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12 december 2022

If, like me, you have even a fitful amateur interest in ancient Egypt, you have frequently run across references to Nubians. Nubia seems to have been Egypt's great Other. Egyptians portrayed themselves as yellow or reddish-tan in complexion (depending on gender, female and male). They colored Nubians black, and pictured tiny Nubians routed by conquering Pharaohs. For Egyptians, Nubians were unfit stewards of great resources, hapless enemies, slaves, savages – the global South of the world as the Egyptians knew it.

As Sarah Schellinger points out in her new study for Reaktion's Lost Civilizations series, when we think of Nubia this way we are taking only Egypt's word for it. The Nubians themselves had no problem constructing centuries'-long civilizations along the upper Nile, with complex urban centers, elaborate burials, and robust arts and crafts. Sometimes the Egyptians conquered much of Nubia; but Egyptian kingdoms always had southern borders, and there were always independent Nubians beyond them. In the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, the Nubians returned the favor and conquered Egypt for several generations. But the Egyptians were in much closer contact with the Hellenistic, Roman, and later Western cultures, so they got to tell us the story of the relation between the two civilizations.

And as with many "lost civilizations," Nubia was never truly lost. Schellinger traces Nubia from prehistory to present-day Sudan and then the diaspora of its peoples in the wake of current conflicts. In order to deliver Nubia to the reader, free from misleading Egyptian packaging, Schellinger sticks mainly to archeology; her own research is at the junctures of archeology and art history. Though here too the situation can be complicated. Egyptian styles greatly influenced Nubian material culture, so it can be difficult to distinguish traces of Egyptian rule and colonization from Nubian adoptions of Egyptian designs.

Archaic Nubians and Egyptians alike, for instance, favored a style of red-and-black pottery that barely changed over millennia, and didn't need to, being classic enough to have immediate eye appeal still today. Nubia was also the source of much Egyptian gold, and in its later history, of much of the ironwork that superseded Bronze Age technologies in the east of Africa.

Schellinger discusses the ancient Nubian kingdoms centered on Kerma and later on Meroe, capitals that retain, in their ruined grandeur, some of that "lost civilization" effect that characterizes Sardinian nuraghe, North American mounds, and Mayan ritual centers. Nubians did eventually adopt a written language that borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphics, but much remains undecipherable. The mute mud-brick and stone of these old centers remains the best witness to their power.

I wondered if Nubians were mentioned much in English-language poetry, but I can't find any references at all. "Ethiop" was Shakespeare's preferred term for south-of-Egypt folks – a term sometimes used by English writers for true Ethiopians and sometimes just for Africans in general. Schellinger rejects it as imposed from the outside and imprecise. Perhaps we have something of a clean slate after all for a more accurate reimagining of Nubia.

Schellinger, Sarah M. Nubia. London: Reaktion, 2022.