1902 Encyclopedia > Nubia


NUBIA, a country of north-east Africa, bounded on the N. by Egypt, on the S. by Abyssinia, Senaar, and Kordofan, and on the E. and W. by the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert respectively. It thus comprises the whole of the Nile valley, from Assuan (Oswán, Syene) near the first cataract southwards to Khartúm (Khartoum) at the confluence of the White and the Blue Niles, stretching in this direction for a but 560 miles between 16º and 24º N. lat., and for nearly the same distance east and west between 31º and 39º E. long. But Nubia has at not time formed a strictly political, ethnical, or even administrative expression. Unless it can be identified with the Nob or Nub—that is, "Gold"—region of the hieroglyphic records, the term was unknown to the ancients, by whom everything south of Egypt was vaguely Ethiopia, the land of the dark races. It is first associated historically, not with any definite geographical region, but with the Nobatae, a negro people removed by Diocletian from the western oasis to the Nile above Egypt (Dodecasschaenus), whence the turbulent Blemmyes had recently been driven east-wards. From Núba, the Arabic form of the name of this people, comes the modern Nubia, a term about the precise meaning of which no two writers are of accord. Locally it is restricted to a comparatively small district, the Wády al-Núba, reaching from Sebú_ along the Nile southwards to the north frontier of Dongola. Officially it finds no recognition as an administrative division of the khedive’s possessions, the region commonly understood by Nubia, as above roughly defined, being completely absorbed for administrative purposes, partly in the government of Upper Egypt, but mainly in that of Egyptian or Eastern Súdan (Soudan).1 Within these two governments it comprises the whole of the four mudíriehs (provinces) of Berber, Táká, Dongola (Donkola),and Suákin (more correctly Sawákin), besides parts of Massowah, Khartúm, and Esneh (Upper Egypt), with a total area of about 345,000 square miles, and a population vaguely estimated (1878-1882) at from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000.

But, apart from political and ethnical considerations, Nubia is physically a sufficiently intelligible expression. Merging westwards in the sands of the Libyan desert, and limited eastwards by the Red Sea, it comprises the whole of the rugged and mainly arid steppes and plateaus through which the united White and Blue Niles, after their junction at Khartúm, force their way down to Upper Egypt. In this section, which may be regarded as the upper course of the Nile proper, there occurs a continuous series of slight falls and rapids, including all the historical "six cataracts," beginning a few below Khartúm (the sixth at J. Garri), and terminating at Philae, close to the Egytian frontier. Between these extreme, points the total fall in a distance of 1150 miles is about 760 feet (from 1160 above sea-level at khartúm to 400 at Philae). Here the river describes two great bends, the first, from Khartúm to Merawi (Napata) below the fourth cataract, comprising the Behiúda desert on the west, the second, thence to Egypt, comprising the Nubian desert on the east, —the two roughly corresponding to the conventional divisions of Upper and Lower Nubia respectively.

Throughout the whole of this section the Nile receives no affluents on its left bank, and on its right one only, the Atbara, which joins it from Abyssinia just above Al-Meshérif (Berber). Hence all Nubia west of the Nile, and most of the region east of the Nile—that is, from the Atbara confluence to Egypt—are mainly arid wastes, rocky in the east, sandy in the west, relieved on both sides by some grassy steppe lands, and by a few small oases. Of the Nubian, which is sometimes called the Korosko, desert, and the northern section of which is named from its nomad Bíshárí inhabitants, the prevailing features are bare or scrubby sandstone plains broken by moderately high rugged granite hills and ranges, such as the J. Jerfa, J. Elbe_, J. Kawewad, and J. Shirkr, and interested in many places by numerous small "khórs" or wadies running in various directions across the plateau. The walls and oases occurring along these depressions afford the only means of communication across this region, as well as in the more sandy Bahiúda wilderness on the opposite side of the Nile. Thus are found all the great caravan routes, of which the most important are—(1) from Derr and Korosko across the Ababdeh country by the Hurat wells southwards to Abu Hámid, 230 miles, shorter by about one-third than the long and difficult water journey between these two points; (2) from Ambukól to Khartúm, which describes an arc of 200 miles to the southern curve enclosing the Bahiúda desert ; (3) from Berber eastwards to the Red Sea at Suákin, 280 miles, difficult, with little fodder and rare

