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Volume 30, Number 4July/August 1979

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The Nubians in Brooklyn

Written by William H. Rockett
Photographed by Nicholas Kourides
Additional illustrations by Neville Mardell

Ten years ago, Egyptian engineers threw the switches that closed the huge gates at Aswan and completed the Sadd al-Ali, the Aswan High Dam, largest of the Nile dams. As a result, one of the world's biggest man-made lakes began to form above the river's First Cataract, south of the city of Aswan.

As it filled, the lake, called Lake Nasser, slowly drowned what Egyptologist Diane Desroches Noblecourt called "the greatest open-air museum in the world." Her reference was to Lower Nubia - that is, northern Nubia - a civilization which took root 500 years before the pyramids rose at Giza, and which sustained itself in full flower until some time after Columbus reached the New World.

Until very recently however, Nubia - part Africa, part Egypt - has been one of those famous areas that none but the experts could locate and identify precisely. Although it has been as thoroughly examined by the archeologists as any area in the world, Nubia, to the layman, was a source of confusion, both geographically and historically. Wasn't Nubia part of Egypt? Aren't its great temples Egyptian? On the other hand, isn't Nubia, today, part of The Sudan? And what about the African influences?

Such questions have now been answered. In a special exhibit organized by the Brooklyn Museum last year, the story of Nubia has been pieced together from exhibits in 25 of the world's museums from Khartoum to Warsaw. Called "Africa in Antiquity: the Arts of Ancient Nubia and The Sudan," the exhibit drew 100,000 people to the Brooklyn Museum last year and is now on a tour that will end in The Hague in The Netherlands in September.

"There has never been an exhibition like it," says its curator, Bernard V. Bothmer. "We know so little about Nubian art and history. In fact, there have been no real books on the subject, until the catalogues of this exhibition. Nubia has always been overshadowed by Egypt; now, we are beginning to see it on its own merits, as a great African culture."

Geographically Nubia is the area along the Nile between the First Cataract, in Egypt, and the Sixth Cataract, in The Sudan, just north of Khartoum. Because many of the cataracts are virtually unnavigable, Nubia was protected from central African incursions and, because of an error, was never fully explored by the Romans. Like the Greeks, they knew it vaguely, as the far periphery of the known world; and under the Emperor Nero, Rome did send two expeditions south, according to Seneca and Pliny. But as the expeditions foolishly traversed the deserts to the west of the rich Nile Valley itself, they returned empty-handed and Rome lost interest until later. Nubia, therefore, safe behind its cataracts, continued to maintain an unbroken thread of culture first spun in the Nile Valley 5,500 years ago.

In 1890, however, construction of the first Aswan dam ended that isolation and when the dam was heightened in 1907, the Egyptian government asked George Reisner, an American archeologist, to survey the area to be flooded. Reisner did so and in the next five years scientists from many countries recorded and saved what they could as the floodwaters rose over that part of northern Nubia.

The archeologists returned again in the 1930's - when the dam was heightened for the second time - but it was the 1950's proposal to construct the new High Dam, and the threat of its much larger lake, that shook the nations awake at last. (See Aramco World, July-August 1976) When Egypt's Ministry of Culture appealed to the world for help, and men like Walter Fairservis wrote books like Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile (subtitled "The Doomed Monuments of Nubia"), the world's statesmen recognized the need to preserve the temples and monuments. As a result, archeologists and historians from more than 30 countries poured into northern Nubia. Temples were taken apart Stone by stone, to be reassembled in other lands - like Dendur, now in New York City - or rebuilt on higher ground, like Abu Simbel.

But more was accomplished than monumental moving jobs. Taking up the work of Reisner, the archeologists learned more about Nubia in a decade than had been learned in all the long centuries before Egypt announced its plans to build the Sadd al-Ali. Earlier, to be sure, J. W. Crowfoot had explored the "Island of Meroe" - the part of Nubia, in today's Sudan, bounded by the Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara River - and 90 years before, Champollion, the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, had pushed south of the Second Cataract into Sudanese Nubia. But it was not until the pre-High Dam period that Nubia as a whole was explored thoroughly. And it was not until the Nubian Exhibit in Brooklyn that the results were condensed, coordinated and made

As the exhibit shows, the Nubian civilization began about 3500 B.C. when the first Nubians -archeologists call them the "A-group" - moved out of the Stone Age, began to raise crops and animals, and began to create works of art. They probably engaged in trade too, acting as middle-men between the sources of ivory, ebony and incense in central Africa and their key customer in the north: Egypt.

The Egyptians, then, were the source of much of what is known of the Nubians. Although a questionable source - the Egyptians considered Nubian territories, called Wawat and Kush, as places of riches, ripe for plundering - they did provide important data about the early centuries. During Dynasty IV for example, (2680-2565 B.C.) the Pharaoh Snefru once boasted that he "brought back 7000 prisoners, and 200,000 cattle, large and small."

