king with their gifts and their children, who are dressed like young Egyptian princes and princesses, ready to be raised in the Egyptian court with the royal children.
Another high ranking Nubian, perhaps the son of one of these Nubian grandees, is known from his tomb in Egypt. Because of his obviously unexpected death and his important political status, the pharaoh, probably Queen Hatshepsut, accorded him burial in the Valley of the Kings. His name was Mai-her-pery ("Lion on the Battlefield"), probably an Egyptian rendering of a native Nubian name. He appears in his very beautiful Book of the Dead, now in the Cairo Museum, as a black man wearing an Egyptian gown. His tomb contained a beautiful, short gazelle-skin kilt, of the type shown worn by other Nubians in art.
Nubians served extensively in the Egyptian army and are frequently represented as soldiers; they are identifiable, again, primarily by their hairdos or skin color. There were apparently Nubian regiments, and these men are sometimes shown doing their uniquely Nubian dances in Egyptian festivals.
Sometimes Nubian men are shown performing wrestling exhibitions before Pharaoh. Wrestling, incidentally, is still the favorite sport among the Nuba peoples of Kordofan, and modern Nuba wrestling costumes bear a remarkable resemblence to those shown in the ancient scenes. Other Nubians appear as palace servants, especially in the art of the period of Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BC), when palace and temple interiors were so often depicted. These were all types of "good Nubians": people who acknowledged the rule of Egypt and came to Egypt to place themselves in her service.
Other "good Nubians" were people who may have lived far away from Egypt but who helped Egypt in her endeavors. These were people like those of the land of Punt, who helped the agents of Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1473-1458 BC) obtain incense trees so that they could be returned to Egypt and transplanted in the gardens of the god Amun at Thebes. The scenes depicting this three-year exploit were carved on the walls of the queen's temple at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank at Thebes. They were the Egyptian equivalent of the reports of the African explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of our era, for they provided accurate information about exotic places and peoples that had seldom or never been visited before.
The Punt reliefs depict a fleet of Egyptian ships departing southward on the Red Sea, putting in at some unknown point on the coast of Sudan. Eritrea, or Somalia. They then record an overland journey of unknown length, through typical African landscapes with accurately drawn trees and vegitation and small round reed houses of the type still seen today in these areas. The expedition, which was led, incidentally, by an official named Pa-nehesy ("The Nubian"), encountered, first, people with black skin and central African appearance, and arriving at Punt, they found people whom they painted brown, where the men had chin beards and longish hair. The most extraordinary feature of the reliefs is the depiction of the royal family of Punt. The king, named Parehu, and his son are of normal proportion, but his wife, Queen Ata, and her daughter are abnormally fat. This preference for obesity among the royal women of East Africa is a trait we encounter over and over again, right up to modern times. It is a custom that also especially manifests itself in the later art of Kush, where body fat among high-ranking women was considered a sign of great beauty and wealth.
Normally the peoples beyond the Egyptian southern frontier were represented in art as "bad Nubians." They were represented much the same as the others, with similar central African features and hairdos, but they were shown in art as bound and fettered and their images were always placed under the sandals of Pharaoh so that he could perpetually trample on them. Such potentially hostile African peoples shared this dubious role with the "white people" of the north - Canaanites, Hittites, Syrians, Libyans etc, - who were all represented on the soles of the king's sandals, on the surfaces of his footstools, and even in endless repeating patterns on the floors of the palaces, so that the king would always be walking on them.
Such imagery was designed to destroy the threatening power of these foreign peoples by magic. Many of these images actually had directional significance, for bound Nubians are almost always shown on the southern sides of buildings or objects, while the other groups are shown on the northern. Normally these people were represented stereotypically with black skin, central African features, hair ochred yellow or red, wearing ring earrings, and clad in luxurious linen robes with long colorful sashes. Whether they represented real or merely stereotyped African enemies, we cannot know.
One unusual object illustrating both "good" and "bad" Nubians simultaneously is a small painted box of Tutankhamun. On the "north" side the king is shown in his chariot charging into an army of Asiatics and utterly defeating them. On the "south" side, he is shown similarly charging into an army of black Africans and also defeating them. In both instances, however, his fan bearers, who run after him, are shown to be both red and black-skinned. (fig. IC4,18)
The most extraordinary images of "bad Nubians" - southern peoples conquered in battle by the Egyptians - appear in the Saqqara tomb of Horemheb, built for him when he was a general and before he became pharaoh (ca. 1319-1307 BC). Here is a group of central African men shown as captives. They are much taller than the Egyptians, and the artist has rendered their faces and hairstyles, even the scarifications on their foreheads, with such realism that they can be identified as the ancestors of the modern "Nilotic" Nuer and Dinka peoples, who presently dwell in the southern Sudan. Such images would suggest that the Egyptians occasionally campaigned deep into the Sudan, well beyond their established frontiers. Sculptured heads of such men with similar scarifications appear at the Palace of Medinet Habu of Ramses III (ca. 1194-1163 BC).
5. How did the Nubians portray themselves in art?
The earliest artistic representations of Nubians by their own artists are found in early rock drawings, or incised drawings on pottery, or in small terracotta or stone sculptures. Most of the figures are female and generally show some form of obesity and a preference for extensive tattooing or scarification of the body. The preference in Nubia and East Africa for very large women is a cultural trait that can be traced in the artistic record from prehistoric times to the present. This ideal of female beauty was very different from that of the Egyptians.
About 1800 BC, the Kushite kings of Kerma began to have imperial ambitions, and the scanty surviving evidence reveals that they represented themselves much in the manner of the Egyptian pharaohs. Fragments of a faience inlay composition that once decorated one of the royal tomb chapels at Kerma included an image of a king (now lost) that had stood or sat enthroned upon a panel bearing the figures of conquered enemies. A head of one of these figures has survived, revealing that the conquered foes represented other Nubian tribes.
