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Nubia: Struggling to Protect a Glorious Past


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The term "Nubia" means many things to many people. In America it has come to be virtually synonymous with blackness and Africa. To ethnographers and linguists, it refers to a specific region straddling southern Egypt and northern Sudan, where black-skinned Nubians have traditionally lived. To archaeologists in the 1990s it is an ever-widening area of the Middle Nile Valley and surrounding deserts that extends approximately from Aswan in Egypt south to modern Khartoum, Sudan, and beyond.

What most people don't know is that ancient Nubia was the site of highly advanced black African civilizations that rivaled ancient Egypt in wealth, power and cultural development. In fact, Nubian kings ruled over Egypt as pharaohs for nearly 100 years.

When the Egyptian pharaohs occupied Nubia between 1970 and 1520 B.C., Egyptian culture increasingly influenced Nubia. Nubia regained its independence in the 11th century B.C. A new Nubian kingdom, centered at Jebel Barkal in Napata, adopted an Egyptian model of the monarchy, including royal brother-sister marriages. In 742 B.C. Piye (or Pianchi), king of Napata, conquered Egypt and founded the 25th Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for nearly a century. Soon after the conquest the Nubian capital shifted to MeroŽ. The MeroŽ kingdom developed its own form of writing as well as a technologically sophisticated iron industry. Around 300 A.D. the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum invaded MeroŽ and defeated its forces.

But modern-day Nubia suffers the near loss of this glorious history as successive dams built at Aswan by the British beginning in 1897 buried monuments and temples under the Nile River and displaced Nubians from their homeland. Many Nubians relocated to Egyptian cities. During the 1960s, the construction of the new Aswan High Dam flooded a large part of the Nubian land and forced 100,000 Nubians to seek refuge around Aswan in Egypt and in the cities of Sudan, including Khartoum. Today, the Nubians number around 1 million people, with about half of them located in Egypt and the other half in the Sudan.

When Egyptian Nubia disappeared beneath the floodwaters, many archaeologists began to recognize the tremendous potential of the non-flooded regions lying further south in Sudan. They knew that there, where the Nile made a great S-loop, lay the heartland of a mysterious ancient Nubian kingdom which the Egyptians called Kush, which first rose to prominence in the 3rd millennium BC.

Only recently has the importance of the Kushite Kingdom to Egyptian history been fully realized. Egypt and Kush were two states, existing at the same time and separated from one another by a hundred miles of virtually unnavigable Nile and uninhabitable desert. Their peoples were different ethnically and linguistically, yet they were in constant communication and developed a cultural symbiosis that evolved throughout recorded history. Kush was an urban, literate kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa, whose people and rulers were black. The ancient Greeks and Romans called them "Ethiopians," or "Burnt-Faced Ones" in recognition of this fact.

By Timothy Kendall

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