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Nubia: The Kingdom and the Power


The artistic wonders of Nubia, ancient Egypt’s southern neighbor, go on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Vessel in the shape of a bound onyx, early 7th century B.C.

Vessel in the shape of a bound onyx, early 7th century B.C., travertine (Egyptian alabaster)

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What we know of Nubia, the region in today’s Sundanese Nile Valley that served as the seat of one of Africa’s earliest civilizations, comes largely from George A. Reisner. Following the conclusion of the Mahdist revolt, a condominium was established between the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1899, forming the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The agreement left the British in full control over the Sudan and gave Egypt local influence. Under these auspices, the Cairo-Khartoum railway was completed in January 1900, opening up the northern Sudan region to outsiders for the first time. This development led to the possibility of another: archeological excavation. Soon after, Reisner, a famed Egyptologist, got to work. In 1913, he and his team, sponsored by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, led the first excavation of Kerma, the site of the earliest Nubian kingdom, which flourished from around 2400–1550 B.C. In 1916–20, they excavated the Gebel Barkal Temples, a site of 13 temples and three palaces sacred to both the Egyptians during their occupation of the area between 1550–1070 B.C. and the Nubians after they gained back control of the region. Between 1917 and 1924, Reisner and company excavated the royal pyramids of Kush at Nuri on the west side of the Nile, mapping some 80 Kushite burials. Reisner pieced together 70 generations of Kushite monarchs from the 8th century B.C. through the 3rd century A.D., parsing out names and an approximate order. Reisner effectively brought Ancient Nubia’s story into the modern era.

Nubia, known mainly as Kush in antiquity, knew three flourishing kingdoms. Kerma, the first, was located in Upper Egypt and northern Sudan. During the Middle Kingdom of Egypt—approximately 2015–1710 B.C.—it is thought to have been one of several Nile Valley states, but from 1700–1500 B.C., it absorbed the Sudanese Kingdom of Sai and became an empire that rivaled Egypt. Relatively speaking, this didn’t last long, and by 1500 B.C. it had become part of the New Kingdom of Egypt. The Kingdom of Kush rose from the rubble of the New Kingdom’s collapse in the late Bronze Age. Kush, the second kingdom, was centered on Napata, a city state on the west bank of the Nile, and flourished from 1000-300 B.C. Kashta (an Egyptian name meaning “The Kushite”), an 8th-century king of the Kushite Dynasty, attacked Upper Egypt, gaining control in the region. He was succeeded by Piye (sometimes called Piankhi or Piankhy) and Shabaka, and the latter brought the whole of Egypt under Kushite control. Referred to as the 25th Dynasty, the Kushite-led Egyptian empire was the largest it has been since the New Kingdom. In total, Kushite rule dominated Upper Egypt for nearly a century and all of Egypt for 57 years (721–664 B.C.). Mereo was the third and final kingdom of Kush, located on the east bank of the Nile. This city, which is marked by more than 200 pyramids, centered around an iron industry. The city exported cotton textiles and jewelry and was rich in gold. It was also a trade center and the channel through which luxury goods like ivory, ebony, and incense sourced in sub-Saharan Africa reached Egypt and the Mediterranean.

The Meroitic language, an alphabetic writing system, began to develop in 200 B.C. But little of it is understood by scholars. What is more, though there are remnants of Nubian cities, temples, palaces and pyramids, there are few extant written records. Instead, the records of the Egyptians, Nubia’s longtime rivals, are relied upon as sources from antiquity. The Greeks referred to Nubia as Aithiopia (Ethiopia). The word was used twice in the Iliad and three times in the Odyssey. In Greek mythology, Memnon, an Aithiopian king and warrior nearly matched in skill to Achilles, brought an army to Troy’s defense in the Trojan war. The story of his death was told in Aethiopis, a lost epic composed after the Iliad, in the 7th century B.C. References to Meroitic Nubia abound in Greek and Roman literature, as both empires butted against the borders of the African civilization. The Bible referred to Cush or Kush, the eldest son of Ham (son of Noah) and the eponymous ancestor of the people of Cush.

Without its own records to be read and shared, Nubia’s story has largely been shaped by the hands of others. As exploration of the region by Westerners began in the 19th century, Nubia’s culture and legacy fell prey to Western prejudices. After the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius returned from a trip to Egypt and the Sudan in the 1840s, he claimed that the people of Kush weren’t black but of the “Caucasian race”. Similarly, Bayard Taylor, an American diplomat who observed Nubian temple carvings in the Sudan in the 1850s, asserted that the work must have been made by Egyptians, Indians, or Arabians, or by an offshoot of the race “to which we belong” (he was white). Reisner, who basically had all of Nubian history in his hands, insisted that the Kushite kings that ruled the 25th Dynasty of Egypt were descendants of “Egypto-Libyan” stock, meaning fair-skinned people rather than black Sudanese, and that the Meroitic kingdom’s culture and prosperity were due to an inrush of Egyptians—a white influence. Nubians, then, by Reisner’s theory, were of mixed race, but their commingling with the superior, white Egyptians made them better than “the inert mass of the black races in Africa.” Throughout much of the 20th century, scholars either clung to the idea that the Nubian kingdoms were somehow white or of lesser import because they were not. Some even went so far as to claim that the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty was a shameful blight on Egyptian history.


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has the largest and most important collection of Nubian art outside the Sudan, owes much of its holdings to Reisner and his excavations. In truth, Reisner made major strides in piecing together Nubian history, but the opinions he formed from that material are reprehensible. The museum has continued to nurture its Nubian collection over the decades, fostering new outlooks and appreciations of this important civilization and leaving the stale and hateful ones behind.

