Nubian arts

Nubian arts
In retrospect, the steady rising of Nile waters
due to the building of the Aswan Dam -- and its controversial sequel, the High Dam -- are a bittersweet victory for Nubians. Rescue missions dispatched to save artefacts and Nubia's cultural heritage have enshrined Nubian culture in museum collections that would probably never have been given the prominence or urgency they subsequently garnered.{ Jill Kamil in "East meets west " } Drawn by tales of remarkable treasures, I set out for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which houses the most extensive collection of Nubian art outside of Africa. The Nubia gallery was opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in May 1992 and contains monuments and artefacts from regions of the Upper Nile, where Nubia dips into present-day Sudan. However, the collection is in no way redundant of the new Nubia Museum in Aswan. Some objects at the two museums, like the pottery collections, complement one another; others are missing links that together would enable a better understanding of Nubian culture.
In ancient texts, Egyptians always distinguished Lower (Egyptian) Nubia -- which they called Wawat -- from Upper (Sudanese) Nubia. Artefacts from Lower Nubia gathered by UNESCO salvage operations in the 1960s during the construction of the High Dam are now displayed in the Aswan Museum. The Boston collection is from the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts archaeological expeditions that date from the turn of the 20th century, when the first Aswan Dam was built, and heightened on two successive occasions. Familiar though I am with the history of Upper Nubia, it was not until I walked through the galleries in Boston that I realised the wealth of objects that had been found there. They form a truly remarkable and inspiring collection.
Thanks to worldwide interest in Nubia following the decision to build the High Dam, more is known today about Nubia even than many archaeological sites in Egypt. That might be surprising, but true. The area now called Nubia extends along the Nile from Aswan, where the First Cataract now lies beneath Lake Nasser, to the town of Dabba, near the Fourth Cataract, in Kush (present-day Sudan). The construction of the Nubia Museum at Aswan two years ago was a great step forward in making Nubian culture known, offering artefacts largely from the area between Aswan and Abu Simbel. The display of Nubian objects in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston carried me further south, beyond the Second Cataract to the Nubian kingdom of Kush.
Five mighty mud-brick fortresses were built by Egyptians at the Second Cataract between 1971 and 1928 BC, when the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs annexed Lower Nubia (Wawat). They formed a front-line defence and also a centre for trade. When Egypt extended its influence further south, a mighty temple complex on lines similar to Luxor Temple was built at the Holy Mountain known as Gabal Barkal. Egyptian campaigns eventually resulted in all Nubia becoming part of Egyptian territory, with the city of Napata becoming the most important frontier settlement.
My knowledge of Nubian centres such as Napata and the royal cemeteries at Al-Kurru and Nuri, not to mention the burial grounds of the city of Meroe, was mainly derived from some scholarly references and faded photographs. I really had no idea of the material remains from the excavations that were taken abroad. Imagine my surprise, and pleasure, when I walked through the galleries in Boston and saw the dazzling gold jewellery of ancient Nubian kings and ceramics of unequalled craftsmanship. The excellent standard of craftsmanship in Upper Nubia -- and also an indication of Egyptian influence there -- is apparent from a gold Nubian earring on display portraying the head of the ram-headed Egyptian god Amun, crowned with the double uraeus (which represents kingship) and the sun disk. A rock-crystal base dating to the eighth century BC topped with a gold head of Hathor is unquestionably one of the finest examples of Nubian craftsmanship.
I lingered over a bronze quiver with a selection of the original 73 reed arrows, tipped with bone, slate, bronze and iron points excavated from Meroe, and marvelled at a stunning spouted silver vessel and gold and alabaster objects from the tombs of Kushite kings. The museum has one of the largest granite sarcophagi ever excavated, as well as a bronze offering stand from the eighth century BC.
My vision of Lower Nubia was, naturally, based on Egyptian tomb reliefs. Nubian aristocracy, for example, are represented in tomb wall paintings as one of the four branches of mankind; they are elegantly clad in richly-woven sashes and belts. Nubian princes depicted in the tomb of Huy, on the Theban necropolis, make offerings of rings and bags of gold to Egypt. The sons of the Nubian aristocracy, incidentally, came to Egypt to study at court alongside Egyptian royalty. But I gained a wider perspective of the Nubian culture from the Boston collection, which casts light on aspects of the indigenous African population of the Upper Nile.
In a rich and fertile bend of the Nile south of the Third Cataract, a Nubian group known as the Kerma culture (ruins of its capital lie within the modern Sudanese town of Kerma) became one of the most powerful states in the history of Nubia between 2000-1550 BC. Kings were buried in splendour beneath huge mounds of earth. The unmummified bodies of the kings lay on gold-covered beds in the central chambers surrounded by treasures of gold and other precious objects.
The people of Meroe were probably influenced by Egyptian culture, but remained African in spirit and dress. Meroitic temple reliefs show the elaborate styles of royal clothing: for the women, quality cotton and silk was imported from China. Leather skirts, often made from many narrow panes stitched together and adorned with a variety of beads, were stained (often red) and pierced in patterns. Men wore leather loincloths with frontal panels also decorated with beads arranged in lines or diamond-shaped designs.
Yet we still know very little about the beginnings of kingship in ancient Nubia and whether the concept of "divine kingship" (in which the king ruled as a god) originally came from central Africa and spread to Egypt of the Pharaohs -- a question that may be investigated in the wake of growing interest in Nubian culture. The museums in Aswan and the United States do a great service to both the Nubian heritage and the archaeological missions on which they depended for their collections.
While the opening of a Nubian museum in Upper Egypt was long overdue, it is encouraging to see an appreciation of Nubian history so well maintained in a place where interest in Nubia is probably confined to the small groups of scholars to which the collection is linked, and those who have travelled in the area -- or want to. But perhaps this assessment is unfair, as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has put on a daring show, and the interest it is gathering is more than gratifying.


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