The region of Nubia, the land of the NUBIANS, is usually thought of today as comprising the Nile Valley from Aswan in Egypt to Debba in northern Sudan. However, the toponym has not had a consistent meaning for either medieval or modern writers. For some, it is a geographic term, designating a distinctive part of the Nile Valley where the river’s course is broken by cataracts and rocky outcrops and where the floodplain is narrow and discontinuous.
For others, it is an ethnic and linguistic term, designating the area occupied by speakers of the Nubian languages. In the latter sense Nubia does not have fixed boundaries, especially in the south, because the area occupied by Nubian speakers has shrunk considerably since the Middle Ages. The name is never used in a purely political sense, for Nubia in medieval and modern times was only once and briefly united under a single ruler.
Various Nubian-speaking peoples, such as the NOBA, Makkourai, and Nobadae, are mentioned by classical writers as living west of the Nile. However, the toponym Nubia does not appear before the early Middle Ages, when the Nubian speakers had migrated into the Nile Valley and had taken possession of the former territories of the empire of KUSH.
In Arabic texts it is occasionally used as a synonym for the northern Nubian kingdom of NOBATIA, but more commonly it designates the whole area occupied by Nubian speakers, between Aswan and the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. The toponym Nubia appears also in some Coptic texts, but it was never employed by the Nubians themselves. They apparently had no sense of ethnic or linguistic unity, and always designated their separate kingdoms by their individual names.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages there were three Nubian-speaking kingdoms: Nobatia in the north, MAKOURIA in the middle, and ‘ALWA in the south. All of them were converted to Monophysite Christianity in the sixth century. Shortly afterward Nobatia and Makouria were merged under one ruler, but like England and Scotland they kept their separate names and identities.
Most of the Christian Nubian kingdoms, protected from Islamic invasion by the BAQT treaty, persisted until late in the fifteenth century. At that time large parts of their territory were overrun by Arab nomads, the kingdoms broke up into warring principalities, and Christianity rapidly gave way to Islam. In time the separate principalities were brought under a loose hegemony, by the Funj sultanate in central Sudan and by the Ottoman pashas in Egypt.
The whole of Nubia was temporarily reunited under a single ruler when Muhammad ‘Ali annexed the Sudan in 1821, but this reunion ended with the triumph of the Mahdist uprising in 1883. At that time the more southerly parts of Nubia fell under Mahdist control, while the north remained in Egyptian hands. Under the Anglo-Egyptian condominium agreement of 1899, the area north of latitude 22° was formally annexed to Egypt, while the remainder of Nubia became a part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which in turn became the Republic of the Sudan.
Geographical usage conventionally divides Nubia into two unequal parts: Lower Nubia, between the First and Second Nile Cataracts, and upper Nubia, beyond the Second Cataract. This distinction is based mainly on geographical rather than political or ethnic differences, for the frontier between the different medieval kingdoms and between different Nubian language groups did not coincide with the frontier between Lower and Upper Nubia. However, the current Egyptian-Sudanese political frontier is fairly close to the Second Cataract, with the result that most of Lower Nubia is in Egypt, while all of Upper Nubia is in the Sudan.
The whole of Lower Nubia, as well as a considerable part of Upper Nubia, was inundated by the building of the successive Aswan dams, resulting in a wholesale displacement of the indigenous population. As a result, only about half of the former territory of Nubia continues to be inhabited. However, some colonies of Nubians have recently reestablished themselves on the shores of Lake Nasser.
[See also: Nubian Languages and Literature.]
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, Princeton, N.J., 1977. Emery, W. B. Egypt in Nubia. London, 1965.
- Millet, N. B. “Meroitic Nubia.” Doctoral dissertation. Yale University, 1968.
- Monneret de Villard, U. Storia della Nubia cristiana. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 118. Rome, 1938.
- . La Nubia romana. Rome, 1941.
- Save-Soderbergh, T. Ägypten und Nubien. Lund, 1941. Trigger, B. G. Nubia under the Pharaohs. London, 1976.
- Vantini, G. Oriental Sources Concerning Nubia. Heidelberg and Warsaw, 1975.
- . Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 21-207. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS