“Science” Alert claim that Ancient Egypt is non-African

Science Alert’s Article

On 12 April 2018 Michelle Starr, a writer at Science Alert wrote an article on a new archaeological discovery in Sudan. Claiming that the find revealed “A Vast African City of the Dead” [article] . One of the finds, a stela (relief offering) adorned with a representation of the goddess Maat, is described by the writer as having “African features”.

It’s great to see Sudanese archaeology obtaining coverage

But…

When describing the Meroitic language the following passage appears:

[Meroitic] is the earliest known written language of sub-Saharan Africa, written in characters borrowed from the Ancient Egyptians- who were more closely related to the people of the Near East than middle Africa.

 The author then references a limited study examining the DNA of 90 (predominantly Late Period to Roman) mummies from a single site as evidence for this claim. I have contacted the magazine for clarification of why this evidence was prioritised over other research. I am waiting for a response.

At best this is lazy journalism, or someone who simply doesn’t understand the history, culture, and people of Kemet, or their close connections to those of the Nubian region. However, I have written about the intentional separation of these two cultures in previous posts and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of the whitewashing of Ancient Egypt.

I’m hoping that I’ll get a response to my enquiry and that the editor will consider amending the article. I have no idea why this sentence was even included; it certainly doesn’t add anything to the article other than maintaining a racist ideology, which is exacerbated by the fact that the author stresses the “African-ness” of one culture and totally denies its neighbour of this right.

 

Further Comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ by Dr Shomarka Keita

Further comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ By Dr Shomarka Keita

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

It can be argued that familial ties are stronger than all others even in difficult circumstances, and that when there is a conflict between family ties versus group ties that family pre-empts all.  However, there are too many instances in the recent western experience where this is simply not the case. One example is that during the antebellum period in the USA, Euroamerican males routinely sold their children by enslaved [powerless] African and Afro-descendant women into slavery (how about that for a #metoo moment).  (There were exceptions of course.) All of this is rooted in a notion of racism, specifically anti-“black” racism. This is mentioned since the PBS presentation “Black Pharaohs” expressed various interpretations in a “white”-“black” dichotomy that even European crusaders looking for allies in a black Prestor John would not have understood. Of course the televised piece is not the only place this has been done. There are books and magazine articles that speak of the “black” experience in Egypt which is problematic on various levels as stated before.

Details are interesting when one is discussing racism and interpreting the past in terms of it.  It is not clear that those who invented racism as we understand it and then structured human society around it for their benefit fully understand it. Their various descendants participate in the world view generated by racialism (and/or racism) and perhaps maintain it but cannot be blamed for creating it: their bias may be unconcious, not deliberately theorized and operationalized but only by studying each situation can this be known.  Racism in its visceral form as understood in the USA is not amenable to monetary or spiritual negotiation. This will influence how many interpret a situation of conflict.

An idiographic approach to the question of Egyptian shame about being associated with Kushites might be useful.  Let us drill down on something that would have been personal but also public, on the “national” stage.  We note that in her tomb chapel Piankhi’s daughter, Amenirdis, was installed as “God’s Wife” of Amun (an important title) by being adopted by her non-Kushite predecessor, the usual way this was done.  Her name and images are intact and obvious. Only Pharaoh Piankhi’s cartouche has been removed. The 26th dynasty’s king’s daughter was in turn adopted by the last of the Kushite “Gods’ Wives” and thus there was seamless succession in this role.  If there was shame at being associated with or ruled by specific folk with darker skin at the family level—assuming this to be the case— or folk usually associated with darker skin at the group level, then how could this seamless transition have occurred between Kushite and others?  There is no evidence of shame here. There is no hiding this succession. There is no apparent conceptualization that there is taint associated with taking on the Kushite as successor, and then receiving from a Kushite the same honor via adoption—which in theory should be more susceptible to prejudice than having to deal with actual kin.

The damnato memorae was directed at a king over what is more plausibly interpreted as some personal angst than an attitude about a group based on color. Of course there are other possible explanations that have to do with the cultural intricacies and etiquette of those times that we will possibly never know.

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

Comments on the National Geographic Televised Program “Black Pharaohs” By Dr Shomarka Keita

Comments on the National Geographic Televised Program: “Black Pharaohs”.

