I have heard so many different theories on what "Nubian" means, I don't even know where to apply this
explanation 1: It derives from a region called "Nubt" that included people living in both Egypt and other southern kingdoms. If anyone can explain and offer reference please do provide. This is the closest to a sensible explanation I've found.
explanation 2: It describes the Noba people and their descendants, or the invading Nobatae who are of unknown origin. But did such identities exist among the people living in kingdoms south of Egypt
explanation 3:Nubian is a language group. This language group is attributed to Old Nubian, which was (according to wiki, boo I know) again a language of Noba nomads. But again were these languages spoken by Kushites and other such groups?
This is confusing because you're left unable to sort who descends from say the Kushites, and where the histories of specific kingdoms went beyond a certain point. Are Egyptian Nubians for example the descendants of Ta Seti, Kush, etc or are they decendants of Noba nomads? Or both?
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All three are relevant, but at different points in time and in different areas of Sudan and Upper Egypt.
The point however is that there is no single monolithic historic entity called "Nubian" that goes back to 5000 years ago. That population does not exist and has never existed. It is purely a side effect of the European Egyptologists applying the term to ancient artifacts and cultures on certain parts of the Nile relative to ancient KMT. Later on this term in archaeology and anthropology became synonymous with "black" Africans populations along the Nile as a way of segregating them from ancient KMT. Since then that has become the pejorative use of the term relating to the ancient Nile.
Prior to that the word Nubian was used by populations in Upper Egypt and Lower Sudan. But this population only came to use that term long after ancient KMT ceased to exist. It is most likely that this usage of the term goes back to the Roman era when they first applied it to that region. The Roman usage of the term was tied to the ancient term to for gold from KMT which was "Nub". In KMT the world for gold was Nub and there were towns named after this precious substance such as the town of Nubt. There is no evidence that the people of KMT used this term to apply to other populations outside of their nation. And there is no evidence that any ancient culture along the Nile used such a name for themselves in the time period of 7,000 to 1000 BC.
The Nobatae and other populations such as the Nuba are relatively modern terms for populations in these parts of Sudan that came about in the last 2,000 years in parts of Central and Southern Sudan far from Egypt. In fact the ancient people of KMT did have contact with possible ancestors of the Nuba from thousands of years ago and you can see them in tomb art from the New Kingdom, but they were not called "Nubians" or "Nuba".
Here is a good page on it:
The Nuba are a group of peoples who share a common geography in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan Province, known as Jibal al-Nuba or Nuba Mountains. The origins of most Nuba peoples are obscure, but there is no doubt that they are Africans. They arrived to the area from various directions and in the course of thousands of years. Today there are over fifty Nuba tribes, who speak as many different languages. Traditionally the Nuba are farmers, but they are now employed in all segments of society. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, labour migrants have formed large Nuba communities in the large cities of North Sudan, like El Obeid, Khartoum and Port Sudan. Their combined number is estimated at 2.5 million people.
Until the Egyptian occupation of Sudan during the nineteenth century, most Nuba tribes lived relatively isolated. Contiguous events that shaped their history are the short but extremely violent rule of the Mahdi and his successor, and colonial rule by the British. Sudan took its independence in 1956 and since the 1960s the Nuba have been at odds with their successive National Governments. From 1987 to 2001, the Nuba Mountains were a battle zone in Sudan's larger civil war between the Government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
A cease fire in the Nuba Mountains eventually led to a comprehensive peace agreement reached in 2004. This CPA included the Nuba Mountains but proved inadequate to solve the differences between the parties. Just weeks before the secession of South Sudan, in 2011, fighting broke out in Kadugli, escalating into another long violent conflict that takes a heavy toll on the civilian population.
The following brief history aims to provide a broad perspective on the history of the Nuba. I have drawn from many different sources, and consulted scientists considered to be expert in their field for the more remote history. For the period of 1970 - 2005, I have relied largely on interviews with Nuba who were closely involved in the developments leading to the war in the Nuba Mountains and eventually the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2004. The most recent developments are mainly a summary of news articles and reports.
