Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
Meroë gained its wealth from the Nile Valley soil of the area, which was both great for high-quality pottery and was rich in iron. Being connected to major ports along the Nile also connected it to flourishing trade routes, and Meroë entered into a commercial network expanding as far as India and China. Although they continued trading the gold and minerals of the Nubian region, their primary export was iron, and Meroë metalsmiths were amongst the best in the world.
As other empires expanded into rich areas, Meroë became a target. In the first century BC, the early Roman Empire invaded. Rome maintained a presence in Nubia, although they never truly conquered the Kushite people. An even bigger threat was the rise of an even more powerful trade city, Axum. Axum grew to dominate the trade networks of Eastern Africa, cutting off Meroë and the other Kushite cities from their source of wealth. In the fourth century, Axum invaded and conquered Meroë, bringing an end to the era of ancient Nubian Kushite dominance over Eastern Africa.
In Northeastern Africa is a region called Nubia, roughly corresponding to the area in Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan along the Nile River Valley. The ancient people who spoke the Nubian languages settled there in the fifth millennia BC, developing major civilizations that sometimes clashed and sometimes cooperated with other cultures of the region, such as the ancient Egyptians. From their beginnings, the Nubian cultures were deeply connected to trade routes running across East Africa. For the ancient kingdoms, ebony wood and ivory products secured their wealth.
Around 1750 BC, the Nubian cultures were united under the Kingdom of Kerma, the first major Nubian power. Kerma maintained its wealth through trade and grew so powerful they almost conquered Egypt. The wars with Egypt turned and Kerma was defeated and Nubia brought into the Egyptian empire. After Egypt grew weaker from internal political struggles, the Nubian people used the colonial infrastructure of the empire to build their own kingdom, called Kush. Kush grew even more powerful than Kerma, conquering Egypt under the Nubian Kushite King Kashta.
Kush controlled Egypt for almost a century, before being driven out and reforming their empire in Meroë. Meroë was the last great Nubian Kushite kingdom, famed for its mastery of ironwork and connection to trade routes that connected to India and China. However, when a new trade power developed, called Axum, Meroë lost their wealth and was defeated in the fourth century. Nubian Kushite power ended, but their influence lasted on in the trade routes they established that brought the commerce of the world through East Africa.
Finish this lesson on the cultures of ancient Nubia, then discover whether you can:
- Pinpoint the region of Nubia
- Examine the history of the Nubian cultures, from the religion of the Kerma kingdom to the exports of Meroë
- Describe the power of the Kush kingdom
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