1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nubia

NUBIA, a region of north-east Africa, bounded N. by Egypt, E. and W. by the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert respectively, and extending S. indefinitely to about the latitude of Khartum. It may be taken to include the Nile valley from Assuan near the First Cataract southwards to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, stretching in this direction for about 560 m. between 16° and 24° N. Nubia, however, has no strictly defined limits, and is little more than a geographical expression. The term appears to have been unknown to the ancients, by whom everything south of Egypt was vaguely called 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 Kharga oasis to the Nile valley above Egypt (Dodecaschoenus), whence the turbulent Blemmyes had recently been driven eastwards. From Nūba, 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 in accord. Within the limits indicated the country consists mainly of sandy desert and rugged and arid steppes and plateaus through which the Nile forces its way to Upper Egypt. In this section of the river there occurs a continuous series of slight falls and rapids, including all the historical “six cataracts,” beginning below Khartum and terminating at Philae. Between those places the river makes a great S-shaped bend, the region west of the Nile within the lower bend being called the Bayuda Desert, and that east of the Nile the Nubian Desert. The two districts roughly correspond to the conventional divisions of Upper and Lower Nubia respectively. Except along the narrow valley of the Nile only the southernmost portion of Nubia contains arable land. The greater part is within the almost rainless zone. An auriferous district lies between the Nile and the Red Sea, in 22° N. Politically the whole of Nubia is now included either in Egypt or the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and has no administrative existence.

Ethnology.—As an ethnical expression the term Nuba or Nubian has little value. Rejected by the presumable descendants of Diocletian’s Nobatae, who now call themselves Berber or Barābara, it has become synonymous in the Nile valley with “slave,” or “negro slave.” This is due to the large number of slaves drawn by Arab dealers from the Nūba negroes of Kordofan, who appear to constitute the original stock of the Nubian races (but see Hamitic Races). On the other hand, the name has never included all the inhabitants of Nubia. Peoples of three distinct stocks inhabit the country—the comparatively recent Semitic Arab intruders, mainly in Upper Nubia, the Beja (? Hamitic) family of tribes (the Ababda, Bisharin, Hadendoa, Beni-Amer, &c.), everywhere between the Nile and the Red Sea; and the Nubians (Nuba or Barābira), in Lower Nubia, where they are now almost exclusively confined to the banks of the Nile, from Assuan southwards to Dongola. Ethnologically these modern Nubians are a very mixed people, but their affiliation to negroes or negroids, which is based on physical and linguistic grounds, is confirmed by what is known of the 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, and again constantly in subsequent inscriptions down to the time of the Ptolemies, as the chief negro race to the south of Syene. (For the history of the country during this period see Ethiopia). It thus appears that throughout the historic period down to the arrival of the Romans the Nile-country 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 3rd century A.D. Their domain then began to be encroached upon from the east by the Blemmyes, who have been identified with the present Beja of the Nubian desert. It was owing to their incessant raids 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 (Kharga) 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, an d, making common cause against the Romans, were defeated by Maximinus in 451.

The Blemmyes, remaining pagan after the Nubas had embraced Christianity (6th century) were soon after driven from the Nile valley eastwards to the kindred Megabares, Memnons and other 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 (Βουγαειταί), 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.

In the 7th century the Arabs who had conquered Egypt penetrated into Lower Nubia, where the two Jawābareh and Al-Gharbīya tribes became powerful, and amalgamated with the Nūbas of that district. Their further progress south was barred by the Christian kings of Dongola (q.v.) until the 14th century, when the Arabs became masters of the whole region. Still later another element was added to the population in the introduction by the Turkish masters of Egypt of a number of Bosnians. These Bosnians (Kalaji as they called themselves) settled in the country and intermarried with the Arabs and Nubians, their descendants still holding lands between Assuan and Derr. Hence it is that the Nubians of this district, fairest of all the race, still claim Arab and Osmanli (Bosnian) descent.

Nevertheless, the Nubian 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, doli-chocephalic head (index 73, 72), hair often woolly or strongly frizzled, and scant beard worn under the chin 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 Nilotic Nubians are on the whole a strong muscular people, essentially agricultural, more warlike and energetic than the Egyptians. 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 states all have become Mahommedans, but not of a fanatical type. Although a native of Dongola, the mahdi, Mahommed Ahmed, found his chief support, not among his countrymen, but among the more recently converted Kordofan negroes and the nomad Arabs and Beja. (For ethnology see also Hamitic Races, Beja, Abābda, Bisharin, Hadendoa, &c.).

Language.—Little is known of the language of the ancient Nubians or of its connexion, if any, with the language, known as Meroitic, of the “Ethiopians” who preceded them. The hieroglyphs and inscriptions in Meroitic belong mostly to the first six centuries A.D.; the existing Nubian MSS. are medieval and are written chiefly in Greek letters, and in form and character resemble Coptic. They are, with one exception, written on parchment and contain lives of saints, &c., the exception being a legal document. The most noteworthy of these MSS. was found near Edfu, in Upper Egypt, early in the 20th century and purchased for the British Museum in 1908. Eutychius, patriarch of Alexandria about 930, included “Nubi” among the six kinds of writing which he mentions as current among the Hamitic peoples, and “Nubi” also appears among a list of six writings mentioned in an ancient manuscript now in the Berlin Museum.

The modern Nubian tongue, clearly the descendant of the Nubian of the MSS., is very sonorous and expressive. Its distinctly negro character is betrayed in the complete absence of grammatical 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 object, as in ai tokki-j-ir = I shake them. As 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 paradigm fills altogether 110 pages.

Of the Nilotic as distinguished from the Kordofan branch of the Nūba language there are three principal dialects current from Assuan along the Nile southwards to Meroë, as under:—

  I. Northern: Dialect of Banī Kenz or Mattokki, from the first cataract to Sebū‘ and Wādi al-‘Arab, probably dating from the Diocletian period.

 II. Central: The Mahaī or Marīsī, from Ḳorosko to Wādi Ḥalfā (second cataract). Here the natives are called Saidokki, in contradistinction to the northern Mattokki.

III. Southern: Dongolawi, throughout the province of Dongola from the second cataract to J. Dēja near Meroë, on the northern frontier of the Arab district of Dar Shagia. By the Mahasi people it is called Biderīn Bannid, “language of the poor,” or, collectively with the Kenz, Oshkirīn 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 Nūba, possibly because the Saidokki people are later arrivals from Kordofan. For topography, &c. and archaeology, see Sudan § Anglo-Egyptian and Egypt.

Authorities.-C. R. Lepsius, Nubische Grammatik (Berlin, 1880), and Briefe aus Aegypten, Aethiopien, &c. (Berlin, 1852); D. R. MacIver, Areika (Oxford, 1909); Nubian Texts, edited by E. A. Wallis Budge (British Museum, 1909); F. Ll. Griffith, “Some old Nubian Christian Texts” in Journal of Theological Studies (July, 1909); E. A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Sudan (London, 1907); J. Ward, Our Sudan, its Pyramids and Progress (London, 1905); E. Rüppell, Reisen in Nubien, Kordofan, &c. (Frankfort a. M., 1829); F. Caillaud, Voyage à Méroë (Paris, 1826); L. Reinisch, Die Nuba-Sprache (Vienna, 1879); Memoirs of the Société khédiviale de Géographie, Cairo; 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). Consult also the bibliography under Sudan.