Ancient Nubia is vitally important to the reconstruction of African history. The Nubian pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty revitalized the glory of Kemet (Ancient Egypt). Nubia was the nucleus of trading between Kemet and other parts of Africa. Thus Nubia not only affected the course of the civilization of Kemet but actually donated its own intellectual and material infrastructure to its junior. The concept of divine kingship was born in Nubia, which was indeed the “Mother of Kemet.”

Location and Names

Nubia was located south of Kemet in the area that is now the Sudan and parts of Egypt. This area has been known by several names. Ancient Greek historians— contemporaries of the Nubians—wrote that Nubia was a land inhabited by black people and named it Ethiopia, which means “the Land of the Blacks.”
Another of the early names for Nubia was Ta-Seti, meaning “the Land of the Bow,” so called because the Nubian warriors were renowned for their skill with bows. Nubia was also referred to as Yam. Yam was considered to be an affluent land. Official letters reveal that the 6th Dynasty Pharaoh Merenra (2287–2278 B. C. E.) dispatched his official Harkhuf to Yam to trade and to obtain soldiers. Harkhuf, one of Kemet's most esteemed ambassadors, was an adventurer and a noble diplomat. On Harkhuf's first journey to Yam, he returned with an array of gifts. He brought back even more gifts on his second voyage, which took 8 months. On Harkhuf's third journey, he reported that the cargo from Yam included multiple grains, unusual animals, extraordinary incenses, and remarkable woods. However, it was on his fourth expedition to Yam, for the 6th Dynasty Pharaoh Pepi II (2278–2184 B. C. E.), that Harkhuf brought back the most prized item, an African of very small stature who was a dancer. Pepi II was extremely delighted because he believed that this small person was the embodiment of powerful spiritual forces. Yet another name for Lower Nubia was Wawat. The time period when the name Wawat was in use is unclear. There is, however, a textual reference from the 6th Dynasty in which ancient Egyptians obtained the help of the Chief of Wawat in building wooden barges. Thus Wawat is one of the many names by which the area that is now the Sudan had been known during ancient times.


Whatever the boundaries of Nubia may have been, it is clear that the Africans of the Nile Valley looked “up south” and “down north.” African-centered scholar Cheikh Anta Diop gave us insight into the significance of this orientation by analyzing the word king, which in the ancient language Mdw Ntr is nswt. The origin of this word is swt, meaning “the sedge plant,” which was indigenous to upper Egypt, the area closest to Nubia. Biti, meaning “lower Egypt,” was never a synonym for king, as was proposed by those who argued that the kings came from the north. The word for “west” in Mdw Ntr is imnt, which is a variation of wnmi, meaning “right hand” side. The word for “east” is i3bt, a variation of i3bi, meaning “left hand” side.
Using the orientation of the original African people of the Nile Valley, what is currently called the “sixth” cataract, located in the heart of Africa, near the Butanna Steepe, is actually the beginning of the Nile, the first cataract. The “fifth” is the second; the “fourth,” the third; the “third,” the fourth; the “second,” the fifth; and finally, the “first” will be the sixth. Diop posited that this “southern” orientation of the ancient Africans is related to the south to north flow of the Nile, the origin of the Nile being in Central Africa, and the Nubian origin of the concept of divine kingship. However, scholars have never been in complete agreement on the boundaries of Nubia. This is not to say that the Africans did not know where the boundaries lay; however, no one in modern times has determined them to the satisfaction of all. The primary point of contention is the southern boundary and how far into Africa it extended.

Early Nubian Culture

A Group

There is evidence of an early Nubian culture of the mid-4th to early 3rd millennium B. C. E. This cultural group is commonly referred to as the A group, a term that was coined by archaeologist George Reisner. He believed that the people were culturally similar to the ancient Kemites, but that they were unable to form their own culture. His influence is key to understanding the low respect accorded early Nubian culture by Eurocentric historians, for he laid the foundation for archaeological excavation as it is practiced today. There is no book written about Nubian culture that does not refer to his work. Although the quality of his excavations cannot be denied, all material remains must be interpreted, and Reisner's interpretations asserted the superiority of a Eurocentric worldview.