Snefru, however, was not the first lord of the northern Nile Valley to plunge southward to Sudanese Nubia - called Kush - in search of ivory, gold, and the plumes and eggs of ostriches. Records show that Egyptian expeditions into Nubia date back to the very first Egyptian dynasty: about the year 3000 B.C. And by the time of Cheops, builder of the greatest of the Giza pyramids, Egyptians had secured a site near the Second Cataract at Buhen, where they mined Nubian gold for themselves - apparently with forced labor. "If I lie," runs one lament, "they will cut off my nose and my ears - or they may send me to Kush."

The note of dismay in that comment was well founded. The terrain between Kush - Sudanese Nubia - and Egypt did not encourage immigration. As described by Sir Samuel Baker, one of the men to find the source of the Nile in 1864, it sounded dreadful,

Glowing like a furnace, the vast extent of yellow sand stretched to the horizon... hills of black basalt jutted out from the barren base of sand, and the molten air quivered on the overheated surface of the fearful desert. 114 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade under the waterskins; 137 degrees in the sun...We entered a dead level plain of orange-coloured sand, surrounded by pyramidical hills: the surface was strewn with objects resembling cannon shot and grape of all sizes...the spot looked like the old battle-field of some infernal origin.

About 2300 B.C., however, Mernera, a pharaoh, cut a channel through the First Cataract, Egypt's traditional southern boundary, and opened Egyptian Nubia - called Wawat - to exploitation. Subsequently, Egyptian nobles began to lead expeditions southward to explore and plunder the region -rather like English gentlemen in the same area in the 19th century - and to send back "souvenirs" to the pharaoh. One noble, named Harkhuf, sent word of a "dancing dwarf" - probably an African pygmy - and won such an excited reply from the pharaoh that Harkhuf engraved it on his own tomb at Elephantine,

Come northward to the court immediately: thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous, and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and gladden the heart of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him to take care lest he fall in the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent; inspect him ten times a night. My majesty desires to see his dwarf more than the figs of Sinai and of Punt.

It was a Middle Kingdom pharaoh, Senwosret El, who moved from exploitation to conquest; he invaded Wawat - Egyptian Nubia - and pushed his imperial borders as far south as Semna in Kush. He built forts with names like "Repelling the Tribes" and "Taming the Deserts" during his 36-year reign (1878-1842 B.C.); eight of the forts covered the length of Wawat, and an additional six are said to have studded the Batn al-Hagar, or "Belly of Stones," the long reach of rapids and narrows of the Second Cataract. This great natural defense marked the limit of Egyptian expansion and prevented them from pressing the Kushites too hard in their rising cities of Kerma, Napata, and Meroe - in today's Sudan. Still, Senwosret the conqueror so impressed the Nubians that he became a god, worshipped there for centuries after his death.

The people who inhabited Wawat at this time have come to be called the "C-group" by archeologists. Steffen Wenig, author of the exhibition catalogue's second volume, tells us they wore feathers in their hair, built permanent homes and sophisticated tombs, and rarely illustrated human figures on their pottery or in the day figures they made, preferring cattle and sheep as subjects. Some human figures have been found, however - most of them female - and their marked resemblance to "A-group" finds are testimony to Nubian cultural continuity - a continuity that, curator Bothmer feels, may, in some aspects, reach into the present day.

While the Egyptians easily dominated the "C-group" Kushites, they were much more interested in a nation even further south in Nubia. Called Kerma in today's archeology, this area was known to the Egyptians as Yam or Iram. Its proud and independent people were ruled by princes who practiced elaborate burial rites. While the "C-group" peoples of Wawat were content to take clay figures of animals with them into the afterlife, the Kerman prince was laid to rest on a bed inlaid with beautiful ivory carvings, and surrounded by the corpses of real animals and of human retainers. In one burial mound at Kerma, 322 skeletons were found and, Wenig says, "It is dear from the unnatural positions of their skeletons that the victims were buried alive and suffocated to death." The Kermans produced sophisticated art, developed a complex and successful political state and ultimately founded an empire.

To the Egyptians, of course, the people of Kerma appeared as a powerful and aggressive force and so they took protective measures. At Mirgissa, near Wadi Haifa on the Second Cataract, archeologists have found the equipment of one of many magidans sent south by the pharaohs to man lonely outposts and recruit spirits to defend Egypt against her enemies. And while the Egyptian pharaohs dominated both Kush and Wawat for a time - from 1554 to 1080 B.C. - the imperial peace was not an easy one.

The Egyptians tried everything to force Kush, to submit. Aswan walls tell of a massacre of rebels against Pharaoh Thutmosis I (1530-1515 B.C.), in which everyone save the son of a local chieftain was murdered. He was brought as a prisoner to the pharaoh, and probably enrolled in a kind of finishing school for the young nobles of conquered countries, at which they were effectively Egyptianized - on the theory that a shared culture would make them less likely to lead future rebellions against their imperial masters.

In one respect the attempted Egyptianization of Kush was successful: the Kushites came to claim Egyptian culture and religion as their own. In the eighth century B.C., in fact, they came north in force to claim it - and for nearly a century ruled Egypt themselves.

