Nubians (/ -/,) are an ethnolinguistic group of Africans indigenous to present-day Sudan and southern Egypt who originate from the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley, believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilization. They speak Nubian languages, part of the Northern Eastern Sudanic languages.
|1.7 million speakers of Nubian languages (SIL estimate as of 1996)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Nubian (Nobiin, Kenzi, Dongolawi, Midob, Hill Nubian),|
Arabic (Sudanese Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Sa'idi Arabic)
|Predominantly Islam (Sunni, Sufi)|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Sudanese Arabs, Nara, Kunama, Nilotic peoples, Cushitic peoples|
Early Neolithic settlements from prehistoric Egypt have been found in the central Nubian region dating back to 7000 BC, with Wadi Halfa believed to be the oldest settlement in the central Nile valley. Parts of Nubia, such as Ta-Seti (the first nome or administrative region of ancient Egypt), were continuously a part of ancient Egypt throughout the dynastic era. Other parts of Nubia, particularly Lower or Upper Nubia, were at times a part of ancient Pharaonic Egypt and at other times a rival state representing parts of Meroë or the Kingdom of Kush. However, by the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, all of Nubia was united with Egypt, extending down to what is now Khartoum.
Towards the end of the dynastic era, Upper Nubia broke off from Egypt proper. During that time, the Nubians founded a dynasty that ruled Upper and Lower Egypt in the eighth century BC. As warriors, the ancient Nubians were famous for their skill and precision with the bow and arrow.
Today, Africans of Nubian descent primarily live in southern Egypt, especially in the Luxor and Aswan area, and in northern Sudan, particularly in the region between the city of Wadi Halfa on the Egyptian-Sudanese border and al Dabbah. Additionally, several groups known as the Hill Nubians live in the northern Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state, Sudan. The main Nubian groups from north to south are the Kenzi, Faadicha (Halfawi), Sukkot, Ja'alin, Shaigiya, Mahas and Danagla.
Throughout history various parts of Nubia were known by different names, including Ancient Egyptian: tꜣ stj "Land of the Bow", tꜣ nḥsj, jꜣm "Kerma", jrṯt, sṯjw, wꜣwꜣt, Meroitic: akin(e) «Lower "Nubia"» and qes(a), qos(a) "Kush", and Greek Aethiopia. The origin of the names Nubia and Nubian are contested. What is more certain is that they ultimately denote geographical provenance rather than ethnic origin. Based on cultural traits, many scholars believe Nubia is derived from the Ancient Egyptian: nbw "gold". The Roman Empire used the term "Nubia" to describe the area of Upper Egypt and northern Sudan. Another etymology traces the toponym to a distinct group of people, the Noubai, who in more recent times inhabited the area that would become known as Nubia. The derivation of the term "Nubian" has also been associated with the Greek historian Strabo, who referred to the Nubas people.
The prehistory of Nubia dates to the Paleolithic around 300,000 years ago. By about 6000 BC, peoples in the region had developed an agricultural economy. They began using a system of writing relatively late in their history, when they adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphic system. Ancient history in Nubia is categorized according to the following periods: A-Group culture (3700–2800 BC), C-Group culture (2300–1600), Kerma culture (2500–1500), Nubian contemporaries of the New Kingdom (1550–1069), the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (1000–653), Napata (1000–275), Meroë (275 BC–300/350 AD), Makuria (340–1317), Nobatia (350–650), and Alodia (600s–1504).
The linguistic affinities of early Nubian cultures are uncertain. Some research has suggested that the early inhabitants of the Nubia region, during the C-Group and Kerma cultures were speakers of languages belonging to the Berber and Cushitic branches respectively, of the Afroasiatic family. More recent research instead suggests that the people of the Kerma culture spoke Nilo-Saharan languages of the Eastern Sudanic branch, and that the peoples of the C-Group culture to their north spoke Cushitic languages. They were succeeded by the first Nubian language speakers, whose tongues belonged to a separate branch of Eastern Sudanic languages within the Nilo-Saharan phylum. A 4th-century victory stela commemorative of Axumite king Ezana contains inscriptions describing two distinct population groups dwelling in ancient Nubia: a "red" population and a "black" population.
