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Each to their own
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 03 - 2009

Nubia's curious geographical location as a corridor between Africa south of the Sahara, Egypt and the Arab world coupled with a somewhat schizophrenic outlook -- simultaneously espousing historical isolation and integration with its neighbours -- created a unique culture that Nubians appear eager for outsiders to comprehend, writes Gamal Nkrumah
History provides hope in dark days, and especially so for the proud people of Nubia. They lost their land in the early 1970s, now submerged beneath one of Africa's largest man- made fresh water reservoirs -- Lake Nasser. The lake, some 360km long in Egyptian territory and a further 140km in adjacent territory in Sudan, virtually plunged what was once known as Lower Nubia.
Archaeologists like to kick tough decisions into the long papyri and tall rushes that sprout along the banks of the Nile. An unprecedented salvage operation was launched to rescue the monuments and temples of Nubia from the muddy, silt-laden waters that accumulated behind the Aswan High Dam constructed between 1960-64, and completed in 1970. Many dreaded questions are now re-emerging from the inundated undergrowth. Interestingly enough, for the first time in the recorded history of the period, unpublished documents written by scholars and archaeologists and relating to the days of the salvage operation were presented and debated at this week's Aswan conference. Delving into the depths of Nubian history and heritage requires a great deal more openness with prospective scholars, the new generation of archeologists concerned with Nubia. Institutions, the local Egyptian and Sudanese ones included, are needlessly vague -- and let us be blunt, occasionally dishonest about who will be teaching what. Too little is known about what has gone under, what has been lost forever. But at least now we know a little more about what remains -- what was salvaged and what was submerged. The consensus at the Aswan conference was that the Nubians deserve more in return.
Traditional bonds with their ancestral land remain as binding today as they were in the days before the Pharaohs. Ceramics were, after all, produced by the forefathers of the Nubians by 8,000 BC -- at least two millennia before far less sophisticated imitations were crafted in Egypt. So what was the precise nature of the relationship between the land now known as Nubia and Egypt proper over the ages? The history and culture of Lower Nubia, the geographical focus of the Aswan conference, was always inextricably intertwined with Egypt's. Yet, the relationship was never clearly defined. Lower Nubia was culturally contiguous with Egypt proper, but it was never fully incorporated into the "Two Lands".
Why Lower Nubia continued to be designated as something of a Wild West by the Pharaohs continues to be a curious mystery: was it an accident of geography or an indication of a racial and ethnic separation?
The 50th anniversary of the official appeal by Egypt and Sudan to UNESCO on 6 April 1959 to save the monuments of Lower Nubia proved to be the perfect opportunity to tackle this contentious subject afresh.
In the corridors of the Nubia Museum, Aswan, the dominant metaphor in deliberations at the conference entitled "Lower Nubia: Revisiting Memories of the Past, Envisaging Perspectives for the Future" was continuity. In the Nubian context, the word is synonymous with eternity. The conference took place in Aswan (21-24 March) -- in actual fact the closing session was extended to 25 March.
So who are the Nubians and what do they desire? In ancient times the inhabitants, or at least the ruling cliques of the highly stratified and hierarchical societies, of Lower Nubia adopted Egyptian attire. Their priests, like their Egyptian counterparts, donned sacred leopard skins. Their rulers, however, were invariably depicted by the Egyptians as wearing a headdress distinguished by a sole upright feather -- which in Egypt's New Kingdom's iconography denoted a southern adversary. A love- hate relationship developed, which is curiously commonplace even today. The contemporary Nubians are the indigenous peoples of the central Nile Valley who live along the narrow patches of fertile land that snakes through the desert and forms a gigantic letter "S" in northern Sudan and the southern tip of Egypt. They are a people whose precise origins are unknown, but whose elders today converse in four closely related Nilo-Saharan languages known collectively as "Nubian". The Nubians' aspirations like their compatriots in Egypt and Sudan are for social and economic uplift. Ancient Kushite inscriptions abound, but the Meroetic language is not yet deciphered.
"Nubia was the meeting place of the Mediterranean and African civilisations," director of the Nubia Museum, Aswan, Osama Abdel-Maguid told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are neither Saaida [Upper Egyptians] nor Arabs. We are Nubians," he states categorically.
"Egyptian state gods such as Amun were worshipped in ancient Nubia, but so were purely Nubian gods such as the Lion deity Apedemek," he explains. "Exquisite pottery, intricately-designed jewellery and fine woven cloth were all produced to a high standard of craftsmanship."
