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Vol. XXIX. ISSUE 1. Winter 2022 - More on Ancient and Contemporary Sudan


The theme of the winter issue of Africa Update is Ancient and Contemporary Sudan. The theme is an extension of that of the fall issue of 2021. Nevertheless, this time, the issue consists of three exceptional research papers that will take you on a journey through various periods.

First, you get to read Prof. Alessandro Roccati’s An Outlook from Meroitic Napata (Jebel Barkal). Professor Alessandro Roccati studied Egyptology in Rome, Oxford, Bonn, and Paris. He worked until 1986 in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, while lecturing successively in the Universities of Milan, Genua and Turin. Thereafter he became Full Professor of Egyptology at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. In 2005, he moved to the University of Turin, where he retired in 2011. He was also a Visiting Professor in Geneva (1988), Paris (1998) and Cracow (2014). From 1968, he took part in archaeological expeditions in Egypt (Antinoe, Heracleopolis, Thebes and Philae). In 1992, he became Director of the Italian archaeological mission in Egypt and Sudan for Rome University, “La Sapienza,” until his retirement. Professor Rocatti discovered a turquoise quarry in the Egyptian Western Desert, and found, restored, and published several documents, epigraphical and on papyrus, but his main interests lie in language, writing, literature and history. He organised a few international exhibitions and conferences in Venice, Milan, Rome, and Turin. Professor Roccati is at present Emeritus Professor of Egyptology and a national member of the Academy of Sciences in Turin. His scholarly publications amount to over three hundred.Through this article, Alessandro Rocatti’s describes the architectural features of various ancient Napatan Meroitic monuments and masonry. The article is rich in depictions of Nubian royal palaces, settlements, shrines, temples, and chapels, as well as other elements like statues, ceramics, and pottery. Moreover, you’ll find brief reference to significant royal figures like Natakamani, Kandake Amanitore, and Emperor Trebonius Gallus.

Following this is Pieter Tesch’s article on The Emergence of The Kingdom of Nobadia: Lower Nubia 300-600 CE. Pieter presents the history of that establishment of Nobadia which he sees as a core part of the transition between Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in the area. The article sheds light on different factors that played a role in the emergence of the Sudanese kingdom of Nobadia during the period of 300 – 600 AD/CE. These include the cultural and ethnic boundaries, as well as political and geographic markers.Pieter Tesch is an Indonesian born Dutch historian who obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Amsterdam and his master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin. He has worked as a journalist in Ireland, UK, Sudan, Mauritania and Indonesia, and other regions. Pieter is a member of the Sudan Archeological Research Society (SARS), the International Society of Nubian Studies (ISNS), and the Royal African Society (RAS) and other associations. Pieter is currently the Director for Government Relations for Africa, Middle East & Europe for Trans Africa Pipeline (TAP), now engaged in a project to provide fresh water through desalination - using renewable energy in the Sahel region. He is also the Coordinator for the Endangered Archeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA) program in Mauritania.

We conclude with a brief commentary on Nubian inventions and innovations by Gloria Emeagwali, Professor of History and African Studies and the Chief Editor of this periodical. Dr. Emeagwali has published extensively on various aspects of African history.

She taught for a decade at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and also at Queen Elizabeth House and St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, UK. Prof. Emeagwali is also an amateur film maker and the videographer and editor of numerous video -film documentaries. She is the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Research Excellence Award, University of Texas at Austin, and the 2019 Distinguished Africanist Award, New York African Studies Association.
We leave you now to walk the streets of the ancient Napata Kingdom, and to discover interesting facts regarding the intriguing Kingdom of Nobadia, and Nubian ingenuity. Oval- shaped Tumuli

Guest Editor

Dr. Hala Oleish
Hala Oleish is a Sudanese novelist. Her novel ‘Faience’ is a historical fiction set in prehistoric Sudan. Hala carries a profound interest in Sudanese heritage and history. She believes that learning about the past is a prerequisite to moving ahead. Her growing passion for history, storytelling, languages, and education continues to fuel her journey Hala Oleish is also a medical professional.

