Why We Know Next to Nothing About Nubia

“Winged Isis pectoral; Nubian, Napatan Period, reign of Amaninatakelebte, 538–519 BC; gold; 2 11/16 x 6 11/16 inches; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition 20.276; Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



Grateful just to be somewhere beautiful and air-conditioned, I stand and skim, as is my sinful habit, the big introduction label to the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Nubia exhibit. I feel the usual distance of centuries and miles; nothing lives in my memory about Nubia, no peg on which I can hang a few new facts. Where was Nubia, even?

I squint at a map. Nubia stretched south from the Nile’s first stretch of rapids to its confluence with the Blue and White Nile rivers—so, from southern Egypt into Sudan. It was the second-oldest civilization in Africa, where we all came from, and its early flourishing centered in the ancient city of Kerma around 2400 BCE. Later, Nubia became the gateway for gold, ivory, ebony, incense, cheetah skins, and other luxury goods to reach Egypt.

So why do we have standup comedy about King Tut and late-night horror flicks about Egyptian mummies and nothing about Nubia? These people built more pyramids than the Egyptians—more than two hundred steeply sloped, stern edifices of sandstone and granite. (And a nineteenth-century Italian “archaeologist,” Giuseppe Ferlini, blew the tops off several of them hoping for treasure.)

I grow interested.

The Nubians and Egyptians traded and intermarried peaceably for years, I read, before they began trying to conquer each other—and Nubia actually ruled Egypt for a solid century, until the Assyrians drove them out. Eventually, Egypt turned the tables, and history is, we all know, told by the conquerors. The Egyptians spread plenty of negative propaganda about their southern neighbors, and Western archaeologists fell right in line. Egyptian art often cast Nubians in submissive roles and painted them with black skin. When we saw Egyptian representations of the Nubian kings who ruled Egypt in the eighth century BCE, we nicknamed them “the Black Pharaohs,” creating a false ethnic distinction. “Egyptologists have been strangely reluctant to admit that the ancient Egyptians were rather dark-skinned Africans,” notes Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith, “and in the end not so different from the Nubians in terms of phenotype.”

Because we are obsessed with our construct of race, we somehow forgot that the Egyptians (whose own skin tones varied quite a bit) used color symbolically: red ochre for men, yellow for women. Black was used to indicate fertile soil, the underworld, or, taking the two concepts together, resurrection, which is why Osiris was often painted black. By insisting on being literal, we modern Westerners created an ethnic divide where none existed. We are good at that.

The scarcity of written records perpetuated our ignorance. “The statues probably represent sacred animals or deities,” one exhibit label notes, “although due to the lack of writing in the Kerma Period, scholars cannot be sure.” Much of the writing we do have from ancient Nubia, we are still unable to translate. Had the Rosetta Stone not been inscribed with both hieroglyphics and ancient Greek, providing a translation key for the hieroglyphics, ancient Egypt would be just as lost to us. Instead, Egypt dominates our psyche, and Nubia lands . . . nowhere.

Meroë (in southern Nubia, near what is now Khartoum) was one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient world, I learn. The Romans tried, and failed, to conquer its kingdom. If we ever figure out how to fully decipher Meroitic—the second-oldest script in Africa, after Egypt’s hieroglyphics—we will know the Nubians’ side of these skirmishes. As it is, all we have are exquisite examples of Meroitic metalwork, textiles, jewelry, and pottery, but scant explanation of their context. Unless of course you heed the ancient Greeks who made up wild stories about Nubia without ever bothering to go there.

A civilization lost in translation? One whose stories had to be told by others? Those are factors, but the bigger piece, the exhibit confirms, is that Westerners were blinded by their own assumptions. Archeologist George Reisner was so sure that Africans were incapable of developing a sophisticated civilization that he decided Kerma must be an Egyptian outpost, and the refined Egyptians had for some inexplicable reason adopted the barbaric burial customs of the Nubians. “Fine quality objects are attributed to Egyptian influence by Reisner,” I read, “while mundane ones were identified as Nubian.”