A guest post by Dr Shomarka Keita

The National Geographic film feature on the 25th Dynasty deserves to be reviewed critically due to the ongoing interest in Egypt.  It is important to say at the outset that it is not clear whether the producers/programmers or the academics had the most to do with final production. Nor is it clear what role PBS played in content decisions, or which outside scholars were invited to make comments before release. The ultimate responsibility in a public academic project like this belongs to both the contributors and producers.  One would hope that there would have been more diversity in those involved in the production, diversity in representatives from a number of fields that have something to say about historiography—including the philosophy of science. Diversity  would have been beneficial from fields that have something to say about concepts of identity as well and the flaws in reading back into the past certain kinds of attitudes and perspectives by giving ancient peoples the voices of the living.  Posted here will be some initial comments about the program that will be followed at various times in the future by posts that tie various issues together. (National Geographic also published an issue of its magazine with “Black Pharaohs” as the cover story. The magazine piece has not been reviewed sufficiently by the range of anthropologists and critical scholars in various fields, and many of the comments made here would apply to that piece.)

The title from the outset is problematic.  It “racializes” the identity of some ancient peoples in line with some older scholastic thinking which itself was the product of a colonialist and blatantly racist era.  One famous Egyptologist spoke of the “Nigger Kings” in reference to the 25th Dynasty.  The title of the program implies an absolute dichotomy between Egyptians and Nubians that even certain biased Egyptologists from the past would have questioned.  Note that even Petrie, father of the Dynastic Race construct, spoke of various Egyptian dynasties other than the 25th as having Sudanese or Nubian ancestry. The issue is not whether Petrie (and others) were right or wrong, but whether or not the film’s authors/producers have ignored the variation in Egyptological opinion about what some would call the “racial” “make-up” of the Egyptians—a northern Nilotic people. We can ask what or whose concept of “race” is being used? And we can most certainly say that one notion of race has to do with the social reaction to phenotype, be it in statuary, wall paintings, or folks standing in front of you.  Some populations—and families– are highly variable in the phenotypic traits that we react to so much.  Egyptological opinion aside the authors did not consider the variation in anthropological and anatomical reports in anthropological studies over the last 100 years. These reports when read critically and cross-checked against each other and current understanding of variability and models of evolution are quite interesting. The producers cannot get around the fact that they have done something that ignores the data that indicates that the notion of race does not apply to modern humans.  They have imposed some ideas onto the past in a particular way.  When one critically examines the linguistic, archaeological and biological data from numerous sources in a form of meta-analysis, the emergence of the ancient Egyptians in northeastern Africa becomes clear.

The authors have done something else, something that is clearly problematic. They have suggested that the Egyptians saw themselves as “white” in some biocultural or political sense akin to some contemporary Europeans and Americans,  and were ashamed that they had been “conquered” by “black Africans”—a term which no Egyptian or Kushite would know or have used, and which was invented by European colonialists. (And it does not matter who uses it, or that its use has persisted, even sometimes being used by those who know better.) They have psychologized the ancient Egyptian attitude as seeing all Nubians (and by extension all dark-skinned folk, including some Egyptian individuals and communities) as obligatorily separate from themselves—like certain elements in western societies today.  It cannot be shown that there was a term in Egyptian that could be judged commensurate with that phrase literally or in concept.  It cannot be shown, according to reputable Egyptologists, that the Egyptians described human variation in terms of color terminology. Various wall paintings that depict various peoples and color ranges in Egyptians—when these are reliable–are doing just that and should not be alleged to be presenting an Egyptian visual textbook on “race” in anticipation of being discovered by later people. The authors have imposed onto the Egyptians what is clearly a “White” Western mindset replete with a particular racialist background. They have projected a “white” mentality back into a world that had no background for the sociocultural notion of race propounded by Westerners, and did not have in their science something commensurate with the Western science that produced “races” and racialism.

History will not justify their statements, nor will the attitudes of modern Egyptians towards Nubians or Sudanese to the degree that these are negative—presentism in this context would be so ahistorical. What would the authors state as evidence for their claim of Egyptian shame?  The authors might point to the “damnatio memoria”—the erasure of the 25th Dynasty or some of it being remembered via the chiseling out of names. However, the Egyptians did this to Akhenaton, other Amarna elites and Hatshepsut—who were not Kushites. The historical specifics of this are likely relatable to a certain 26th delta based king who felt bereaved against the Kushites because of how they had treated his father.  Perhaps it was about legitimacy—erase the memory of the previous kings. It would be inappropriate to commit the logical error of affirming the consequent and generalize to all Egyptians.  It would be illogical to suggest that the Egyptians as a nation and culture had this attitude towards all dark-skinned Egyptians and Nubians/Kushites, or had it built into their culture and laws such that they would be ashamed.  The authors might also claim that the Kushites were resented due to their ascendancy in Thebes—an ascendancy that some might want to read as naked brutal conquest, for which there is no evidence. The Thebans allied themselves with the Kushites.  Piankhi’s campaign of 727 BC was the put down of rebellion in the delta region some 20 years or so after his coronation as King of Upper and Lower Egypt—which clearly had Egyptian support. Is there evidence that the Kushites had no core Egyptian support because of their average darker colour? Is there evidence of guerilla warfare against the Kushite dynasty by mass numbers of Egyptians or the elites in general? Is there any evidence that the Kushites were viewed as appropriating Egyptian culture with which it shared some deep roots at some level?

