BLOG 49: 25/06/2017 A Journey along the Nile and the Kingdom of Kush
A Journey along the Nile and the Kingdom of Kush
There is a saying that “Once you have tasted the waters of the Nile, you will return.” In my case that was certainly true. Watching Joanna Lumley’s recent documentary about her journey along the Nile reminded me of how this area has long held a fascination for me which first began when I read Winston Churchill’s “My Early Life” at school. His writing painted such a wonderful image of the Nile with its dangerous cataracts and the red-brown landscape of the Nubian Desert that I was hooked. Churchill was a reporter in those days and an eye witness to the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. That battle, commanded by General Kitchener with British and Egyptian troops defeated the Dervish forces of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad “the Mahdi” headed by Abdullal ibn Muhammad and was in response to the death of General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885. Churchill’s descriptions of the noble, Baggara Arab horsemen and the Dervishes with their glistening dark skin contrasting against white jellabiyas and turbans and carrying silver curved knives and long spears created such an alluring image for me.
A few years later when I lived in Greece, I spent a month in Sudan; two weeks in Khartoum, living in a friend’s home in the Muslim section of Omdurman itself and another two weeks in Juba, now the capital of the war-torn country of Southern Sudan. The two areas couldn’t have been so different. Juba was fertile and green whilst Khartoum, where the Blue and White Niles converge, was a desert city. And they were different in culture also, leading eventually to the terrible civil war. Yet this area wasn’t always such a desolate and off-the beaten track. Sudan itself was once the centre of an important, prosperous civilization – that of the Nubian Black Pharaohs and the Kingdom of Kush which endured from about 800 BC to about 320 AD. During this time, the Nubians of Kush would at one point, assume rule over all of Nubia as well as Upper and Lower Egypt.
Nubia was home to some of Africa’s earliest kingdoms. Known for rich deposits of gold, it was also the gateway through which luxury products like incense, ivory, and ebony travelled from their source in sub-Saharan Africa to the civilizations of Egypt and the Mediterranean. Archers of exceptional skill provided the military strength for Nubian rulers who ultimately conquered and ruled Egypt for about a century. Monuments still stand in modern Egypt and Sudan at the sites where Nubian rulers built cities, temples, and royal pyramids.
The name “Nubia” came into use in the Roman period. The origin of the name is obscure. Some have linked it to nub, the ancient Egyptian word for gold as Nubia was very rich in gold. Others connect it with the term Noubades, the Greek name for people who moved into northern Nubia sometime in the 4th century AD. However, for much of antiquity, the region south of the 1st cataract of the Nile was called “Kush.” The name is known from ancient Egyptian, classical, and biblical texts. Whether it reflects an indigenous term is not known. The Kushites developed powerful kingdoms. The first was centred at Kerma (2000–1650 BC). The later kingdom had capitals at Napata and Meroe (800 BC–370 AD).
One of my trips was to the ancient capital of Meroe in southern Nubia and which lies on the east bank of the Nile about 200 km north-east of Khartoum. That day we were the only two visitors to the site and as the guide was fresh from studying archaeology at university he wanted to practice his English and spent all day with us. Much of the finer details of that interesting day I have forgotten but it did spark further interest in the Black Pharaohs and the Kingdom of Kush. At its peak, the rulers of Meroe controlled the Nile valley north to south over a straight line distance of more than 1,000 km. The people there preserved many ancient Egyptian customs but were unique in many respects. They developed their own form of writing, first utilizing Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later using an alphabetic script with 23 signs. Many pyramids were built in Meroe during this period and the kingdom consisted of an impressive standing military force. Strabo also describes a clash with the Romans in which the Romans were defeated by Nubian archers under the leadership of a “one-eyed” (blind in one eye) queen. During this time, the different parts of the region divided into smaller groups with individual leaders, or generals, each commanding small armies of mercenaries. They fought for control of what is now Nubia and its surrounding territories, leaving the entire region weak and vulnerable to attack. Meroe would eventually meet defeat by a new rising kingdom to their south, Aksum, under King Ezana.
Meroe was the base of a flourishing kingdom whose wealth was due to a strong iron industry, and international trade involving India and China. So much metalworking went on in Meroe, through its vast production and trade of iron to the rest of Africa, and other international trade partners. At the time, iron was one of the most important metals worldwide, and Meroitic metalworkers were among the best in the world. Meroe also exported textiles and jewellery, much of which was in gold. Their textiles were based on cotton and working on this product reached its highest achievement in Nubia around 400 BC. Trade in “exotic” animals from farther south in Africa was another feature of their economy.
The Egyptian import, the water-moving wheel, was used to move water, in conjunction with irrigation, to increase crop production. The classification of the Meroitic language is uncertain but it was long assumed to have been of the Afro-Asiatic group, but is now considered to have likely been an Eastern Sudanic language.
In the New Kingdom, Nubians and Egyptians were often closely related that some scholars consider them virtually indistinguishable, as the two cultures combined. The result has been described as a wholesale Nubian assimilation into Egyptian society. This assimilation was so complete that it masked all Nubian ethnic identities insofar as archaeological remains are concerned beneath the impenetrable veneer of Egypt’s material culture.
In the Kushite Period, when Nubians ruled as Pharaohs in their own right, the material culture of Dynasty XXV (about 750-655 B.C.E.) was decidedly Egyptian in character. Nubia’s entire landscape up to the region of the Third Cataract was dotted with temples indistinguishable in style and decoration from contemporary temples erected in Egypt. The same observation obtains for the smaller number of typically Egyptian tombs in which these elite Nubian princes were interred.
I was particularly impressed with their pottery which was highly advanced. The bell-shaped Kerma beaker is a hallmark of the classical Kerma civilization. Found stacked together in tombs in groups of as many as seven, the Kerma beaker is the most common form of classic Kerma ware. The outgrowth of a long Nilotic tradition of black-topped red polished ware, these delicate, thin-walled vessels mark a zenith in ceramic technology. Their production required a highly controlled kiln temperature and atmosphere. Formed by hand, each pot was covered with red ochre and polished before firing. To achieve the black top and interior, the vessels were inverted in a combustible material to create a reducing atmosphere during firing. The irregular opalescent band between the black and red surfaces seems to be a glaze-like material that was painted on before firing. These graceful, finely modelled cups, with their highly polished surface and opalescent ring, are among the greatest works of ceramic art.
I have never lost my love of the romance of this area but today it’s confined to viewing it from afar or through beautiful Orientalist paintings. And as for the saying that when one tastes the waters of the Nile you will return, it did come true for me years later, except that it would be to Egypt and not Sudan that I would return. But one thing I wouldn’t recommend is actually tasting the water itself. Today people easily become infected with Bilharzia, a parasite transmitted from freshwater snails to humans which is caught through swimming, washing, or paddling in water, from drinking it or eating food that has been washed in untreated water. This dreadful parasite enters the body when the larvae emerge from snails and enter the skin when people are in the water. They later develop into adult worms that live in the blood. If the urinary system is infected, it can increase the risk of developing bladder cancer or can infect the gastrointestinal tract and the liver. Therefore, admiring the Nile from a boat or the balcony of a hotel is a much more desirable option these days.
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.