Egypt: Nubia History


A-Group: 3800-3100 B.C.

C-Group: 2300-1550 B.C.

Kerma Culture: 2000-1559 B.C.

Egyptian Domination: 1950-1100 B.C.

Napatan Period 747-200 B.C.

Meroitic Period 200 B.C.-A.D. 300

X-Group (Ballana Period) A.D. 250-550

Christian Period: A.D. 550-1400

(All dates are approximate)


The earliest of the Nubian cultures (the A-Group and C-Group) were located in northern Nubia. Until recently it was thought that A-Group people were semi-nomadic herdsmen. However, new research suggests that a line of kings 1ived in Qustul in northern Nubia as early as, or perhaps even earlier than, the first pharaohs of Egypt. The people of these early cultures buried their dead in stone-lined pit graves, accompanied by pottery and cosmetic articles. At this time, Nubia was known to the Egyptians as "Ta Sety," the "Land of the Bow," because of the fame of Nubian archers. By Egypt's Old Kingdom (if not earlier in the 2nd Dynasty), the Egyptians founded a settlement at Buhen which apparently was an important site for copper production. Later, Khufu opened diorite quarries to the west of Toshka and south of Buhen, while other quarrying expeditions were sent south above the Second Cataract. The 4th Dynasty also saw the establishment of a regular messenger service between the First and Second Cataracts.

By the reign of Sahure in the early 5th Dynasty, the Egyptians began trading with the Land of Punt , which was accessible only by sailing along the seacoast on the Red Sea. Expeditions to Punt began by sailing upriver to Coptos, then caravaning eastward through the Wadi Hammamat or the Wadi Gasus to the seacoast. There, the expeditions built ships and embarked on the sea voyage south. While the Egyptians did not penetrate Punt eastward from the Nile in Upper Nubia, apparently some Puntite goods and pygmies were trans-shipped to Egypt via a circuitous overland route through Nubia.

Despite that Buhen was abandoned in the 5th Dynasty and the diorite quarries near Toshka were closed, Egypt maintained its hold over Nubia in the late Old Kingdom. In the early 6th Dynasty, Egyptians were recruiting Nubian mercenaries into the Egyptian army. Wenis recounts that he included five different Nubian peoples when he assembled the great army of King Pepi I for the military campaign to Canaan. He also led a major quarrying expedition to Ibhat southeast of the Second Cataract, and he built giant barges in Wawat, for which, he says, the rulers of Wawat, Irtjet, Yam and Medja "dragged wood" (in token humiliation?). Later he cut a series of channels through the First Cataract, after which King Merenre traveled to Elephantine in order to receive the homage of the Nubian leaders. Pepi II prepared an expedition to sail to Punt in his reign, although it is uncertain that its preparations were completed.

Apparently, the governors of Elephantine at this time were responsible for royal affairs in Nubia. Harkhuf recounts four successive expeditions on which he served or directed to Upper Nubia and Yam in the reigns of Merenre and Pepi II. He was a pathfinder, and his orders were to discover routes through the country and to trade with its leaders. While his earlier trips saw him traveling through Irtjet and Zatju along the river, in his later journeys, these territories had turned hostile to Egypt, forcing him to travel on desert tracts and through the western oases. On his return to Egypt, laden with goods, Harkhuf could only travel through Irtjet, Zatju, and Wawat with the added protection of forces of the friendly ruler of Yam.

The change in the disposition of these territories was probably spurred by the arrival of a new people who gradually overtook Upper and Lower Nubia at this time and settled those areas. These were the C-Group people who were hostile to Egypt, and ultimately, they may have conspired to force Egypt out of Nubia at the end of the Old Kingdom, when the Egyptian state began to fragment and fall into civil war. Evidence indicates (e.g., the account of Harkhuf) that at certain periods in the reigns of Merenre and Pepi II, the Upper Nubian chiefdoms of Irtjett and Zatju, as well as Wawat in Lower Nubia, united together under a single ruler. At some point, this C-Group union might even have included the Early Kerma culture, which was distantly related to the C-Group. Evidently, Yam stayed independent of this confederacy. The purpose of the union, undoubtedly, was to resist Egyptian penetration and colonization of Nubia. For that reason, the Egyptians led by Hekayib, Governor of Elephantine, launched a military campaign to suppress the C-Group, splitting Wawat from the confederacy and helping to stabilize Egyptian control of the region. However, the Egyptians were not able to pacify Nubia entirely, despite several military campaigns in the 6th Dynasty. Nubia remained resistive for the remainder of the Old Kingdom. Therefore, Sabni, Governor of Elephantine, recounts that he had to journey quickly to Wawat with an army to recover the body of his father, the previous governor, who had been killed on a trading mission.