The imposition of certain western identities as reified with notions of whiteness with correlated assumptions onto the ancient Egyptians can be seen in various interpretations of how the Egyptians behaved towards Nubians and others. One example is that the Egyptians colonists in Nubia withdrew from border regions after the Kushites gained ascendancy at the end of the New Kingdom.  Archaeology and history clearly would seem to be best interpreted as indicating that the colony separated from Egypt and wanted to be affiliated with Kush.  There was an entanglement of cultures and peoples, even as there had been in the earliest days of Egyptian origins in what David Wengrow calls the “primary pastoral community” an endogenous phenomenon that includes the Badarian predynastic culture, whose identity is rooted in an African agency, synthesis and emergence irrespective of the ultimate source of some its elements.  Later developments at Hierakonpolis, Naqada and Abydos emerged from this source, as did likely the language that would be the basis of dynastic Egyptian if Satzinger is correct.

Of course none of this to say that the Egyptians never had conflicts with or attitudes about some fellow Nilotic and other neighbors—especially those deemed to be rivals, but what was its cause?  Was it “racial” in all that this means in the social history of the US and the West? Was it constructed around a notion of color? Does a careful reading of various sources perhaps suggest that there were various groups of more southern Nilotics and Saharans some of whom had better relations with Egyptians.

An opportunity was lost with this particular National Geographic project, an opportunity to examine the 25th Dynasty from different levels of analysis, to see Egyptian history from different perspectives, and to examine ideas about how current notions of identity mixed up with ancestry and physical traits in the context of racism should not be imposed upon the past. There are so many more interesting things about the 25th Dynasty and the Nilotic world that could have been used to anchor the PBS offering than the title “Black Pharaohs”… From the perspective of micro-history they could have attempted to contrast a perspective of the world through the eyes of not only the 25th, but other dynasties that were foreign.  For example how many of the other dynasties took on the role of revivalists to any serious degree (as did the 25th)?

In their defense maybe the authors thought they needed to say “Black Pharaohs” in order to get an audience, and maybe PBS just went along—even if this were so they could have used the piece to argue against their own title—assuming that what they seemingly conveyed is just an error.

Dr Shomarka Keita

The royal cobra in Kemet

The meaning of the royal cobra

More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.

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The cobra and vulture on the brow of the king

On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.

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Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.

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King’s Wife and King’s Mother Iset

The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.

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Fragment of a statue of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra

Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.

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Detail of a statuette of Tiye. Louvre, Paris.

Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.

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Representation of royal wife Tiye

Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.

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Nefertiti

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.

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Representation of the royal wife Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Royal Women of Dynasty 25

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Relief from the Chapel of Amenirdis, Medinat Habu

As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.

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Statue of Amenirdis

Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret

For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.

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Statues representing the Kushite kings, Kerma Museum Sudan

The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.

 

Jebel Barkal: The sacred mountain of Kush

Jebel Barkal

Jebel Barkal means sacred mountain in Arabic. The fact that this large natural feature, which lies around 200 miles north of Khartoum, has been recognised for thousands of years is testimony to its power. Priests who accompanied the Kemite King Thutmose (I) Aakheperkare and his army, who entered Kush in 1504-03 BCE, identified the feature as “Pure Mountain” and “Thrones of the Two Lands”. These titles were a reference to the god Amun; the priests believed that this was the place where he lived.

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Jebel Barkal

The ancient people were very responsive to their natural landscape. A temple, which was cut out of the mountain’s rock, offers a clue as to what prompted the priests to come to their conclusions. The ancient people saw the profile of a uraeus or cobra when they viewed the rock (above) and this was depicted on a relief representation inside temple B 300 (below). Here the cobra wears a sun-disk on its head.

