part of the Nile Valley occupied by Nubian speakers, encompassing the region from Aswan, in the north, upstream to ed-Debba. Nubia is subdivided into Lower Nubia, from the First to the Second Cataracts of the Nile River, and Upper Nubia. As used by archaeologists and historians, Nubia is frequently extended into central Sudan, to include those areas that were under the control of the Kushite state, based on Napata and Meroë, during the first millennia BCE and CE, and of the southernmost of the three medieval kingdoms, the kingdom of Alodia (Ar., Alwa). A clear border did not always exist between Egypt and Nubia. For the earliest phases, and as late as the C-Group, Nubian cultural assemblages have been found as far north as Kubaniyya, 18 kilometers (about 11 miles) downstream of Aswan, and there was clearly a zone of contact. The strategic importance of the settlement at Elephantine, on a island at the downstream end of the First Cataract, and of its successor Aswan, on the right bank, have however made this the de facto border point.

The ancient Egyptians designated the regions south of Aswan by a variety of toponyms. During the Old Kingdom, Wawat, Irtjet, Setju, Yam, and others were frequently mentioned. At a later date, Shaat and Kush dominated the scene. Although precise locations are not known, they are all within the broadest modern definitions of Nubia. The term Aethiopia was applied by the Greeks, Macedonians (Ptolemies), and Romans to a much wider region, which was not clearly defined but extended well beyond the Nile Valley.

Climate and Geomorphology.

Nubia, taking here the broadest definition, is confined to the Nile Valley and its immediate hinterland. From Sennar on the Blue Nile and Kosti on the White Nile downstream to Aswan, the river traverses a wide range of climatic zones, passing through the savannah deep into the Sahara, from regions of considerable rainfall to regions where rain seldom occurs. Throughout these regions, however, the Nile provides an oasis, a focus for sedentary human activity; the river becomes progressively more important as it enters the arid zones. The climate of this region has become dry during the post-Pleistocene, particularly with the onset of the present arid phase. Northern Nubia, today a harsh desert environment, was much wetter and greener in pharaonic times, offering a wide range of possibilities for human activities. Although the general trend has been toward greater aridity during the last several thousand years, there have been some short, wetter periods. [See DESERT ENVIRONMENT.]

The Nile Valley provides a route across the desert from central Africa to the Mediterranean, but in Nubia the sinuous course of the river and a series of rapids, called cataracts, makes travel alongside the river or on the river far from ideal. Many of the old trade routes avoided parts of the Nile Valley, with people preferring to risk cross-desert journeys. The geomorphology and geography of the Nile Valley have therefore tended to favor a measure of isolation between one reach of the river and another—hence the existence of wide-ranging polities have been the exception rather than the rule.

Archaeology in Nubia.

Nubia was first opened to scholars on the conquest of the valley south of Aswan by the armies of Mohammed Ali in 1820. A number of nineteenth-century European antiquaries and travelers, among them Linant de Bellefonds, Frederick Cailliaud, and Richard Lepsius, recorded many of the ancient monuments. Archaeological investigations using “modern” techniques began in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the initial heightening of the Aswan Dam resulted in an archaeological survey; it was conducted initially by George Reisner and later by Colin Firth, to record the monuments that were to be flooded. This was followed by a second rescue project from 1929 to 1934, and it culminated in a survey necessitated by the construction of the Sadd el-Ali in the 1960s, which flooded more than 500 kilometers (312 miles) of the Nile Valley, from the First to the Dal Cataracts. As a result of these activities, Lower Nubia is archaeologically one of the best-known areas in the world, although a considerable amount of work has been, and is continuing to be, undertaken farther to the south, as far upstream as Khartoum and beyond. [See ASWAN.]

Egyptian Interest in Nubia.

