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When we think of Egypt, most of us think of the great civilizations of Ancient Egypt and its many achievements. However, the modern state of Egypt also encompasses the ancient homeland of the Nubian civilization, which at times rivaled the power and sophistication of the Egyptians. Fiona Miller explains a little more about this often overlooked part of Egyptian history.

Abu Simbel, Egypt
Abu Simbel, Egypt

Responsible for some of the world’s finest historical treasures, the Nubians were renowned for their wealth, sophisticated culture and military might. A nomadic people of northern Sudan and southern Egypt, they developed one of the greatest civilizations in Africa and were much admired and respected by the Ancient Egyptians.

The Nubians are one of the oldest tribes on Earth, and much of Nubian culture and tradition was adopted by the Egyptians. Over the centuries the two civilizations jostled for control of the Nile Valley, and a strong Nubian military presence enabled them to rule for a time over Upper and Lower Egypt during what is known as the Nubian Dynasty (760 to 656 BC).

After the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush (Meroe) in Sudan, the Nubians settled along the banks of the Nile from Aswan. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs vividly depict the Nubians, often portrayed with dark skin and long, braided hair. Now, the area known as Nubia is home to some truly stunning monuments, including the temples of Abu Simbel (1).

Map of EgyptConstructed by Ramses II in about 1244 BC, largely to reinforce his influence and personal cult, the two massive rock temples lie on the bank of Lake Nasser. Visitors can get a sense of his power by admiring the four huge sitting statues of the pharaoh that have become so iconic. The temples were relocated from their original position in 1968 to make way for the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. The entire mountainside which was the temples’ original home was cut into blocks and reassembled 65 meters higher up and 200 meters away from the advancing water. This brick by brick relocation was a massive feat of engineering and one that only enhances your appreciation of this fascinating monument.

Abu Simbel can be visited from Aswan in a half-day excursion by plane, but possibly the best way to experience it is on a Lake Nasser cruise. Enjoying dinner in the evening whilst overlooking the illuminated temple is a truly memorable experience. Stretching roughly 550 kilometers across the border between Egypt and Sudan, Lake Nasser is the world’s third largest reservoir. Many great Nubian monuments and historical sites were drowned and lost forever, despite ambitious rescue operations.

Another temple saved from the floodwaters was the Temple of Philae (2), which was relocated from one island to another. Originally situated on the island of Beghe, it was dismantled and rebuilt on the island of Agilkia 500 meters away. Not far from Aswan and one of the most intricate and beautifully located temples in Egypt, Philae is included in the itinerary of most Nile cruises, or can be visited as an excursion from Aswan.

The loss of some of their greatest monuments is just one of the indignities suffered by the Nubian people, victims of some of the 20th century’s most turbulent geographical quirks. Colonial changes in the 1950s meant that their homeland was divided between two different countries and the rising waters of the Nile after the damming of the river meant that Nubian land was slowly destroyed, forcing 120,000 people to rebuild their villages on higher ground where agriculture was more difficult.

Many Nubian communities moved north of Aswan to the Kom Ombo (3) area, where there is another fantastic temple dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, a central figure to the Nubians in ancient times. This temple is also included in all Nile cruise itineraries, sometimes at night, when moonlight casts an eerie pall over the impressive hieroglyphics.

With the forced relocation, many men left their families to seek work in the towns and consequently lifestyles and customs started to change as the tribe became more integrated. There is however, still a very strong sense of regional identity in Kom Ombo and the Nubian heartlands.

The Nubian museum in Aswan (4) offers a great insight into this ancient culture and explains its triumphs and tragedies over the years. Local Nubian people work at the museum, which is easy to visit either on a guided excursion while in Aswan or if you choose to take some leisure time in Egypt’s most laid-back and picturesque city.

Egypt timeline

  • Statue at Luxor Museum, Egypt


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