Ancient Image of Kushites

Anthropology: History and Culture of Ancient Nubian Civilization to Modern Day

Egyptian history has received global recognition for being one of the oldest civilizations to grow. However, the cultural significance surrounding the Egyptian region has become slightly overlooked by many. One of the most noteworthy historical enrichments to observe is the Nubian civilization. The region of which the civilization grew lies between southern Egypt’s Aswan and central north of Sudan.

Historical Significance

The region dates back to 2000 BC. During ancient civilization, the Nubian region was home to the Kingdom of Kush. The area is mostly known to be between the Nile’s cataracts, or a series of six whitewater rapids. The first cataract is located in Aswan, Egypt, whilst the sixth and last cataract is found in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The ancient Nubian society was largely developed, knowledgeable, and well-known around the world. The area had extensive trading centers and shaped northeast Africa’s cultural and political setting. Moreover, Nubia’s land was supplemented with luxurious resources, such as gold, ivory, ebony, and animal pelts. As the sub-Saharan land exported treasured goods, they had, in turn, imported from Egypt, Arabia, the Maghreb (North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria). They gathered several products, such as olive oil, timber, incense, as well as bronze.

Due to the dangerous nature of the Nile’s cataracts, trade had to be conducted via the Nubian east across the Red Sea ports from the Levant importations. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Kush was one of the most powerful civilizations to be built in the African region. The kingdom had three distinct capitals; Kerma, Napata, and Meroe. Between 2450 BC and 1450 BC, the Kerma state was the most powerful amongst all the Nubian city-states. The state was also known as ‘Kush’.

Ancient Image of Kushites
Ancient Inscriptions of Kushites

Kerma had control of the land front the first Nile cataract till the fourth. Despite its sizable land ownership, it only hosted around 2000 residents. The cultural landscape in Kerma was mostly shaped by a rural way of life. The Kushites had a simple life of hunting, cultivating agriculture, raising livestock, as well as producing ceramics and precious metals in their workshops. Historical remains and sightings of the Kerma city-state can be located in their ‘deffufa’. The ‘deffufa’ is a mud-brick temple built for funerary purposes. The historical architectural site was built with mud-bricks to keep the interior cool from the blazing Nubian sun. The evenly spaced columns on the roof provide air circulation. The interior was designed with tiles of paintings, sometimes lined with gold leaf.

Western Deffufa Temple

The second capital to be developed during the reign of Kush was Napata. Unfortunately for the Nubian civilization, the highly-powered Egyptian military had conquered much of Nubian land. The Egyptian colonization marked the beginning of the ‘New Kingdom’. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that the Egyptian and Nubian cultures shared multiple cultural identities during the time. For instance, similar religious rituals were performed to honor the ancient Egyptian sun god, Amun. The rituals were held where Amun was believed to inhabit the Kushite Mountain of Jebel Barkal.

Moreover, connections between the Egyptians and the Kushites were strengthened by marriages between the two royal families. Nonetheless, distinctions may arise between the two cultures. Appearance-wise, Kushites were believed to be dark skinned, donned with animal skin, and adorned with several earrings. The choices of transport also varied, since Egyptians preferred to ride chariots, whilst Kushites favored riding on the horses instead. Furthermore, the ‘New Kingdom’ eventually witnessed its end, as power shifted in favor of the Kushites. King Piye of Kushite had struck a stronghold invasion upon Egyptian territory. The battle was marked with victory, as King Piye triumphantly received the title of first pharaoh during the 25th dynasty.

The Kushite reign in Egypt lasted for around a century. The monarchy had plans for expansion with its robust military force. The Egyptian capital at the time was named Thebes. Although Piye had secured the first pharaoh position, his son, Taharqa, had been the most dominant and authoritative pharaoh during the 25th dynasty. His reign saw numerous constructions and monuments built in Thebes, Memphis, and Jebel Barkal.

Since the 25th dynasty has been ruled by pharaohs of dual descent (Kush and Egyptian), they have worn modified headdresses to reflect their double rule. Naturally, a pharaoh’s headdress would be embedded with a ‘Uraeus’, which is an uprightly carved cobra. However, Taharqa’s headdress is shown to hold two of the designed cobras, in order to symbolize his kingship over both Egypt and Kush. While the 25th dynasty showcased the power and authority of the Kush civilization, the kingdom saw its end in Egypt during 664 BC. During the time, the Nubian pharaoh, Tantamani, had been in power, however, not for long, as the Assyrian empire had begun its invasion. Tantamani had withdrawn from Thebes and moved towards Napata. The Kush Kingdom sought refuge after the Assyrian take-over in Meroe, which was located further south.

Statue of Nubian Pharaoh, Taharqa
Taharqa, the Nubian King

The Assyrians were notorious for their menacing army filled with trained warriors. Their fighting played an immense part in their livelihood. Moreover, they forced the erasure of the Kushite kingdom in Egypt. They had demolished the Kushites’ monuments and artefacts, thus rendering their ancestry and names removed from history. The last period of the Kush kingdom was developed in Meroe. The region was located adjacently to a Nile port, making it the ideal region for trading routes leading to the Red Sea and the African interior. Therefore, Meroe was thriving through irrigation as well as gold mining and iron extraction workshops. Although the Meroitic colony was the final period of the Kush kingdom in Nubia, it had numerous significant artefacts. Egypt has famously held one of the largest collections of pyramids. Meroe, however, held more pyramids in one burial ground than in all of Egypt.