I. The name Nuba
For centuries, the geographical area where the Nuba tribes live has been known as Dar Nuba: the land of the Nuba. The Tegali Kingdom (a truly Nuba kingdom indeed) was known on its own accord, as were several individual hills, but to the Arab people living around the area, the people of the Mountains were all Nuba. The Europeans, relying on the Arabs for information, used the same name.
Until very recently the Nuba people themselves would rather use their tribal name and many didn’t really consider themselves to be Nuba. In the words of Yousif Kuwa Mekki:
It is one of the funniest things: when you were in the Nuba Mountains, you just knew your own tribe. We for example were Miri. So if we were asked: "Who are the Nuba?" we would try to say: "The other tribes - but not us." Only when we came out of the Nuba Mountains, to the north or south or west, we learned that we are all Nuba.1
Please note the word ‘try’ here: linguist and anthropologist A.C. Stevenson noticed that:
Some of the more educated are also shy of applying the term to themselves, they tend to reserve it for those they think of as rustic hill-dwellers: for them ‘Nuba’ is the reverse of a status symbol.2
An old theory supposes a relationship between the word ‘Nuba’ and the Archaic Egyption nbw [nebu], meaning ‘gold’. In ancient times the land south of Egypt produced a lot of gold and so the people were gold diggers; or the ‘land of gold’ would be called Nubia (which it wasn’t) and its people Nuba… Brief: lot’s of charming nonsense.3 And then there is A.J. Arkell’s expalantion:
The name of the Nuba apparently comes, like so many other tribal names in the Sudan (Berti, Berta, Burgu, etc-) from a word in their own language which means 'slaves'.4
Surely there is a connection: the Nuba were harassed by slave raiders for many centuries and to the Arabs ‘Nuba’ became nearly synonymous with ‘slave’. But since Arkell doesn’t mention in which of the many Nuba languages their name means ‘slave’, there is little we can say about his theory, except quoting anthropologist S.F. Nadel:
I will not attempt to trace the origin of this name or to speculate on its original meaning. Suffice to say that in none of the groups which I have studied is the term Nuba indigenous […]5
II. Kingdoms on the Nile
1. Nubia There are Nuba and there are Nubians and this is cause for great confusion. The Nuba are the different peoples living in the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan. The Nubians today are a people who live along the Nile at the border between Egypt and Sudan. Many of them were relocated when the Nasser Dam was built. The Nubians are considered to be descendants of the great Nubian Kingdoms of Kush; Meroe; Nobatia; Makuria (Dongola) or Alodia (Alwa).
I will first run through Nubian history and then turn to the present insights on any connections between the Nuba of Kordofan and the Nubian Kingdoms.
The word ‘Nubia’ is used to describe the land along the Nile south of Egypt; divided into a ‘lower Nubia’ for the area between the first and the second cataract, and an ‘upper Nubia’ for the land beyond the second cataract. Historically however there never was any kingdom or tribe or civilisation by the name Nubia. The use of ‘Nubia’ for the region seems to originate with European atlas makers of the early renaissance who drew maps based on the work of the astrologist and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (90-168 AD).6
The earliest Egyptian kings (pre-dynastic and those of the first dynasties) referred to the people to their south as Ta Seti or ‘people of the bow’, for their skill as archers. The Ta Seti were well organised, and their civilisation was not unlike that of the first Egyptians. They disappeared however.
By the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2323-2150 BC), Egyptian references to Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju seem to identify different small kingdoms in Lower Nubia. They also mention Yam, a kingdom in upper Nubia. There was trade between Yam and Egypt.
While the Middle Kingdom replaced the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2134-2040 BC), political changes also took place in Upper Nubia. ‘Yam’ disappeared from Egyptian texts and was replaced by Kush, which the Egyptians described as ‘vile’ or ‘contemptible’. Kush became a major power in the south and it took over Lower Nubia around 1700 BC.
Chances turned again and the Egyptians of the New Kingdom (c.1532-1070 BC) crushed the Kush kingdom and its capital Kerma. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I in 1520 BC, all of Upper Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative and religious centre at Napata; the Nubian elite adopted the worship of Egyptian gods and the hieroglyphic writing system. This way a lot of the ancient Egyptian culture was kept alive for many centuries while the power of Egypt slowly declined.