An Outlook from Meroitic Napata (Jebel Barkal)

Alessandro Roccati
"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”
(Shelley, Osymandias)

Around two thousand years ago, some explorers were sent by the Roman Emperor Nero to find out about the springs of the River Nile. They never reached the target of their trip, but they certainly managed to enter the Black Kingdom of Meroe, possibly to carry out some work of intelligence.

Napata had been a renowned town since Pharaonic times, and lay at the feet of a sacred mountain, Jebel Barkal. The site was already documented by early travelers in the nineteenth century, among them Linant de Bellefonds who was the first to discover a cursive Meroitic inscription. After some years, Lord Prudhoe gave to the British Museum the two lion statues that had been transferred from Soleb to Napata at the entrance of a royal palace, and Richard Lepsius took away some remarkable antiquities (among them a statue of the goddess Isis inscribed with the oldest Meroitic inscription) for the Museum in Berlin. Later on, British and American excavations were carried out on behalf of museums in Cairo and Boston. An Italian archaeological expedition came to the place around half century ago, after Sudan got its independence. It concentrated in an area that proved to have flourished during the Meroitic Period, beside the huge temples of Pharaonic (namely Egyptian and "Napatan") times.

Meroitic rulers were capable of erecting tremendous monuments. They used red (fired) bricks, covered on the exterior by a thick plaster coating, harder than stone. The size of buildings was imposing, and some parts were also made of stone and of precious timber. But timber was coveted for other purposes and the stone elements (like columns or obelisks) were eventually reused elsewhere, even at great distance, in buildings of different nature, like Christian churches. On another side it is well known that several statues representing animals (mainly lions and rams) were transferred from the eighteenth dynasty temple of Soleb to Napata, where they have been found. It is possible that the end of Napata as a capital town was brought by the diffusion of the Christian religion. The capital of one of three Nubian Christian kingdoms was sited in (Old) Dongola, downstream from Napata and likely targeted for removal of some pieces of architecture.

In spite of such circumstances, the archaeological work done by the Italian expedition during half a century has got some substantial results. Some of which have been modified or confirmed. That shows the thriving of a refined civilization even after the end of the Pharaohs' era. Though a lot of investigation work is yet to be fulfilled, it already looks possible to evaluate the outstretch of this capital city on one of the peaks of its lifetime, namely during the Meroitic period, especially covered by the Italian activities.

The poor remains of an imposing royal palace (B1500) could be recovered because it was built on a rather high square platform, however unearthed at foundation level. They retain in a few preserved details the magnificence of what appears to have been the largest and brightest building of this kind set out by the Meroitic ruler Natakamani together with his mother, the Kandake (queen) Amanitore. These names are well known through a variety of monuments all over Nubia and are explicitly referred to in a slab inscribed with a cursive Meroitic text, which was found inside the palace. In particular an altar transferred by Richard Lepsius to Berlin, carries a bilingual writing of both royal names, and that allowed the deciphering of the Meroitic hieroglyphic script.
The study of the ruins of that palace and of the multifarious findings, especially fragments of painted ceramics, gives some clue for an accurate dating of Natakamani's reign. Indeed, finely decorated ware began to appear only in the first century AD, and was not available in older sites, while it is abundant in the debris inside the palace, that was probably used much longer than the reign of its builder. It is interesting to mention how the richness of the decorated pottery replaces the dearth of written evidence. Some pictorial motifs, like those painting monkeys in connection with music, cannot fail to remind the reliefs in the forecourt of Hathor temple at Philae, built in Augustus' time.

The palace stood on a high platform, completely waterproof on all exposed sides, and from below. All the ground around had been made sloping for the drainage of water. The reason for such a masterpiece work was the need to withstand the floods coming both from the Nile (as once in 1988) and from the wadi (dry river except for the rainy season) crossing the desert, in order to safe keep the royal residence from any natural danger.

Pliny (23-79) related that the Roman explorers sent by Nero encountered at Meroe those who are likely to have been Natakamani and Amanitore. Actually, their (pyramid) tombs are at Meroe, but their names spread all over their kingdom and were read even in lower Nubia. A number of archaeological features may point to analogies between Natakamani's Napatan palace and Nero's Domus Aurea (the Golden House) at Rome, which he might have wanted to imitate. Some more observations concern a period down to the time of emperor Domitianus (81-96). This emperor is also well known for his proclivity towards Egypt and its culture, and that would match the propensity of Meroitic rulers towards Hellenism. All these quoted emperors were likely contemporary with king Natakamani at least for some years and Natakamani's reign lasted rather long as the number of his monuments alludes to.