Wells, but of vital strategic and commercial importance as affording the most direct access from the coast to the interior, and the shortest highway from the Nile to Suákin, the only outport of Nubia ; (4) a better but much longer route from Tokar below Suákin by the Khór Barka southwards to Kassala on the Mareb, a tributary of the Atbara, and thence through the Shukurich country westwards to Khartúm. This route, which has been recently explored by G. Casati,1 traverses the province of Táká, the most fertile and productive region in the whole of Nubia. Táká, being well watered by the Atbara, Mareb, and other steams from Abyssinia, is a true African tropical land, covered in some places with dense forest, in others with extensive pastures and arable tracts. Hence this route has lately been proposed in preference to that from Suákin to Berber for the projected line of railway from the coast to the interior.

Besides Táká the only other fertile and permanently inhabitable region is the valley of the Nile itself. But this valley, expanding above Khartúm into open alluvial plains, is in Nubia proper confined mainly to very narrow limits, with a mean breadth of scarcely more than half a mile (Burckhardt). The river is here almost everywhere hemmed in between granite and sandstone hills, which approach at some points to the very banks, at other run transversely to it, thus giving rise to the continuous windings and rapids which characterize its course throughout Nubia. Nor does the Nile now flood its banks to the same extent as formerly in this region, as appears from the "nilometer" discovered by Lepsius. But it is a mistake to suppose,a s is often stated, that no rising takes place.

In Táká much humus an alluvial soil overlie the older crystalline beds and later sedimentary rocks. Elsewhere throughout Nubia these rocks are now mostly denuded, and consist mainly of new sandtones, with large masses of granite, porphyry, and trachyte cropping out in many places. The extensive syenite range on the Egyptian frontier is pierced for 80 miles by the Nile, and runs thence interspersed with sandstone eastwards to the Red Sea, where it forms the bold headland of Rats Benás, projecting round the Gulf of Berenice. Westwards the same system develops the, J. Kukur, beyond whichi it extends to about 25º E. long. In the direction of the Libyan desert. Higher up, at the second or "Great" cataract of Wády Halfá, the sandstone is broken through by huge masses of granite and diorite rising 500 feet above the river-bed. Still farther south sandstone also prevail throughout Dongola, where the Nile aspect of a mountain stream rushing for 250 miles over rapids. At Batn-ai-Hajar the granite hills attain an altitude of 2000 feet above the river, and in this district the sandstone mostly disappears under the eruptive basalts, trachytes, diorites, phonoliths, and large beds of shale.

None of the porphyries appear to be metalliferous, and the only gold mines hitherto discovered are those in the east about Mount Elbe_, which were worked by the ancient Egyptians, and even during mediaeval times, but which are now abandoned, although apparently not yet quite exhausted (Linant de Bellefonds). This auriferous district of Nob or Nub, which according to some authorities has given its name to the whole country, lies close to the Red Sea in 22º N., nearly opposite Jidda. The only other minerals of economic importance are salt and alum, occurring at various points on the plateaus. The granites and syenites afford magnificent building materials, largely utilized by the ancient Egyptians.

The greater part of the land lies almost within the rainless zone, for the tropical rains are now arrested about the latitude of Khartúm (Petherick), beyond which point very little moisture is precipitated in any part of the Nile basin. Hence the Nubia climate, while intensity hot (108º to 114º Fahr. in the shade in May on the eastern plateau) is excessively dry and not unhealthy. The plague, formerly endemic in Egypt, never originates in Nubia ; nor does the cholera penetrate up the Nile valley beyond Wády Halfá. North of this point, however, the riverain parts are often rendered dangerous, especially to strangers, by the exhalations from the stagnant pools left after the subsidence of the Nile waters. It is noteworthy that here the right bank being periodically flooded is much more fertile than the left, although all the finest ruins lies on the left side. The contrast is probably due to the Libyan sands continually moving eastward and encroaching on the narrow arable zone along the great artery.