By 800 BC Egypt had fragmented into rival states, but in 747 BC the Kushite king Piankhy (Piyi) marched north from his capital at Napata and reunified Egypt. Kushite kings ruled both Nubia and Egypt until the invasion of an Assyrian army in 667 BC. The Nubian king fled back to Napata and was defeated decisively in 664 BC.
In 656 BC Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 BC his successor Psamtik II invaded Kush and sacked and burned Napata. The kings of Kush moved their capital to Meroë, where they continued to build temples to Nubian and Egyptian gods. The kings were buried in pyramid tombs. Meroë developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. His empire was short lived and Egypt once again became a kingdom, under the Ptolemy Dynasty (306-30 BC). The Ptolemies were of Greek descent and in official records the people to the south are now referred to as Aethiopians: Greek for ‘burned faces’. This name, given to them by the first great historian Herodotus, was kept by the Romans, who took control over Egypt in 30 BC.
During the reign of the Ptolemies, Meroe prospered. The initial relationship with the Romans wasn’t that good. According to geographer Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), in 24 BC:
[the Aethiopians] attacked the Thebaïs and the garrison of the three cohorts at [Aswan], and by an unexpected onset took [Aswan] and Elephantine and Philae, and enslaved the inhabitants, and also pulled down the statues of Caesar.7
In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius,
first compelled them to flee to Pselchis, an Ethiopian city, and sent ambassadors demanding the return of what they had taken, and the reasons why they had begun the war.
The Aethiopians didn’t respond, so in 22 BC Petronius attacked them at Pselchis. Defeating the Aethiopians there, he advanced to Premnis. He took the city and continued to the capital of the Aethiopians at Napata, which he sacked. After some more hostilities, the Aethiopians and the Romans came to a peace agreement, and trade between them flourished for several centuries.
Before turning to the Nuba, I want to stress once more that wherever Nubia is mentioned, we must remember that there are no historic sources from antiquity that use this name. For the word Nuba, it’s a different story.
2. The Nuba enter history Erastothenes (276 to 194 BC) is the first known author to mention a tribe called Nubae. We don’t have the original text, but Strabo was speaking on Erastothenes’ authority when he said:
[…] the parts on the left side of the course of the Nile, in Libya, are inhabited by Nubae, a large tribe, who, beginning at Meroë, extend as far as the bends of the river, and are not subject to the Aethiopians but are divided into several separate kingdoms.8
Erasthotenes is working his way downstream along the Nile, so he means that the Nubae lived between Meroe and Dongola.. It’s important that he makes a clear distinction between the Aethiopians and the Nubae.
I’ve already mentioned Claudius Ptolemaeus’ Geographica, that in c.150 AD places the Nubae south of Egypt. Contrary to what many people assume, he puts them east of the Nile. Ptolemaeus says the Nubae live to the far west of the Avalitae. Point is: Ptolemaeus is in this paragraph generally talking about the people east of the Nile, and he places the Avalitae to the African coast of the bay of Eden. Actually, Ptolemaeus mentions several tribes living between the Nubae and the river Nile.
Anyway: the Kings of Meroe no longer cared much for Lower Nubia., and neither did the Romans: Procopius of Caesarea (500-565 AD), relates how the Emperor Diocletian (245–312 AD) decided to withdraw Roman troops from Lower Nubia. Two nations to the south worried him though: the Blemmyae (Beja) to the southeast and the Nobatae to the southwest at a place called Premnis:
[…] so he persuaded these barbarians [the Nobatae] to move from their own habitations, and to settle along the River Nile […]. For in this way he thought that they would no longer harass the country about Pselchis at least, and that they would possess themselves of the land given them, as being their own, and would probably beat off the Blemmyae and the other barbarians. And since this pleased the Nobatae, they made the migration immediately, just as Diocletian directed them, and took possession of all the Roman cities and the land on both sides of the River beyond the city of Elephantine.9
Clearly the Nobatae are no subjects of Meroe. At this time, around 300 AD, Meroe’s power declined rapidly, weakened by the advance of people from both East and West.
