The Nubian people are an ethnic group occupying the northern parts of Sudan and southern Egypt. They originally came from the central Nile Valley and were its very first inhabitants. Generally, the Nubians speak the Nubian language. However, those occupying the northern parts of Sudan speak the Sudanic languages while those in southern Egypt talk to Egyptian Arabic, Saidi Arabic, etc. Nevertheless, the most predominant language in the region is Islam (Sunni, Sufi).
Some of the ethnic groups which are closely related to Nubians include Egyptians, Beja people, Nilotic peoples, Kunama, and Cushitic peoples. This article will look at a brief history of ancient and modern Nubia, their culture, and the languages they spoke.
The Ancient Nubians
Some of the most ancient African Kingdoms were established in Nubia by the then occupants. This region was rich in a lot of gold deposits. It was also the leading center for luxurious products like incense, ivory, and ebony that the Trans- Saharan Trade sourced. The ancient Nubian Kingdoms had strong armies that had an exceptional workforce. The army consisted of men who had experience in archery. Since the Nubians lived under the Egyptians, who had colonized them twice, they decided to stage a coup. The Nubian soldiers defeated the Egyptians, thereby possessing the power to reign. However, they only lasted in force for a century.
Amid the olden times, Nubians did activities like pottery, fishing, farming, herding, etc. It is important to note that initially, Nubians were herdsmen and hunters. They kept large herds of cattle, which provided their ultimate source of food. However, with civilization and interactions, they adopted other activities, and thus they also became farmers and fishermen. And as they mingled with more people, the Nubian population became diverse, consisting of different ethnic groups. Anthropological research revealed that the inhabitants who lived during the Napatan(third) period engaged in more strenuous activities than those of the new Kingdom.
Most of the Nubians settled along the Nile River, which flowed northwards to other parts. The River provided the Nubians with the water which they used in planting their crops. They grew lentils, dates, melons, peas, etc. The number of cattle one had in the Nubian community determined one’s wealth. Such that those who owned large numbers of cattle were highly respected and seen as wealthy.
Most of the time, the Nubian people traded with the Egyptians, who were their very close neighbors. The Nubian people exchanged the cattle, gold, ivory, and animal skins for vegetable oils, wine, fine linen, beer, and manufactured goods. The Nubians, therefore, interact with the Egyptians on several occasions. Such that later, they even adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphic, which was a writing system. While looking at the ancient stories of Nubia, we categorize them based on different periods.
The periods include; C-Group culture. It was a time between 3700 – 2800BC. Kerma culture (2500-1500), Nubian contemporaries of the New Kingdom (1550-1069), Napata (1000-275), etc. According to some research, the early occupants in Nubia during the C-Group and Kerma spoke languages belonging to the Berbers and Cushites. However, further analysis revealed that the people of the Kerma period spoke Nilo Saharan languages, which were the language of the eastern Sudan inhabitants. And the people of C-Group spoke the Cushitic languages.
It is quite evident Sudan and Egypt have an interrelation. However, despite the common pre-dynastic history, the two states diverged when medieval Egypt collapsed. As such, the people renamed the region between the first and sixth cataract of the Nile Nubia. It is important to note that what is now Nubia for several years was called Kush. The latter originated from ancient Egyptian Biblical texts.
Meanwhile, there was also the Town of Tombos, which the Egyptians built near the third cataract during the second time they colonized Nubia. Moreover, archeological evidence affirmed that Tombos was an administrative town where Nubians and Egyptians resided peacefully. So, what events preceded the fall of Egypt? The Persian soldiers were the very first beings to conquer Egypt and renamed it Satrapy of Mudriya. Nevertheless, it was not long before the Greeks took over and then the Romans.
In modern Sudan, Nubians consist of the Danagla, inhabiting the area around Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract, and Sikurta from Aswan. The current Nubia inhabitants live in the regions which the ancient Nubians once occupied. To date, people refer to these places as the Old Nubia. Currently, Nubians are many, and they have established settlements in Khashm el Girba Sudan, Aswan High Dam, etc. They are approximately 50000 people. Most of these Nubians work in the Egyptian and Sudanese cities. However, some of the Nubians still keep livestock and practice agriculture.
