Egypt: Nubian Geography

The Geography of Nubia

Geographical Limits

The land of ancient Nubia was bounded on the north by the First Cataract of the Nile River, located just south of Elephantine, and on the far south by the Sixth Cataract, located north of modern Khartum. In certain periods, Nubia consisted of various ethnic tribal groups or chiefdoms, while in other periods, it was governed by larger and more politically complex kingdoms.

Nubia was the country that bordered ancient Egypt on the south, and through much of its history was politically dominated by the Egyptian state. However, in those periods from the 1st Dynasty onward (ca. 3050 BC), whenever Egypt was unable to maintain her presence in Nubia (e.g., because of her own internal difficulties), the various Nubian cultures flourished and enjoyed their political and economic independence, often formulating kingdoms of great dynamism that were competitive with the Egyptian state.

Political Frontiers

In the Middle Kingdom, Egypt's southernmost border was fixed at Semna, located south of the Second Cataract in an area of narrow gorges and rocky outcroppings, known in Arabic as the Batn el- Hajjar , the "Belly of Stones" (about 68 km. south of the modern Egyptian-Sudanese border). Later in the New Kingdom, Egypt extended her southern border up to the Fourth Cataract, although she exercised military authority further upriver, as far as modern Kurgus
(south of Abu Hamed).

The traditional ancient Egyptian name for Nubia was Ta- Seti , "Land of the Bow" (as in "bow and arrow"). Indeed, the Egyptians gave that same name to their southernmost nome which bordered on Nubia, either because it was adjacent to that country, or else because that portion of southern Upper Egypt was originally part of an earlier kingdom of Nubia with the same name, and which would have existed before the unification of Egypt.

The Divisions of Nubia

For purposes of understanding history and geography, Nubia is divided into two great regions, Lower Nubia and Upper Nubia. Lower Nubia is the northern region extending nearly 400 km. from the First Cataract to the area around Semna and the Second Cataract. Today, it corresponds to the area of southern Egypt and the northern Sudan. Upper Nubia, which is south of Lower Nubia, extends upriver along the Nile to the Sixth Cataract and Khartum. It corresponds to what is today the central Sudan. The Nile River, flowing through this region, is often called the Middle Nile .

The Nile flows from south to north, i.e. from the Ethiopian Highlands and modern Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea. However, the geography of Upper Nubia is dominated by a giant bend of the river between the Fifth and Fourth Cataracts, in which the Nile actually turns to the southwest for about 270 km. before turning northward again in its passage to the sea. The area where it flows northward out of the bend and through to the Third Cataract is called the Dongola Reach , named after the Sudanese town of Dongola which dominates this part of the river. The great bend itself can be called the Dongola-Abu Hamed Bend of the Nile. This area, in which the water might be thought of as reversing direction, was highly treacherous to ancient navigation because of the speed of the rushing river here and the many rocky protrusions extending for kilometers along the river bed. Hence, this can be characterized as an area of often intense white water.


Archaeological Names vs. Political Names

In the study of Nubian history and archaeology, specialists use two kinds of names to refer to the various ancient people and cultures they encounter; these are political names and archaeological names. Political names derive from ancient texts, and they reflect the actual names that the Egyptians, Greeks, or Nubians themselves gave to certain parts of Nubia or to the different Nubian peoples. Archaeological names are those names given to particular cultures or industries which are detectable by archaeology but for which there are no associated ancient names. Thus, there is no way to know what names the people of these cultures gave themselves. Here the archaeologists provide these cultures with either arbitrary (and artificial) designations , e.g.: "A-Group, B-Group" and "X-Group," or they name them according to the archaeological sites in which they were first discovered or which became their main centers, e.g.: "Kerma Culture" (referring to the succession of Nubian cultures found at the city of Kerma).

Sometimes, the archaeological and arbitrary designations are mixed, e.g., the X-Group can also be referred to as the "Ballana Culture," since a main site for this culture is the cemetery of Ballana. Rarely, a political/textual name might combine with an archaeological designation, e.g., Nubadae-people can now be identified with the X-Group. Similarly, it has been suggested (justifiably or not) that the C-Group might be those people which the Egyptians named the Tjemehu (i.e., Libyans of the central Sahara).

Egyptian Names of Nubia

All of the lands south and southeast of Egypt (sometimes also including the northeast) the Egyptians called, Ta-netjer, "God's Land." Within this great region, the Egyptians located the different countries and people of Nubia. From the Old Kingdom onward, in addition to Ta-Seti, the Egyptians applied the name Ta- Nehesy as a general designation for Nubia (n.b., nehesy means, "nubian;" Panehesy, "the Nubian" becomes a common personal name, developing into the Biblical name, Phineas). At the same time, Egyptians gave the name Wawat specifically to Lower Nubia. This name derived from one of several Nubian chiefdoms which were located in this region during the late Old Kingdom. A generic designation of the desert nomads of Nubia was the term Iuntiu or Iuntiu-setiu , "Nubian tribesmen (lit. 'bowmen')." The names which the Egyptians used to refer to the various parts of Nubia and its different peoples usually changed depending upon the era and the particular tribal group in a given area.

Elsewhere in the Old Kingdom, the names Irtjet , Zatju , and Kaau were used for particular people and areas of the country. While, previously, they were thought to be in Lower Nubia, David O'Connor has recently made a strong case for locating them in Upper Nubia. The Land of Yam , visited by Harkhuf, Governor of Elephantine, in the late 6th Dynasty, was apparently located around the Fifth or Sixth Cataracts. The Land of Punt was a country located east of Upper Nubia and bordering on the Red Sea (i.e., extending from the highlands to the sea). Since the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians often enjoyed a productive relationship with a Nubian tribal people from the land of Medja , named the Medjay (called the "Pan-Grave People" by archaeologists). As fierce warriors, they were incorporated as mercenaries into the Egyptian army as early as the 6th Dynasty. Later in the New Kingdom, they were employed as the police force in Egypt, and the word medjay became the ancient Egyptian term for "policeman."

From the Middle Kingdom onward, the Egyptians regularly used the name Kush to refer to the powerful independent kingdom based in Upper Nubia, first at Kerma (until that was destroyed by the Egyptians in the sixteenth century BC), thereafter at Napata , then Meroe (pronounced "meroway"). Kush is identified as the Land of Kush in the Holy Bible. Kush's political dependency was the territory of Sha'at (in the region of the Isle of Sai). Other names attested at this time (mostly in execration texts) are: Iryshek, Tua, Imana'a and Ruket . In the eastern mountains were Awshek and Webet- sepat .

In the early 18th Dynasty, the Egyptians also used the name Khenet-hennefer to refer to Kush, especially during the military campaigns of Ahmose and Tuthmosis I. It appears as a general designation of the area of Upper Nubia between the Second and Fourth Cataracts, and designates the region for which the city of Kerma was the center or capital. The name Irem was applied in the 18th Dynasty to the people who apparently lived in the southern reach of the Dongola Bend (i.e., the old territory of Yam). Later in the dynasty, the name Karoy was applied to the vicinity of Napata.

In the Late Period and during the Kingdom of Meroe , the name, Island of Meroe , was given to the triangular stretch of land on the east bank of the Nile, south of the Fifth Cataract. This section, dominated by the city of Meroe, was bordered on the north by the Atbara River, on the west by the Nile, and on the south by the Blue Nile. The Island of Meroe was the heartland of Meroitic civilization and the political and cultural center of the Kingdom of Meroe from ca. 590 BC to AD 300.

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