This Kushite reign in Egypt is known to historians as Dynasty XXV From 751 to 656 B.C., the men from the south ruled Egypt's Upper and Lower Kingdoms. They wore curious caps adorned with two serpents, the bodies of which swirled together over their heads and trailed from the back. These snakes were not representations of the two Egypts, but of Egypt's unification with and under the Kushite kingdom of Napata. A power based on two great cities - Meroe and Napata - that kingdom had emerged when Egypt, weakened by a series of costly foreign wars, withdrew from the south to regroup her forces. As Egypt subsequently took little notice of events in the south, the two dties, Meroe and Napata, borrowed the name of Kush from the Egyptians, consolidated their forces and later, under a leader named Piankhy conquered Egypt.

Piankhy, then, was the first Kushite pharaoh. But it is Taharqo, his successor, who has come to symbolize Dynasty XXV for many historians and archeologists. It is his sphinx which dominates the posters and pamphlets of the Nubians in the Brooklyn exhibition, and which is for many the most moving work of the entire display.

Crowned at Memphis and seated at Thebes, Taharqo was a Napoleon of a general; he once led Egypt's forces to meet the Assyrians in Palestine. But, like Ramses II, who constructed Abu Simbel, Taharqo built as an Egyptian. "The [Kushite] rulers made every effort to correspond to the image of legitimate pharaohs," writes Karl-Heinz Priese in the essay volume of the exhibition catalogue. Official art and literature, in Egypt and in Kush itself, were used to give background and history - and thus legitimacy - to the new dynasty.

And yet, hard as Taharqo worked to appear to be an Egyptian pharaoh, one look at his sphinx makes it clear that he is definitely Nubian, not northern. As Wenig points out, foreigners had often sat on the Egyptian throne before, but only the Napatan pharaohs looked foreign in their sculptured likenesses. Some art historians have referred to "the brutal realism of Kushite art," but that may be too simple a judgment: Kushite art also shows the pride of a people who believed in themselves and in their own imperial power. It reflected, as an example, the confident strength of the Kushite pharaoh who once sent the Persian king a bow with this message,

When the Persians can pull a bow of this strength thus easily, let him come with an army of superior strength against the long-lived Kushitestill then, let him thank the gods that they have not put it into the heart of the Kushites to covet lands which do not belong to them.

In short, the Kushites' efforts to identify themselves with the Egyptian past was not an effort to pass as their betters, but to identify with their equals. When, for example, the Kushite king Sahura modeled a victory stele on one raised by Pharaoh Pepy II 2,000 years earlier, he was showing that he knew the efficacy of having a little solid history behind him - but history of which he was the proud and legitimate heir. (He may in fact, have been inheriting his own history; although the Brooklyn exhibit does not touch on it, one University of Chicago archeologist believes that Nubian culture was the basis of Egyptian political organization.)

Altogether, the Kushites ruled Egypt for 95 years. Then the Assyrians drove them from Memphis and Thebes - the seat of pharaonic rule - and tried to conquer Kush itself. The Assyrians failed, however, as did the Persians, 150 years later. The Kushites were also tough enough to retake the city of Aswan from the Romans in 24 B.C., and to prevent them from capturing Kush. As a result the Emperor Augustus chose to sign a peace treaty with Kush that lasted 300 years.

By 270 B.C., nevertheless, the Kushites were on the defensive; this, apparently, is why they moved their capital south to Meroe, where the kingdom survived until that city fell in A.D. 350.

For archeology the fascination of the story of Kush derives from the mixture of African and Egyptian influences. "It's not African and it's not Egyptian," says Bothmer. "It is Kushite, or Nubian. And it is fascinating because it is so very old, but to us it is so new."

Nor is it dead. The exhibition's opening in Brooklyn last year was presided over by President Gaafar al-Nimeiry of the Democratic Republic of The Sudan, whose minister of culture and information has said that the exhibit "reflects the cultural heritage of our people." The Sudanese view Nubians as their progenitors, and value Kushite artifacts as an Egyptian values Giza.

Furthermore, Dr. Negm el Din M. Sherif, Sudan's commissioner for archeology and national museums, is anxious to encourage archeological expeditions to southern Nubia, the heart of the kingdom of Kush. "At the moment, there is not one American expedition working there," says Floyd Lattin, coordinator of the Brooklyn exhibit. "It is an ironic situation, considering the fact that George Reisner of Harvard was the great initiator of Sudanese archeology."

Yet the potential rewards of new digs in southern Nubia could be great. Much is left to be uncovered. For one thing, the archeologists have yet to decipher the language in which many Nubian inscriptions have been written. Meroitic, as it is called, is similar to ancient Egyptian writing, but isn't really understood yet.

Somewhere in Kush - perhaps in the royal cemeteries at Meroe - there may exist a Nubian Rosetta Stone. But until it is found and the language has been unlocked, the evocative forms and shapes of Nubian art will be the best source of understanding of this proud old civilization.

William H. Rockctt, now a reporter and art critic at the Passaic, N.J. Herald-News, formerly worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as producer, writer and correspondent. He has also published two volumes of poetry, and sold articles and verse to such national publications as Saturday Night and Canadian Forum.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the July/August 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1979 images.