Since times are changing, the Nubian women are now engaging in male-dominated activities. Nubian people have access to education and can work in towns and cities. During the 1973 Arab Israel War, the Egyptians employed Nubians as codetalkers. Nowadays, the number of working-class women has escalated in the region.
Like other ethnic groups, modern Nubians also communicated in a specific language, which they used to communicate amongst themselves. They spoke the Nubian languages and the East Sudanic languages. The old Nubian language was the most senior in Africa. These Noba nomads initially spoke this language. The Nobas occupied the region between the first and third cataract of the River Nile. However, the Nobas became extinct after the Makorae conquered and inherited their lands. The Makorae then established a state which they named Makuria.
Modern Nubia consisted of four regions. These areas had different landscapes and agriculture. River Nile and its valley were in the northern and central regions of Nubia. The inhabitants of this region watered their crops through irrigation. Then in the western part of Sudan, the Nubians practiced small-scale agriculture and nomadic pastoralism. The herders would take their cattle out for grazing in search of green pastures.
Meanwhile, the eastern part of Sudan was rich in nomadism. The occupants here practiced cattle keeping as their primary economic activity. Lastly, there was the southern part, which a majority of the Nubian farmers inhabited. This region had fertile soils that were suitable for agricultural production.
Culture of the Nubians
Unlike some communities whose culture changed with modernization, the Nubians’ culture remained the same. Poetry, novels, music, and research reports celebrate Nubians’ sticking to their culture and continuing its preservation. The Danagla, Mahas, and Sikurta all have different forms of writing scripts. These Nubians also tattooed their bodies. Some Mahas men and women made these tattoos by creating scars on their cheeks and temples.
The geographical location of Nubia also influenced the culture of the Nubians. Nubia has two parts, i.e., upper and lower. The Nubians founded the ancient Mapata Kingdom in upper Nubia. Another name for this Kingdom was Kush. The lower Nubia, commonly called the corridor of Africa, was where the Nubians located the Kingdom of Meroe. So how does the difference in location influence culture? The difference in regions led to the Nubians adapting to different languages.
Nepata, Ketma, and Metoe used to be Nubia’s largest centers as many people occupied them. These cities flourished from the agricultural produce from the rich agricultural lands in the country. The ancient rulers were responsible for controlling all the wealth in the Nubian territory. They were in charge of the gold and trade routes. History documents that it was during trade activities that the Egyptians dominated the Nubians.
The Nubians regarded their Kings as pious scholars and art patrons. The kings could copy the ancient Egyptian texts, and they also promoted the restoration of Egyptian cultural practices. Due to that ability, the influence Egypt had on Nubia plunged. Therefore, Meroe became the center of power for Nubia, hence gained influence.
As much as most African communities initially practiced traditional religion, the Nubians worshipped both Egyptian and traditional gods. However, due to modernization, they adopted Islam. Although history documents that before Islam, most of the Nubians were Muslims. Islam arrived in Nubia in the 18th century with the coming of the Arab merchants. And it was not long before Nubians started converting to Islam. The Sufi preachers who settled in some parts of Nubia in the 14th century were the ones who influenced people in the region. As such, around the 16th century, many Nubians became Muslims.
The ancient Nepata used to be an important religious center. Specifically, the people worshipped in a place called Gebel Barkal. Both Nubians and Egyptians considered the area a sacred site. When the Nubian queen and kings died, the people buried them in pyramids next to the Gebel Barkal.
The modern Nubian architecture is quite distinct from the ancient one. It has a large courtyard which is inside a high wall, with a beautifully decorated gate. Apparently, the entrance is in the same direction as the Nile River. As such, it is quite outstanding. The building in modern Nubia consists of brightly colored stucco, which often is of different patterns with symbols.