In the east Axum was coming up. This Kingdom in what is today Ethiopia, reached the hight of its power under its first Christian ruler Ezana (330–356 AD). In an inscription found in Meroe, he announces:
I took the field against the Noba when the people of Noba revolted and did violence to the Mangurto; Hasa and Barya, and the Black Noba waged war on the Red Noba. I fought on the Takkaze [Atbara] at the ford of Kemalke. They fled, and I pursued the fugitives twenty-three days slaying them and capturing others and taking plunder; I burnt their towns, and seized their corn and their bronze and the dried meat and the images in their temples and destroyed the stocks of corn and cotton; and the enemy plunged into the river Seda [Blue Nile]. I arrived at the Kasu [Kush], slaying them and taking others prisoner at the junction of the rivers Seda and Takkaze. I dispatched troops up the Seda against their towns of Alwa and Daro; they slew and took prisoners and threw them into the water and they returned safe and sound. And I sent the troops down the Seda against the towns of straw of the Noba and Negues; the towns of masonry of the Kasu which the Noba had taken were Tabito, Fertoti; and they arrived at the territory of the Red Noba, and my people returned safe and sound after they had taken prisoners and slain others and had seized their plunder.10
Despite advances made by archaeologists and linguists in unravelling the complex situation around Meroe, it is still impossible to say what really happened. Apparently the Black Noba were the ones revolting; they attacked the neighbouring people, including the Red Noba and they took over some Kasu towns. But towns still held by the Kasu, were sacked just the same, and the Red Noba territory wasn’t spared by the Axumite armies either.
In the next few centuries three Christian Kingdoms emerged from the ruins of the Kushite Kingdom. The first one is Nobatia in Lower Nubia; there’s little doubt that Nobatia was established by the Nobatae mentioned by Procopius. The second one is Makuria, between the third cataract and somewhere between the fifth and the sixth; also known after its capital as Dongola, it could well have evolved from the part of the Kushite Kingdom that was taken over by the Black Noba. The third is Alodia to the South of Makuria; also known as Alwa, it could have been the remainder of the Kushite Kingdom. The rulers of these kingdoms were converted to Christianity by missionaries from different sects.
Nobatia was annexed by Makuria somewhere in the seventh century AD, probably just before the Muslim invasion of Egypt that commenced in 639 AD. The Muslims pushed southwards, but were halted by the army of the Makuria King, with whom they signed a treaty known as the Baqt, to which both parties seem to have kept for quite a long time. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that Makuria collapsed, soon followed by Alodia, that was overtaken from the south by the newly emerging Funj empire.
The current state of understanding regarding the origin of the Nubians has been summarised by D. A. Welsby. After going through all the available information of historic sources and archeology, he concludes that:
In the sources we have a plethora of names which may refer to a single people, among them Nubae, Nobades, Nobates, Annoubades, Noba, Nouba and Red Noba. The significance of these names is unclear, they may be different names used loosely by our sources, Greek, Roman, Aksumite, Byzantine and Arab, for the same people, refer to sub-groups, or refer to different peoples altogether. Certainly archaeologically we cannot recognise different cultural assemblages to match each name, but we do not have a single culture covering the whole of the area occupied by these peoples. It is these people or peoples who coalesced into the three Nubian kingdoms first attested in the sixth century.
It is assumed that the Nubians gradually infiltrated the Kushite state, with or without the acquiescence of the Kushite rulers, and that, with the weakening of Kushite central authority, they were able to take over the reins of power and eclipse the Kushite ruling class. Another manifestation of this rise to prominence is the sudden appearance on the one hand of their traditional hand-made ceramics in the southern part of the middle Nile Valley, and the demise of the finer Kushite pottery as well as the apparent demise of the Kushite state and religious institutions, Kushite art, architecture, and literacy in the Meroitic language.
A graffito in Greek, carved on the wall of the former Temple of Isis at Philae some time after 537, reads ‘I, Theodosios, a Nubian’ (Nouba) and provides evidence for the name used by the Nubians to describe their ethnicity.11
3. The Nuba on the Nile and the Nuba in the Mountains. Of course it’s tempting to draw a line from the Nile south-eastward. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to provide the Nuba with an ancestry that goes well beyond the arrival of the Arab conquerors? Al right: the Nuba came to the Nile Kingdoms after the time of the Pharaohs, so we forget about Kush and the rule over Egypt… but three ancient Kingdoms that lasted from roughly 400 to 1600 BC wouldn’t be bad, would it?