Although Egypt and Nubia have a shared pre-dynastic and pharaonic history, the two histories diverge with the fall of Ancient Egypt and the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. At this point, the area of land between the 1st and the 6th cataract of the Nile became known as Nubia.
Egypt was conquered first by the Persians and named the Satrapy (Province) of Mudriya, and two centuries later by the Greeks and then the Romans. During the latter period, however, the Kushites formed the kingdom of Meroë, which was ruled by a series of legendary Candaces or Queens. Mythically, the Candace of Meroë was able to intimidate Alexander the Great into retreat with a great army of elephants, while historical documents suggest that the Nubians defeated the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, resulting in a favorable peace treaty for Meroë. The kingdom of Meroë also defeated the Persians, and later Christian Nubia defeated the invading Arab armies on three different occasions resulting in the 600 year peace treaty of Baqt, the longest lasting treaty in history. The fall of the kingdom of Christian Nubia occurred in the early 1500s resulting in full Islamization and reunification with Egypt under the Ottoman Empire, the Muhammad Ali dynasty, and British colonial rule. After the 1956 independence of Sudan from Egypt, Nubia and the Nubian people became divided between Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.
Modern Nubians speak Nubian languages, Eastern Sudanic languages that is part of the Nilo-Saharan family. The Old Nubian language is attested from the 8th century, and is the oldest recorded language of Africa outside of the Afroasiatic family. It was the language of the Noba nomads who occupied the Nile between the First and Third Cataracts and also of the Makorae nomads who occupied the land between the Third and Fourth Cataracts, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush sometime in the fourth century. The Makorae were a separate tribe who eventually conquered or inherited the lands of the Noba: they established a Byzantine-influenced state called the Makuria, which administered the Noba lands separately as the eparchy of Nobatia. Nobadia was converted to Miaphysitism by the Orthodox priest Julian and Longinus of Constantinople, and thereafter received its bishops from the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
Nubia consisted of four regions with varied agriculture and landscapes. The Nile river and its valley were found in the north and central parts of Nubia, allowing farming using irrigation. The western Sudan had a mixture of peasant agriculture and nomadism. Eastern Sudan had primarily nomadism, with a few areas of irrigation and agriculture. Finally, there was the fertile pastoral region of the south, where Nubia's larger agricultural communities were located.
Nubia was dominated by kings from clans that controlled the gold mines. Trade in exotic goods from other parts of Africa (ivory, animal skins) passed to Egypt through Nubia.
Modern Nubians speak Nubian languages. They belong to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan phylum. But there is some uncertainty regarding the classification of the languages spoken in Nubia in antiquity. There is some evidence that that Cushitic languages were spoken in parts of Lower (northern) Nubia, an ancient region which straddles present day Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, and that Eastern Sudanic languages were spoken in Upper and Central Nubia, before the spread of Eastern Sudanic languages even further north into Lower Nubia.
Peter Behrens (1981) and Marianne Bechaus-Gerst (2000) suggest that the ancient peoples of the C-Group and Kerma civilizations spoke Afroasiatic languages of the Berber and Cushitic branches, respectively. They propose that the Nilo-Saharan Nobiin language today contains a number of key pastoralism related loanwords that are of Berber or proto-Highland East Cushitic origin, including the terms for sheep/goatskin, hen/cock, livestock enclosure, butter and milk. This in turn, is interpreted to suggest that the C-Group and Kerma populations, who inhabited the Nile Valley immediately before the arrival of the first Nubian speakers, spoke Afroasiatic languages.