Egyptian interest in Nubia is as old as dynastic Egypt itself. Although originally sharing many features in common, the post-Neolithic development of the cultures to the north and south of the First Cataract diverged markedly. By about 3000 BCE, a powerful centralized state had developed in Egypt, whereas the inhabitants of Lower Nubia, the A-Group, in a much less fertile region and, therefore, with a considerably weaker power base, enjoyed a much less developed political system. Egyptian interest in Nubia was twofold: Egypt sought to exploit the mineral wealth of the region, especially its reserves of gold and fine-grained stone and sought to gain access to the regions farther to its south, to exert a measure of control on the lucrative trade from the Upper Nile Valley and its hinterland. The level of Egyptian control over Nubia was determined on the one hand by the ability of the pharaohs to maintain political control and on the other by the ability of the Nubians to assert their independence. The wealth generated from the trade with Egypt fostered the development of powerful states in Nubia, which in turn served to frighten the Egyptians authorities, thus stimulating bouts of conquest. By the New Kingdom, as far as we are aware, the Egyptians had succeeded in removing all the major middlemen in the Nile trade and in advancing close to the major sources of the trade goods, which had, by that stage, become an important feature in the maintenance of the pharaoh's prestige. Among the trade goods, as well as agricultural produce and livestock, were ivory, ebony, gold, and slaves. [See A-GROUP.]

One of the earliest Egyptian monuments known from Nubia is a rock inscription from the Second Cataract that appears to be a record of a campaign by a first dynasty pharaoh, perhaps Djer, against the Nehesyw, as the region's inhabitants were generally known to the Egyptians. By the fourth dynasty, under the pharaoh Khafre (ruled c.2575–2550 BCE), diorite for monumental statuary was being quarried in the desert 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) to the west of Toshka and a small settlement that has evidence for copper working was located at Buhen. Written during the sixth dynasty, the Annals of Harkhuf by a merchant who made four journeys into the lands south of Aswan, give a detailed picture both of Egyptian contacts with the Nehesyw, equated at this period with the archaeologically attested C-Group culture, and of the political situation among them at a time when they enjoyed independence from Egypt. Later in the sixth dynasty, the situation changed and direct military intervention was recorded under Pepy II, which resulted in two of the local rulers, of Wawat and Irtjet, traveling to Memphis to pay homage to the pharaoh. Egyptian references, probably of this time, refer to expeditions being sent “to hack up Wawat.” [See C-GROUP.]

Egyptian weakness during the First Intermediate Period allowed the Nehesyw to regain their independence, but this was short-lived. Renewed Egyptian interference was instigated by the pharaoh Amenemhet I (r. 1991–1962 BCE) and concluded by Senwosret I (r. 1971–1928 BCE), culminating in the conquest of the whole of Lower Nubia and the establishment of a frontier at the upstream end of the Second Cataract at Semna, perhaps with an outpost at Sai 100 kilometers (about 65 miles) to the south. The area was rigidly controlled, with a large number of massive fortresses being constructed in the Second Cataract zone and also at strategic locations along the valley to the north. These valley fortresses served both to overawe the local population and to guard the major routes from the valley to the gold-bearing regions in the eastern desert. The massive nature of these fortresses served to highlight the potential military strength of the Nehesyw, who, for centuries, had provided valued troops for the Egyptian armies.

Egypt and Kerma.

Sai appears to have been the actual frontier between the Egyptians and their trading partner to the south, the kingdom of Kush. The arrangement reflects a modus operandi between the two major powers, based on an appreciation of their relative military strengths and on the mutual benefits, at least to the rulers, of peace and trade. This kingdom of Kush is equated with the archaeologically attested Kerma culture, named after its capital, Kerma, in the northern Dongola Reach. At Kerma has been found the earliest evidence for urbanism in Africa outside of Egypt. By the time of the Middle Kingdom, Kerma was a walled city of some 16 hectares, set in a rich and densely populated hinterland. Its territory extended from the major settlement toward the southern end of Sai Island, as far upstream as Gebel Barkal. [See KERMA.]