It has been ascertained that the two-story palace B1500 was erected on the place of earlier dwellings. Some smaller mud brick walls were effectively immersed in the casemate structure of the foundations of the palace. However, at a deep level a long and thick mud brick wall was encountered during the excavations. It shows the same orientation North-South of the palace B1500. Only future research will be able to tell the date and purpose of an elevated ground in the outskirts of Jebel, since its foot had been already entirely occupied by older monuments and especially the holy area of the shrines. However, there was a link between the southern access of the palace B1500 and the great Amun temple B500 (by that time consecrated also to the Meroitic god Apede-mak), inside of which Natakamani had a shrine built with beautiful engravings.

A capital uncovered near the palace of Natakamani at Napata is sculptured with a shape similar to the capitals observed in the eastern colonnade of the dromos in front of the temple of Isis at Philae. It seems that the access to the main sanctuary, a staircase leading to a terrace with two sitting lions (the "Meroitic" posture) and two obelisks, was realized in the second half of the first century AD (although the obelisks are older: second century BC, and perhaps so, too, the lion statues). Three entrances to the Napatan palace of Natakamani were likewise built along the same way: a terrace abutting the platform in the middle of each side, preceded by a monumental stairway, and holding lion statues. No trace of obelisks was found, however. The entrance gates had a shape similar to a pylon. Some of these were quite similar to those found in the Baths at Meroie. Also, the clay sealings, widely used by the administration, show figured motifs spread all over the kingdom. The excavations carried under the auspices of the University Ca' Foscari of Venice, led by prof. Emanuele Ciampini, have recently brought to light the rest of a kitchen inside the basement of the palace, near the western entrance.


E. M. Ciampini ed. (2020). Il Leone e la Montagna. Scavi Italiani I Sudan, Gangemi Editore International, Rome.

The Emergence Of The Kingdom Of Nobadia:
Lower Nubia 300-600 CE

Pieter Tesch


The core subject is the emergence of the Kingdom of Nobadia 350- 600 AD between the 1st and 3rd Cataracts, that is, Lower Nubia. It will therefore not deal in detail with the Mediaeval Christian Kingdom of Nobadia after the Arab and Islamic invasions of the Middle Nile around the mid-7th century AD, and the subsequent unification of the Kingdoms of Nobadia and Makuria, to its south, between the 3rd and 5th Nile Cataracts, Upper Nubia, Alwa or Alodia even further south around the confluence of the White and Blue Niles and beyond. It will deal with the earlier history, pre and proto history of Lower and Upper Nubia and further south, as such, only if, and when relevant to the emergence of Nobadia. Besides the obvious north - south connections along the Middle Nile, the east -west connections, and the eastern and western deserts in the wider Saharan space are equally important in this regard.

In the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, there is a curious passage in Chapter eight about an encounter between the apostle Phillip, the Evangelist, and a person who is described as an Aithiopian eunuch, who is described as the Chamberlain or Treasurer of the Kandake, Queen or Queen Mother of the Aithiopians, referring to the kingdom of Meroitic Kush. The Acts of the Apostles were written according to Biblical scholars sometime between 80 and 110AD/CE and one of the subjects of the ‘Acts’ is the justification for accepting non Jewish converts, such as the otherwise unnamed senior royal Kushite official, who was converted and baptized subsequently by Phillip the Evangelist.The possible background of this Biblical story, is that this senior Meroitic Kushite royal official had been on the way back from meeting senior Roman officials, possibly the Emperor of the time, possibly in Greece, because a few years before, the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Kush had been at war.

The Kushites invaded Upper Egypt after Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar had defeated his rival Mark Anthony for the position of Imperator of the Empire, and his wife Queen Cleopatra, of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Egypt became a Roman province and ceased to be an independent country until the 20th century! It appears that the Meroitic Kushites used the opportunity of confusion in Egypt after Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s defeat and deaths, to invade Upper Egypt, and plunder Philae, Elephantine and Syene, modern Aswan, and took away also a bronze bust of Octavian, which was buried in one of the royal pyramids of the royal cemetery at the then capital of Kush at Meroe. Everybody who entered the tomb had to stamp their feet on it. It stayed there until it was uncovered by early archaeologists who gave it to the British Museum in London, where it still is on display. But one plays around at one’s own peril with the young and still very aggressive Roman Empire and soon the Roman legions moved south of the F cataract pursuing the Kushite army that eventually surrendered in Lower Nubia and sued for peace which was accepted by the Romans. The peace lasted actually for about 300 years.

