During five millennia, Nubia hosts cultural sequences whose roots penetrate the African substratum :

Rock art opens a domain that some consider ‘artistic’. The Neolithic precedes Egyptian proto-history, that finds in it ‘a part of its origins’, according to Hassan Hussein Idris Ahmed, director general of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan. The Kerma culture attaches specific cultural schemes to its beliefs and the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe rework Egyptian concepts. Christian Nubia defends its faith with art that endures until the 16th century of our era. All these cultural phases have an element in common: exceptional ceramics, proof of their belonging to a distinguished ancient world.

Nubia exists in both time and space from the Palaeolithic to the emergence of Islam, each period covering approximately a millennium. An ebb and flow of influences are added to these components to form the plot of its history: the North (Egypt) participates and the South (present-day Sudan) responds in some periods.

In return, the whole valley shares the Nile, its floods and the desert giving man the ability to shape his history.

Since prehistory, man has had to deal with his environment. Around 4500 BC, man is still a predator. After the last great pluvial period, he adapts to his environment and takes on board the notion of productivity.

This economy favours a form of art that is based on customs and beliefs, where chiefdoms, undoubtedly with a hierarchical structure, produce regional typologies from Khartoum to the Egyptian delta. The Neolithic brings prehistory to a close.

The possible origin of the word ‘Nubia'


The Lagide Dynasty

The term ‘Nubia' may have appeared under the Ptolemies. In fact, the Lagide administration imposed a new writing system, whereby Coptic gradually replaced Demotic Egyptian. The first attempts began during the course of the 2nd Century BC: ‘on the subject of the magic texts, in the priestly milieu with ties to the Greek scribes'. This new form of writing translates the Demotic sounds but retains seven symbols whose sound is not given by the Greek alphabet. It gives a Greek pronunciation to words and expressions that are fundamentally Egyptian, through the agency of the alphabet. Coptic, whose development is achieved by around the 4th Century AD, is thus an adaptation to the ‘consonant and vowel system that has had repercussions on both the rendering of Greek loan words and on Egyptian words'.

Strabo lived in the Roman and Meroitic periods. In the 2nd Century BC, tradition confirms the presence of Greek literates at the royal court at Meroe, a town located between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts. One of the Meroitic kings, Arkamani, apparently received a classical education. In the course of the 3rd Century BC, Alexandria saw the birth of the museum and library whose fame extend across the whole of the Mediterranean Basin and the African ‘corridor'. The writing system used in the Nile Valley underwent a change: Ptolemaic Egypt turns towards Coptic whereas Meroitic transliterates the indigenous language of the south. The question is whether the Greek or Alexandrian linguists could have assisted the structuring of the alphabet of the Meroitic kingdom. Strabo may have known of their works. When mentioning the term Nubia, these scholars may have expressed, to the best of their phonetic understanding, a word used by the locals.

Greek civilisation was the cradle of philosophy and rational thought. On the individual level the logos allowed each citizen to affirm his freedom. This right to free speech required a specific mental structure. In refusing tradition and authority, a characteristic of the civilisations of the 3rd and 2nd Millenniums BC, where knowledge and power were the prerogatives of the king, the priests and the scribes, the Greek world accedes to knowledge through rational speculation. Scientific schemes are thus fashioned. Hellenistic thought emerges when the Ionian physicians assimilate ‘empirical knowledge and mathematics gleaned from the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Cretans'. In the 6th Century BC, reason, left to itself, without authority and tradition, tries to redefine the world. This vision, led during the preceding century by tyrants and legislators, reaches its apogee under the Ptolemies.

The Greeks tried to understand the geography, the customs and the religion of the countries that they discovered. Herodotus speaks of Libya as if it were a continent: ‘Libya is bordered on all sides by the sea, except for the part that is attached to Asia', adding, ‘I certainly admire the scholars of geography that have been able to divide the Earth and trace the borders of Libya, Asia and Europe'. In reality, what Herodotus refers to as Libya is the northern part of Africa.

Under the king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (ca. 308-246 BC), some scholars set out for the south, but according to K.H. Priese ‘their writings have all disappeared with the exception of some isolated excerpts form the work of Bion of Soloi (3rd Century B.C.) the same thing goes for the Greek geographers that exploited these first hand works for their descriptions of the earth (....) and (...) the writers of the Roman period, like Strabo and Pliny, are no more than the deposits of an old stock of quotes'. The word Nubia could be part of the ‘quotes' taken from the old texts to designate a region lying between the First Cataract and Meroe. As for the term ‘Ethiopia', it appears to cover a vast region from Syene (Aswan) to the limits of the world known by the Greeks.


Egyptian Semantics

The word Nubia could also come from Egyptian Semantics. The texts use several names.

Ta-Sety (T3-sty) is attested by Old Kingdom and designates the territory of the Great South. A hymn from the Pyramid Text mentions the incense of Ta-Séty, a region that could have reached as far as the land of Punt, today located in the Horn of Africa. Other hymns invoke the Nubian god Dedun (Ddwn) coming from Ta-Séty, to which the king is assimilated, perhaps endorsing the connection to these areas. Two royal edicts of the First Intermediate Period name Ta-Sety, the first nome of Egypt as far as Elephantine. At the beginning of the Roman period, this word is still written in traditional Egyptian in the temple of Philae.

Ta-Néhésy (T3-nhsy) is also used during the Old Kingdom. The Palermo stone relates an expedition led by king Snefru where 7000 Nubians were made prisoners and 200000 heads of cattle were taken. Under the New Kingdom this term was incised in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut where the produce of Punt (incense, scented resins, etc.) was paralleled with those of Ta-Sety. In the 4th Century B.C., Ta-Néhésy was written in Demotic on the stela of the Napatan king Harsiyoff (ca. 400-365 BC). Under the Copts, ‘the land of the Nubians' (p313 (n)nhsy) no longer seems to be in use. This term, developed in the reign of Snefru, could have formed the word Nubia.

Kush (K3s) appears in the Middle Kingdom, when the kings of the 13th Dynasty control Lower Nubia (between the First and Second Cataracts). The expressions ‘vile land of Kush' or ‘Kush the despicable' are then used for the peoples living to the south of the Batn el-Haggar. As for the word ‘Kushite', the inhabitant of Kush, it has become ‘Ethiopian' in Demotic and Egôsh in Coptic.

The articulation of these terms seems difficult to comprehend: should T3-sty be pronounced Ta-Séty? T3-nhsy, Ta-Néhésy? and K3s, Kush? In this domain, the Coptic consonant and vowel systems are undoubtedly the best guides.

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scn egypte soudan nil desert nubie nubia pyramides cataractes meroe kawa djebel barkal kerma ile de sai
scn egypte soudan nil desert nubie nubia pyramides cataractes meroe kawa djebel barkal kerma ile de sai