During the Second Intermediate Period, when the unified Egyptian state disintegrated in the face of onslaughts from the Hyksos, the Kushite kings occupied the political and military vacuum left by the Egyptians in Lower Nubia, advanced to the First Cataract, and opened diplomatic relations with the Hyksos. This prompted the seventeenth dynasty pharaoh Kamose (r. 1571–1569 BCE) to bemoan “to what end am I aware of…this power of mine, when a chieftain is in Avaris, and another in Kush, and I sit in league with an Asiatic and a African, every man holding his slice of Egypt?” At this time, the importance of the kingdom of Kush should not be underestimated. Of the three states on the Nile, it was by far the largest in territorial extent and was a true rival to Egypt. The Kushites soon occupied the Egyptian fortresses and employed a number of the Egyptian officials who remained within them. An inscription from Buhen recorded that an Egyptian, then in the employ of the king of Kush, built a temple in honor of the god Horus on behalf of the Kushite ruler. At this time, both the Kushite and the Egyptian armies made use of mercenary troops who have been identified as the Medjay of the Egyptian texts, originating in the Eastern Desert. Archaeologically, they are recognized by their distinctive circular graves, which have given their culture its name, the Pan-Grave Culture. Although their culture has much in common with the contemporary C-Group and Kerma cultures, they appear to be a separate Nubian group. [See PAN-GRAVE PEOPLE.]

The Second Intermediate Period was the apogee of the power of the Kushite monarchy, and the wealth of the rulers is reflected in the grandiose tomb monuments they constructed at Kerma. Tumulus K X, which was one of the largest, was more than 80 meters (250 feet) in diameter and contained not only the burial of the ruler but also 322 (possibly originally 400) retainers or sacrificial victims who accompanied him to his death. Placed among the sacrificial victims in Tumulus K III were the statues of the twelfth dynasty Egyptian prince Hepzefa and his wife Sennuwy, included there perhaps to symbolize the dominance of Kush over Egypt. The town at Kerma, lying 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) to the west of the cemetery, had outgrown its earlier defences, and a new palace with its associated storerooms had been built over the western ditch. It was dominated by a massive temple, in its latest phase a mud-brick structure, which still survives to a height of 18 meters (about 55 feet). The discovery of seals and sealings indicates that a complex administrative organization was in place. Although the influence of Egypt may be clearly recognized there, much owes its origins to African traditions. It is in the context of the rich culture of Kerma, amply attested by archaeological discoveries, that Egyptian references to “miserable Kush” and “vile Kush” must be understood. Clearly such epithets are biased, but they are interesting in an assessment of Pharaonic propaganda if not in a consideration of the history of Nubia.

Nubia During the New Kingdom.

With the defeat of the Hyksos in the north, the revival of the fortunes of Egypt opened the way for an advance against the Kushites. The Kushites were the victim of their own success; they were much too powerful for the Egyptians to tolerate as a neighbor athwart the trade routes from the south. Hostilities began under Ahmose in the mid-sixteenth century BCE. Thutmose I (c.1525–1516 BCE) penetrated through the Third Cataract in the second year of his reign and proclaimed that [he] “penetrated valleys which the royal ancestors knew not, which the wearers of the double diadem had not seen.” The Kushites were defeated and their capital was taken, the Egyptians advancing to the limit of the Kushite state at Gebel Barkal. At Kurgus, 200 kilometers (some 125 miles) upstream of Barkal, are two inscriptions of Thutmose I and III, and close by the remains of a fortress of that period may also exist. Whether these forces advanced to Kurgus along the Nile or across the desert from Korosko is not clear. However the Egyptian forces reached this point, this is the farthest upstream that an army from Egypt is known to have penetrated until 1819. Although, presumably, the Egyptians interacted with the peoples to the south in central Sudan, there is very little evidence for this, and the Neolithic cultures of that region continued their independent development into the first millennium BCE.

The area around Gebel Barkal, known as Napata, marked the border of Egyptian territory, and a fortress called “Slayer of the Foreigners” was constructed there by Thutmose III. From the walls of this fortress, Amenhotpe II hung the body of one of his Asian prisoners. A shrine was built to Amun, and the prominent flat-topped gebel, known to the Egyptians as “The Pure Mountain,” was credited as one of the two ancestral homes of the state god Amun.