Except in Táká, the natural flora is very poor, all the arable districts being required for the cultivation of useful plants. Amongst these the most important are the dóm palm, durra (Sorghum vulgare),of which several varieties have the stalk from 7 to 10 feet high, maize, dokhn (panicum), barley, lentils, tobacco, beans, and melons. Cotton and the vine flourish in several places, and the dates of Ibrym and Sokkot are much prized. The banks of the Nile are often fringed with the mimosa ; senna abounds in moist, the tamarind in sandy places; several varieties of gum trees occur in the south, and symka is common, its seed yielding oil, its hleaves good camel fodder.

Wild animals are rare except in the Táká forests where the elephant, lion, panther, rhinoceros, giraffe, hyaena, and wild boar are met with. The crocodille and hippopotamus infest all the streams ; many species of large and small snakes occur, but few are poisonous ; the stork, wild goose, partridge, ibis, are amongst the chief representatives of the local avifauna. There is a good breed of horses; the camel and ass are used as mounts, the ox and buffalo (not numerous) as pack animals a nd in irrigation, of which there are two methods (as in Egypt), —the sákiya, worked by oxen and liable to a tax of £3, and the shádúf, a hand lever and bucket, rated at 30s. (Petherick).

The population being almost exclusively agricultural and pastoral, the industries are unimportant, and limited mainly to coarse cottons and woollens, pottery, and household untensils made of the date tree. The exports also are confined to senna, some grains, leeches, musk, and honey. But although the local traffic is small there is a very large transit trade, carried on chiefly by caravans between Central Africa and Egypt. In this way considerable quantities of ivory, gold dust, ostrich feathers, and slaves have from the remotest times been brought down from the interior through Nubia to the seaports on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Of late years the slave trade has been almost entirely suppressed.

Few ethnological questions are beset with greater difficulties than those connected with the origin and affinities of the Nubian race; and although much light has recently been thrown on the subject by Lepsius in the learned introduction to his Nubische Grammatik, there are several points which still remain matter of conjecture. As an ethnical expression the term Núba or Nubian itself has become equivocal. Rejected by the presumable descendants of Diocletian’s Nobatae, who now call themselves Berber, Barábira, it has become synonymous in the Nile valley with "slave," or "Negro slave." This is due to the large number of slaves drawn by the Arab dealers in recent times from the Núba tribes of Kordofan, who appear to constitute the original stock of the race. On the other hand, the expression has never at any time been applied to all other hand, the expression has never at the time been applied to all the inhabitants of the region we now all call Nubia. At present this region is occupied by peoples of three distinct stocks – the compoaratively recent Semitic Arab intruders, mainly in Upper Nubia; the Hamitic Ababdeh and Beja (Bíshárín). Everywhere between the Nile and the Red Sea; and the Negro or Negroid Núbas (Barábira), in Lower Nubia, where they are almost exclusively confined to the banks of the Nile, from Assuan southwards to Dongola.

That these Nicotic Núbas are closely allied to those Kordofan many now be regarded as placed beyond reasonable doubt. And , as the latter are admittedly to Negro stock and speech, it follows that the former also, hitherto affiliated by some to the Fulahs of west Sudan, by others to the Hamitic Beja, must henceforth be regarded as essentially a Negro people. But, whereas the Kordofan Núbas have preserved their racial purity, those of the Nile, while preserving their Negro speech intact, have in their new homes become physically modified, mainly by the admixture first of Hamitic (Beja), then of Semitic (Arab), and even of European blood. Ethnologically the modern Nubias are therefore to be considered as a very mixed people, forming the transition between the three great Hamitic, Semitic, and Negro branches of the human family who converge in the Nile basin. Their ultimate affiliation to the last-named rather than to either of the two others is determined partly by their physical appearance which is still fundamentally of a Negro type, and partly by their language, which differs dialectically only from the Negro speech of the Kordofan Núbas.