The same thing happened in Great Zimbabwe, a medieval stone-walled city known as the Acropolis of Africa. One archaeologist actually theorized that its grand edifices must have been built, not by the Shona, but by refugees from Carthage. Another suggested it was built by “bastards” whose fathers were White invaders from the north. Others insisted its stunning architecture was Arab or Phoenician.

Contempt for such idiocy floods me, and I almost miss the next bit, which is quite cheering: Turns out it was Reisner’s own careful records (no doubt meant to preserve his own brilliance for posterity) that eventually helped show just how wrong he was.

Karma takes its time.

I move on, marveling over the elegant tracery on the quivers—the Nubian army was famous for its skilled archers—and the wooden beds, decorated with gold and ivory, on which bodies were gently lain for burial three millennia ago. Case after case, softly lit, are filled with shawabty, serene effigy figures that were buried with kings. The word means “one who answers”; they were intended to magically animate and serve him in the next world.

A wall inlay of a lion that would have guarded the entrance to a temple is as bright a turquoise blue as anything you would see on a Mexican tile; there was copper in the faience’s glaze, so the ceramic pieces turned blue when fired. I walk on, seeing more lions, rams, and the sweetest hippopotamus I have seen: This was the animal the Nubians counted on to protect them in the afterlife. A statue of Bes makes me laugh aloud: this lion-headed dwarf has a mock ferocity that is somehow merry. His terrain is this world, with all its earthly dangers, and he is devoted to protecting women, children, and all who sleep. The next time I lie awake for hours, resisting that vulnerability, I will conjure him.

I also smile at a statue of a man and woman: “The modest scale, dour facial expressions, long garments, and oversized hands and feet of the couple are characteristic of the statues made by low-level officials of the Middle Kingdom.” The mood conveyed by these two reminds me instantly of the farmer, wife, and pitchfork in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. So many lives have been colored (or should the verb be “faded”?) by that grim sense of responsibility.

Ah, but the Nubians reveled in luxury and relished adornment; at least there was plenty of joy in their culture. I stand for a long time drinking in the exquisite detail in their drop earrings and bracelets, any of which I would eagerly wear today. My favorite necklace, in fact, looks a lot like a cheap imitation of one I see on display, dated to 2050–1700 BCE, made of amethyst, carnelian, and gold (mine is not) and found “in the burial of an elite woman.” There you go.

Moving through the exhibit and thus through time, I feel the tension with the Egyptians building. Were they jealous of all that Nubian gold and ivory? Did they just need to feel superior to those south of their border? Hard to imagine that. Surely they were not as obsessed with skin color as we are. Evidence suggests that the Egyptians believed themselves superior to everybody, and what we call race was irrelevant.

A pair of wooden clappers, dated around 1985 BCE, was carved with Nubian heads at each end, turning percussion into concussion for the enemy. Yet the interplay of the two cultures never ceased. An Egyptian statue was found in tomb of Kerma’s last ruler, but the text is broken off where the owner’s name would have been, so he “remains anonymous.” So do three buried queens. “In some cases,” a label reads, “all that remains are eyes and eyebrows from their mummy-shaped lids.”

More is missing from this exhibit than the names of the dead. Filled with mystery and conjecture and caveat, it guides us into a rich and fascinating culture that has been sorely neglected. “These two mysterious objects…” one label begins. Others are careful to specify that “the exact function of this object is unknown. . . . ” “They are difficult to identify in the archaeological record. . . . ” “Among the finest yet most enigmatic objects. . . . ” “Their function remains a mystery. . . . ” “While it was one of the great cities of antiquity, Meroë remains among the least understood.”

For centuries, White researchers gave short shrift to Nubia. “Only now do we realize how much pristine archaeology is just waiting to be found,” British archaeologist David Edwards told Undark. “But just as we are becoming aware it’s there, it’s gone.” One more decade, and “most of ancient Nubia might be swept away.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.