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A depiction of the mountain inside a chapel at the site

To the right of the depiction of the mountain King Taharqo who also ruled Kemet (690-664 BCE) makes an offering to the gods Amun and Mut. The divine pair are represented in front of the the sacred mountain. You can just about make out the crown of Amun on the photograph above. The reliefs are badly damaged. Taharqo, who was also accompanied by his consort, can be seen below.

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Nefertemkhura Taharqo making an offering to an image of the sacred mountain

A sacred complex

The earliest sacred archaeological remains at the site date to the reign of the Kemite King Thutmose Menkheperre (usually referred to as Thutmose III) who ruled Kemet from 1479-1425 BCE. This king laid the foundations for the temple to Amun, which was later completed by Ramesses Usermaatre-setpenre, better known to us as Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). The early temple, which was constructed out of mud brick has been replaced by a succession of later buildings. The majority of those standing today date to the reigns of the Kushite rulers who formed Kemet’s Dynasty 25 (around 746-664 BCE).

Temples were positioned in front of the sacred mountain. Today, only scant remains can be found. The photo below shows the dromos (processional walkway) flagged on either side with statues of the god Amun in the form of a ram. The sandstone bricks on either side once formed part of the pylon (gateway).

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Remains of the temple of Amun at Napata, now known as Jebel Barkal

Home of Amun

The reason that the Kemites were so interested in this site was because they believed that it was the dwelling place of Amun, a god who originated in Kush but who had one of the most powerful priesthoods in Kemet, and indeed one of the largest temple complexes at the site now known as Karnak (below).

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The sacred Lake at Karnak temple complex

Both complexes had temples and shrines dedicated to other deities. At Jebel Barkal these included Hathor (below) and the Cobra goddess.

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Hathor columns from temple B300 at Jebel Barkal, dating to the 7th century BCE

Continuity of a sacred space

When the Pure Mountain became known as the Sacred Mountain with the advent of Islam, the space retained its religious importance. Since the nineteenth century CE there has been a the tomb of a Sheikh and a Muslim cemetery at the site.

However, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, the site is evidence of the cultural connections between Kemet and Kush. Politically the two cultures were divided in ancient times. However, it is clear that the priests who accompanied Thutmose I recognised the site as one of the most important to their cult: the dwelling place of Amun.

The natural landscape also consistently played an important role in Kemite and Kushite religious practice, and this is common in other traditional African religions.

Celebrating Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

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A satellite image showing some of the islands in the River Nile that are home to Nubian people

There are a number of traditional Nubian villages in and around Aswan, on both the islands and the banks of the River Nile (see above). These settlements and communities have been one of the few cultural sites in Egypt that have openly recognised the region’s connection to indigenous African cultures. In order to preserve the peace and tranquility of these long-standing communities, the Elders and the then Director of the Nubia Museum in Aswan decided to designate a site as the official heritage village for tourists.

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One of the Nubian houses in the heritage village at Aswan

Celebrating Nubian culture

 

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The Rabe family home

The traditional houses are decorated in bright colours and with items that are relevant to traditional Nubian culture. On one example that was built by the Rabe family (above), even the water pots are painted to match the exterior of the houses.

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Inside the Rabe family home

Inside, traditional Nubian basketry decorates the walls, accompanied by symbols of foliage, fish and representations of the River Nile. Such symbols have been used as decorative and protective motifs in this regions for thousands of years. In ancient Kemet fish were often depicted in tomb scenes where the deceased hunted for food. Depictions of plants associated with river Nile often appear on Kemite temples as offerings (below) or as a reference to the annual inundation (flood) and the fertility of the Black Land.

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A detail from the Temple of Sobek showing Cleopatra II or III presenting offerings

Continuing traditions?

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The Kemite god- Sobek

The Kemite god Sobek was represented as a crocodile (see above). In his interview Dr Abdel Meguid talked about working at the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo and the importance of this experience in him becoming an archaeologist and museum professional.

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Crocodiles decorating the walls of the Rabe home

Many traditional Nubian homes are decorated with crocodiles (see above) and in the case of the Rabe family home, there was even a live crocodile in a cage in the main room! Although this is largely done for the benefit of tourism, the representation of this animal is nonetheless a tradition that goes back thousands of years. When Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited Kemet he talked about being confused that the Egyptians, as he called them, on the one hand worshipped crocodiles but on the other they ate them.