About three hundred years later there is another historical anecdote based on the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval histories of Christian saints and martyrs and while not set on the Nile, but in provinces of eastern Roman Gaul and Helvetia, (modern eastern France and western Switzerland), it does involve one of the most important Black African Christian warrior saints, St Maurice. Maurice was born in Upper Egypt near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, around 250AD/CE, but from what is known from the sparse written sources and his historical iconography as a martyr and a saint, he was a Black African, possibly a Kushite or a Noba, and had joined the local legion, the Thebaid or Theban legion, which means he was also already a full Roman citizen, as only full citizens could join the legions at that time, and that he was already a practicing Christian, while it was still was not a recognized religion in the Roman Empire. Christianity had been early established in Egypt and had soon become a widespread supported religion despite numerous imperial campaigns to suppress the religion, if necessary, by killing Christians.

Maurice rose through the ranks to become the commander of the Theban legion when the legion was on active service with Emperor Maximian campaigning against the peasant revolt of the Bagaudae as well as intrusions of ‘Barbarian’, Germanic, bands of raiders from across the imperial frontier or limes. The great majority of the Theban legion were also Christians and while the exact circumstances of his martyrdom and death, around 287AD/CE are unclear, it seems to have involved Christian soldiers crossing themselves when “pagan” offerings were made for the emperor, for which they were accused of invalidating the offerings, and the refusal of the Christian Legionnaires to kill local Christian villagers. Emperor Maximian twice ordered a decimation of the Thebaid Legion and so Maurice not only joined the ranks of early Christian martyrs, but also the smaller elite ranks of military martyrs such as St Martin or St George. Maurice also joined the even smaller group of Black African early Christian martyrs such as St Elesbaan or Kaleb Ella Asbeha, the Christian King of Axum, or Aksum, straddling modern Eritrea and Ethiopia, who invaded Yemen in 520 AD to protect local Christians during the war between the eastern Roman Empire and Sassanian Iranian Empire. Maurice’s martyrdom was first mentioned in a public letter of Bishop Eucherius of Lyon around 434-450AD and subsequently he was venerated in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as one the main Crusader saints, giving his name to the modern Swiss town of St Moritz amongst others.

Between the later end of the last century BC and 1st century AD, the Romans organized a number of expeditions into the African continent, through the Sahara Desert, from the Roman province of Mauretania, modern Morocco in Northwest Africa, and the central Saharan belt as far south as River Niger, having fought first the kingdom of the Garamantes in the southern desert of modern Libya. The Garamantes were the neighbors of Kush in the western desert.

The Romans were like so many other European imperialists after them, fascinated by the Nile and mixed up the Niger with the Nile. But during the reign of Emperor Nero relations with Meroitic Kush had been so much improved that the Kushites allowed the Romans to launch an expedition involving a group of experienced centurions to find the source of the Nile in 61 AD, with the help of Kushites, and according to contemporaneous Roman sources such as Seneca, and Pliny the elder, this expedition may have gone as far south as the swamps of the Sudd in modern South Sudan. It is assumed that Nero’s expedition was not undertaken for scientific reasons, but to see whether the Middle Nile region was potentially rich enough to justify outright Roman conquest, but we will never know as Emperor Nero was toppled and killed in a revolt in 66 AD and with that, the ambition, real or not, to conquer Kush had died. The Roman Empire began to abandon its policy of continuing aggression and conquest but, instead, consolidated its imperial borders by a combination of diplomatic and military policies, and soft and hard power, to foster trade as well as friendly relations with potential allies and states across the Roman borders or limes. There was also the occasional punitive action to press the point as to who was the dominant power in the region. After the first century AD, the Roman sources on Kush become more sparse and it seems that routes to Roman Egypt from the south move from the Saharan overland routes to the Red Sea routes, to the benefit of the Port of Adulis, on the northern shore of the Horn of Africa.

The vignette about St Maurice introduces the transition into Late Antiquity both inside the Roman Empire and beyond, from the rise of the underground Christian Church to the social and political unrest and the threat of ‘Barbarian’ incursions from across the borders by peoples and cultures that lived there. Diocletian brought the southern border of the Roman Egypt back to the 1st Cataract at Syene and invited the people of the Nobades (Noba- Anoubades) to settle as foederati, or allies to protect the border in 298AD/CE, as had been done on the Empire’s frontiers with other people.

The emergence of Nobadia is linked to the demise of two empires, the late Roman Empire in Africa, and that of the Meroitic Kushite Empire, with each empire’s demise dictated by its own dynamism of developments and events. Nobadia was because of its position and location, exposed to the dynamics of the Roman Empire in northeast Africa and adjoining regions. But Nobadia’s narrative has been linked with the narrative of Meroe and Aksum, although there is no agreement over that narrative and whether or not there was an invasion by the Aksumite kingdom on the Meroitic heartlands by its King or Negus Ezana, (320 ca-360AD) the Aksumite ruler who converted to Christianity. What is more important for the story of the Noba(des) is that on Ge’ez script inscriptions near Meroe there is mention of ‘Black Noba’, controlling the basin of the Atbara and Takkaza, and the ‘Red Noba’ controlling territories north of the Bayuda. Obluski adds that Olympiodorus speaks of the Blemmyes being in the Dodekaschoinos and the Nobades in the rest of Lower Nubia. Obluski adds further those designations ‘Black’ and ‘Red’ may not refer to skin tones, but the land they occupied, ‘Black’ referring to land close the Middle Nile and ‘Red’ to the desert. Possibly, so, but it remains speculative (Obluski, pp.18, 163 -167).

The question of links and connections between the Meroitic heartland and its Christian successor Kingdom of Alwa remain disputed, with David Edwards dismissing such connections and arguing that the distance between Aksum and Meroe was too large for the Aksumites to launch an attack. But as Hendrickx pointed out, the Aksumite inscriptions are there and the Aksumite Negus Kaleb, also known as Saint Elesbaan, was able to invade the Himyarite Kingdom in the Yemen, around 520 CE, to protect local Christians as part of the ‘world war’ between the (East) Roman Empire and Sassanian Iranian Empire. Nubian and Blemmye troops from the Middle Nile were reportedly in the Christian Roman - Aksumite alliance. The latter may not have been officially Christian yet, at this time, if one follows Roman sources from Constantinople on the 6th century CE court conversions of the Nubian kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia/Alwa during the reign of Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora. There is evidence that Christianity had spread into Lower Nubia and beyond already from Egypt. The story of these court conversions was dominated by the dispute at the Church Council of Chalcedon, 451AD about the nature of Christ, whether Dyophysite, or Monophysite, with main adherents in Egypt and Syria. This dispute found its way to the narrative of the Nubian court conversions, with Nobadia and Alwa becoming Monophysite, and Makuria, Diophysite. These differences may have been overstated, since Nobadia and Makuria became in the wake of the failed Arab invasions, a united kingdom.

In relation to the Middle Nile, most scholars do agree that there was a change and between 300 AD and 600 AD. The debate is between those that believe that most if not all changes were internal, with no involvement or at best a peripheral role for ‘new’ people (Edwards) and those who argue that migrations of ‘new’ people such as the Noba or Nobades, played an important role, as argued by Artur Obluski who has identified the Nobades with the rise of the Kingdom of Nobadia in Lower Nubia. Rachael Dann argues that the so-called X Group culture of Qustul and Ballana clearly shows new cultural elements but declines to make an ethnic identification with either the Nobades or Blemmyes.

The ‘continuists’ have accepted that the emergence of Christian Nubia in the early Middle Ages did bring a major change not only religiously, but also culturally, sociallyand politically, though we all can accept that the Christianization of state and society was a slow and uneven long-drawn-out process. It speaks for Nobadia and the other Christian Nubian kingdoms enduring structures, heritage and its connections with wider Mediterranean Christian world that were well established enough by 600AD/CE not only to survive the first Arab-Islamic attacks mid-7th century AD/CE, but to resist them successfully and maintain their religious, cultural, and political character and independence for nearly1000 years. The history of the emergence of Nobadia is a very interesting example of how the elements of continuity as well as change worked out in the context of African history, in the wider Saharan space as well as in the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages in Africa.