The fortresses in Lower Nubia and at the Second Cataract remained in use, and a number were extensively rebuilt. In Upper Nubia, between the Dal and the Third Cataracts, fortified towns were constructed at Soleb, Sedeinga, Sai, and under Amenhotpe IV at Sesebi. Of them, Sesebi is the best known, having been extensively excavated in 1937 by the Egypt Excavation Society; it consisted of a rectangular enclosure defended by a mud-brick wall with projecting rectangular towers, within which lay a temple, magazines, and dwellings. The administrative capital of the region was at Soleb, where a massive temple was constructed by Amenhotpe III, who also built a temple to his queen, Tiye, at the nearby town of Sedeinga. Under Sety I, a new town was built at Amara West, and this replaced Soleb as the administrative center of Kush.

Upstream of the Third Cataract, occupation continued at the old Kushite capital of Kerma, although the settlement shifted a little to the north. Finds of inscribed blocks recording several of the pharaohs of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties indicate that the Kushite settlement at Tabo, on Argo Island, remained in use. Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) upstream, the town at Kawa was probably also constructed on the site of an earlier Kushite settlement. The name of this town, Gem-Aten (Gm-ἰtn), meaning “the Aten is perceived,” suggests that it was founded by Amenhotpe IV if not by his father Amenhotpe III. Between Kawa and Napata, a distance of 185 kilometers (about 115 miles) along the river, no Egyptian sites are yet known, prompting the suggestion that this region may have been under the control of local dynasts who swore allegiance to the pharaoh. Farther downstream, the local rulers, Amenemhat and Djehuty-Hotep, the “Princes of Tekhet,” assisted the conquerors in governing the region. Another of these collaborators was the local chief Heka-Nefer, from Aniba in Lower Nubia. They were buried in Egyptian-style tombs with all the trappings of Egyptian civilization.

Ramesses II was the greatest builder of the nineteenth dynasty, and he constructed a considerable number of temples in Nubia, the most famous being the rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel, dedicated to himself and the other gods, Re-Horakhty and Amun. At Napata, on the limits of his empire he completed the construction of a temple begun either by Horemheb (r. 1343–1315 BCE) or Sety I (r. 1314–1304 BCE).

Less than two centuries after the death of Ramesses II, Egyptian control of Nubia had ceased. At Amara West, the town appears to have been abandoned during the twentieth dynasty, the temple fittings and regalia being removed in an orderly manner. A similar fate seems to have befallen all the other Egyptian settlements, and the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal fell into ruins. This Egyptian withdrawal was caused by unsettled conditions in Egypt, where rival dynasts fought for the Throne of the Two Lands. One of the main players came from south of Aswan, Panehsy, the viceroy of Kush, who advanced into Egypt but was defeated by Herihor and forced to withdraw. Herihor's son, Piya (Piankhy), was given the title “King's Son of Kush,” but he was presumably unable to establish direct control south of Aswan.

The Kushite State of Napata and Meroë.

For several centuries thereafter, we have only glimpses of what was happening in Nubia. At Qasr Ibrim, a mud-brick fortification was constructed during the tenth century BCE, but by whom we are not certain. Egyptian sources refer to invasions of the area by pharaohs of the twenty-second dynasty, but the extent of those activities and against whom they were directed is unclear. Archaeologically, the population of Lower Nubia at this time appears to have been very sparse and probably remained so into the midfirst millennium CE. During this phase, a new center of power was developing a little downstream of Gebel Barkal. From the ninth century BCE onward, and some scholars maintain from as early as the eleventh century BCE, important individuals were buried at el-Kurru, initially in simple pit and side-niche graves marked by tumuli, but progressively in more elaborate tombs marked by rectilinear mastabas and finally by pyramids. These rulers rapidly came to dominate Nubia and, by the later years of the eighth century BCE, ruled the largest ancient state on the Nile, stretching from central Sudan to the southern border of Palestine. Their involvement in Egypt began under Kashta, who may have advanced as far as Thebes, but it was his successor Piya who undertook the conquest of the whole country, as is recorded in great detail on a stela he set up at Napata in the twenty-first year of his reign, around 714 BCE.

