Nubians Research Paper

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For over a thousand years, from the fourth century to the fourteenth century CE, the medieval Nubian kingdoms and their peoples dominated a wide span of Africa, stretching 1,200 kilometers from the plains of the Blue Nile (present-day Sudan) in the south to Aswan, Egypt, in the north.

The historical roots of the Nubians in Africa trace back to a set of once widespread pastoralist communities, called the Astaborans by modern-day scholars. These peoples occupied the dry steppes of the eastern Sahara in the fifth and fourth millennia BCE. The ancestral Nubian-speaking society arose out the breakup of the Astaboran group during the final drying out of the Sahara in the middle of the third millennium BCE. The earliest surviving written notices, from two thousand years later, describe the Nubians of the third and second centuries BCE as living west of the Nile along the southern Sahara fringes, where they formed several small kingdoms independent of the powerful empire of Meroe. By the first and second centuries CE, a few Nubian communities had moved east of the river, while larger numbers settled along the Nile itself between the first and fifth cataracts. In these lands the Nubians became subjects of the Meroitic Empire. Some scholars propose that the Meroites may even have encouraged the Nubians to settle down as a buffer farming population along the Nile, after the border between the Roman and Meroitic territories had been established by treaty near Philae in 23 CE.

The Rise of the Nubian Kingdoms

With the collapse of Merotic power in the third and fourth centuries, a period of strife overtook the region between Aswan and the Blue Nile to south, with the Nubians emerging triumphant by the later fifth and early sixth centuries. Archaeological findings identify two Nubian societies along the Nile, one between the first and third cataracts and the second extending from the third cataract south to the Blue Nile regions. In the sixth century these territories were apparently divided among three kingdoms: Nobadia, with its capital at Faras, Makuria, with its capital at Dongola, and Alodia farthest south, with its capital at Soba (south of present-day Khartoum). Interestingly, the royal succession in these kingdoms was matrilineal, the normal pattern being for a nephew to succeed his mother’s brother as king.

From the 540s to the 560s, missionary activities converted the Nubian royal courts and, in time, the general Nubian populace to Christianity, although some Nubians had become Christian as early as the fifth century. Nobadia and Alodia accepted Monophysite teachings (that Christ had a single divine-human nature; modern-day Monophysite churches include the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches), but Makuria apparently initially followed the Chalcedonian creed (which stated that Christ had two distinct natures, divine and human, in one person; this is the position adopted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and, later, the Protestant churches).

The traditional view of historians has been that, sometime before 707 CE, Makuria conquered and incorporated Nobadia. But a recent reevalution of the literary and linguistic evidence by linguist-historian Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst strongly suggests that the unification of Nobadia and Makuria took place by early in the 600s. Moreover, her work shows compellingly that Nobadian culture dominated the unification of the two kingdoms. The language of Nobadia, known as Old Nubian, became the written and administrative tongue of the combined state, and Nobadia’s Monophysite faith became the established religion, displacing Makuria’s earlier adherence to Eastern Orthodoxy.

The social history evinces a similar history. The Nobadian stretches of the river were home to a multilayered social formation, with an administrative class, a prospering merchant class, a clerical class, servants and artisans in the towns, and a class of peasant farmers on the land. In contrast, society in the former Makuria appears to have consisted primarily of just two strata, the ruling and administrative elite and its retainers, and a far larger, probably enserfed peasant majority. The old lands of Makuria, in other words, bear all the earmarks of a conquered territory ruled by the Nobadians. Outsiders called the new combined state “Makuria,” because its main capital was the Makurian city of Dongola. But the choice of Dongola as the capital most likely reflects an early policy of concentrating state power where opposition was most likely to arise.

The Muslim conquest of Egypt (639–641 CE) and the subsequent Muslim invasions of northern Nubian areas in 642 and 652 CE mark a major transition in the history of the Nubian states. Makuria effectively turned back both invasions. The treaty of peace that ended hostilities established at first a regular annual, and then, after 835 CE, a triennial exchange of goods between Makuria and the governments of Egypt that lasted until the later thirteenth century. Muslim interpretations in much later times sought to portray the relationship as a tributary one. But the contemporary evidence shows this to have been a treaty among equals. Over the next several centuries, although there were a number of outbreaks of war between the Makurians and their northern neighbors, the Nubian states appear generally to have prospered. In the tenth century, Nubian kings in fact intervened in Upper Egypt on behalf of Coptic Christian coreligionists and ruled southern Egypt for several decades. It is clear that through much of this period the Makurian state and its merchant class continued to be prosperous participants in trade northward to Egypt. From the ninth through the twelfth centuries its kings also undertook to control overland access eastward to the expanding commerce of the Red Sea, launching military campaigns when necessary to maintain a loose hegemony over the nomadic Beja inhabitants of the intervening areas.

