Cultures of Ancient Nubia

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of several ancient Nubian cultures and discover their impact on African development. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


We may call them Nubians, but there's nothing new about them. The Nubian era is one of the oldest on Earth, with ancient, ancient cultures. So, where is Nubia? It's not a state or country, but a region; the area along the Nile River that today encompasses Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.

The ancient Nubian cultures are those that spoke the Nubian languages, a specific language group, which makes them different from other cultures of that region, like the Egyptians. The Nubian languages are originally from the Saharan Desert, where they were first spoken by nomadic hunter-gatherers before they settled in the lush Nile Valley.

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  • 0:02 Nubia
  • 0:35 The Ancient Nubians
  • 1:51 Kingdom of Kerma
  • 2:40 Kingdom of Kush
  • 3:50 Kingdom of Meroe
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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The Ancient Nubians

The oldest Nubian people to settle along the Nile Valley first appeared there by the fifth millennia BC. Archaeological evidence of sophisticated stonework suggests that they had small kingdoms and were very close to the early Egyptians in both politics and culture. It is very likely that the early Nubian kingdoms developed their wealth from trade. There was a lucrative trade network from Egypt to Southern Africa for ebony wood and ivory products, and Nubia was in a prime location to handle this economy.

The first records of Nubia appeared in Egypt, around 2300 BC, and they are mentioned as part of a trade expedition. The ancient Egyptians maintained very close relationships with Nubia so they could access the trade networks under Nubian control. Their relationship would change several times throughout the first millennia BC. At times, Egypt invaded and conquered the Nubian kingdoms. At other points, the Nubians, who were famous for their skills as archers, actually conquered Egypt. Mostly, however, they seem to have maintained a peaceful relationship with mutual economic and cultural exchange.

Kingdom of Kerma

Around 1750 BC, the first major Nubian kingdom arose that could unite most of the Nubian people under one government. Called the Kingdom of Kerma after its capital city, it was one of the first major urban complexes in the region. Kerma featured monumental walls and tombs filled with gold and other precious materials. Their religion seems to have been close to that of ancient Egypt, with the firm belief in an afterlife, and they also practiced human sacrifice as well.

Kerma was so powerful that they invaded and occupied Egypt, almost bringing an end to the reign of the Pharaohs. Egyptian forces regained control around 1532 BC and pushed back, eventually destroying the city of Kerma and incorporating that region into their empire.

Kingdom of Kush

When the Egyptians moved into the Nubian areas after the fall of Kerma, they gained access to the mineral wealth of the region and built an administrative center in the city Napata, in modern-day Sudan. Egypt used its Nubian colony for gold mining, but around 1070 BC, the political scene in Egypt was collapsing, and they had to pull out of the region. What they left behind was a fully developed infrastructure of a kingdom. The local Nubian people turned it into their own kingdom, called Kush.

The Kingdom of Kush became the new trade center of the region, just like Kerma had been, and grew quickly in size and power. Culturally, they remained very tied to Egypt and maintained the Egyptian religion long after they ceased being an Egyptian colony. This didn't stop them from expanding their own empire, however, and the Kushite King Kashta conquered Egypt in the eighth century BC. For almost 100 years, the Kushite kings were also the pharaohs of Egypt. They built new pyramids, restored the old ones, and maintained Egyptian power as their own. The Kushite control of Egypt lasted until around 656 BC when they were driven out by invading Assyrians.

Kingdom of Meroë

After being kicked out of Egypt, the Nubian Kushites regrouped in their southern city, Meroë, located in modern Sudan. Meroë was first founded around 800 BC, and was a major cultural center for the Nubian Kushites where they developed their own form of writing, built pyramids, and held a powerful military.

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