Therefore, Nubian culture has seen a similar culture with regards to architectural sites. However, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, where tombs were encased within the pyramid, the Meroitic pyramids held the tombs under the pyramids. Thus, the pyramid was more of a headstone, rather than a tomb. Like the Egyptians. Meroitic pyramids held royals, such as Kushite kings, queens, and nobles. However, the Egyptian pyramids are more colossal, almost four times the size of the Meroitic pyramids. The greatness of the Meroitic colony had prospered for centuries. The society was highly developed, with its own leaders, trade systems, and linguistic formats. The civilization’s religion had been adopted from the ancient Egyptian gods. Nevertheless, the Nubian kingdom’s rule was hindered by the Roman empire besieging Egyptian territory and trade ports, which had left Meroe deserted.

Following the postclassical era, Nubians were divided between Egypt and the Sennar Sultanate (Modern Sudan, Northwestern Eritrea, and Western Ethiopia). The Nubians had become enveloped by Arabization. However, as the Ottoman Empire invaded much of the region, Nubia had become united to the Egyptian kingdom until 1956. Although Nubia is known for its rich history of entanglements with its neighboring countries, Nubians have found methods and practices to distinguish and preserve their cultural upbringings.

Social Norms and Languages

Nubian social norms have included practices to maintain the Nubian bloodline. For instance, Nubian men and women rarely marry a non-Nubian individual. According to the Middle East Observer, a Nubian native aged in her mid-thirties named Hoda has claimed, “Weddings last for one week in Nubia. The groom and his relatives would pay visits to all the Nubian villages during that week to announce the marriage; they get invited over food in different Nubian houses, even if the inhabitants of the village did not know him personally. His trip starts on Thursday and ends the following Thursday.”

Before the wedding commences, the day before begins with ‘Henna’ day. The bride traditionally wears red, as her female relatives drape themselves in colorful dresses. The women also wear a black transparent garment over the dresses known as a ‘Gergar’. Nubian weddings are lively with traditional melodies and dancing, reflecting the celebratory nature of their customs.

Nubian Bride
Nubian Bride

Nubian linguistics have been documented historically. The ethnically diverse group has two categories in their language group, one of which is Nobiin, the oldest known sub-dialect. Other languages include Kenuzi Dongola and Midob.

Food Traditions

Nubian food is usually aligned to the region’s natural resources. Therefore, the people make use of the agricultural capital which they already produce. According to Moheieddin Saleh, an authority on Nubian traditional culture, “They have managed to develop their own distinct cui­sine from the things available in the local environment.” The ethnic group has grown barley, sorghum, and wheat. Nubians have refined their baking recipe to make ‘kabed’, which is a type of bread. Kabed is made by mixing corn flour, with the optional addition of yeast, and water. The baker then spreads the dough onto the base of a mud furnace and serves it once the edges have become crisp. The kabed can then be enjoyed as a sweet (with milk and honey) or savory dish served with the main course.

Kabed Bread
Nubian Kabed Bread

Another bread component that the Nubians have also added to their hearty dishes was a crepe-like ‘sanasel’ bread. Unfortunately, most Nubians have had to leave the riverside area due to mass flooding. Therefore, the Nubians are no longer able to prepare the dishes they formerly identified with culturally. Instead, the ethnic group had to resort to the Egyptian cuisine surrounding their area. The most popular Egyptian dish Nubians have continued to enjoy is the ‘molokhia’. Nubians have even created their own twist and added eggs to the Egyptian meal.  However, few areas do persist in maintaining Nubian culinary traditions. Some villages prepare okra, peas, spinach, zucchini, beans, and carrots with their own blends of herbs and spices, thus reviving the Nubian culinary essence.

Nubians also have a distinguished delicacy in its cuisine. They have been widely known to consume a camel’s raw liver. The liver is finely chopped with vinegar-marinated onions, as well as some local spices, such as cumin, chili sauce, and coriander. The dish is popular among Nubians due to its nutritious benefits. The region also relishes other meals made with chicken, beef, and vegetables. Moreover, their unique culinary skills are utilized with mud hearths, as well as dishes, pots, and pans made out of clay and glass. They also use clay to mold water coolers. Moreover, due to the diasporic nature of the Nubian tribes, as they have been forced into displacement, their culinary traditions have evolved to their surrounding environment. Whether it is in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, or Uganda, Nubian tribes have been met with a dynamic food evolution, as they adapt to other culinary cultures.

Camel Liver Preparation
Camel Liver being Prepared

Modern Nubia

The Nubian’s recent past has been entrenched in disparity and displacement. The Nile has been the ethnic group’s source of life, where their agricultural livelihood had been fostered. However, following a series of unfortunate floods caused by filled reservoirs after the construction of the Aswan dam in the 1960s. The dam’s purpose was to propel Egypt’s economic interests. For instance, Egyptian cropland has been estimated to spread up to 30%.

Moreover, two hydro-electric stations will facilitate the rapid growth of industrialization in much of Upper Egypt. Consequently, the industrialized structure has brought upon the displacement of around 50,000 Nubians living adjacently to the Nile. The villages that had previously been alongside the Nile have been demolished entirely due to the flooding. The inhabitants have been placed by the Egyptian and Sudanese governments in areas such as, Kom Ombo, located in Egypt.

Nubian Villages in Kom Ombo
Nubian Villages in Kom Ombo

According to Egypt Today, a 75-year-old Nubian named Abdel Hamid Saafan, who had resided in the now razed villages had expressed his grief for his lost land, saying, “I remember very vividly what happened on that day. Our farm was completely flooded months before leaving and the crop was damaged. I also recall my grandfather who was almost my age today talking to one of the army officers and leaving our home with tears in his eyes. Even though they said it was for the best and they would bring us back, my family felt it was not true.”


One thought on “Anthropology: History and Culture of Ancient Nubian Civilization to Modern Day

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