The Nubians People


The Nubians are a non-Arab people who identify their ancestral homeland as a stretch of the Nile that runs hundreds of miles south from the First Cataract (large rapids in the course of the Nile River), near Aswan, to around the Fourth Cata-ract, in northern Sudan. Throughout its long history, Nubia had no clearly defined borders, but was a land where kingdoms rose to control the trade route between Central Africa and the Mediterranean, and territories from beyond the Sixth Cataract to, at one point, the Egyptian Delta were included in a Nubian kingdom.

Today, Egyptian Nubia and much of Sudanese Nubia are submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser. From 1963 to 1967, during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, approximately 47,000 Egyptian Nubians were resettled 30 miles north of Aswan on reclaimed land in Kom Ombo, and about 53,000 Sudanese Nubians to Khashm al-Girba, near the Ethiopian border. More recently, Sudan’s construction of the Merowe Dam in 2009 and the Khartoum government’s plans to build two more dams on the Nile could flood the last of traditional Nubia.

The name “Nubia” has been used only since medieval times. The ancient Egyp-tians and the Old Testament called the region “Kush.” To the Greeks it was “Aithiopia,” and in some Arabic sources, it was part of the great area stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea called Bilad al-Sudan, or “Land of the Blacks.” Some scholars have suggested that “Nubia” is derived from either the ancient Egyptian word for “gold,” a reference to the land’s gold mines, or the Nubian word for “slave.” Today “Nubia” is most accurately used as a linguistic term, applied to the area where Nubian-speaking people lived.

The Nubian languages are classified as an Eastern Sudanic Language, a branch of the Nilo-Saharan Group. Nubian-speak-ing peoples may have started to migrate from the Kordofan and Darfur regions of western Sudan to the Nile Valley about 2,000 years ago, settling in the Kush Empire. Over time, their numbers grew and their languages supplanted the Meroitic language. By the fall of the Kush Empire in the fourth century CE, Adams says, all of the peoples of southern Egypt and northern Sudan spoke Nubian lan-guages and were called Nubian.

According to Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst, of the University of Cologne, two Nile Nubian languages survive today: Nobiin, previously known as Mahas, spo-ken in southernmost Egypt and north Sudan; and Kenzi-Dongolawi. Kenzi is spoken north of Mahas in Egypt, while Dongolawi is spoken in the south, around Dongola. Kenzi and Dongolawi are con-sidered dialects of the same language. There are an estimated 605,000 Nobiin speakers and 1,045,000 Kenzi-Dongolawi speakers.

While there is evidence of human settlement in the Nile Valley that dates back more than 10,000 years, developing civilizations did not begin to emerge until the fourth millennium BCE. The first indigenous Nubian cultures are generally called the A- and C-Groups of Lower Nubia by archeologists (c. 3500–2800 BCE and c. 2200–1500 BCE). They were the first Nubians to develop agriculture and animal Nubians to develop agriculture and animal husbandry, and to the Kerma Culture of Upper Nubia.

Kerma, about 10 miles south of the Nile’s Third Cataract, was settled as early the fourth millennium BCE and one of Africa’s earliest urban centers. Kush—as Egypt began calling it in the second mil-lennium—became wealthy through its control of southern trade routes. By 1650 BCE, the Nubian state was central-ized state and stretched from the First to at least the Fourth Cataract, rivaling Ancient Egypt in size. Egypt absorbed Nubia into its empire in 1500 BCE, but the decline of Egyptian power over the centuries gave rise to a new Nubian kingdom in Napata during the eighth cen-tury BCE that reclaimed traditional lands and even conquered Egypt.

Egypt’s 25th Dynasty, also known as the Nubian Dynasty (760–656 BCE), ruled from the Egyptian Delta to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile until Assyrian pressures forced the Kushites back to their homeland. Kush never again extended its rule beyond the Second Cataract. But its civ-ilization flourished in Meroe, between the Fourth and Fifth Cataracts, where contact with the classical world brought both wealth through trade and a cultural renaissance.

There is little recorded history of Nubia after Kush fell to the Kingdom of Axum (based in the Ethiopian highlands) in the fourth century CE. But in the sixth cen-tury, Monophysite Christian missionaries from Byzantium quickly converted the three Nubian kingdoms that had suc-ceeded Kush: Nobadia, on the Egyptian borders; Makuria, in the Dongola region; and Aodia (Alwa), near modern Khar-toum. Less than a century later, Nubia was resisting the Muslim Arab forces that had swept through Egypt. After two short invasions in 642 and 652, the Arabs signed a treaty with Nobadia and Makuria—the celebrated baqt, essentially a trade and nonaggression pact—that left Nubia in peace for centuries.

