Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s Nubians: The People of Gold Who Drowned

Egypt’s Nubians story is a testament to the intricate interplay of history, culture, identity, and the pursuit of justice in the face of adversity.

Egypt’s Nubians
A photo taken on 16 December 2011 of a girl in a Nubian painted village near Aswan, Egypt. Tuul / Robert Harding Heritage / AFP

Youssef M. Sharqawi

Nubians are a unique and vital part of Egyptian society. Egypt‘s geographical features and human communication along the Nile Valley have played a significant role in keeping Egyptian society together over time. Society was made up of various elements, and Egypt had two fundamental dimensions: the African dimension and the Asian dimension. Both have played a role in forming Egypt’s identity and its definition to some degree.

Egypt’s connection with the African dimension brought water, sustenance and people, whereas the Asian dimension contributed to civilisation, culture and religion. In his book, The Personality of Egypt: The Multiplicity of Dimensions and Aspects, Dr. Gamal Hamdan identifies four dimensions that have guided Egypt. These include Asian and African dimensions at the continental level and the Nile and Mediterranean at the regional level. According to Hamdan, these various influences have harmonised and aligned to culminate in Egypt’s distinct identity.

The Nubian people have played a significant role in the tapestry of Egypt’s history, intricately woven into its fabric. Despite their vital contributions, issues have surfaced over time, distorting the perception of their connection to Egyptian heritage and giving rise to what is known as the Nubian question.

History of Nubia

Nubia is split into two sections straddling the border between Egypt and Sudan: Lower Nubia, situated within Egypt, and Upper Nubia, located in Sudanese territory. Nubia spans from the southern part of the Egyptian city of Aswan to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Historically, this area was referred to as the land of Kush. According to the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies, ample evidence supports the notion that the Nubian civilisation predates the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Modern researchers and writers hold differing views on the ancient roots of the Nubians. Despite numerous studies and research on the matter, there is no scientific consensus regarding the origin of the Nubian people. On the other hand, most researchers do agree that their presence in Egypt goes far back and view their interaction with the ancient Egyptians as a reflection of the civilisation’s splendour.

In his book Thus Spoke the Nubians, researcher Maher Ahmed Zaki points out that the term “Nubia” appears in ancient texts for the first time in the book Geographica by the Greek traveller Strabo. Strabo visited ancient Egypt around 29 BC.

As per Hisham Gamal, a geography professor at Aswan University, ancient Nubia extended from the southern territories of Egypt to the lower reaches of the Nile River. Within Nubia, three kingdoms emerged – Kush, Meroe, and Napata – encompassing part of the Nile Basin, corresponding to contemporary Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.

According to Journalist Samia Allam, Egypt’s pyramids and temples were constructed using a stone known as Nubian Sandstone. She also noted that the Nubians held sway over Ancient Egypt during significant periods, including the influential 18th and 25th dynasties, which originated in the city of Napata in Kush.

In his book, Zaki explains that the Nubians fragmented into various factions or smaller groups. The distinctiveness of the Nubians’ culture, heritage and aesthetics can be attributed to three groups, all of Arab origin. These groups are categorised as follows: the Kenuz, who communicate in the Matuki language and trace their roots back to the Banu Kanz tribe; the Fadija, speakers of the Fadiji language; and the Arabs of Aliqat, who migrated to Nubia from the Sinai Peninsula in the eighteenth century and speak Arabic.

Egyptologists trace the origin of the term “Matuki” to two words: “Matu,” denoting the East, and “Ki,” signifying the coming. Consequently, the term Matuki can be interpreted as “those coming from the east.” On the other hand, the term “Fadija” means “the fifth section,” as it is dispersed across five regions, as detailed in the book Thus Spoke the Nubians.


Egypt’s Nubians
Nubian Egyptian women sell souvenirs in the village of Gharb Suhail near Aswan on February 5, 2020. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

In antiquity, Nubia bore the name “Tatsi,” an ancient Pharaonic term signifying archers or the land of crossbowmen. Following the discovery of gold mines, the region acquired the name “Nub”, meaning gold in ancient Egyptian. Consequently, the Arabic name transformed into “Nubia” over time.

The Nubian Language

Maher Ahmed Zaki asserts that all Nubians use Arabic as their spoken language. They do, however, have a distinct language named “Ratan,” which is known only to their elders. The language has slight variations from one region to another, but the dialects share similarities. It is suggested that the Nubian language has Hamitic origins with influences from ancient Arabic and, subsequently, Coptic. At present, differences in the Nubian language persist between Upper and Lower Nubia, with Arabic being the preferred language for writing.

Nubian Heritage

Nubia boasts a civilisation of over 7000 years, marked by strong intergenerational connections. The Nubian people have faced displacement due to the construction of reservoirs and dams.