The head is that of a man with short tight curls. A rare surviving stela found at Buhen, at the foot of the Second Cataract, almost certainly represents the Nubian ruler of Kerma, who wears the same tall knobbed crown that the Egyptians wore when they wished to symbolize their rule over the south. The figure also carries a bow, the symbol of Nubia.
After the Egyptian withdrawal from its borders about 1100 BC, Nubia again regained independence under a dynasty of native rulers from Napata, who eventually turned the tables on Egypt, conquered it, and established themselves as Egypt's 25 Dynasty (ca. 747-656 BC). If the ancestors of these new kings of Kush were depicted in Egyptian art as trodden under the sandals of the pharaoh, the new kings were now represented in Egypt with the same power and dignity granted to their illustrious Egyptian predecessors. In the reliefs of King Piye (sometimes called "Piankhy") in the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal, for example, the king depicts himself as a great pharaoh. All of the petty rulers of Egypt of that time are shown falling on their faces before him to honor him as their emperor. Ironically, his conquest of Lower Egypt is represented just as the pharaohs of an earlier age would have represented an Egyptian victory over any foreign land, such as Kush - yet Piye also presents himself as a devoted servant of all the Egyptian gods.
In their early statues and reliefs the kings of Kush are represented according to traditional Egyptian royal imagery; the only differences to be seen are in some of the faces, which look more Nubian. The heads are rounder; the lips are more full; there are marked furrows in the cheeks; and the royal regalia is unique to the Kushite Dynasty. The kings wore a crown in the form of a skull-cap with two rearing cobras (uraei) on the front. normally wear wigs.
The bodies of the serpents passed over the top of the crown and continued in two long ribbons or streamers that hung down the king's back. Around his neck the king wore a necklace of which the two loose ends were brought forward to hang down across each breast. At the throat and from each end hung a pendant in the form of a ram's head crown with a sun disk, which was the special symbol of the god Amun of Gebel Barkal, "Holy Mountain" of Napata, who was thought to grant them their kingship. The Kushite queens of the same period, while represented much like the queens of Egypt, also had fuller bodies. Their hair was also cropped short and, unlike Egyptian royal women, they did not normally wear wigs.
Statues of private officials of the Kushite 25th Dynasty carved in Egypt are also fascinating for their new style of depicting the human body. Although the sculptors of the period looked to archaic statuary for some of their inspiration, they also represented the faces and bodies of these people with an extraordinary realism and intensity. If the kings and great royal women were shown with idealized features, sometimes close to smiling - in the manner of the Mona Lisa -many of the high officials at court seemed to delight in having themselves shown as they really were: abnormally fat, with faces bathed in rolls of flesh, exhibiting cheek furrows, marks of age, and having a faraway, eternal gaze that gives these images a strength almost unique in Egyptian art.
King Taharqa (690-664 BC) himself must have been a big man, for his gold ring, found in his tomb at Nuri, Sudan, and preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, would fit only an abnormally fat finger. Following their expulsion from Egypt by the Assyrians about 661 BC, the Kushites fled back to the Sudan and there set up a court in exile. For the next three hundred years their art closely emulated Egyptian models. They even occasionally had their skin painted red brown in emulation of the Egyptian norm. This "Egyptianizing" phase is called the Napatan Period. After about 300 BC, however, a radical change occurred in their art and culture, which marked the beginning of the Meroitic Period, in which figures in art, especially royal figures, assume a much more central African appearance and their royal costumes become much more elaborate. Both kings and queens - but especially the queens - are shown as hugely fat, and several rulers are even shown with facial scars of the type that are still seen among Nubians today: three vertical or diagonal cuts on each cheek.
Such powerful images of kings and queens perpetuated in Kush the ancient Egyptian theme of royal invincibility. The rulers are often shown slaying or trampling enemies. The enemy types represented in Meroitic art are repeated over and over again and clearly represent other African peoples living on the periphery of Kush, just as Egyptian enemy types had included all the different racial stereotypes of the peoples surrounding Egypt. Studies of the Meroitic enemy figures reveal that certain types only appeared on the south walls of buildings and others on the north, suggesting the directions in which these different peoples lived. A fresco discovered at Mero‘ shows a row of prisoners representing some of these enemy tribes; all are scantily clad and black skinned with one exception. The lead figure, tied and kneeling, is dressed in a corslet and helmet and has white skin. It is generally assumed that he represents a captured Roman soldier, for the Romans attacked and plundered Napata in 24 BC.
6. Are the modern Nubians descendents of the ancient?
The modern Nubians are surely descended from the ancient peoples of Kush. Judging from the well preserved bodies of bowmen found in graves at Kerma and dating to about 2000 BC, the people of Nubia have changed very little physically from then to now, a fact which is also verified by the representations of Nubians in Egyptian art. Just as modern Arabic has almost eradicated the old Nubian language, so did the tongue of the ancient "Noba" eradicate very rapidly the ancient Meroitic language after the collapse of the Kushite monarchy in the fourth century AD. Although the Noba and the Kushites were separate language and culture groups, they had probably co-existed in the region for centuries, and physically they were probably indistinguishable. When the power of Meroe declined, the two groups surely intermingled, if they had not done so earlier; the Noba may have assumed dominance, but they retained close ties to their Meroitic roots. One way of being certain of this is from the fact that many Nubians, even now, still wear the same facial scars that can be seen on the images of the Kushite rulers on their monuments at Meroe and other sites. These marks are handed down through families from one generation to the next and identify one's tribal affiliation. Obviously they have passed down to the present from remote antiquity, transcending dynastic, tribal, cultural, religious, and linguistic change.
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