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Baskets decorate the outside of a traditional Nubian house

Basketry is also a traditional craft in this region and indeed in many other parts of Africa. Nubian baskets are made from locally sourced materials, such as reeds from the river Nile and are effectively no different to examples that are 3000 years old. Baskets are used to cover food, serve food and also store food. On the photograph below you see traditional spiced Nubian coffee being made on an open fire. A flat basket was used to grind the coffee and cardamon pods before placing them into a small container with water to boil.

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Making traditional Nubian coffee

Museums and communities working together

In 2011 I interviewed the then Director of the Nubia Museum, Dr Ossama Abdel Meguid. He shared his own experiences, as a person of Nubian heritage, of interacting with the Kemite past. Dr Abdel Meguid has worked tirelessly to preserve Nubian heritage and to connect it to the past. I have certainly learned an enormous amount from him, both in terms of understanding Nubian culture and how we should present indigenous cultures in museums. In the interview he talks about the importance of consulting with Nubian communities directly about how they wanted their heritage to be presented. He also explains how the Nubian people have lived in this region for the past 10,000 years and how Kemite culture came from the south. He also talks about the negative impact of the Aswan Dams on Nubian culture and heritage. In fact it was a conversation with Dr Abdel Meguid that inspired an earlier post.

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An example of a traditionally decorated Nubian House

I asked Dr Abdel Meguid why the tradition of decorating Nubian houses (above) appeared to be dying out, and he explained that since being moved after the building of the Dams, many people feel disconnected from their heritage and their past. This observation makes projects such as the Nubian Heritage Village even more relevant. Such initiatives help to preserve the past, and present, for the future.

 

 

Nubia versus Kush: which term is best?

Nubia and Kush

A few years ago I ran a small survey. I asked a group of adult students, who were culturally diverse, what the term Nubian meant to them. Out of a group of 40 people, only those with a connection to African, Black British or Caribbean heritage had heard of the term and these were their responses:

Black; a place in Africa; old Africans; a forgotten African culture; ancient word for Black people in general; oldest African culture; just a country; part of African people; a Black woman; ancient term for a Black race in Africa; a group of people that Black people evolved from; just a country.

Egyptologists use the term Nubian when referring to the Kingdom of Kush, which is south of Kemet/Ancient Egypt (see detail from the tomb of Sokehotep below). However, they also use the adjective Nubian to describe any representation that has the appearance of an indigenous African person. In doing so, they distinguish between the ancient Nubian people from Kemites (ancient Egyptians).

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Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

Since, as I have also previously noted, the majority of Egyptologists in European and North American institutions do not have a direct connection to Africa, I wanted to find out how contemporary Nubian people defined themselves, and if this was an appropriate term to use for the ancient people from this region. So, in 2011 I spent time recording the responses of Nubian colleagues, Elders and community members in both Egypt and Sudan. Many of the conversations were recorded and can be found on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

Nubia as a geographical region

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Map showing the aproximate region of Nubia (in red)

The territory of Nubia runs from the first cataract of the river Nile in Aswan to the sixth cataract of the river, which is north of the city of Khartoum in Sudan. However, when the second Aswan dam was completed in 1970 Nubian people were forced to move further north in Egypt to the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, both of which are on the river Nile. Many Nubian people were also displaced even further away, to the desert in the east, in a town named Nasr al Nuba.

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The new town of Nasr al Nuba in Egypt

The building of the dam destroyed communities and archaeology alike. And although major monuments were moved to new locations away from the flooded land, the communities of Nubian people had to leave their traditional homes and were displaced. Not everyone who lives in this region is Nubian. In fact Nubian people form a minority group, who have had to fight to maintain their cultural identity.

Nubian people

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A Nubian family at their traditional house in Darrow, Egypt.

Nubian can also refer to a group of peoples who form a distinct cultural group who originate from this region. Today, the majority of Nubian people are Muslim, however, many of their traditions from the time before they adopted this religion remain. One such tradition amongst some Nubian people is to take a child to the river Nile when it is born. This is because the river has always been important within Nubian traditions.

Many of the people who I interviewed in Egypt made reference to the fact that Nubian people today are “mixed”. That their ancestors married other Islamic people who came to this region; religion being a common link between two groups that were originally culturally diverse. Perhaps because of this Nubian people have a range of different appearances, as can be seen from some of the photographs that were taken as part of the research project I mentioned. These can be viewed on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

In North America the term Nubian can be used to refer to African American or African people.

