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Nubians: An Ancient Egyptian-Sudanese Ethnic Group Now Under Persecution

posted on: Feb 6, 2019

Nubians: An Ancient Egyptian-Sudanese Ethnic Group Now Under Persecution

Typical Nubian Village on the Nile

By John P. Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Nubians are prominent, northeast African ethnic and language group who originally settled in what are today Sudan and southern Egypt. They have a rich history, dating to prehistoric times, including a leadership role during certain Pharaonic periods and as rivals to the Pharaohs. During that time, because of their incorporation into the modern Egyptian and Sudanese states, most Nubians converted to Islam, including both Sunni and Sufi influences, and many speak Arabic. In Egypt, they have been removed from their lands along the Nile River and subsequently persecuted by several recent Egyptian governments for trying to recover some of their ancestral land and human rights. This is more so the case under the current administration.

A Glorious History of Kings and at least one Queen

Indigenous to present-day Sudan, the Nubians date to at least the New Stone Age around 7,000 BC. Their language, also called Nubian, belongs to the Northern Eastern Sudanic linguistic group.  At that time, they became part of ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. But the Nubians were also part of empires that rivaled the ancient Egyptians, such as the Kingdoms of Meroe and Kush. During ancient Egypt’s more recent dynasties, the 25th in the 8th-7th centuries BC, a Nubian King of Kush became Pharaoh, uniting all of present Egypt and northern Sudan. Nubian and Egyptian histories separated with the fall of ancient Egypt and the conquest of ancient Egypt by the Greek, Alexander the Great, in 332 BC.

A Nubian Queen arose in the Meroe Empire period during 170-15 BC. She ruled without a king. Her name, Shanakdakheto, is inscribed on ancient Egyptian monuments. One such monument, now in the Cairo Museum, depicts her as the Queen of Kush. Another monument in her honor is a pyramid at Meroe. In one depiction, Shanakdakheto is sitting on a royal throne holding a spear and palm branch in her right hand, with her left hand raised aloft. She was clearly a person of wealth and prosperity.

Queen Shanakdakheto, the earliest known ruling African Queen of Ancient Nubia, who ruled from about 170-150 BC

During the Middle Ages, 5th-15th centuries AD, the Nubians converted to Christianity and established three kingdoms. Some of the Christian kingdoms defeated invading Muslim armies, but by the 15th century, Nubia fell solidly under Islamic rule. Presently most Nubians are Muslims, living in southern Egypt around Luxor and Aswan and in northern Sudan.

A Critical Moment for Nubia: the Relocation of thousands from the Nile Basin

More than 50,000 Nubians were resettled in the 1960s when the Aswan High Dam was built. Their ancestral lands were consequently flooded by a new lake, known as Lake Nasser. While some resettled, Nubians continue to work on farms, often as sharecroppers or workers on absentee-owned resettlement farms, many were pushed into Egyptian cities. Today, Nubian men and women alike speak Arabic, as opportunities to work in the cities have grown.

Interestingly, Nubians were used as “code talkers” during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, similar to how American Navajo Indians were used in World War II to transmit secret messages that were impossible for the enemy to transcribe. Nubian culture is richly celebrated in their writings, including poetry, novels as well as in music and storytelling.

Nubians: An Ancient Egyptian-Sudanese Ethnic Group Now Under Persecution

Typical Nubian farms along the Nile, though many Nubians have been deprived of their land

Nubians who the government relocated to such cities as Cairo, Alexandria, and Aswan found themselves placed in small houses with no water or electrical connections. Their lands that survived the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser were sold as investments in large agricultural projects. Countering these forces more recently, some Nubians began around 2007 to hold public protests insisting on their right to return to what was left of their former lands, namely narrow strips along the Nile River. These protests led in 2014 to a movement to recognize the Nubian people and their culture through a referendum for a draft constitution. Article 236 specifically gives them the right to return to at least some of their ancestral lands. While officially recorded, these rights presently seem only to exist on paper.

Many of the protesters have never even been to Nubia, though they’ve heard about their ancestral country through colorful, glorifying stories from parents and grandparents. While the first generation of Nubians seemed to accept their fate as a displaced people, the younger generations have not been as accepting of the government’s treatment of them as second class citizens. As a result of their protests, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has clamped down, showing zero tolerance for dissent, jailing most of the dissenters. While speaking of fulfilling Nubian demands, al-Sisi mentioned nothing about a Nubian return to ancestral lands.

A Recent Tipping Point for the Nubians

The 2018 “re-election” of al-Sisi as President has reinforced his resolve to get rid of the Nubian protesters. This has resulted in state-controlled media incitement against the Nubian community. An American sociologist, Professor Amy Holmes, the American University in Cairo, has been attacked by the press because of her research with the Nubians. Through collusion with Egyptian intelligence agencies, the press has published stories and photographs of Nubians who are defending their human rights, accusing them of attempting to, in Holmes’ terms, “internationalize” the Nubian issue. Mention of her name alone is supposed to lend credence to the press’ insistence that the Nubians are creating an international conspiracy. Such a conspiracy is suggested by the press as a smear of al-Sisi’s reputation.

Nubians: An Ancient Egyptian-Sudanese Ethnic Group Now Under Persecution

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — has trampled on the rights of the Nubians, who demand “the right of return” to their Nile lands.

Professor Holmes suggests that the al-Sissi regime is using racism against the Nubians to undermine their peaceful protests. She believes that the al-Sisi regime is trying to “criminalize” academic research. Nubian displacement from their ancestral home, along with a pan-Arab movement to “Arabize” them and thus suppress their culture and language, is part of a major effort to marginalize them. As an example, the Nubian language is not taught in any Egyptian school or university.

What’s Next?

Egypt is a country of many different peoples, cultures, ethnicities, colors, and languages. Of its present population of 90 million, somewhere between 3.5 and 5 million are Nubians. It seems that the present government wants to destroy this mosaic by creating a homogeneity based on a pan-Arab Islamic model. In such a context, it is difficult for the Nubians to demand their rights, even though they are guaranteed under the Egyptian Constitution.

According to Professor Holmes, the Nubians, who are Egyptian citizens, “are not separatists…not part of a foreign conspiracy, and neither am I.” Furthermore, she notes that the state-controlled media are using inflammatory language to create a “form of racial incitement.”

Ultimately, it seems like the Nubians have been selected as a “test case” for the newly re-elected government to exert more and more control over the will and rights of Egypt’s people. 


(References:  Fernea, Robert A. (2005). Nubian Ceremonial Life: Studies in Islamic Syncretism And Cultural Change, American University in Cairo Press; Hale, Sondra (1973), Nubians: A Study in Ethnic Identity, Institute of African and Asian Studies, University of Khartoum; Rouchdy, Aleya (1991). Nubians and the Nubian Language in Contemporary Egypt: A Case of Cultural and Linguistic Contact, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers; “The History of Ancient Nubia,” University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, 2019; The Economist, “Who are the Nubians,” 2016; Nduta Waweru, CULTURE, July 16, 2018; Amy Austin Holmes, What Egypt’s racist campaign against Nubians reveals about Sissi’s regime,” Washington Post, April 19, 2018)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.