Alodia, the Nubian kingdom about which we know the least, was generally reckoned the more powerful of the two states, and it was certainly the more populous and probably the wealthier of the two. Travelers to Soba, the capital city, describe a wealthy court and a thriving urban sector with important trade links to the Red Sea. Among the notable products of country in its heyday was gold, mined in the southeastern borderlands of the kingdom, near the edges of the Ethiopian highlands. While the northern kingdom ruled primarily over people of Nubian language and culture, Alodia was very much a multi-ethnic state, with a variety of other peoples besides Nubians making up its population, especially in most of the peripheral areas of the state. Alodia was too far south to be involved in conflicts with Egypt, but we suspect that its kings, like those of Makuria, must have had very important relations with the Beja, whose lands lay between them and the Red Sea entrepots. The existence in the tenth and eleventh centuries of several small, nominally Christian principalities among the Beja surely reflects the political and material preeminence of Nubian influences.

Decline of the Nubian Kingdoms

From the twelfth century two new factors began to shift the balance of power away from the Nubian kingdoms. The factor of greatest long-term effect was the emergence and spread of a new ethnic element, Bedouin Arabs, who infiltrated southward from Egypt through the areas east of Nile. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these Arabs began increasingly to displace or absorb the earlier Nubian and related Daju pastoral peoples of the desert steppes along the southern Sahara fringes, spreading a competing religion, Islam, as well a new ethnicity, language, and economy over large areas. The key to their success may have been that they introduced the first full-fledged camel nomadism into the most marginal areas, before then precariously dependent on goat and sheep raising. Another complicating factor in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the disappearance of the earlier Beja principalities of the Red Sea hills and in their place the rise of a new confederation of Beja clans, the Hadariba, at the same time as Islam increasingly began to take hold among them. Controlling the crucial trade routes between the Red Sea and the old Alodia heartland, the Hadariba appear to have siphoned away a growing portion of the wealth of the trade. By as early as the mid-1200s the Alodia kingdom, which most strongly faced these new pressures, may have begun to break up into a number of independent principalities.

The second factor in the decline of independent Nubia was political. The new Ayyubid rulers of twelfth-century Egypt, instituted policies of more active engagement with the regions to the south, and did the Mamluks after them. These pressures came to a head in the latter half of the thirteenth century and in the early fourteenth century, as aspiring Christian Nubian rulers undermined their own political base by seeking help from Muslims in their internal struggles for political advantage. In 1324 a new Muslim kingdom of Makuria took power at Dongola. The old Nobadian regions to the north broke away and may have had Christian rulers of their own for several decades longer, as did a number of the small independent Nubian principalities to the south, left over from the breakup of Alodia.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, the political and cultural worlds of the Nubians had changed irretrievably. In 1504 the region encompassing the former territories of Alodia and the southern part of Makuria was united into a new state, the Funj kingdom, with its capital at Sinnar, 200 kilometers south of the now ruined city of Soba. The new rulers opted for Islam as the religion best able to unite their populations and consolidate their trade relations with the Red Sea countries and Egypt. Nubian languages continued to be spoken, especially in the old territories of Makuria. But Arabic became the language of commerce and, in time, of administration, in the Funj kingdom, and gradually between 1500 and 1800 most of the southern Nubians began to adopt Arabic as their first language and increasingly to think of themselves as Arabs. The same trends came gradually also to affect the self-perceptions of other peoples included in the originally multiethnic Funj kingdom.


  1. Bechhaus-Gerst, M. (1996). Sprachwandel durch sprachkontakt am beispiel des Nubischen im Niltal [Language change through language contact in the case of the Nubian languages of the Nile Valley]. Cologne, Germany: Koppe Verlag.
  2. Welsby, D. (2002). The Medieval kingdoms of Nubia. London: The British Museum Press.

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