Well, to begin with: for the majority of the Nuba tribes there is nothing to suggest a relationship with the Nuba on the Nile. No archaeological finds, no linguistic relationships. The only Nuba tribes that can be linked to the Nuba on the Nile, are those speaking one of the Nubian languages. In order to understand more about the relationship between the two groups, we need to look into linguistics classifications.
The basic idea behind linguistic classification is that people speaking the same language can drift apart, after which the language develops differently in the two groups. After so many hundreds of years this leads to the creation of two different languages. Linguists look at lexicological, grammatical and structural aspects of different languages to group them according to affiliation. With the help of standard word lists they can determine the level of proximity between two affiliated languages.
Researchers of the nineteenth century already acknowledged the linguistic affiliation between the Nuba on the Nile, several Nuba tribes in the Mountains and some scattered communities in Darfur.12 They all speak Nubian languages, classified with the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. For a long time, the burning question was: did the Nuba in the Mountains come from the Nile, or did the Nuba on the Nile come from the west?
Despite the Arab conquest of Egypt and the ensuing Islamisation, the people along the Nile in Lower Nubia retained their original language, known as Nubian, or Nobiin for linguists. Closely related to Nobiin is Dongolawi, spoken up the river around Dongola in present day Sudan. Nobiin and Dongolawi probably drifted apart about 1100 years ago – give or take a century or two. Their languages, and specially Nobiin, are considered to be remnants of Old-Nubian, spoken in the Chrsitian Kingdoms of Nobatia, Dongola and Alwa.
Both Nobiin and Dongolawi are related to the so-called Hill Nubian languages of the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. The tribes that speak Hill-Nubian include those of Dilling, Kadaru and Ghulfan; Wali, Karko, Habila, Debri and some tribes more to the West like Tabag and Abu Jinuk.13 Looking at their geographical dispersion, you can imagine them coming from the northeast, some entering the Nuba Mountains from the side of Kadaru, some moving on westward around the Nyimang hills.
This combines well with events at the Nile in the 13th century AD. After centuries of stability, Bedouin tribes driven south by the Mameluks14 , started raiding Makuria. To the east the Beja were harassing Egypt and the Mameluks decided that if Makuria couldn’t keep the Beja in check, it was time to take matters in their own hands. The region was completely destabilised and we can imagine the people from Makuria fleeing south, until they found refuge in the Nuba Mountains. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Well… to make a long story longer: linguistic evidence rules against it. Apart from Nobiin, Dongolawi and Hill-Nubian, there are two other Nubian language group: Birgid and Meidob, found further to the west scattered over Darfur (Meidob being extinct by now). Combining linguistic data from the different Nubian languages, J.H. Greenberg concluded that ‘to assume any split between Hill Nubian and Nile Nubian more recent than 2,500 years B.P. [before present] would be incorrect.’15
Of course we can’t give up a beautiful ancestry that easily: C. Herzog noticed that some Hill-Nubian languages have Christian words for days of the week, and other loan words too: the Nuba in Kordofan came from the Nile after all!16 But R. Thelwall wasn’t impressed:
We are very confident that Nobiin (and later Dongolawi) came to the Nile from a centre of dispersion in Darfur-Kordofan which they occupied and controlled for perhaps 4000 years. We know that there were Nubian speakers on the Nile at least as early as the 500s CE and probably much earlier. The fact that the Hill Nubian languages have words for the days of the week dating back to Christian Nubian indicates that these languages were in contact at least during the Christian Nubian period which probably covers 500 CE - 1400 CE. This does not necessarily mean that the Hill Nubians did more than expand from central Kordofan into the NubaMountains during the period of Nubian political dominance from Aswan to Kosti (at least). But given the location of the Hill Nubian speakers (Dair, Dilling, Karko etc) along the NE edge of the Mountains it appears that they were "incomers" settling among the existing Nyima and Temein groups who were there before them.17
It might be a disappointing conclusion for some Nuba, but by now no scholar would still argue that the Nuba in the Mountains are descendants of the Nubian Kingdoms. But let’s not linger with the Nubians any longer: there’s more to explore!