This conclusion, based on physical and linguistic grounds, is fully confirmed by what is known of the earliest migrations and history of the Nilotic peoples. The first inhabitants of the region beyond Egypt appear to have been the Uaua, whose name occurs in an inscription on a tomb at Memphis of the VIth Dynasty (about 2500 B.C.), and again constantly in subsequent inscriptions down to the time of the Pto emies, as the leading Negro race to the south of Syene. It thus appears that throughout the historic period down to the arrival of the Romans the Nile above Egypt was occupied by a Negro people. Egyptian monuments are found as far south as Mount Barkal (Napata), but no Egyptian settlements beyond Syene. Hence these Uaua Negroes probably remained unaffected, or very slightly affected, by foreign elements until about the 3d century of our era, when their domain began to be encroached upon from the east by the Hamitic Blemmyes, who have been clearly identified with the present Beja or Bíshárín of the Nubian desert. It was owing to the incessant raids of these troublesome marauders that Diocletian withdrew the Roman garrisons above the cataracts, and called in the warlike Nobatae to protect the Egyptian frontier from their attacks. These Negro Nobatae, originally from Kordofan, as is now evident, had advanced to the Great Oasis of Khargeh in Upper Egypt, whence they passed into the Nile valley between the cataracts. Here they absorbed the older Uaua of kindred stock, and ultimately came to terms with the Blemmyes. The two races even became intermingled, and making common cause against the Romans, were defeated by Maximinus in 451 (Priscus). Thus were the Nilotic Núbas in the first instance affected by Hamitic elements.

Then came the conversion (545) of this new Negroid race to Christianity, and the growth of the growth of the Nubian political power in the upper Nile basin. Silko, founder of the famous Christian kingdom of Dongola, so named from its capital, called himself King of the Nobads and of all Ethiopians, that is, of the Nilotic Núbas and Hamitic Blemmyes. But the latter remaining pagan were soon after driven from the Nile valley eastwards to the kindred Megabares, Memmons, and other Hamitic nomads, who with the Troglodytes, had from time immemorial held the whole steppe region between the Nile and the Red Sea from Axum to Egypt. Here their most collective name was Bugaitae (GREEK), as appears from the Axumite inscription, whence the forms Buja, Beja, which occur in the oldest Arab records, and by which they are still known.

Soon after overrunning Egypt (639) the Arabs themselves penetrated into Lower Nubia, where the two Jawábareh and Al-Gharbiya tribes became powerful, and amalgamated with the Núbas of that district. But their further progress was long arrested by the Dongolawi kings, who even reduced them for a short time. At length, however, after flourishing for 700 years, this native Christian state was in the 14th century overthrown by the Arabs, aided by a detachment of Bosnians sent from Turkey by Sultan Selim (Burckhardt). These Bosnians (Kalaji, as they called themselves) also settled in the country and intermmaried with the Arabs and Nubian s, their descendants still holding sundry tracts between Assuan and Derr. Hence it is that the Nubians of this district, fairest of all the race, still claim Arab and Osmauli (Bosnian) descent. And thus were the Nilotic Núbas affected in the second instance by Semitic and European elements.

Nevertheless the type remains essentially Negro, being characterized by a very dark complexion, varying from a mahogany brown and deep bronze to an almost black shade, with tumid lips, large black animated eyes, dolichocephalous head (index Nos. 73,72), hair often woolly or strongly frizzled, and scant beard worn under the chain like the figures of the fugitives (Uaua?) in the battle-pieces sculptured on the walls of the Egyptian temples. At the same time, the nose is much larger and the zygomatic arches less prominent than in the full-blood Negro. The features are at times almost quite regular, with a decidedly Egyptian cast (Lepsius); and the Nilotic Nubians are on the whole a strong muscular people, essentially agricultural, more warlike and energetic than the Egyptians, whom they also greatly excel in moral qualities. Many find employment as artisans, small dealers, porters , and soldiers in Egypt, where they are usually noted for their honesty, and frank and cheerful temperament. Since the overthrow of the native Christian state all have become Mohammedans, but not of a fanatical type. Although a native of Dongola, the present (1884) Mahdi has found his chief support, not amongst his countrymen, but amongst the more recently converted Kordofan Negroes and the nomad Arab and Beja. Nor do they appear at any time to have displayed a love of letters, an d it remains uncertain whether to the Nubians or to their Hamitic neighbours are to be attributed the numerous still undeciphered rock inscriptions occuring along the Nile valley from Philae to Khartúm. On the other hand, the colossal ruins reaching as far south as Meroe date almost exclusively from the Egyptian period.