Selected Bibliography on Nubia

Adams W.Y. 1977. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton.
Austen, R. 2010. Trans Saharan Africa. Oxford.
Bonfante, L. (ed). 2011.The Barbarians of Ancient Europe. New York: Cambridge.
Bowman A.K. 1986: Egypt after the Pharaohs 332 BC- AD 642. Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Bowersock, G.W. 2013. Throne of Adulis. New York: Oxford.
Burstein S. ed. 2009. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton.
Connah, C. 2020. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge. Edwards D.N. 2004. The Nubian Past. An Archaeology of the Sudan. London and New York.
Edwards DN. 2019. Between the Nile and the Sahara: Some comparative comparisons, in Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, Trans Saharan Archaeology Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edwards DN. 2020. Early States and Urban Forms in the Middle Nile, Urbanisation and Sate Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, Trans Saharan Archaeology. Volume 3. Cambridge.
Ehret, C. 2001. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 BC to AD 400. Charlottesville.
Hafsaas, H, 2006. Cattle pastoralists in a multicultural setting; the C-Group in Lower Nubia 2500-1500 BCE, Bergen.
Hoyland, R.G. 2015. In God’s Path: The Arab conquests and creation of an Islamic empire, Oxford.
Hendrickx B. & Hedrikkx-Sansaridou, ‘On the withdrawal of the Roman troops from the Dodecaschoenos in AD298’, Akrterion 59 (2014), pp. 27-65.
1984: Official Documents written in Greek Illustrating the Ancient History of Nubia and Ethiopia. Johannesburg (Monumenta Afro-Hellenica I).
Insoll, T., 2003 The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Kirwan, Sir Laurence, 2002 Studies on the History of Late Antique and Christian Nubia, Eds Hagg T, Torok L, Welsby DA, Aldershot, amongst other:
Kirwan L.P., 1957a, “Rome beyond the Southern Egyptian Frontier”, The Geographical Journal 123, 1:13-19.
Kirwan L.P., 1957b: “Tanqasi and the Noba”, Kush 5:37-41.
Kirwan L.P., 1958: “Comments on the Origins and History of the Nobatae of Procopius”, Kush 6:69-73.
Kirwan L.P., 1959: “The International Position of Sudan in Roman and Medieval Times”, Sudan Notes and Records 40:23-37
Kirwan L.P., 1972: “An Ethiopian-Sudanese Frontier Zone in Ancient History”, The Geographical Journal 138, 4:457-465.
Kirwan, L.P., 1937: “A Survey of Nubian Origins”, Sudan Notes and Records 20:47-62.
Kirwan, L.P., “The X Group Problem,” Meroitica 6, 1982.
Kirwan, L.P., “Some Thoughts on the Conversion of Nubia to Christianity,” J.M. Plumley (ed) Nubian Sudies. Warminster 1982.Kirwan, L.P., “The Birth of Christian Nubia: Some Archaeological Problems”, Revista degli StudiOrientali 58, 1984 [1987].
Levering Lewis, D., 2008, God’s Crucible, New York.
McDougall, J. & Scheele, J., Eds, 2012, Saharan Frontiers, Indiana.
McLaughlin, R., Desert Legions History Today, June 2014, Vol 64, Issue 6.
Oliver, R & Atmore, A. 2008. Africa since 1800, Cambridge.
Oliver, R. & Atmore, A., 2002. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800, Cambridge.
Oliver, R. & Fagan, B.M. 1994. Africa in the Iron Age C.500BC to AD1400, Cambridge.
Rilly, C. Recent Research on Meroitic, Ancient Language of Sudan. Lecture,
Mekelle University, 22 October 2010.
Ruffini, G.R. 2012. Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History. Oxford.