The new exhibition “Ancient Nubia Now” opens at the museum on October 13 and runs through January 20. It features more than 400 works from Kerma, the Egyptian occupation of northern Nubia, and throughout the empires of Napata and Meroe. There are jewels worn by Nubian queens, statues from the temples of Gebel Barkal, the gold and silver treasures of King Aspelta, and the stele of King Tanyidamani, which bears the longest known Meroitic inscription (still untranslated). Goods from trade with Egypt and the Mediterranean will also be on view, showcasing Nubia’s role in the ancient world. Additionally, video interviews with photographer Chester Higgins, professors Vanessa Davies and Nicole Aljoe, and Boston-based student Lana Bashir that discuss racial prejudice, self-representation, and cultural appropriation are installed around the galleries.

In Kerma, gold was thought to have sacred qualities due to its resilience. Quartz crystal, or rock crystal, as it is sometimes called, was mined alongside veins of gold, and thus had religious significance. Jewelers from Kerma often used quartz that had been coated in a vitreous solution and fired at high temperatures (a process akin to faience). These stones, which were shaped into ball beads or left in their natural shapes to be used as pendants, were a gorgeous blue color. One of the highlights of “Ancient Nubia Now” is a belt with a glazed quartz pendant (faience, glazed quartz, 1700–1550 B.C.), which showcases both quartz ball beads and a natural pendant. Such pieces could be worn as necklaces, but this one was found by the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts expedition at the waist of one of the nearly 300 human sacrifices at the burial of a Kerma ruler.

Pottery is one of the most frequently found grave goods from the Kerma Period and something that Reisner called “the finest ever produced previous to the Greek pottery of the best period.” The exhibition showcases several examples of pottery from Kerma—typically black-topped red ware (the red parts are exposed to oxygen during firing, the black are not). A beaker with a long, thin, woodpecker-like spout is a highlight and a rare shape. Tulip-shaped beakers were rather popular in Kerma, while a tall, unique shape that looks like several tulip-shaped beakers stacked up high one-by-one was less common but, to any pottery enthusiast, absolutely remarkable.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a pendant with a ram-headed sphinx found in the tomb of one of Piye’s queens. This piece was made of gilded silver, lapis lazuli, and glass in the Napatan Period around 734–712 B.C. and is a dazzling symbol of the interplay of Egyptian and Nubian beliefs. There was an exchange of religious conventions between the two societies after Egypt conquered Kerma and Nubia was absorbed by the New Kingdom. Later, when Piye conquered Egypt in the 8th century, Egyptian deities were already being worshipped by Nubians, who also broadly adopted the iconography of Egyptian kingship. Amen-Ra was present in the religions of both cultures. In Nubia, he was worshipped as a Ram or a ram-headed human. On this pendant, Amen-Ra is represented as a sphinx. Perched on a column, he wears a collar and divine wing. The column, which features a palm frond capital, is decorated with cloisonné. Its blue, turquoise, and red coloring is characteristic of Egypt, but the sphinx’s pose is not.

When Nubian rulers adopted Egyptian religious accoutrements, they often upped the ante. That is the case of the shawabtis (literally: “ones who answer”), Egyptian funerary figurines that performed agricultural duties on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife. They look like their mummified masters, but, like dolls that come with useful accessories, are pictured with hoes and produce bags. They sometimes feature inscriptions from the Book of the Dead. Nubian rulers were buried with more and bigger shawabtis, and King Taharqa, son of Piye and a pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, had the most and biggest. Found by the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts expedition in Taharqa’s pyramids at Nuri, the travertine (Egyptian alabaster), magnesite, and serpentine figures are exquisitely carved and incredibly detailed.

The Meroitic language, which was spoken long before it began to appear in official documents in the 2nd century B.C., is a sort of linguistic cold case. While scholars can understand the sounds its 23 characters make, they can’t decipher its grammar or much of its vocabulary save for major names and places. The Stele of King Tanyudamani, which dates to 180–140 B.C., is one of the earliest known Meroitic texts and the longest. It stood before the first pylon of the temple of Amen at Gebel Barkal, and its inscription describes the temple’s endowment and festival, though little of it is understood. Amen was the most important Nubian deity, and the Nubians believed the stone outcropping of Gebel Barkal to be his home. Naturally, this area became the site of a series of temples, and in one of them a dome-shaped shrine of stuccoed and painted sandstone was found. Decorated in raised relief, the shrine initially had a pair of doors that opened to a cult statue of Amen placed inside. A row of papyrus plants surrounds the lower register of the shrine, while images of a worshiping king and winged goddesses are repeated in the main register. Some scholars speculate that the shrine represents the mountain of Gebel Barkal itself.

One, perhaps surprising, god represented in the exhibition is Dionysos. The exhibition features a head of a statue of Dionysos, a late Hellenistic bronze that was found, along with another bronze head of the god of wine and a bronze hand and foot, in the pyramid of Prince Arikankharer, son of King Natakamani. The head dates to 150–50 B.C., a time when Nubia’s trade with the Mediterranean was at its height. By then, wine had a significant role in religious ritual and court life and it was one of Meroe’s biggest imports. In antiquity, where one found wine, one was likely to find Dionysos, and in Nubia it was no different; there a cult grew up surrounding the god. This depiction, which has inlaid shells for eyes and a copper headband inlaid with silver, features grape vines and leaves in its hair—a dead giveaway.

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By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2019

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