Nobadia and Makuria merged in the eighth century under a single king, and for the next several centuries, the united Christian kingdoms prospered from trade with Islamic Egypt. However, Nubia’s Christian identity began to erode once Arab nomads and Arab traders began to settle in Nubia and tribal leaders married into leading Nubian families.

Intermar-riage led to the gradual conversion of the Nubian matrilineal kinship system to the Arab Muslim patrilineal system, shifting control of Nubian properties and prince-doms to Muslims, and the adoption of Islamic religious practices by not only the ruling elite, but by the wider population as well.

After Arab tribes overran Alwa and most of Makuria in the 14th and 15th cen-turies, Arabic supplanted the Nubian languages in the south. The extreme desert environment spared Lower Nubia of the Arab invasions, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, as Islamic teachers settled among them, the Nubians in the north converted to Islam. Unlike their kin in the south, however, the Nubians of the north retained their language, which they con-tinue to speak today.

Nubian villages were built as close to the Nile as possible, their economy based on subsistence farming, animal husbandry, and date production. For centuries, the scarcity of cultivable land, especially in Lower Nubia, encouraged the migration of male Nubians in search of work, leav-ing most of the agricultural work to women, children, and old men. Eskalay water wheels, an invention introduced during Roman times, were used in some areas for irrigation up until the 1960s.

Today, Egyptian Nubians use chemical fertilizers and modern irrigation systems, andcultivatesugarcaneasacashcropto be sold at government-controlled markets. Sudanese Nubians raise cotton, introduced by the British, as a cash crop. Dates, a sta-ple in the Nubian diet and prized by villag-ers, grew poorly in the sandy soil at the resettlements in both Egypt and Sudan. Because the resettled Nubians’ farmland is no longer just beyond their doorways, men are more involved in the agriculture work.

Nubian kinship is organized around the tribe. Cross-cousin marriage is preferred, but endogamous marriages occur with whichever relative is available. Intermar-riage between the different Nubian groups was and is still rare. Nubians are Sunni Muslim, and adhere to the Maliki school.After Great Britain assumed control of Egypt and Sudan between 1880 and 1900, the Nubians were generally left in peace and, for the first time, free of invad-ing armies and slave raiders. But as Nile waters began to rise after the completion of the first Aswan dam in 1902, Nubia’s destruction was sealed.

The first dam, and its subsequent eleva-tion in 1912 and 1933, crippled Lower Nubia’s agricultural system and had a pro-found social and cultural impact. While Nubian men had always left their villages in search of work, either as mercenaries or laborers, the increasing loss of Nubia’s very limited agricultural land accelerated the labor migration. By the 1960s, 60 per-cent of Egyptian Nubia had been destroyed or rendered unfit for habitation, and 70,000 Egyptian Nubian men and women were living outside of Nubia.

Those who had remained in the villages were overwhelm-ingly women, children, and the elderly.Today, Sudan is embarking on a contro-versial series of dam construction on the Nile. About 70,000 indigenous people were forcibly resettled during construction of the Merowe dam, built near the Fourth Cataract and the largest hydro project in Africa.

The government’s plan to build dams at Kajbar, miles from ancient Kerma, and Dal, in northern Sudan, would likely require the displacement of tens of thousands more people. The government has either ignored or violently suppressed protests against the dams.

Scott Mattoon

Further Reading

Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Adams, William Y. “Nubia.” Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

Adams, William Y. “Nubia.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages. American Council of Learned Societies. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. Reproduced in History Re-source Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

Ammar, Nawal H. “Nubians.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9: Africa and the Middle East. Human Relations Area Files, 1995. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

El Hakim, Omar. Nubian Architecture.Cairo:Palm Press, 1999.

Fernea, Robert A. Nubians in Egypt: Peaceful People. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.

Jennings, Anne M. The Nubians of West Aswan: Village Women in the Midst of Change Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Pub-lishers, 1995.

Kennedy, John G., ed. Nubian Ceremonial Life. Cairo and New York: American Uni-versity in Cairo Press, 2005.

Lewis, M. Paul, ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th ed. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2009. Online version:

Taylor, John H. Egypt and Nubia. London:British Museum Press, 1991.