Ancient Nubian Inventions

Gloria Emeagwali

Ancient Nubian inventions encompass a wide range of artifacts and creative ideas, across various fields. Adams (1977), Markowitz (2014), Gosse ( 1921), Binford (1981), Goldron (1968), Doxey (2014), Bonnet (2006), Williams (1987), Emberling (2020), Williams (2020), and Ehret (2019), are among the numerous historians, archeologists and scholars, in general, who have provided us with information on product creation and innovation, in areas such as textiles, fashion, navigation, ceramics, waste disposal, architecture, metallurgy, medicine, agriculture and writing. Early scholars tended to attribute all artifacts and material culture in the region to Egyptian initiative, including those found in Nubian terrain between the first cataract at Aswan, and further south, where five cataracts were located in antiquity. Current research proves the opposite.

Christopher Ehret, Distinguished Research Professor at University of California, Los Angeles, in his public lecture entitled“ The Africanity of Ancient Egypt” at Harvard University, November 7, 2019, pointed out that maceheads in burial, and the ceramic styles and decorative motifs such as rippling were adopted by the Egyptians from Nubia. He explained that crops such as watermelon and the castor oil plant were also first domesticated in Nubia. Ehret argued that at Nabta Playa, located south of the first cataract, in Nubian terrain, we have the foundation of some of the cultural practices and spiritual ideas that later became central to Egyptian religion, including concepts about the after life and resurrection, and royal burials; Between 7000 BC and 3000 BC, these ideas would be formed and consolidated, in the context of formal priesthood and sacral authority. The Nubian Kingdom of Qustul would emerge as a dominant power along the Nile, he explained.

In his monumental work on ancient Nubia, Bruce Williams provides the archeological context for the recognition of Nubia’s historic role in Egypt’s foundation era. Excavations between Abu Simbel and the Sudan Frontier: The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery, L. (1986) reveals large elaborate royal tombs at Qustul, generations older than those found at Abydos, and elsewhere. The team also found painted bowls and stone vessels, and the first representation of the palace façade. He points out in this work that the larger tombs exceeded the size of those of the first Egyptian dynasty. Williams observes as well that more than a thousand painted bowls, one hundred stone vessels, and “multiple - bulge,” flat - bottomed, ovoid, and spouted storage jars were identified. There were also numerous seals, symbolic palace facades, and representations of rulers, adorned with the white crown, among the findings (Williams, 1986: 2, 163 – 190). In the royal cemetery at Qustul, in Nubia, we have the earliest representations of rulership. Dr. Williams suggests that there were at least ten Nubian pharaohs or kings over the timespan of eight generations, buried in the individual and paired tombs, within the burial ground called Cemetery L. Nubian rock art at Buhen would also reflect the foundation era of kingship. A rectangular enclosure, with a falcon presiding over a battle field would be reminiscent of later scenes in Egypt. Scholars are beginning to recognize that the early findings and conclusions of Dr. Bruce Williams, and Dr. Seele, who inspired this research, were scientifically accurate.

The study of ancient Nubia has been enriched, as well, by works such as the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia edited by Geoff Emberling and Bruce Williams (2020). Most relevant to the present discourse are the first two segments of that text. Africa is the world’s greatest gold producer, since 2017 (Toulemonde, 2022). In antiquity the continent also excelled in this field. We should note the scholarly works by Lacovara & Markowitz (2019), Markowitz & Doxey (2014) and Klemm & Klemm (2013), on ancient Nubia, with reference to gold, bearing in mind that a large percentage of the gold of ancient Northeast Africa emanated from Nubia. Techniques related to metallurgy and the design of jewelry are of particular relevance in understanding Nubian creativity during the Napata and Meroitic era.

The inventions highlighted in Table A, emerge from various periods of Nubian history, and are not confined to the Qustul Kingdom. The earliest reference listed is in the field of ceramics, from Sarurab, dated circa 9370 BCE (Huysecom et al., 2009). We note also the significance of Nabta Playa in the foundation of cultural and religious concepts that would eventually have an impact on Egyptian civilization, not only in terms of deities such as Hathor and Isis, but also in burial ritual and astronomical alignment systems.



Scaling ladder on wheels for military and construction purposes


Fired bricks pioneered in Kerma, 2200BCE (Bonnet&Valbelle, 2006).

Dais: Platform for throne

seen with Piye in 724 BCE

(Kenrick, 1850).

By 2018, 223 Nubian pyramids were discovered built at an angle of around 69 degrees, and at a height between 100 and 170 feet.