In some ways, of course, it is only natural that Nubia should appear as an appendage of Egyptian civilisation. It is in a different category partly because Nubians are distinctive racially from the rest of Egyptians -- then and now the darker complexion of the Nubians was a defining characteristic of their unique identity and a distinguishing factor from Upper Egyptians. Language was yet another differentiating factor. However, it is clear that in ancient times -- from the pre-dynastic era to the dying days of the Pharaohs -- the distinction between Upper and Lower Nubia was as marked as that between Nubia (Upper and Lower) and Egypt (Upper and Lower). It was then that I was confronted with the notion that Lower Nubia was different in more respects than one, that it had its own separate cultural identity.
An attempt at obfuscation is not conducive to a serious study of Nubia at this historical juncture. It is vitally important to stress that the area under discussion at the Aswan conference is Lower, as opposed to Upper, Nubia.
Broad-ranging and meticulously researched working papers were presented at the Aswan conference. Personally, I got to thinking about the curious question of Nubia's uniqueness. Nubia is not a country, and Nubians do not necessarily aspire to create a country distinct from either Egypt or Sudan.
However, since time immemorial Nubia was a distinct land, but an integral part of the Egyptian sphere of influence. It was also an extension of sub-Saharan Africa albeit with distinct Egyptian influences. Lower Nubia traditionally was far more Egyptian oriented than Upper Nubia which retained to a greater degree its "African" character.
The salvage campaign commenced in the 1960s and 1970s, with temples lifted piecemeal to countries that generously donated in terms of funding and personnel to the salvage operation. A prime example was the Ellesya Temple, which was reconstructed, stone by stone, in Turin's Museum of Egypt, Italy. However, there were monumental structures that remained almost intact at home, or were partially or completely reconstructed such as the Temple of Abu Simbel and that of Philae, Aswan.
The Aswan conference was organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture (the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Office for the Salvage of the Monuments of Nubia) in conjunction with the Sudanese Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport (the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums). The four- day conference focussed primarily, although not exclusively, on the areas of Lower Nubia inundated by Lake Nasser. Nonetheless, there was clear polemic on the areas of Lower Nubia not subjected to flooding, at least not yet. Indeed, the laying of the foundation stones last month of the Meroe Dam in northern Sudan is bound to subject more Nubian land to permanent inundation. "There are fundamental differences in the nature of the salvage operations of the Aswan High Dam and the Meroe Dam. The latter led to the inundation of an area that was characterised by monumental temples, forts and palaces. The area further south in Upper Nubia contained relatively fewer gargantuan structures," General Director of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan (NCAM) Hassan Hussein Idriss told the Weekly.
Idriss explained that the planned Nubia Museum of Wadi Halfa, Sudan, is designed to cater for the tourists (both local and foreign) who are more interested in the smaller and less glamorous but equally revealing artefacts, historical remains and ancient objects. The proposed Wadi Halfa Museum is meant to play a complimentary role to that of the Nubian Museum in Aswan. Both focus on Lower Nubia -- a region of once meandering farmland along the banks of the Nile between the First Cataract immediately south of Aswan and the Third Cataract north of Dongola in Sudan.
"Egypt and Sudan are working in tandem to facilitate the exhibition of the cultural heritage of the people of Lower Nubia throughout history and including contemporary Nubian culture."
There is something heartwarming when it comes to enthusing about Nubian culture. The zeal and anticipation of Idriss is infectious. He notes that the Wadi Halfa Museum is designed to be a "showcase for ancient and modern Nubian culture".
And, the director of the Nubia Museum, Aswan, concurs. "I strongly believe that the present is an extension of the past," Abdel-Maguid tells the Weekly. "Nubians like to keep the ancient traditions alive. They are acutely aware that theirs is a special heritage," he explains.
Beneath the rather relaxed exterior, the director of the Nubian Museum, Aswan, exudes an unmistakable exuberance. He is particularly ecstatic with the proceedings, results and recommendations of the conference.
"The present echoes the past," he reiterates. "Essendogo, the Water Angel, was placated with sacraments of grain porridge and boiled dates," he extrapolates. He cites living examples. "The Nubians have a very distinct tradition of celebrating the Muslim festival of Ashoura and that bears little resemblance to Islam and that is reminiscent of ancient legends from the remotest past. There is an intrinsic and symbiotic relationship between Osiris and Al-Hussein, this is an integral part of our culture. It also denotes our cultural specificity."
