Nubia is a land which, in ancient and medieval times, formed a distinct entity and had a distinct history. It lay just south of Egypt, in an area which today is mostly in northern Sudan (but with its northern portion lying in modern Egypt).
This article offers a brief overview of the history of ancient and medieval Nubia. A more detailed survey is given elsewhere of the ancient kingdom of Kush, which dominated the history of ancient Nubia.
The land of Nubia
Nubia’s geography, like Egypt’s, was defined by the river Nile.
As the modern Sahara desert formed, between the 11th and 4th millennia BCE, the climate of northern Africa became drier and drier. When farming came to the African continent from the Middle East, in the 6th millennium BCE, it naturally became concentrated in the floodplain of the northern river Nile. Here, irrigation-based agriculture came to support a large population, which in due course gave rise to the great civilization of Ancient Egypt.
Desert and cataracts
This civilization was hemmed in by desert and, to its south, by cataracts (lengths of the river Nile which are shallow and rocky, forming a series of whitewater rapids). It is impossible to sail normal boats over these, so in ancient times travel and trade along the Nile south of Egypt was severely hampered.
Also, most of the cataracts passed through steep gorges. These were easy to defend, and it was only when the Egyptians could muster strong armies – that is, when Egypt itself was unite and powerful – that they were able to push their forces south.
Thus, although the influence of ancient Egyptian civilization was one of the defining features if ancient Nubian civilization, as we shall see, the cataracts posed major barriers to the southward expansion of Egypt. This fact allowed a distinct civilization to emerge in the land of Nubia.
A land of two parts
The border between Ancient Nubia and Egypt was marked by the northernmost of six cataracts (confusingly, this is traditionally called the First Cataract, as the ancient Egyptians numbered these cataracts from north to south).
The land of Nubia is divided into two distinct parts. The northern section, Lower Nubia, stretches southward from the First to the Third Cataracts. It is basically an extension of Egypt, in that it is formed of a long, irrigated ribbon of fertile farmland lying in the fertile floodplain of the Nile. To east and west of this ribbon is dry desert.
Today, much of Lower Nubia lies under the waters of the Aswan Dam.
South of the Third Cataract is Upper Nubia. This is located in the tropical zone of central Africa. Here, summer rains make agriculture possible over a wide area. On the other hand, the land is not nearly as productive as the irrigated river floodplain. As a result, the population is far more dispersed, and cattle-rearing is an important part of the economy.
The influence of Ancient Egypt
In ancient times, Egypt exerted a huge influence on the inhabitants Nubia. This was naturally felt most in Lower Nubia, which lies immediately adjacent to Egypt.
Trade contacts were important from an early time, with Nubia exporting such commodities as black slaves, gold, ivory, ostrich feathers and ebony. These products were much in demand in Egypt, as its rulers used them as a key part of their diplomacy. Gift-giving between rulers was a major element in the international politics, and these exotic products were highly valued throughout the ancient world.
Such was the importance of Nubia as a source of high value goods that, whenever Egypt could, it tried to gain more control over this exchange system by conquering down into Nubia.
This determined a pattern which lasted for some two thousand years in ancient times: when Egypt was unified and strong, Nubia was weak and occupied (in whole or in part). When Egypt was weak and divided, Nubia was independent and comparatively strong.
The ancient kingdoms of Kush
Egyptians called these Nubian kingdoms “Kush”. The First Kingdom of Kush lasted from about 2000 BCE to 1500 BCE. A 500-year occupation separated it from the second kingdom of Kush, which lasted from about 1000 BCE to 300 CE.
Close contact with, and periodic occupation by, its more advanced neighbor to the north turned Nubia into almost a cultural satellite of Egypt. This must have been intensified when, between c. 730 BCE and c. 670 BCE the Kushite kings conquered Egypt and reigned there as the 25th dynasty.
In the early sixth century BCE, however, the Kushite kingdom shifted its base far to the south, at Meroë, in Lower Nubia. This political development led to far-reaching cultural developments as well. Far from influences radiating down from the Middle East and Mediterranean, the Kushite kingdom gradually became more and more “African” in its politics, economy, society, religion and culture – it became, in short, the first truly African kingdom.
Meroë also became the center of a thriving iron-smelting industry, which may have been key to the spread of iron technology down into Sub-Saharan Africa.
The kingdom of Kush disappeared shortly after 300 CE. When an army from the kingdom of Axum, well to the south in present-day Ethiopia, invaded Meroë, the capital had been abandoned and the material culture of Nubia seems to have reverted to a simpler, pre-urban level.
The historical records do not allow modern scholars to reconstruct how this had come about, but it seems to have been associated with the infiltration – or outright invasion – of new groups into the Nile valley from the desert. They spoke what are today classified as Nubian languages, distinct from the old Kushite language. These languages came to predominate, giving the region its name.
Trade with the north resumed in the fourth century, and with it urban civilization. So too did organized states. In the place of the now-defunct kingdom of Kush, three kingdoms had emerged in the region, probably by c. 400 CE. In the north (Lower Nubia), Nobatia had its capital at Faras. In northern Lower Nubia was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola. And in southern Upper Nubia was the kingdom of Alwa, with its capital at Soba.