Oldest pots in the Nile region circa 9370 BCE (Huysecom, 2009). The recent findings of pottery dated to around 9400 BCE in Mali, suggest that, in the continent of Africa, these pots are not necessarily the oldest. We note also the debates surrounding the early pottery of Bir Kiseiba found in the environs of Nabta Playa, a region associated with Nubian antiquity. Huysecom considers that there is an absence of “stratigraphic context” on the original dates.

Dotted wavy line and wavy line pottery are mentioned briefly in the Oxford Handbook (Usai, 2020).


Plough. From digging stick to plough. Egypt ditto. 4000BCE(G. Hart, 1990).

Grape Bag Press , 2000BCE

Domestication of cereal such as sorghum (Ehret, 2016). Sickle shaped for harvesting tool, 16,000BCE.

Species of Avocado, 2200 BCE (Hemphill, 1976).

Animal domestication:

goat, donkey and species of dromedary camels.

Domestication and representation of cows Kerma 3700BCE (Wildung, 1996).


The first to create reflective mirrors of silver, gold and bronze image reflection

(Gosse, 1921).

Experts and pioneers in glass making and

enamel (Markowitz & Doxey).

Mouse trap. 3000 BC. Two sticks tied together with a vine that would release after tension was applied. Automation/ self acting gadget.

Incense Burner, Qustul (Bruce Williams, 1986).


Drainage, 3700 BCE. Moved sewage from central city to a reservoir located out of the town. Clay tracks observed (Binford, 1981).

Toilet: 4100BCE (?) in a Nubian tomb. Wooden Seat placed over a large jar and emptied (Williams, T.1987).


Cloak, hairnet and

beaded leather garments of Kerma.

Stone ear studs and penannular earrings of Kerma- later adopted by the Egyptians (Markowitz & Doxey, 2014).

Golden Fly ornament and military symbol , also adopted by the Egyptians.


Propeller. Devices attached to floating barges.

Sail: 3000 year Nubian drawing of a sail (Adams, 1977).

River boat ( Asimov, 1989).


Nilometer. 3200 BC. Graduated pillar serving as a scale to measure the height of the Nile waters.


Originators of Hieroglyphics (Diodorus Siculus, Book III. 2. 93-97. Reprinted 2000).

Creator of Meroitic Writing System . Gradual progress has been made in deciphering Meroitic by Claude Rilly and others.


Created cosmetics and cosmetic palettes.

The Bow ring- initially thumb rings used by archers (Davidson, 1969).

Golden Fly. Military badge adopted from Nubia by Egypt (Williams, 1986).

Source of most of the gold in Egypt from around 3000 BCE (Fisher et al.,2012).

Kerma’s blue- glazed rock crystal beads (Markowitz & Doxey, 2014).


Soldering: 2500BC Joined gold and other metal sheets together seamlessly ( Neuberger, 1930).

Creators of elegant gold and silver jewelry with great detail

(Williams, 1986;Markowitz &Doxey, 2014).

The Nubian Desert (Eastern Desert) was a major source of gold in the region.


Anaesthetics - use of the mandrake plant

Antibiotics. Tetracycline identified.

Forceps around 3200BCE (Oliver, 1961).

Saffron as medication &

scalpel (Bennion (1979).


At Nabta Playa, a Nubian cultural and religious center that is now in southern Egypt, there are tumuli, stele and representations of the primeval Goddess, Hathor,

depicted with the head of a cow (Bauval & Brophy, 2011); cattle cults and homage to the cow deities, originate in this Nubian region.


Nabta playa, the world’s earliest astronomical complex of 6000BCE, hosts stone circles, and 25 megaliths that align with star constellations, in this case, Sirius and Orion’s Belt. The region was an important center before its population was driven into the Nile valley.


Trumpet: 2000BCE

(Goldron, 1968).

Table A. Selected Nubian Inventions and Innovations during the pre- Qustul , Qustul (Ta-Seti), Kerma, Napata and Meroitic Era, circa 9000 BCE to 400 CE.
Table A. is a modified version of Emeagwali, G. African Indigenous Knowledge and the Legacy of Africa. In. Oloruntoba, S. Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Development in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.
Gloria Emeagwali, ©2018, 2022


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