By 1550 BC kings at Kerma were ruling Nubia. They were buried in huge round tombs, accompanied by hundreds of sacrificed retainers. People of the Kerma culture were accomplished metal workers, and they also made thin-walled pottery on a wheel. This was a time of increased contact between Egypt and "Kush," as Nubia was then called.

Egypt dominated parts of Nubia from about 1950 to 1000 BC. Forts, trading posts and Egyptian style temples were built in Kush, and the Nubian elite adopted the worship of Egyptian gods and even the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. The gold, ebony and ivory of Nubia contributed to the material wealth of Egypt, and many of the famed treasures of the Egyptian kings were made of products from Nubia.

By 800 BC Egypt had fragmented into rival states. In 747 BC, the city of Thebes in southern Egypt was threatened by northerners, and the Egyptians called upon the Nubian king for protection. The Kushite king, Piye, marched north from his capital at Napata, rescued Thebes and reunified Egypt. For the next 100 years, Kushite kings ruled both Nubia and Egypt. This era was brought to a close by the invasion of Assyrian armies in 663 BC and the Nubian king fled south to his capital at Napata.

By 200 BC the capital had shifted yet farther south to Meroe, where the kings continued to be buried in pyramid tombs and to build temples to Nubian and Egyptian gods in a hybrid Egyptian Roman-African style. Roman historians record the skirmishes and treaties which marked the relation ship of Roman Egypt and Nubia.

By AD 250 the culture of Nubia changed radically, perhaps due to the immigration of new peoples into the Nile Valley. Pyramid tombs were replaced by the great tumulus burials of the kings of Ballana. These kings were laid to rest with sacrificed retainers, horses, camels, and donkeys. In the 7th century, Nubia was converted to Christianity. The skill of Nubian archers forestalled the conversion of Nubia to Islam until AD 1400.

The Economic Importance of Nubia to Egypt

Precious Metals and Stones

Egyptian interests in Nubia were always driven by economics. The one factor that chiefly characterized Egypt's relationship with Nubia through most of their history was exploitation. Nubia's most important resource for Egypt was precious metal, including gold and electrum. The gold mines of Nubia were located in certain valleys and mountains on either side of the Nile River, although the most important mining center was located in the Wadi Allaqi. That valley extended eastward into the mountains near Qubban (about 107 km. south of Elephantine). Nubia was also an important source of valuable hard stone and copper, both of which were necessary for Egypt's monumental building projects.

Trading in African Goods

Especially important for Egypt was the fact that Nubia was a corridor to central Africa and a point for the trans-shipment of exotic goods from that region, including: frankincense, myrrh, "green gold," ivory, ebony and other exotic woods, precious oils, resins and gums, panther and leopard skins, monkeys, dogs, giraffes, ostrich feathers and eggs, as well as pygmies (who became important to Egyptian religious rituals). In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians regularly penetrated as far as the Second Cataract to barter for these products which were coming down through the upper Nile Valley (viz., the expeditions of Harkhuf, Hekayib, Mekhu and Sabni).


Nubia was also an important source of manpower and labor for the Egyptians. The Palermo Stone records that early in the 4th Dynasty, King Snefru led a military campaign into Nubia reputedly to crush a "revolt" there (the Egyptians considered all enemies, whether foreign or domestic, as "rebels" against the natural order). According to that text, he captured 200,000 head of cattle and 7,000 prisoners, all of whom were deported to Egypt as laborers on royal building projects. While some archaeologists argue that this campaign was limited to Lower Nubia, others note that the amount of 7,000 is rather high for a country that was fairly depopulated at the time. If the number was not inflated as royal propaganda, then Snefru could have penetrated into Upper Nubia as far as the Land of Yam and made his conquests there.

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