Cemetery of the Mamelukes, predecessors of the Nubian desert dwellers. (photo: Nicole Toutounji)
Morning rises gently on the Nile. (photo: Nicole Toutounji)
The Nubian home extends a welcome and tells a story to all who should enter. The door posts of this home welcome visitors in English and Arabic. The script above the door is from the first line of The Koran: “There is no God but one God and Muhammad is his prophet. God blessed him and anointed him.” In keeping with their faith, this family has travelled to Mecca by camel. Their holy journey and their mode of transportation is symbolized in this illustration and is typical of the Nubian home. (photo: Pierre Kfoury)
A sudden loss of cultural identity by a minority of people is not uncommon in our time. What makes the fate of the Nubians of Egypt particularly poignant is the physical disappearance of their homeland. They, unlike other uprooted minorities, cannot dream of returning home again.
The region traditionally called Nubia stretches southward from Aswan in Upper Egypt, to Dongola in the Sudan. This narrow piece of land, hugging the Nile for some 500-odd miles through the vast desert which dominates the northern tier of Africa, has disappeared beneath the waters backed-up behind the high dam at Aswan.
Its inhabitants, a proud and peaceful people, were relocated to higher grounds, often at great distances from the Nile which has always been at the center of the Nubian social and ceremonial life. Far from the protection of their isolated villages, their ancestral way of life is rapidly being exchanged for the modern ways of their new-found Egyptian and Sudanese neighbors.
Ancestors of present day Nubians drifted in from the Western desert to settle along the shores of the Nile at the beginning of the fourth century A.D. The declining empires of Roman Egypt, to the north, and Meroe (present-day Sudan) to the south, allowed a measure of autonomy to the newcomers, and soon a series of loosely related chiefdoms arose along the Nubian Nile.
At the time Egypt was being rapidly Christianized. In 313 the Edict of Milan declared Christianity the official religion of Egypt and the Roman Empire. In 390 Emperor Theodosius I mandated the compulsory conversion of the country. But the geographical isolation of the Nubians allowed them to resist the imperial edict until the middle of the sixth century.
In 540 a mission sent by Empress Theorora succeeded in converting the Nubians and in 543 Nubia was declared officially Christian; it was to remain so for another thousand years. But less than a century later, in 640, Egypt fell to Amr Ibn Al-As leading an army carrying the green banner of Islam. Nubia had to resist the claims of yet another religion. But this time the Nubians, recently united into one kingdom by King Mercurious, were able to stop the invading army at their northern border, Aswan.
It was the beginning of a period of relative prosperity which saw the flowering of what had been called the classic Christian phase of Nubia. A theocracy, built on the Byzantine model, was installed. The clerical class used its extensive secular powers to forge the disparate Nubian tribes into a nation with the necessary political and cultural cohesion to stem the Islamic tide for a few more centuries.
But the inexorable advance of Islam could not be stopped. Moslem settlers penetrated the region and took positions in the surrounding areas. Occasional battles with stronger neighbors, usually with disastrous outcomes, weakened the Christian kingdom. But it was the growing trade with the more prosperous Egypt which, in the end, brought about the gradual Islamization of the region. By the time the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt in 1517 the last active Nubian Christian church had disappeared. Nubia became another neglected province at the confines of the vast Ottoman empire, never to regain its autonomy again.
This was the beginning of a long dormant period which was to end abruptly with the progressive flooding of the Nubian homeland by a succession of dams built at Aswan starting in 1903 and culminating with its complete submersion by the high dam in 1970.
To look at the barren shores of the Nile south of Aswan, one understood why the Nubians lived in such intimacy with the river. Life was possible only in the immediate closeness of the river, on that narrow band of vegetation, often no more than a few yards wide, which mediated between the swift moving waters and the parched sands on either side. It was a landscape reduced to its harshest simplicity: a narrow field of green separating the blue from the vast brown. And yet, there was a limpid serenity to these desolate shores which was deeply affecting.
The Nubians called their land Balad Al-Aman, the land of safety. A Nubian village in the clear light of a winter morning looked indeed like a haven of peace and safety. The village sat at one end of a long narrow palm grove, hard against the rivers edge, the pale domes of its closely huddled houses etched against the deep desert sky, their inverted images shimmering in the still morning waters. The feluccas (ancient ships) tugged gently at their moorings in the shallows. The escalays, the cattle-drawn water wheels introduced by the Romans, were already singing their soothing monotones. It all gave the satisfying impression of a human settlement in perfect ecological balance with its environment.
Herodotus said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile. Nowhere was this more evident than in Nubia. The silt deposited by the Nile on the narrow ledges along its shores had made sedentary life possible. Its waters were used to irrigate the planted fields. In a region where there is almost no rain, it provided water for drinking, bathing and washing. It was the only means of transportation between the widely distant villages. It is not surprising then that Nubians invested the Nile with potent spiritual powers. Nubian mythology populated the river with a host of benevolent angels and evil demons to whom offerings were to be made to ensure prosperity, fertility and good health. The Nile was an active participant of the ceremonial life of the Nubians: most rituals marking the importance of lifes events would either start or end at the rivers edge.
The Egyptian Nubians, numbering 50,000, were resettled in 1964 near Kom Ombo, not far from Aswan, in an area which had been renamed New Nubia. The Nubians, previously dispersed across several hundred miles, now live in highly concentrated communities. The land is used to grow a cash crop of sugar cane rather than the traditional millet and date palm trees. It is irrigated by canals which bring water from the Nile a few miles to the west; the ancient water wheels and feluccas are nowhere to be seen.
Medical clinics and other governmental services are replacing the Nubian self-sufficiency with new dependencies. The simpler village values are being exchanged for the more serviceable urban values of the cities nearby. Far from the Nile, the river spirits are no longer relevant and may soon be forgotten.
It is still too early to tell what will be the outcome of this cultural upheaval. But one can take hope from the very resiliency of a culture which has weathered the Byzantine and Ottoman invasions without yielding its essential values.
There are indications that these proud people are trying once again to adapt to a new prevalent order without being absorbed by it. They are casting away their old tribal allegiances and finding new strength in their amassed collectivity. They are fast becoming aware of their political rights and have already elected Nubian delegates to the National Assembly in Cairo to represent their interests.
But will they manage to retain, once again, a distinct culture of their own? Far from the protection of Balad Al-Aman, their old land of safety now lying beneath the Nile, the corrosive influence of the modern world next door may prove to be, this time, far too intractable.
Pierre Kfoury, a Lebanese American, grew up in Egypt.