Oasis Magazine Articles

The Nubian People and Culture

By Supriya Chawla

February 01, 2016

The original Nubia is the dry hot land of about 123,000 square kilometers between the city of Aswan and northern Sudan.  Much of this land now lies beneath the waters created by the High Dam Reservoir (Lake Nassar/Lake Nubia).  With its construction an entire population, consisting of about hundred twenty thousand people, was relocated from its ancestral home land.  Half of those were resettled in Kom Ombo, about 10 miles north of Aswan, and the other half were repatriated to northwestern Sudan. At the same time monuments in Nubia were also relocated. For example UNESCO's efforts, at the time, to rescue from the flooding waters the two temples of Ramses II and his consort from Abu Simbel are well known even today.  

In earlier Egyptian texts, Nubia is mentioned as the land of Cush.  It was through this land that Egyptians obtained products of the Sudan like ebony, ivory, leopard skins and a variety of resins. Its people had for millennia inhabited the middle reaches of the Nile and their traditional ways of life were based on agriculture, fishing, transporting goods up and down the Nile, virtually unchanged until the Aswan Dam was built.

As we can see, old Nubia served as a link between Egypt and a small part of East Africa and trade between the two countries was well established (It must be noted, however, because of its barren environment, it was not a regular trade route for the rest of Africa). Egypt had an abundant agricultural surplus and since ancient times Nubians turned to their rich northern neighbor for vital food supplies, specifically grains. In return Egypt was given access to exploit Nubia's rich mineral resources.

At the time when the most recent Aswan Dam was complete in 1970, the relocation trauma to the Nubians was deepened by the fact that it was the fourth time they had watched their homes become submerged by the Nile.  The first dam was built between 1899 and 1902.  It formed an artificial lake, about 230 km upstream, and Nubians moved back from the fertile strip at the edge of the river and rebuilt their homes going higher up the banks.  Then began a period of further trial and error for the construction of the dam and each time it was enlarged to meet the needs of the country the Nubian population was moved.

Following the most recent resettlement the Nubians were finally granted at least some compensation. To mention just one type, special days were set for Nubians to do their shopping for merchandise at governmental departmental stores.  The prices at these stores were subsidized, demonstrating that the Egyptian Government was well aware of the Nubian population's plight and considered Nubians very much part of its population. 

Nubians are a gentle, honest, proud, and as we have seen, are an enduring people. They are tall, slim and darker colored compared to their Egyptian counterparts. In the 20th century Nubia's working men came northwards to find employment as doormen, cooks, clerks, servants, and can still be found in many Cairene households.  However it is also observed that they seldom marry an Egyptian and eventually return to today's Nubia when they retire.  Many Nubians still speak their own language, which unfortunately is not a written language.

The classic modern Nubian villages that were spared by the last rising waters around Aswan are extraordinarily beautiful and practical.  They usually are built of mud bricks, with barrel vaulted roofs and domes for air circulation.  The living quarters are built around a broad central and shaded courtyard.  The village lanes of fine yellow sand, twist past walls painted in vivid shades of blue. A visitor will find that the buildings elicit a feeling of harmony and practicality. They are cool and spacious, and as a family expands the main building is added to with the construction of additional rooms.

A felucca ride will take a visitor to Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile. The island gets its name from the large black rocks that are situated on its southern tip and resemble bathing elephants. Here is another Nubian village that can be visited.  Visitors are welcome in any of these villages and are often invited inside for a drink of refreshing minted black tea.  The women take this opportunity to bring out their handicrafts, which consist of color-coordinated small bead necklaces that intricately are woven on small spools and represent a typical Nubian craft and cannot be found elsewhere. Other items are baskets, caps for males that hold the turbans in place.

To bring the Nubian culture to the world and indeed envelope it into tourist packages, UNESCO built a museum in Aswan.  The construction is of sandstone and incorporates features of Nubian architecture.  There are over 2,000 artifacts that trace the area's history. The displays include the oldest human skeleton.  Aan exhibit of a pre-historic cave depicts the first attempts at rock carvings and the use of tools.  The exhibits of the Pharaonic period demonstrate the former importance of the region to the rulers of Egypt as a gateway to the south and give the visitor a better understanding of the former links between Egypt with Nubia.  There is also a section with Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic influences.  The colorful exhibits of the Nubian folk heritage emphasize the individuality of the Nubian culture.  The most common crafts are pottery and the weaving of baskets and mats from palm fronds.

When one remembers that their ancestors came from a very dry land, the Nubians have adapted very well living in the moist environment of the Nile River and many own feluccas and make very fine felucca captains and guides in and around Aswan as well to further up north of the country.  One can hire the felucca, its captain and crew at low cost for a group of 20 or so people per boat for two or three days. They will do the cooking and entertaining and at the same time take you to some enchanting archeological sites along the river's edge.

How do Nubians feel about themselves today? The following will give some idea when this writer once made a dreadful mistake.  I was sitting in a restaurant in Aswan and was ready to order.  For some reason and I don't remember what it was that made say to a Nubian waiter "but you are Egyptian."  Oh dear, little did I know at that time. He was enraged. "I am not Egyptian, I am Nubian" he said and walked off without taking my order.  I then realized that Nubians are extremely proud to be Nubian and often disdainful of northern Egyptians.  It is not a question of skin color.  It is something else, namely a pride in one's heritage! 

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