Claude Rilly (2010, 2016) and Julien Cooper (2017) on the other hand, suggest that the Kerma peoples (of Upper Nubia) spoke Nilo-Saharan languages of the Eastern Sudanic branch, possibly ancestral to the later Meroitic language, which Rilly also suggests was Nilo-Saharan. Rilly also considers evidence of significant early Afro-Asiatic influence, especially Berber, on Nobiin to be weak (and where present, more likely due to borrowed loanwords than substrata), and considers evidence of substratal influence on Nobiin from an earlier now extinct Eastern Sudanic language to be stronger. Julien Cooper (2017) suggests that Nilo-Saharan languages of the Eastern Sudan branch were spoken by the people of Kerma, those further south along the Nile, to the west, and those of Saï (an island to the north of Kerma), but that Afro-Asiatic (most likely Cushitic) languages were spoken by other peoples in Lower Nubia (such as the Medjay and the C-Group culture) living in Nubian regions north of Saï toward Egypt and those southeast of the Nile in Punt in the Eastern dessert. Based partly on an analysis of the phonology of place names and personal names from the relevant regions preserved in ancient texts, he argues that the terms from "Kush" and "Irem" (ancient names for Kerma and the region south of it respectively) in Egyptian texts display traits typical of Eastern Sudanic languages, while those from further north (in Lower Nubia) and east are more typical of the Afro-Asiatic family, noting: "The Irem-list also provides a similar inventory to Kush, placing this firmly in an Eastern Sudanic zone. These Irem/Kush-lists are distinctive from the Wawat-, Medjay-, Punt-, and Wetenet-lists, which provide sounds typical to Afroasiatic languages."
It is also uncertain to which language family the ancient Meroitic language is related. Kirsty Rowan suggests that Meroitic, like the Egyptian language, belongs to the Afroasiatic family. She bases this on its sound inventory and phonotactics, which, she argues, are similar to those of the Afroasiatic languages and dissimilar from those of the Nilo-Saharan languages. Claude Rilly proposes, based on its syntax, morphology, and known vocabulary, that Meroitic, like the Nobiin language, belongs to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family.
The descendants of the ancient Nubians still inhabit the general area of what was ancient Nubia. They currently live in what is called Old Nubia, mainly located in modern Egypt. Nubians have been resettled in large numbers (an estimated 50,000 people) away from southern Egypt since the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was built on the Nile, flooding ancestral lands. Some resettled Nubians continue working as farmers (sharecroppers) on resettlement farms whose landowners live elsewhere; most work in Egypt's cities. Whereas Arabic was once only learned by Nubian men who travelled for work, it is increasingly being learned by Nubian women who have access to school, radio and television. Nubian women are working outside the home in increasing numbers.
In the 1973 Arab–Israeli War Egypt employed Nubian people as codetalkers.
Nubians in modern Sudan include the Danagla around Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract to Wadi Halfa, and the Sikurta around Aswan. These Nubians write using their own script. They also practice scarification: Mahas men and women have three scars on each cheek, while the Danaqla wear these scars on their temples. Younger generations appear to be abandoning this custom.
Nubia's ancient cultural development was influenced by its geography. It is sometimes divided into Upper Nubia and Lower Nubia. Upper Nubia was where the ancient Kingdom of Napata (the Kush) was located. Lower Nubia has been called "the corridor to Africa", where there was contact and cultural exchange between Nubians, Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, and Arabs. Lower Nubia was also where the Kingdom of Meroe flourished. The languages spoken by modern Nubians are based on ancient Sudanic dialects. From north to south, they are: Kenuz, Fadicha (Matoki), Sukkot, Mahas, Danagla.
Kerma, Nepata and Meroe were Nubia's largest population centres. The rich agricultural lands of Nubia supported these cities. Ancient Egyptian rulers sought control of Nubia's wealth, including gold, and the important trade routes within its territories. Nubia's trade links with Egypt led to Egypt's domination over Nubia during the New Kingdom period. The emergence of the Kingdom of Meroe in the 8th century BC led to Egypt being under the control of Nubian rulers for a century, although they preserved many Egyptian cultural traditions. Nubian kings were considered pious scholars and patrons of the arts, copying ancient Egyptian texts and even restoring some Egyptian cultural practices. After this, Egypt's influence declined greatly. Meroe became the centre of power for Nubia and cultural links with sub-Saharan Africa gained greater influence.
Today, Nubians practice Islam. To a certain degree, Nubian religious practices involve a syncretism of Islam and traditional folk beliefs. In ancient times, Nubians practiced a mixture of traditional religion and Egyptian religion. Prior to the spread of Islam, many Nubians practiced Christianity.
Beginning in the eight century, Islam arrived in Nubia but Christians and Muslims (being mainly Arab merchants at this period) lived peacefully together. Over time, the Nubians (Nubian elites being the first converts) gradually converted to Islam. By the sixteenth century, most of the Nubians were Muslim.