The a Group and Divine Kingship

Archaeologist Bruce Williams of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute challenged the view that the early Nubians, the A group, were unable to form an advanced culture. Williams argued that a stone incense burner found during excavations conducted by the University of Chicago during UNESCO's International Salvage Campaign of 1963 and 1964 showed clearly that Nubia preceded Kemet in royal inscriptions. The incense burner depicts a king in a royal boat, wearing the white crown of Kemet, a serekh (a representation of the palace facade), and a representation of the falcon god, Heru. This is the most ancient depiction of a king in the Nile Valley or anywhere in history. This artifact was found in one of the richest and earliest tombs in Cemetery l in ancient Nubia. Through the context in which it was found, the quality and quantity of the wealth of the cemetery, and the style and composition of the incense burner, the date of this item was determined to be about six or seven generations before the dynastic era in Kemet. This would place it with the so-called A group.
Divine kingship and the origins of Kemet are inextricably intertwined. The placement of the monarchy in Nubia before it appears in Kemet could also place the origins of the people of ancient Egypt in the south. This leads to the conclusion that the Kemites were black. Furthermore, the matriarchal essence of the Egyptian royalty reflects the role of the queen mother of Nubia. Indeed, the notion of divine kingship and the Kemetic word for royalty (nsw in hieroglyphics) means “the one who came from the south.” This clarifies why the people of Kemet always turned toward the south during rituals, just as Muslims turn toward Mecca. It also helps to explain why when foreigners from the north invaded and conquered Kemet during the 24th Dynasty, the people turned to the south once again and the Nubian Pharaoh Piye (Piankhi) answered their call.


The most well-known name given to Nubia was Kush. It was the name given to a period of Nubian history during which there were two successive capitals, Napata and Meroe. The name Kush has been identified in Pharaonic texts from 2000 B. C. E.


It is generally agreed that Kush extended from 900 to 350 B. C. E. The exact location of the administrative center of Napata is unknown, but it was associated with the area surrounding the Jebel Barkal Mountain, named by the ancients the “Holy Mountain.” The location of the city near the sacred mountain must have been very significant because royalty were still being buried there even after the capital was moved.


The Meroitic period is generally agreed to extend from the 6th century B. C. E. to the beginning of the 4th century C. E. The origin of the city of Meroe is unknown. It is known that by 538 B. C. E. royalty who were being buried at Napata had ruled from Meroe. An unknown event of political significance must have brought about the transfer of the capital of Kush from Napata to Meroe. It may have been the result of the increase of trade routes to Meroe or it might have been because the Kushite rulers wanted to move away from the powerful priests at Amun temple in Jebel Barkal. The first historical mention of Meroe occurred when it was at the height of its power. Incorrectly called an island, it was a center of trade and one of several settlements located between the second and first cataracts of the Butanna Steepe, a triangular area formed by the confluence of the Atbara and Nile rivers.
The transfer of the center of rule to Meroe marked the beginning of a cultural, economic, and artistic “Imhotepean” period in the history of Kush, that is, there was a rebirth of artistic and political excellence. (Imhotep was the chief advisor to the Pharaoh Djoser, a king of the 3rd Dynasty. He was an architect, a priest, a physician, a writer of proverbs, and the builder of the first pyramid—the Step Pyramid. After his death, the ancient Egyptians worshipped him as a demigod. Furthermore, his fame was widespread, as the ancient Greeks and the Phoenicians also worshipped him.)

The 25th Dynasty of Kemet

The 25th Dynasty of Kemet was a union of Kemet and Kush and one of the most beloved and respected dynasties remembered by the Kemetic people. It was launched when the Kushite King Piankhi saved Kemet from foreign invaders. He wrote about his triumphs in the famous Victory Stele, which is one of the most thorough and well-known documents from the Nile Valley. When Piankhi saved Thebes in 740 B. C. E., he installed his sister, Amenirdis I, as divine wife of Amun. The female in this position played a major part in the sacred ceremonies in Amun worship. She owned a large amount of property and supervised large numbers of temple officials, and thus was politically and spiritually powerful. In this way, Piankhi established a solid power base, which allowed him to rule Kemet and Kush.
The power that the divine wife of Amun held can be gauged by a description of Karnak during the reign of Ramses III of the 20th Dynasty. There were 81,322 people in the service of the Amun, working in 125 different categories of labor. There were also 421,262 animals, 433 gardens, and 83 ships. All of this was contained within 2,395 square kilometers of field, including 46 work sites and 65 villages. These data about the temple come from an inscription made during the reign of Ramses III.
There is not as detailed a description of Karnak as that left during the 25th Dynasty. However, the kings of the 25th Dynasty enhanced Karnak, and the worship of Amun became more extensive; thus we can safely assume that Karnak was considerably grander. The divine wives of Amun wielded so much power that they were treated as queens and addressed as “Your Majesty”; their names were written inside of cartouches.

