Ancient Nubia

By: Janice Yellin, Professor of Art History

I was very pleased to learn that Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile was named best book in the Archaeology and Anthropology category by the 37th Annual American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE)! Since I wrote many essays for the book, the award is satisfying on a personal level. That it also brings more attention to the book makes me even more pleased because while scholars like me have been studying ancient Nubia for a long time, this culture is little known. Ancient Nubia has been overshadowed by ancient Egypt, which is Nubia’s northern neighbor, even though Nubia also has a fascinating millennia-long history (and more pyramids than in Egypt). Part of the reason for this is that there have been very few books in English about ancient Nubia. So it is great news that this beautifully illustrated, reasonably priced book, written specifically for the general public to introduce this “lost civilization”, is getting acknowledged.

The first part of the book contains a series of essays to introduce the reader to Ancient Nubia. The contribution I enjoyed writing the most was my overview of ancient Nubian religion. The Ancient Nubians were exposed to Egyptian religion through geographical proximity and more importantly, through millennia of invasions by the Egyptians. As a result they adopted Egyptian gods and practices so it can be challenging to recognize what remained Nubian. Writing the overview gave me an opportunity to think through decades of more specialized research into Nubian religion, particularly the thorny question of what was really Nubian and what was borrowed from ancient Egyptian beliefs.

I also explored relatively unexamined territory – the religious beliefs of the ordinary Nubians. We have temples and tombs, sculptures and jewelry from the upper classes because they had the resources to create more permanent monuments and objects. So the religion of the ruling, elite classes has been the subject of most studies of Nubian religion. Often left unexamined are questions about the religion of the ordinary Nubians who did not have the wealth to leave behind impressive monuments and objects. What did they believe or understand when they visited the great Egyptian-style temples constructed by their rulers? More importantly, to whom did they pray? How did they pray when a child was ill or when one miraculously recovered from an illness? To whom did they turn for oracles? I examined their small graves with modest offerings to the dead. I studied examples of graffiti carved on hill tops and in caves to explore how and why ordinary Nubians used these sacred spaces for worship. And I learned how important processions and pilgrimages to temples were as communal religious experiences. Writing about folk religion brought me closer to the core beliefs of all ancient Nubians and now informs all my work on their religion.

The second part of this book consists of individual essays devoted to important sites that have been or are currently being excavated in Nubia. Each essay offers the reader a summary of the site’s excavation history, photographs, drawings of architecture and objects, as well as a summary of what we have learned by exploring it. I enjoyed being able to introduce readers to the town and pyramids at the royal capital of Meroe, north of Khartoum, by sharing results from my Royal Pyramids of Kush Project. However, two other site essays were even more important to me because their excavators, Drs. Francis Geus (at Sai Island) and Patrice Lenoble (at al-Hobagi), were friends, as well as brilliant archaeologists, whom we lost much too soon. Writing about their accomplishments at sites where they worked for many years and that they dearly loved gave me an opportunity to reflect on their lives and honor their work.