Nubian as a language

Nubian is also a language that has at least three distinct dialects. However, as the Elders die so are some of these dialects. Preserving the Nubian language was such a concern that the Nubia Museum in Aswan began a programme of teaching it to young people, in order to preserve it. For the majority of Nubian people, their first language is now Arabic. Young people naturally feel that it is more useful to learn a European language in order to be better placed to find employment. Thus, Nubian, like many African languages, is literally dying out. When I spoke to Elders of Nubian communities in both Egypt and Sudan in 2011, the majority said they simply don’t use Nubian on a daily basis.

Nubian as an ancient culture?

Should we then be using Nubian when describing ancient people from this region? Or is the ancient term Kush or Kushite preferable?

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Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

The adjective Kushite is generally used to describe rulers of Dynasty 25. These rulers originated from Kush and ruled their own country alongside Kemet. This dual rule was referenced on their statuary by the two cobras that they wore on their brows; most kings of Kemet only wore one cobra. The cobra symbolised protection for royalty and also gods. The phenomenon can be seen on the statue of King Taharqa above.

I would use the term Nubia in regard to the region, in the same way that I might use Egypt or Sudan. However, as with Egypt I feel it is important to make a distinction between the ancient peoples and those who live in this region today. The cultures, religions, languages, and also a large percentage of the population has changed considerably since ancient times.

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to the question that I posed at the start of this post. For now, I feel happiest using the terms Kemet and Kush, but I would be interested to hear other people’s views on how they feel the term Nubian should be used.

The mystery of the Nubian pyramids

Nubian pyramids and the natural landscape

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Nubian landscape

By Nubian pyramids, I mean pyramids in the region of Nubia (today this is southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Because historically this area was home to a culture that was older than Kemet, people often assume that there are a greater number of older pyramids. This isn’t true of man-made structures. The earliest pyramids to survive date to 8th century BCE, whereas those in Kemet are much older. The pyramids at the site of Giza are traditionally dated to around 2560 BCE.

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Example of a natural rock formation in southern Egypt

There are, however, thousands of examples of natural rock formations in the Nubian Desert that have the appearance of pyramids. These mounds were formed by water that once flowed through the now desert. They would have been present when people from Kush moved north to settle in Kemet.  Their size and number is striking as you drive through this region.

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Example of the rock formations in the Nubian Desert

The landscape was extremely important to both Kemite and Kushite cultures and played an integral part in how the ancient people explained their existence, and also many of the divine stories that related to their religion. Today, in archaeology, we call this the phenomenology of landscapes, or how people experienced and interacted with their environment. These natural rock creations are striking even to a contemporary visitor to this region. I would suggest that they would have been equally so to someone from the ancient world. I also wonder, but have no direct evidence, if these shapes didn’t somehow inspire the development of the form of the pyramid.

Pyramids at Nuri

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Pyramids at the royal cemetery of Nuri, northern Sudan

The pyramids at the cemetery of Nuri include that of King Taharqa (690-664 BCE), one of the kings who ruled Kush and Kemet, as part of Dynasty 25. These pyramids were constructed from sandstone blocks, which are extremely vulnerable to the elements.

Pyramids at Meroe

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The cemetery of Meroe

There were 3 cemetery areas at Meroe, or Begarawiyah, in northern Sudan. These are divided into South, North and West and contain over 300 pyramid structures.

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The pyramids at Meroe, Sudan

The pyramids at Meroe range from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Many of these structures were damaged in 1834 by an Italian treasure hunter, who was searching for gold. Archaeologists are still trying to reconstruct and restore them today.

 

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Pyramid at Meroe, showing the tomb chapel at the entrance

The construction of these smaller pyramids included a small tomb chapel at the front. This created a small chamber in which to leave offerings for the deceased (see left).

Pyramids at Gebel Barkal

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Gebel Barkal (Sacred Rock) and temple
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The royal pyramids of Gebel Barkal, Sudan

The pyramids at Gebel Barkal housed the burials of rulers of the Meroitic Kingdom and date between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century BCE. They were close to the sacred rock of Gebel Barkal (above), which again was an important part of the ancient landscape and is an example of a natural phenomenon being recognised and used as a sacred space. As with the other pyramids, these are constructed from sandstone.

Appropriation for a British monument

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A British war memorial in Northern Sudan inspired by the form of a pyramid

Finally, the form of a pyramid, like many Kushite and Kemetic structures has inspired designers of monuments from European cultures. This small memorial (above) commemorates fallen British forces, and is in the form of a small pyramidal structure. The inscription is damaged but reads:

To the memory of British officers and… who died… Anglo…