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The Cities of Ancient Nubia

Nubia is a region located in North Eastern Africa, extending from the Nile River Valley nearby the first cataract of the Nile and stretching eastward to the Red Sea and South to nearby Khartoum which is modern-day Sudan. Nubia is traditionally divided by historians and geographers into two regions of Northern and Southern Nubia, divided by the second cataract of the Nile (Kamrin and Oppenheim, n.d.).

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Ancient Nubia is known to have been a location of Africa’s earliest kingdoms due to presence of fertile land in the central Nile valley and a supply of gold. It was a strategic trade hub connecting luxury product trade from sub-Saharan Africa to civilizations in Egypt and the Mediterranean. The culture is known to have been well-developed and progressive for its time. Much is still now known about the culture since it did not have a written language until the Meroitic Period starting with 275 BC. It is known that Nubia maintained complex cultural and political interactions with Ancient Egypt until eventually being taken over in 1500BC.

Similar to Egypt, until modern history, the region faced instability as it experienced civil war and shifted control between Egypt, Assyrians, and eventually Romans and the Hellenic Empire. It is known that the land held significant cultural, economic, and strategic value, being host to a range of kingdoms and empires over its history, but it remains most associated with Ancient Egypt with which it seemed to be culturally similar (“Nubia” N.d.).

Nubia was discovered by British archeologists in the early years of the 20th century, presumably with expeditions in 1905 to ancient temples in the region approximated to be 3000 years old. However, conditions were unfavorable, nothing of value was found, and racist social perceptions of the time did not perceive that African cultures could create art or technology. Nubia was treated as an annex of Egypt historically for decades until very recently in the 21st century did archeologists rediscover the historical value and meanings to Nubian culture in the region’s history. This is fitting with the development of archeological science as largely Western-centric and looking for value in found objects (Kirwan 1974).

While this was not always the case, another aspect is the development of technology which simply limited the ability of certain archaeological expeditions until much later when they were appropriate financed and prepared, using well-developed methods and techniques. Archeology was largely an amateur activity until the profession formed towards the latter half of the 20th century.

Archeologists began to return to Nubia, with a Chicago university expedition in 1962-64. British expeditions also returned in the 1970s. Michigan University expeditions occurred in 1986 afterward. A famous expedition to the Tombos occurred in 2000 led by Stuart Tyson Smith. Some cultural biases are noticeable in publications, particularly from the expeditions in the 1960-70s (“Archaeological expeditions to Nubia” N.d.). Researchers continued to view the Nubian culture and region in the Western lens and development, particularly in the context of the Roman and Hellenic Empires.

Various types of artifacts have been found from the Nubian culture and region from different ages. These include paintings, statutes, tablets and steles, small domestic products. Most significant findings are whole structures found in the region, including a large necropolis at Tombos with intact remains, columns and ruins, many engraved with Meroitic text, and pyramid structures at Meroe (Kamrin and Oppenheim, n.d.). More modern structures and artifacts from the Roman era are being discovered as well. These artifacts and structures play a critical role in portraying the history of the region, and the role that Nubia had played in the sociocultural and geopolitical development of the continent.

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The Nubian culture was highly culturally diverse and artistically and technologically advanced, largely due to its geography and interaction with other cultures. Although similar to their Egyptian neighbors, they had their distinctions. It is known that they were an agrarian society. Their culture is known to have celebrated poetry and music. The culture maintained some sort of scarification practices for several generations. Nubia is believed to have been a scholarly culture and intertwined their own and Egyptian cultural traditions (“Nubia and Ancient Culture” N.d.).

These artifacts are important and do have their place in a museum. It is evident that Nubia as a region played a significant role for northeastern Africa. The region played host to a range of independent kingdoms as well as the outposts of well-known civilizations such as Egypt and Rome (Emberling 2020). Therefore, the items and structures found, tell an important rich narrative of centuries of historic development.


Archaeological expeditions to Nubia.” N.d. Wikipedia. Web.

Emberling, Geoff. 2020. “Exhibiting Ancient Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: ‘Ancient Nubia Now’ and Its Audiences.” American Journal of Archaeology 124 (3): 511. Web.

Kamrin, Janice and Adela Oppenheim. N.d.. “The Land of Nubia.” The Met. Web.

Kirwan, L. P. 1974. “Nubia and Nubian Origins.” The Geographical Journal 140 (1): 43–51. Web.

“Nubia.” N.d. Wikipedia. Web.

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“Nubia and Ancient Culture.” N.d. LumenLearning. Web.

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