In Egypt, these rulers came to be known as the twenty-fifth dynasty, but this should not disguise their totally non-Egyptian origins. Although they were worshipers of the state god of Egypt, Amun, and assumed many of the trappings of Egyptian civilization, they were a distinct people and their culture, although much influenced by


Nubia. Engraving (c.1890) of the First Cataract of the Nile, between Aswan and Philae, in the borderland between Egypt and Nubia.

that of Egypt, maintained a complexion of its own for more than a millennium. Their culture is today divided into two phases, that of Napata and that of Meroë, named after the two principal centers of the state. Their history was a continuum, although there were clearly many changes with time, some brought about by the new influences filtering down from Egypt, whose Pharaonic culture was itself dramatically altered first by Persian, then by Macedonian (Ptolemaic) and Roman culture.

The focus of the state known as the kingdom of Kush, like its predecessor based at Kerma, was early moved from el-Kurru to the Napata region at Gebel Barkal, although the rulers continued to be buried at the ancestral burial ground until the mid-seventh century BCE. They refurbished and greatly expanded the temples at the foot of Gebel Barkal; by assuming the worship of Amun and by capitalizing both on the myth of Barkal as one of the ancestral homes of the god and on the troubled situation in Egypt, they were able to pose as the champions of the Egyptian and Kushite state god. Their involvement with Egypt dragged them into Near Eastern power politics, and in so doing they came into contact with the aggressive Assyrians, in the face of whose military prowess they were ousted from the regions north of Aswan by 663 BCE. Although thereafter confined to the regions upstream of the First Cataract, their power appears undiminished. To the south, they expanded their empire at least as far as Sennar on the Blue Nile, 250 kilometers (about 160 miles) upstream of Khartoum. Periodic invasions from the north, by Psamtik II, Cambyses, the Ptolemies, and the Romans under Gaius Petronius, some of which were credited with marching as far upstream as Napata, seem to have had no long-term effect on the prosperity of the state.

Like the earlier states on the Middle Nile, Kushite rulers presumably derived much wealth as middlemen in the African trade. The extremely fine objects of Mediterranean manufacture found in their elite burials testify to this wealth and to the importance the Mediterranean powers saw in cultivating good relations with them. As at earlier periods, the staple of the economy would have been agriculture and pastoralism, so life for the inhabitants of the Kushite empire may have been little changed from that enjoyed by their Kerma, C-Group, and New Kingdom predecessors.

Although Gebel Barkal may have remained the major Kushite religious center, as early as the reign of Aspelta there was a royal presence at Meroë. The rulers continued to be buried at Nuri, 7 kilometers (about 4.2 miles) upstream from Barkal, into the late fourth century BCE. Soon afterward, royal burials begin at Meroë, first in a cemetery that had been in use for several centuries and, thereafter, across the Wadi Tarabil in what is known as the North Cemetery. With only a few exceptions, all subsequent rulers were buried there until the collapse of the state in the fourth century CE.

During the third century CE, the dominant power in the Mediterranean, the Roman empire, was undergoing catastrophic financial crises in the face of almost continual external and civil wars; this must have had repercussions beyond their Egyptian frontier as it did elsewhere. The diminished wealth of the Roman world would reduce its demand for luxury goods from Africa. This reduced demand coincided with a shift in the trade routes from the Nile Valley east to the Red Sea, where trade was in the hands of the Axumites. With these crises, and with the increasing threat from the peoples living to the east and west of the Nile—the Blemmyes and Nobatae in the north, the Noba and perhaps also the Axumites in the south—the Kushite state fragmented. Within the old Kushite state were probably a number of small chiefdoms, perhaps under the general suzerainty of a few powerful rulers; one was certainly based in the region around Abu Simbel and its rulers were buried under massive tumuli at Ballana and Qustul. To the south, a “royal” burial ground has recently been investigated at el-Hobagi, and other rich burials are known from Gamai, Firka, Kosha, Wawa, ez-Zuma, Tanqasi, Khuzeinah, Hagar el-Beida, and Sururab. These new overlords appear to have seen themselves as successors to the old Kushite monarchy, and they continued to use many of the Kushite symbols of power and funerary rituals.