Christianity comes to Nubia
By this time, Christianity was beginning to enter the region. At the end of the fifth century CE, most people in Egypt belonged to the Coptic branch of the Christian church. This was slightly different from, and therefore frowned upon by, the “Orthodox” branch of the church favored by the emperors in Constantinople.
In the mid-sixth century both churches sent missionaries to convert the Nubian kingdoms, with the result that Nobatia officially joined the Coptic church in 543, Makuria joined the Orthodox church at about the same time, and Alodia became Coptic in 580. Contemporary Christian writers refer to the Nubians receiving their new faith “with joy”, and archaeology shows many churches springing up in the towns and villages of these kingdoms, especially Nobatia, and the rapid adoption of Christian burial. On the other hand, some pagan temples seem to have survived for another two hundred years or so.
Sometime in the late sixth century or early seventh century, Makuria annexed Nobatia, leaving just two kingdoms in Nubia.
The Nubians keep out Muslim forces – for now
In 640, Arab armies invaded Egypt, bringing with them their new religion, Islam. By 642 they had effectively occupied the entire country. They then launched a couple of attempts to extend their power further south, but met with such fierce opposition from the forces of Makuria that they were unsuccessful in this. In 652 the rulers of Islamic Egypt and Christian Makuria negotiated a commercial treaty between them, and peaceful relations then prevailed for several centuries. As in ancient times, slaves were Nubia’s the primary export.
The Christian kingdoms of Nubia, isolated as they were from the main centers of Christianity, nevertheless retained their faith until their destruction, several centuries later. The language of church liturgy was initially Greek, with prayers and scriptures only slowly being translated into Nubian, using a Coptic form of the Greek alphabet.
Prosperity in Medieval Nubia
Archaeology has provides evidence for a high degree of prosperity within Christian Nubia. The towns, especially Faras and Old Dongola, boasted numerous churches, monasteries and mansions, all built of stone and wood. The urban elite used fine painted pottery, locally made and showing signs of artistic traditions going back to Meroitic times. Later Arab historians describe Christian Nubia as thickly covered with villages. There were also several towns,. describe a thriving land filled with farming villages.
The Arab rulers of Egypt developed a healthy respect for Nubian armies. These were based on horse cavalry using the first bridles, bits and spurs employed in Africa. Bows and arrows were their main weapons.
All these are testament to a Christian civilization that endured for centuries after the seventh century conquest of Egypt by the armies of Islam.
Islam penetrates Christian Nubia
Over time, however, Islam spread southwards through Nubia. For hundreds of years this was mostly brought by Muslim traders and others such as gold miners and craftworkers in precious stones. Islamic communities began to take root in Christian Nubia, and over time gradually grew in size and influence.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it seems that peaceful co-existence between the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Christian rulers of Nubia began to break down. This development may well have been connected to the hostilities between medieval Christendom and the world of Islam engendered by the Crusades. These began in the late eleventh century, and took the form of a series of major military expeditions, embarked on by the Christian princes of Europe, to take Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine from Islamic rule.
Thus threatened, it would have been unsurprising if the Arabs – and the Egyptians in particular, viewed the Nubian Christians as a now-dangerous enemy. Whatever the cause, hostilities between Egypt and Makuria arose in the twelfth century.
The End of Christian Nubia
In this context, internal Egyptian politics played a hand. The rulers of Egypt had for long had a problem with unruly nomadic Arab tribes, who from time to time posed a grave threat to their country’s stability. One solution was to drive them out into neighboring lands. This policy had already been tried in the eleventh century when the Fatimid regime in Egypt had pushed Arab tribesmen westward, into present-day Libya, Tunisia and Algeria (all Muslim states). This had solved the Fatimid’s problem but had led to disaster for the states of western North Africa.
Turbulent Muslim Nomads
Now the Egyptian rulers did the same thing by ejecting rebellious Arab tribes into Christian Nubia. These turbulent nomads wrecked the stability of, first Makuria, and then Alodia. Nubian society fell into increasing anarchy. This made it easy for a Muslim leader to seize the throne of Makuria in c. 1317, and begin imposing Islam on the Christian population there.
The cathedral in Old Dongola was immediately converted into a mosque, but the Islamization of the population too much longer. The scanty records from fourteenth and fifteenth century Nubia indicate that Christians were from time to time successful in seizing power from Muslim rulers, and a rump Christian state endured in Lower Nubia until the late fifteenth century.
In the sixteenth century Upper Nubia was conquered by the Ottoman empire.
The Arab nomad tribes moved ever south and west, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they took over Lower Nubia., destroying the Christian kingdom of Alodia.
The Funj sultanate
This paved the way for a non-Arab group, a people called the Funj, to occupy Lower Nubia (c,. 1504). These were cattle pastoralists who had originated in the grasslands between the upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands. Originally pagan, on taking over Lower Nubia they seem immediately to have converted to Islam, and established a Muslim state called the Funj sultanate.
During the 16th century the Funj expanded their power northward, until it established a border with the Ottoman empire; and southward, into the region of the Blue Nile. There they established a capital at Sennar, south of modern Khartoum.
The Funj sultanate would last until the nineteenth century, when the modern world of European imperialism overtook it.