Ancient Nepata was an important religious centre in Nubia. It was the location of Gebel Barkal, a massive sandstone hill resembling a rearing cobra in the eyes of the ancient inhabitants. Egyptian priests declared it to be the home of the ancient deity Amun, further enhancing Nepata as an ancient religious site. This was the case for both Egyptians and Nubians. Egyptian and Nubian deities alike were worshipped in Nubia for 2,500 years, even while Nubia was under the control of the New Kingdom of Egypt. Nubian kings and queens were buried near Gebel Barkal, in pyramids as the Egyptian pharaohs were. Nubian pyramids were built at Gebel Barkal, at Nuri (across the Nile from Gebel Barkal), at El Kerru, and at Merroe, south of Gebel Barkal.
Modern Nubian architecture in Sudan is distinctive, and typically features a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. A large, ornately decorated gate, preferably facing the Nile, dominates the property. Brightly colored stucco is often decorated with symbols connected with the family inside, or popular motifs such as geometric patterns, palm trees, or the evil eye that wards away bad luck.
According to Y-DNA analysis by Hassan et al. (2008), around 44% of Nubians in Sudan carry the haplogroup J. The remainder mainly belong to the E1b1b clade (23%). Both paternal lineages are also common among local Afroasiatic-speaking populations. The next most frequent haplogroups borne by Nubians are the Western European-linked R1b clade (10%) and the Eurasian lineage F (10%), followed by the ancient African B haplogroup (8%) and the Europe-associated I clade (5%).
Maternally, Hassan (2009) observed that approximately 83% of their Nubian samples carried various subclades of the Africa-centered macrohaplogroup L. Of these mtDNA lineages, the most frequently borne clade was L3 (30.8%), followed by the L0a (20.6%), L2 (10.3%), L1 (6.9%), L4 (6.9%) and L5 (6.9%) haplogroups. The remaining 17% of Nubians belonged to sublineages of the Eurasian macrohaplogroups M (3.4% M/D, 3.4% M1) and N (3.4% N1a, 3.4% preHV1, 3.4% R/U6a1). Analysing a different group of Nubian individuals inhabiting Sudan, Non (2010) found a significantly higher frequency of around 48% of the Eurasian macrohaplogroups M and N. Of these mtDNA lineages, 16% of the examined Nubians belonged to the M clade (around 9% to M1), with the rest bearing N subhaplogroups (including approximately 8% R0, 3% T1a, and 1% H). The remaining 52% of Nubians carried various Africa-centered macrohaplogroup L(xM,N) derivatives, with about 11% of individuals belonging to the L2a1 subclade.
Dobon et al. (2015) identified an ancestral autosomal component of West Eurasian origin that is common to many modern Nubians and Afroasiatic-speaking populations in the Nile Valley and Horn of Africa, including Sudanese Arabs. Known as the Coptic component, it peaks among Egyptian Copts who settled in Sudan over the past two centuries. The scientists associate the Coptic component with Ancient Egyptian ancestry, without the later Arabian influence that is present among other Egyptians. Dobon et al. found that, modern Nubians are closer genetically to their Cushitic and Ethio-Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) neighbors (such as the Beja, Sudanese Arabs and Ethiopians) than to other Nilo-Saharan speakers. Also, according to the authors, "Nubians were influenced by Arabs as a direct result of the penetration of large numbers of Arabs into the Nile Valley over long periods of time following the arrival of Islam around 651 A.D."
In 2015, Sirak et al. also analysed the ancient DNA of a Christian-period inhabitant of Kulubnarti in northern Nubia near the Egyptian border. The scientists found that the medieval specimen was most closely related to Middle Eastern populations. Further excavations of two Early Christian period (AD 550-800) cemeteries at Kulubnarti, one located on the mainland and the other on an island, revealed the existence of two ancestrally and socioeconomically distinct local populations. Preliminary results, including mitochondrial haplogroup analysis, suggests there may be substantial differences in the genomic composition between the two Kulubnarti communities, with 70% of individuals from the island cemetery demonstrating African-based haplogroups (L2, L1, and L5), compared to only 36.4% of mainlanders, who instead show an increased prevalence of European and Near Eastern haplogroups (including K1, H, I5, and U1).
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- Fathi Hassan, Painter
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