The Candaces, Queens of Kush

The position of divine wife of Amun was not the only source of power over spiritual and material realms that women had in Kush. Women had enjoyed a long-standing tradition of respect and elevated position in Kushite culture. Kushite kings Taharqua, Piankhi, and Anlamani all emphasized the importance of their mothers and wives in their coronation ceremonies and during their reigns. The appearance of a series of queen regents in Meroe, commonly called Candaces, was a natural development of the elevated position of women in the Kushite culture. This could hardly have happened in Greece, where women neither owned property nor made decisions concerning the election of kings. This phenomenon is still not completely understood, partly because even though there was a Meroitic script, it is not been fully translated.

Candace Queen Who Fought the Roman Emperor and Won

One of the Candaces was famous for her military valor. The Greek writer Strabo tells the story of how the Candace, believed to be Amanirenas, led an attack against the Romans. The Romans were distracted with fighting the Arabians. The Africans were not as fully equipped as the Romans, but they felt that they had been maltreated, so they waited until the Romans were vulnerable and then they struck. Some of them were captured, and they went into negotiations. During negotiations, the Candace obtained everything for which she had negotiated. The Roman Emperor even cancelled taxes. She lost the battle but won the war.
Strabo describes this Candace as “a masculine wo-man, and blind in one eye.” The iconography generally shows the Candaces to be large women with long, pointed fingernails and very sophisticated jewelry. Scholars have referred to these queens as large, fat, obese, or very obese. There is a distinct possibility that the large size of the Candaces represented fertility and maternity. African culture must be viewed through the lens of spirituality. Fertility and motherhood have always had significance to African people. The Candaces were divine rulers and thus represented the spiritual and material wealth of the people.

The Christian Period

During the time of the Roman emperor Justinian, from 550 to 1400 C. E., Nubia became a Christian nation. Tradition has it that the Byzantine Empress Theodora sent a missionary to Nobatia and that was the beginning of the conversion process. The Nubians, similar to the Egyptians of the time, practiced monophysite Christianity. They recognized the spiritual supremacy of the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. Royal and religious leaders held concurrent power. The queen mother still played a major role and the succession to the throne was determined by birth or marriage to a royal woman. Christian Nubia lasted for many centuries. It was at its height in the 9th and 10th centuries.


Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt in 640 C. E. and made several unsuccessful endeavors to conquer Nubia almost immediately afterwards. By the 12th century, they were successful. All that is left of the Christian period are beautiful paintings on the walls of the cathedral at Faras. By the 15th century, the majority of Nubians had converted to Islam. Currently it is called the Sudan and most of the people are Islamic.



  • Nubia
  • dynasties
  • kingship
  • cataracts
  • royalties
  • Mdw Ntr
  • Egypt


Further Reading

  • Adams, William Y. (1977). Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. This is one of the basic books on Nubia.
  • Emery, Walter. (1965). Egypt in Nubia. London: Hutchinson. This is an account of the relationship between Nubia and Egypt.
  • Gardiner, Sir Arthur. (1992). Egyptian Grammar. Oxford, UK: Ashmolean. (Original work published 1927). This is the standard work on middle Egyptian language.
  • Monges, Miriam Ma'at-Ka-Re. (1997). Kush: The Jewel of Nubia. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This is the first book about Kush by an African American scholar. It incorporates past and recent scholarship and provides a strong basis for further study.
  • Olson, Stacie, and Wegne, J. (1992). Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. This is an outstanding work that includes recent information.
  • Williams, Bruce.The Lost Pharaohs of Nubia. Archeology (5) 12–21 (1980). This has become a classic essay in the field of Nubian studies because of its exploration of Nubian antecedents to Kemet.