Nubia: Lost Civilizations

Review by Nigel Fletcher-Jones

In recent years there has been increasing desire among travellers to visit the archaeological sites of southern Egypt and Sudan in search of ‘ancient Nubia’, an elongated oval that stretched either side of the Nile from a little north of Aswan to a little north of Khartoum. This makes Sarah Schellinger’s book a particularly welcome addition to Reaktion’s Lost Civilizations series. Schellinger attempts to extract the essence of Nubian history and culture, which is often ‘lost’ within the generally more familiar context of ancient Egypt. In attempting this, she has set herself the difficult task of compressing 10,000 years of Nubian history into around 200 pages, and, perhaps paradoxically, she has assumed a reasonable understanding of ancient Egypt’s history, personalities, and religious practices on the part of the reader.

The central thrust of Schellinger’s argument is that the relationship between Egypt and Nubia was one of ‘cultural entanglement’ involving significant measures of give and take between the two kingdoms. Ancient Egypt’s capacity for taking from what was often referred to as ‘Vile Kush’ was certainly on the grand scale with regard to natural resources (particularly gold), ‘prisoners-of-war’, exotic trade goods from the heart of Africa, and mercenary soldiers.

When not directly occupied by Egypt, however, the independent Nubian kingdoms maintained their own cultural characteristics, borrowing from, and adapting to suit their own needs, aspects of Egyptian material culture, religion, and iconography. In some of these aspects, Nubia certainly had a direct influence in the opposite direction.

In addition, Nubian archers were both greatly feared and highly prized by the Egyptian army. So much so that the Egyptians used the term Ta-sety (‘The Land of the Bow’) to describe the mercenaries’ homeland. Many centuries later, in the AD 640s, Muslim forces – respecting those very same skills – sometimes referred to the Nubians as ‘eye-smiters’.

The military prowess of Nubian soldiers came to the fore in establishing the 25th Egyptian Dynasty (c.747-656 BC). Nubian kings – firm in their belief that they were the true heirs of Egypt’s divine kingship – conquered the ‘North Land’, thereby creating a vast empire that stretched from the Nile Delta to the area of the Sixth Cataract across the Nile.

This well-illustrated book is a useful addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in the cultural and political dynamics of north-east Africa – dynamics in which the important role of Nubia is often ‘lost’ within the shadow cast by its neighbour. The sections on the kingdom of Kerma (c.2500-1450 BC); the Napatan kings after the collapse of the 25th Dynasty Kushite state; the Meroitic kingdom (c.300 BC-AD 350); and the societal role of powerful Nubian women – including the mothers of kings and independent queens – are especially interesting.

Nubia: Lost Civilizations
Sarah M Schellinger
Reaktion Books, £18, Hardback
ISBN 978-1789146592