The Núba language itself does not appear to have ever been cultivated, or even committed to writing until recently, although Eutychius of Alexandria (930) includes the "Nubi" among the six kinds of writing which he mentions in a somewhat doubtful passage as current amongst the Hamitic peoples. There is no present native literature, and most of the men speak Arabic as well as their mother tongue, which is very sonorous and expressive. Its distinctly Negro character is betrayed in the complete absence of distinctly gender, in its primitive vowel-system and highly-developed process of consonantal assimilation, softening all harsh combinations, lastly, in the peculiar infix j inserted between the verbal root and the plural pronominal objects, as in ai tokki-j-ir = l shake them. An in Bantu, the verb presents a multiplicity of forms, including one present, three past and future tenses, with personal endings complete, passive, interrogative, conditional, elective, negative, and other forms, each with its proper participial inflexions. In Lepsius’s grammar the verbal paradigms fills altogether 110 pages.

Of the Nilotic as distinguished from the Kordofan branch of the Núba language there are three distinct dialects current from Assuan along the Nile southwards to Meroe, as under :--

I. NORTHERN : Dialect of Baní Kenz or Mattokki, from the first cataract to Sebú ‘and Wády al-‘Arab, probably dating from the Diocletian period.
III. CENTRAL : The Maharí or Marísi, from Korosko to Wády Halfá (second cataract). Here the natives are called Saidokki, in contradistinction to the northern Mattokki.
V. SOUTHERN : Dongolawi, throughout the province of Dongola from the second cataract to J. Déja near Meroe, on the northern frontier of the Arab district of Dár-Sháikíya (Sheghya). By the Mahasi people it is called Bidería Bannid, "language of the poor," or, collectively with the Kenz, Oshkirín Bannid, "language of slaves."
The northern and southern varieties are closely related to each other, differing considerably from the central, which shows more marked affinities with the Kordofan Núba, possibly because the Saidokki people are later arrival from Kordofan.

Bibliography.—C. R. Lepsius, Nubische Grammatik, Berlin, 1880, and Briefe aus Aegypten, Aethiopien, &c., Berlin, 1852 ; Vivien de Saint Martin, Le Nord de l’Afrique dans l’antiquité, Paris, 1863 ; Linant de Bellefonds, L’ Etbaye, pays habité par les Arabes Bichariehs, Paris, 1868 ; J. Petherick, Egypt, the Soudan, and Central Africa, London, 1861 ; E. Rüppell, Reisen in Nubien, Kordofan, &c., Frankfort a. M., 1829 ; Caillaud, Voyage à Meroe, Paris, 1826 ; Reinisch, Die Nuba-Sprache, Vienna, 1879 ; Memoirs of the Société Khediviale de Géographie, Cairo, 1880-83 ; J. L. Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia, &c., London, 1819 ; G. Waddington and B. Hanbury, Journal of a visit to some parts of Ethiopia, London, 1822 ; E. F. Gau, Nubische Denkmäler, Stuttgart, 1821 ; F. Werne, Feldzug von Sennar nach Taka, &c., Stuttgart, 1851 ; G. Melly, Khartoun and the Niles, London, 1851. (A. H. K.)


610-2 See Behm in Bevölkerung der Erde for July 1882.

The above article was written by: Prof. A. H. Keane.

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