Nubian Neighbors: The Long Overshadowed African Kingdom

To preface this article, I knew practically nothing about ancient Nubian civilization. Vague childhood memories from my Egypt-o-mania phase recalls a passing reference to Nubia as a subservient client kingdom. My bookshelf had plenty of Ancient Egypt books for kids and most neighboring kingdoms were glossed over. The Egyptians exerted authority over the Nubians through military and economic oppressions, rendering them impoverished vassals. A recent trip to the St. Louis Art Museum fundamentally changed those notions. Nubian Treasures, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, displayed an astonishing array of artwork and artifacts from various Nubian kingdoms that existed over two-thousand years. The exhibit left such an impression it compelled me to write this post. As time passes we discover more details and nuances about ancient civilizations that we didn’t know existed. We either don’t have the knowledge or it is explained by another source (No, ancient aliens do not count. Kill that thought right now). Who were the Nubians and why don’t we know more about them?

Faience lion that adorned a Nubian temple. Many of the raw materials and artistic design patterns were heavily influenced by Egypt, which presented difficulties for early archaeologists to separate Nubian from Egyptian (St. Louis Art Museum)

Like many who study ancient civilizations, there is a tendency to attribute cultural traits from an established societies to newly discovered adjacent ones. What does this mean? Essentially, when there’s a powerful kingdom that has large cultural exports such as art, language, religion, and government, bordering kingdoms can heavily rely on their neighbors leading to appropriation. Famed Egyptologist George Reisner believed this theory when excavating Nubia in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence collected at the time led Reisner to believe that the many of the Egyptian-like artwork and artifacts were remnants of a Egyptian occupied land of a subservient people. Hieroglyphs and artwork reinforced this notion as Westerners interpreted the darker depiction of Nubian characters as servants or slaves. This theory took hold in the academic world and remained unchanged for decades.

The Nubians were definitely not pushovers who allowed the Egyptians to dictate their civilization. The first recorded cultural group, Kerma, lived in Nubia from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE until it was conquered by Thutmose I during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period. During that one thousand years, Nubians peacefully co-existed with Egypt and other African kingdoms. Trade flourished between them and subgroups of kingdoms developed throughout the region. Nubia is first mentioned in Egyptian accounts in the 24th century BCE during the Old Kingdom. This didn’t mean that the Nubians weren’t of any importance; in fact, they were Egypt’s largest trading partner. Substantial amounts of imported wealth such as gold, ebony, incense, ivory, and copper made the Nubian kingdoms incredibly valuable to Egypt. The Nubians also had great notoriety with their archery skills. They boasted some of the best archers in Northern Africa and on several occasions participated in Egyptian military campaigns. Nubian and Egyptian intermarriages were commonplace and many archaeologists speculate that a handful of Egyptians pharaohs might have had Nubian ancestry. There is no doubting the mutual and reciprocal influence that the two civilizations had on each other for nearly a thousand years.

Nubian ushabtis were small figurines that were placed in the burial chamber of a tomb. They served a spiritual purpose by serving their master in the afterlife. This is one of the many cultural and religious practices that Nubians and Egyptians shared over generations (St. Louis Art Museum)

The dynamic changed drastically around 1500 BCE when the pharaoh Thutmose I expanded Egypt’s borders into the Levant and Nubia. The occupation lasted nearly 400 years, but during that time, competing Nubian factions challenged Egyptian authority creating a near constant state of civil conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE, the Kushites began emerging as the dominant power in Nubia and Egyptian control was relinquished. By the 8th century BCE, the tables were turned as a massive Kushite army led by Piye began a systemic conquest of Egypt. He founded the 25th Dynasty and its pharaohs ruled the two lands for a little over 100 years. In 525 BC, an invading Assyrian army removed the Kushites and forcibly keeping them in the south for the next thousand years. Its at this time that the ancient city of Meroe came to prominence as the cultural and power center for Nubia following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty. The Kushite Kingdom preserved many Egyptian traditions, customs, and religious practices and developed their own language, Meroitic. Today it remains as one of the few undeciphered ancient languages.

The bottom script is Meroitic; one of the last ancient languages never to be translated (St. Louis Art Museum)

The extent of my knowledge on African civilizations is slim, but the point of this blog is to broaden my own history knowledge boundaries. If the Nubian Treasures exhibit taught me anything, it was that civilizations constantly borrow from one another. Whether its religious beliefs, economic practices, cultural customs, or government bureaucracy, the Nubian peoples and Egyptians certainly had a strong and complex relationship. Nubian archaeology has received increased attention in the past two decades and as that interest continues, it’s likely we’ll uncover more about this long overshadowed civilization and its people.

For more information about the St. Louis Art Museum and its exhibits, visit their website: SLAM.org

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