Although Christianity had taken a firm hold in Egypt for several centuries, there is no hint either of its penetration into the Kushite empire or of its acceptance by the rulers of what has been called the Ballana, X-Group, and post-Meroitic periods. By the sixth century CE, the political situation had stabilized with the creation of three kingdoms dominating Nubia—Nobatia with its capital at Faras in the north, Makuria centered on Old Dongola, and Alodia (Alwa) with its capital on the Blue Nile at Soba East. The conversion to Christianity of the rulers of these states, and progressively of their subjects, during the sixth and seventh centuries, marked a monumentous cultural change. It was the death knell for the pharaonic civilization and beliefs that had flourished in the Nile Valley for well over three thousand years.



  • Archéologie du Nil Moyen 1986-present. Lille, France. A journal appearing most years which contains a wide range of articles relating to the archaeology of Sudan.
  • Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, 1977. The most comprehensive account of Nubia's archaeology and history, it is now somewhat out of date, particularly the section on the Kerma culture.
  • Bonnet, Charles. Kerma: Royaume de Nubie. Geneva, 1990. An exhibition catalog with excellent introductory chapters by several scholars on the Kerma culture.
  • Davies, W. Vivian, ed. Egypt and Africa: Nubia from Prehistory to Islam. London, 1991. A collection of papers by leading scholars on many aspects of Nubian archaeology.
  • Emery, Walter B. Egypt in Nubia. London, 1965.
  • Hochfield, Sylvia, and Elizabeth Riefstahl, eds. Africa in Antiquity I. The Essays. Brooklyn, 1978. Published to coincide with a major exhibition in New York, Seattle, New Orleans, and The Hague, it provides a general introduction to Nubian culture by several leading specialists. For the companion volume, see Wenig 1979.
  • Kendall, Timothy. Kush: Lost Kingdom of the Nile. Brockton, Mass., 1982.
  • Kush. The Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service Khartoum, 1953—present. This journal, which appeared annually from 1953 to 1968, and intermittently thereafter, contains a wealth of articles and preliminary reports on all aspects of Sudan's archaeology.
  • O'Connor, David. Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. Philadelphia, 1993. A stimulating account focusing particularly on the Lower Nubian site of Karanog. Includes an exhibition catalogue.
  • Priese, Karl-Heinz. The Gold of Meroe. New York, 1993. A catalog for the exhibition on the gold and other jewelry found by Ferlini in the pyramid of the Kushite queen Amanishakheto at Meroë.
  • Shinnie, Peter L. Meroe. A Civilisation of the Sudan. London, 1967.
  • Shinnie, Peter L. Ancient Nubia. London and New York, 1996.
  • Török, László. The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan/Meroitic Civilisation. Leiden, 1997.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. Nubia under the Pharaohs. London, 1976.
  • Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London, 1996. An up-to-date account of the Kushite state, which partly replaces Shinnie's 1967 book.
  • Wenig, Steffen. Africa in Antiquity. II. The Catalogue. Brooklyn, 1979. Catalog of a major exhibition in New York, Seattle, New Orleans, and The Hague.
  • Wildung, Dietrich, ed. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Translated from the German by Peter Der Manuelin. Paris and New York, 1997. Introductory essays and a catalogue of a large exhibition that toured Europe from 1996 to 1998, which assembled many of the finest pieces of Nubian art from the Neolithic to the post-Meroitic periods.

Derek A. Welsby