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The Rediscovery of Ancient Nubia

An exhibit in conjunction with the

Centennial celebration of The University of Chicago

February 4 - December 31, 1995

Figure 1: A Nubian Princess in her Ox-chariot, from the Egyptian Tomb of Huy, ca. 1320 B.C.

Figure 2: Map of Nubia



Nubia is located in today's southern Egypt and northern Sudan. This land has one of the harshest climates in the world. The temperatures are high throughout most of the year, and rainfall is infrequent. The banks of the Nile are narrow in much of Nubia, making farming difficult. Yet, in antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense which was always prized by her neighbors.

Nubia is the homeland of Africa's earliest black culture with a history which can be traced from 3100 B.C. onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts, as well as written records from Egypt and Rome.

Figure 3: Decorated pot, Meroitic Period, 1st-2nd centuries A.D.



The earliest of the Nubian cultures (the A-Group and C-Group) were located in northern Nubia. Until recently it was thought that A-Group people were semi-nomadic herdsmen. However, new research suggests that a line of kings 1ived in Qustul in northern Nubia as early as, or perhaps even earlier than, the first pharaohs of Egypt. The people of these early cultures buried their dead in stone-lined pit graves, accompanied by pottery and cosmetic articles. At this time, Nubia was known to the Egyptians as "Ta Sety," the "Land of the Bow," because of the fame of Nubian archers.

By 1550 B.C. kings at Kerma were ruling Nubia. They were buried in huge round tombs, accompanied by hundreds of sacrificed retainers. People of the Kerma culture were accomplished metal workers, and they also made thin-walled pottery on a wheel. This was a time of increased contact between Egypt and "Kush," as Nubia was then called.

Egypt dominated parts of Nubia from about 1950 to 1000 B.C. Forts, trading posts and Egyptianstyle temples were built in Kush, and the Nubian elite adopted the worship of Egyptian gods and even the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. The gold, ebony and ivory of Nubia contributed to the material wealth of Egypt, and many of the famed treasures of the Egyptian kings were made of products from Nubia.

By 800 B.C., Egypt had fragmented into rival states. In 747 B.C., the city of Thebes in southern Egypt was threatened by northerners, and the Egyptians called upon the Nubian king for protection. The Kushite king, Piye, marched north from hiscapitalatNapata,rescuedThebesandreunified Egypt. For the next 100 years, Kushite kings ruled both Nubia and Egypt. This era was brought to a close by the invasion of Assyrian armies in 663 B.C., and the Nubian king fled south to his capital at Napata.

By 200 B.C., the capital had shifted yet farther south to Meroe, where the kings continued to be buried in pyramid tombs and to build temples to Nubian and Egyptian gods in a hybrid EgyptianRoman-African style. Roman historians record the skirmishes and treaties which marked the relation ship of Roman Egypt and Nubia.

Figure 4: Pyramid-tomb of king Tarekeniwal at Meroe, 1st century A.D.

By A.D. 250 the culture of Nubia changed radically, perhaps due to the immigration of new peoples into the Nile Valley. Pyramid tombs were replaced by the great tumulus burials of the kings of Ballana. These kings were laid to rest with sacrificed retainers, horses, camels, and donkeys. In the 7th century, Nubia was converted to Christianity. The skill of Nubian archers forestalled the conversion of Nubia to Islam until A.D. 1400.


A-Group: 3800-3100 B.C.
C-Group: 2300-1550 B.C.
Kerma Culture: 2000-1559 B.C.
Egyptian Domination: 1950-1100 B.C.
Napatan Period 747-200 B.C.
Meroitic Period 200 B.C.-A.D. 300
X-Group (Ballana Period) A.D. 250-550
Christian Period: A.D. 550-1400
(All dates are approximate)

Figure 5: Apedemak, the lion-headed warrior god of Nubia, is shown with his archery equiptment. Detail from a Meroitic ring in the collection of the Oriental Institute.


In the 1960's, a dam was constructed at Aswan, Egypt. It created a 300-mile-long lake which permanently flooded ancient temples and tombs was well as hundreds of modern villages in Nubia. While thedam was under construction, hundreds of archaeologists worked in Egypt and Sudan to excavate as many ancient sites as possible. The Oriental Institute worked in Nubia from 1960-68. Today, the 5000 Nubian objects in the collection of The Oriental Institute Museum and thousands of objects in other museums are our sole resource for recovering the rich civilization of northern Nubia, for the sites themselves are lie beneath the waters of Lake Nasser. In contrast, expeditions from many countries are working in southern Nubia.

The modern inhabitants of southern Egypt and Sudan still refer to themselves as Nubians. They speak the Nubian language as well as Arabic. Thousands of Nubians from the north were forced to relocate from their endangered homelands to be resettled in Egypt and Sudan.

Figure 6: Example of Meroitic script, lst-2nd centutries A.D.


William Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa, Princeton, 1977.

Timothy Kendall, "Kingdom of Kush," National Geographic Magazine, November 1990.

Torgny Säve-Söderbergh, Temples and Tombs of Ancient Nubia, Thames & Hudson, 1987.

John Taylor, Egypt and Nubia, The British Museum, 1991.

Steffen Wenig (editor), Africa in Antiquity, 2 volumes, The Brooklyn Museum, 1978.



Revised: July 24, 2000
Copyright 2006 Oriental Institute, University of Chicago