In response, they have established associations dedicated to preserving their heritage. These efforts began in the early twentieth century and intensified after a significant displacement in 1963. The Nubian Heritage Association was established in Cairo in 1980 to provide scientific and cultural services through research, studies and collection of heritage. The association documents customs, arts and songs and studies antiquities, environmental crafts and architecture.

According to Zaki, popular arts in Nubia take shape in many forms, such as architecture, wall paintings, folk dance, marriage customs and fashion. Several of these artistic expressions resemble aspects of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

The Number Seven

Nubian villages still uphold many customs in marriage, singing, construction and daily life. Their affinity with the number seven is notable as it holds significance in many rituals.

Nubian historian Muhammad Sobhi details a ritual involving taking seven handfuls of dirt from underneath a traveller’s feet, preserving it until their return, and then scattering it on the doorstep. Two marriage-related rituals also revolve around the number seven. In the first, the groom refrains from visiting his family until the seventh day of the wedding and subsequently visits the homes of seven relatives. In the second ritual, newlyweds circle an old palm tree seven times, holding a green stick with seven leaves.

Similarly, a woman who has recently given birth will jump over a fire seven times. On the seventh day, she washes her face with ashes in the Nile. Additionally, on the seventh day, the newborn child is taken to the Nile to wash its face, hands and feet, known outside Nubia as the Sobou’ day.

Nubian Rhythm and Dance

Egypt’s Nubians
A Nubian woman sells souvenirs in the village of Gharb Suhail near Aswan on February 5, 2020. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Distinctive rhythms are integral to Nubian culture. The “Kumba Kash” that is played after weddings – to let people rest – is a notable example. The primary rhythm at wedding ceremonies – intended to make people dance – is “Ketchad,” which is characterised by rhythmic motifs.

The palm dance, set to the rhythm of “Ollin Arageed,” holds great significance in Nubian heritage.

The Aragid dance, inspired by the Nile River, is particularly renowned and is a popular group dance that involves dancing in a circle. Journalist Rami Yahya describes this dance, “The dancers form long rows, swaying their torsos and stepping to the right and left in unison. Each participant identifies with the human chain, mirroring the waves of the Nile in their movements, connecting with its essence in their individuality.”

Nubian Notables

Numerous Nubians have made a lasting impact throughout history.

According to Hisham Gamal, notable personalities who were born or have lived in Nubia include Luqman the Wise, mentioned in the Qur’an, Dhul-Nun al-Misri and the Prophet Idris. Additionally, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, whose name solely has meaning in Nubian and means “mother of bread,” was born and lived in Nubia. Ramesses II, an influential Pharaoh, married the daughter of the King of Nubia, Nefertari, making her one of Egypt’s most renowned Pharaonic queens.

Several Nubians have played a role in Egypt’s recent political history, notes journalist Samia Allam. Haj Ahmed Idris, credited with the October War code, hails from Nubia. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the former Egyptian minister of defence, also has Nubian roots. In the cultural sphere, Nubia has given rise to notable figures such as musicians Hamza Alaa El-Din and Mohamed Mounir, poet Ahmed Munib, and writer Mohamed Khalil Qasim, renowned for the novel al-Shamandoura.

The Nubian Question

The initial displacement of Nubians occurred in 1902 with the construction of the Aswan Dam, resulting in the flooding of ten Nubian villages, as reported by the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies. Subsequent attempts to raise the dam in 1912 and 1933 led to the flooding of an additional 18 villages.

The most significant wave of displacement occurred in 1963 with the construction of the High Dam. Al Jazeera reports that tens of thousands of people were relocated to the Kom Ombo plateau, settling on only 50 square kilometres as opposed to the 600 square kilometre expanse they had previously inhabited. During this period, the state categorised Nubians into two groups: “residents of Old Nubia,” providing them with homes in the new village, and “expatriates,” who received neither homes nor sufficient compensation.

The Nubian land was submerged entirely, and its people suffered marginalisation, stereotyping and cultural persecution. Arab films depicted the Nubians as “a group of black people who always work in low-level jobs.”

Nubian activists, including Manal al-Tibi, sought to address the Nubian issue, trying to involve the international community in solving the problem in 2010. The international community, however, rejected the idea. The Nubians expressed a desire to return to their historical lands, which led the Nubian Union to organise the “Nubian Return March” in 2016. The attempted march was blocked, leading to a sit-in that was subsequently suppressed by Egyptian authorities.

The Egyptian Constitution recognises the Nubians’ right to their lands in alignment with international conventions and treaties. According to the HRDO Center for Supporting Digital Expression, however, the Egyptian government has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the promised reparations, which, compared to what the Nubians lost due to displacement, were negligible to begin with.

Fanack Water Palestine