He sheds further light on a fascinating analogy. "In the Nubian mind, Al-Hussein is very much associated with Osiris. Indeed, the martyrdom of Hussein is reminder of the assassination of Osiris." He revels in facets of Nubian culture and calls his listeners' attention to the minutiae and particularistic nuances of Nubia's cultural heritage. I ponder the implications.
For someone so self-avowedly wedded to tradition, the Aswan conference is of special significance. Questioned about the potential conflict of interest involved in the construction of yet another Nubian museum in the region, he adopts the maxim the more the merrier.
"The cross is to this day a powerful symbol of Nubian cultural specificity and is frequently used as a motif to embellish buildings," he points out. Nubia, he stresses, was a Christian land for more than a millennium before its inhabitants adopted Islam as its own religion.
"The concept of libation is particularly prevalent in Nubia. It is a tradition that is practised in many African cultures. It is related to the Nile, the sanctity of the river, and the closely related notion of ritualistic purification, ablutions and even baptism," he explains.
The conversation veers sharply and with astonishing suddenness to the social content of contemporary Nubia. "The curious phenomenon is that Nubian women are far more determined than the men to act as depositors of the past. Nubian women are especially proud of their cultural heritage." Isis takes over from Osiris.
Isis salvages and reassembles the remains of Osiris. This is how he views the salvage operation. For 50 years, it was the Nubian women who kept the cultural heritage of their people alive even as their land was inundated.
The Nubian Studies Research Centre, now relocated to Khartoum, carries out some of the services that the Nubian Museum in Aswan, and its new counterpart in Wadi Halfa, provide or are supposed to provide. Foremost among these are those pertaining to the preservation and propagation of the Nubian tongues. Two courses entitled "How to Speak Nubian" are currently taught.
"We've no lexicons, no Rosetta Stone," the director of the Aswan Nubian Museum notes. He adds that in 2012, the Nubian Museum, in conjunction with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, will host yet another conference on the Nubian cultural heritage. "The question of language will be tackled more systematically. Some 35 per cent of the vocabulary of the Nubian language of Faditcha and 20 per cent of Kenuz have Meroetic origins," he says. Accordingly, there are also Meroetic connections with a number of African languages including the Fur of Darfur, and certain languages spoken in Kordofan in western Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia. "There is a strong connection," he insists between the contemporary spoken languages of Nubia and those of Africa south of the Sahara.
With racism to the fore and religiosity lurking in the background the subject of Nubia's heritage is always going to be contentious.
However, polemics aside, Meroetic declined with Christianity and Old Nubian developed influenced by Coptic, Greek and Latin and written in Coptic and Latin script. However, it was the same language spoken in the pre-Christian Meroetic kingdoms of Nubia. "The Nubian Christian Church and kingdoms had strong affiliations with the Ethiopian Church. Nubia, however, had the upper hand at first. It was in the 14th century that the Ethiopian Church became more prominent and the Nubian Church declined. Nubia was Christian before Ethiopia." Yet, he notes that the conversion of Nubians to Islam was a peaceful process and was pre-empted by trade. "There are Nubians, certain tribes, with Arabic origins. They are a mixed race people not of pure Nubian stock."
"The southern Nubian kingdoms had closer connections with the peoples of southern Sudan such as the Shilluk, the Nuer and the Dinka," he explains. And, therefore, by implication are more culturally akin to the Nilotic peoples of Africa south of the Sahara.
"Then there are people such as the Uleikat who do not speak a Nubian dialect," he expounds further. "You can still find the style of jewellery used by the Meroites on tribes of the savanna belt south of Khartoum."
He delves whole-heartedly into a history lesson. When Kush disintegrated into three kingdoms -- Nobatia, Makouria and Alwa -- Nubian culture was sustained by the religiosity of the Nubian people. They held on tenaciously to their traditions. Nobatia, being the northernmost kingdom and Alwa -- the southernmost and more explicitly sub-Saharan African in cultural orientation.
And, back to the present. "The Nubian Museum in Aswan has an outreach programme," he emphasises. "We aim at establishing new crafts centres. Girls learn from older women certain traditional handicrafts."
Nubians are integrated into the political establishment and decision-making processes of Egypt. The country currently has two MPs of Nubian origin, Mohamed Galal and Diab Abdallah of the Shoura Council, or Upper House of parliament.
I eye the Nubian artefacts on display. Their distinctive anklets, bracelets, ear studs and earrings are a piercing reminder of Africa much further south of the Sahara.
I wonder what the founder of the 25th Dynasty Piankhi who ruled Egypt and Nubia would have made of this gathering. Or, what verdict the last Kushite Pharaoh Taharqa would have pronounced.

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