The term “Nubians” has sometimes been used to designate all of the inhabitants of the region called NUBIA. Even more loosely, it sometimes designates all of the dark-skinned neighboring peoples who dwell to the south of Egypt. To be technically accurate, however, the name should be applied only to speakers of the Nubian family of languages. Today they are found principally in the Nile Valley between Aswan in Egypt and Debba in Sudan, but they once occupied a much wider territory.
The Nubian family of languages is believed to have originated in western Sudan, in the provinces today designated as Kordofan and Darfur. From this ancestral homeland, Nubian speakers migrated eastward into the Nile Valley, although a few remnant groups are still found in western Sudan. Nubian groups such as the NOBA and Makkourai are mentioned in classical texts as occupying the west bank of the Nile, but the main part of the river valley at that time was still in the power of the empire of KUSH. The official language of the empire, called Meroitic, is not believed to have been related to Nubian. However, after the empire’s collapse the Nubians continued to move both eastward and northward, eventually occupying all of the old territories of Kush and absorbing the previously resident population.
In the Middle Ages, Nubians were the main, and perhaps the only, occupants of the Nile Valley between Aswan and the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. However, after the fourteenth century, groups of Arab nomads overran the more southerly Nubian-speaking territories, and political power passed to the newcomers. Under their influence the Nubian languages were gradually displaced by Arabic. Today they survive only in the northern part of what was once Nubian territory, between Aswan and Debba, as well as in a few surviving pockets in Kordofan and Darfur. The Arabic-speaking groups in the Nile Valley between Debba and Khartoum are descendants of former Nubian tribes, but they have lost their ancestral speech and no longer acknowledge a Nubian origin.
When the Nubians first came to the Nile Valley, they adopted the worship of the ancient Egyptian deities, particularly of Isis. In the sixth century they were converted to Christianity and became members of the Egyptian Coptic church. Christianity eventually gave way to Islam after the Arab migrations and the breakup of the medieval Nubian kingdoms in the fourteenth century. Although united in their faith, the Nubian speakers were never unified either politically or linguistically. In the Nile Valley they were divided into two principal kingdoms, MAKOURIA and ‘ALWA, and they spoke at least two separate but related languages. For these reasons the Nubian peoples never had a strong sense of common identity and did not designate themselves by a common term, even though their Arab neighbors designated them all as Nubians. The disastrous inundations and population removals occasioned by the Aswan dams have only belatedly aroused in the Nubian-speaking peoples of Egypt and Sudan a sense of ethnic nationalism.
There has been virtually no archaeology in western Sudan, and nothing is known of the earliest culture of the Nubians. It is presumed that they were mostly pastoral nomads. After arriving in the Nile Valley, they soon adopted the culture and the arts, as well as the religion, of the already settled population, remaining distinct only in language. As a result, the general lifestyle of Nubians in medieval and modern times has differed little from that of Egyptian fellahin. The Nubians were always recognized by their neighbors as being Egyptianized and therefore civilized, in contrast with most of the other dark-skinned peoples of Africa.
Because of the scanty agrarian resources of Nubia, many Nubians have always sought the wider opportunities offered in Egypt. In many ages they served as mercenaries in the Egyptian armies, where they were especially famed for their bowmanship. In the earliest times many of the Nubians in Egypt were slaves, but in the Middle Ages they became instead primarily slave dealers, obtaining their supplies from the more primitive tribal peoples farther to the south. In the seventeenth century Nubians were said to dominate the guilds of slave dealers, watchmen, and construction workers in Cairo, and they have also been employed in large numbers as cart and carriage drivers and as domestic servants.
The process of labor migration, already well developed, was vastly accelerated when successively larger portions of Nubia were inundated by the Aswan dams built between 1898 and 1968. Whole villages of Nubians were relocated to new settings both in Egypt and in Sudan. In Egypt the largest area of Nubian resettlement, designated New Nubia, is around Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt. In Sudan the Nubians were mainly resettled in an area called New Halfa, along the ‘Atbara River east of Khartoum. However, many individuals and families in both countries preferred to migrate to urban centers such as Cairo, Alexandria, Khartoum, and ‘Atbara rather than cultivate agricultural allotments in the resettled Nubian colonies. A few groups have reestablished themselves within their old territory, along the shores of the newly filled Lake Nasser.
Those Nubians who remain within the ancestral homeland continue to lead a life that has changed little since the Middle Ages, and that is also little different from that of Upper Egyptian fellahin. However, those Nubians who have resettled in the towns and cities are much more likely to follow trades. In Egypt they are heavily concentrated in service occupations and in local commerce. In Sudan, where they have always been the most educated group, they play a large role in the learned professions and in the government bureaucracy.
Throughout the Middle Ages the Nubians were devout Christians, and their support was often helpful to their Coptic brethren in Egypt. Contact with Alexandria was broken after the fourteenth century, and the majority of Nubians gradually converted to Islam. As late as the eighteenth century, however, there were still reported to be some isolated pockets of professing Christians among the Nubians. Today there are no Christian Nubians, but traces of their earlier faith can be observed in many of the folk rituals that survive in rural areas of Sudan (see Nubia, Christian survivals in). The publicity generated by the Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, and more particularly by the discovery of the great FARAS MURALS, has given the current generation of Nubian youth a new appreciation for their medieval culture and faith.
[See also: Nubia; Nubian Languages and Literature; Nubian Archaeology, Medieval.]
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, Princeton, N.J., 1977. Dafalla, H. Nubian Exodus. London, 1975.
- Fernea, R. A., and Georg Gerster. Nubians in Egypt: Peaceful People. Austin, Tex., 1973.
- Herzog, R. Die Nubier. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Völkerkundliche Forschungen 2. Berlin, 1957.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 21-215. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS