Total population
1.7 million speakers of Nubian languages (SIL estimate as of 1996)
Regions with significant populations
Nubian (Nobiin, Kenzi, Dongolawi, Midob, Hill Nubian),
Arabic (Sudanese Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Sa'idi Arabic)
Predominantly Islam (Sunni, Sufi)
Related ethnic groups
Sudanese Arabs[1], Tama, Nara, Eastern Sudanic peoples

Nubians (/ˈnbiənz, ˈnj-/) are an ethnolinguistic group indigenous to present-day Sudan and southern Egypt who originate from the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley, believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilization.[2] They speak Nubian languages, part of the Northern Eastern Sudanic languages.

Early Neolithic settlements from prehistoric Egypt have been found in the central Nubian region dating back to 7000 BC, with Wadi Halfa believed to be the oldest settlement in the central Nile valley.[3] Parts of Nubia, such as Ta-Seti (the first nome or administrative region of ancient Egypt), were continuously a part of ancient Egypt throughout the dynastic era[4] Other parts of Nubia, particularly Southern or Upper Nubia, were at times a part of ancient Pharaonic Egypt and at other times a rival state representing parts of Meroë or the Kingdom of Kush. However, by the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, all of Nubia was united with Egypt, extending down to what is now Khartoum.[5]

Towards the end of the dynastic era, Upper Nubia broke off from Egypt proper. During that time, the Nubians founded a dynasty that ruled Upper and Lower Egypt in the eighth century BC.[6] As warriors, the ancient Nubians were famous for their skill and precision with the bow and arrow.[7]

Today, people of Nubian descent primarily live in southern Egypt, especially in the Luxor and Aswan area, and in northern Sudan, particularly in the region between the city of Wadi Halfa on the Egyptian-Sudanese border and al Dabbah. Additionally, several groups known as the Hill Nubians live in the northern Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state, Sudan.[8] The main Nubian groups from north to south are the Halfaweyen, Sikut, Mahas and Dongola.


Throughout history various parts of Nubia were known by different names, including Ancient Egyptian: tꜣ stj "Land of the Bow", tꜣ nḥsj, jꜣm "Kerma", jrṯt, sṯjw, wꜣwꜣt, Meroitic: akin(e) «Lower "Nubia"» and qes(a), qos(a) "Kush", and Greek Aethiopia.[9] The origin of the names Nubia and Nubian are contested. What is more certain is that they ultimately denote geographical provenance rather than ethnic origin. Based on cultural traits, many scholars believe Nubia is derived from the Ancient Egyptian: nbw "gold".[10] The Roman Empire used the term "Nubia" to describe the area of Upper Egypt and northern Sudan.[9] Another etymology traces the toponym to a distinct group of people, the Noubai, who in more recent times inhabited the area that would become known as Nubia.[10] The derivation of the term "Nubian" has also been associated with the Greek historian Strabo, who referred to the Nubas people.[11]


Shabti figurine of the Kushite King Senkamanisken ca. 643-623 BC (left), marble portrait of a Nubia denizen ca. 120-100 BC (right). The commemorative stela of the Axumite King Ezana indicates that two distinct population groups inhabited ancient Nubia: the Afroasiatic-speaking Kasu (Kushites) who were related to the neighbouring ancient Egyptians, and a Sudanic-speaking population that was instead related to Nilotes.[12]

The prehistory of Nubia dates to the Paleolithic around 300,000 years ago. By about 6000 BCE, peoples in the region had developed an agricultural economy. They began using a system of writing relatively late in their history, when they adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphic system. Ancient history in Nubia is categorized according to the following periods:[13] A-Group culture (3700-2800 BCE), C-Group culture (2300-1600), Kerma culture (2500-1500), Nubian contemporaries of the New Kingdom (1550-1069), the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (1000-653), Napata (1000-275), Meroë (275 BCE-300/350 CE), Makuria (340-1317), Nobatia (350–650), and Alodia (600s–1504).

Historiolinguistic analysis indicates that the early inhabitants of the Nubia region, during the C-Group and Kerma cultures, were speakers of languages belonging to the Berber and Cushitic branches of the Afroasiatic family. They were succeeded by the first Nubian language speakers, whose tongues belonged to the separate Nilo-Saharan phylum.[14][15] Accordingly, a 4th-century victory stela belonging to King Ezana of the Kingdom of Aksum contains inscriptions describing two distinct population groups dwelling in ancient Nubia: a "red" Kasu population, who are believed to have been Cushitic speakers related to the neighbouring ancient Egyptians, and a "black" Eastern Sudanic-speaking population that was instead related to Nilotes.[12] The existence of two such distinct population groups in Nubia has also been confirmed through genetic analysis (see genetics).[16]

Although Egypt and Nubia have a shared pre-dynastic and pharaonic history, the two histories diverge with the fall of Ancient Egypt and the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.[5] At this point, the area of land between the 1st and the 6th cataract of the Nile became known as Nubia. Egypt was conquered first by the Greeks and then the Romans. During this time period, however, the Kushites formed the kingdom of Meroë, which was ruled by a series of legendary Candaces or Queens. Mythically, the Candace of Meroë was able to intimidate Alexander the Great into retreat with a great army of elephants, while historical documents suggest that the Nubians defeated the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, resulting in a favorable peace treaty for Meroë.[17] The kingdom of Meroë also defeated the Persians, and later Christian Nubia defeated the invading Arab armies on three different occasions resulting in the 600 year peace treaty of Baqt, the longest lasting treaty in history.[18] The fall of the kingdom of Christian Nubia occurred in the early 1500s resulting in full Islamization and reunification with Egypt under the Ottoman Empire, the Muhammad Ali dynasty, and British colonial rule. After the 1956 independence of Sudan from Egypt, Nubia and the Nubian people became divided between Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.

Modern Nubians speak Nubian languages, Eastern Sudanic languages that is part of the Nilo-Saharan family. The Old Nubian language is attested from the 8th century, and is the oldest recorded language of Africa outside of the Afroasiatic family. It was the language of the Noba nomads who occupied the Nile between the First and Third Cataracts and also of the Makorae nomads who occupied the land between the Third and Fourth Cataracts, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush sometime in the fourth century. The Makorae were a separate tribe who eventually conquered or inherited the lands of the Noba: they established a Byzantine-influenced state called the Makuria, which administered the Noba lands separately as the eparchy of Nobatia. Nobadia was converted to Miaphysitism by the Orthodox priest Julian and Bishop Longinus of Constantinople, and thereafter received its bishops from the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Nubia consisted of four regions with varied agriculture and landscapes. The Nile river and its valley were found in the north and central parts of Nubia, allowing farming using irrigation. The western Sudan had a mixture of peasant agriculture and nomadism. Eastern Sudan had primarily nomadism, with a few areas of irrigation and agriculture. Finally, there was the fertile pastoral region of the south, where Nubia's larger agricultural communities were located.[19]

Nubia was dominated by kings from clans that controlled the gold mines. Trade in exotic goods from other parts of Africa (ivory, animal skins) passed to Egypt through Nubia.


Modern Nubians speak Nubian languages. It belongs to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan phylum.

Before the arrival of the first Nubian speakers, languages from the Afroasiatic family are believed to have been spoken by the early inhabitants of the Nubia region. According to Peter Behrens (1981) and Marianne Bechaus-Gerst (2000), linguistic evidence indicates that the ancient peoples of the C-Group and Kerma civilizations spoke Afroasiatic languages of the Berber and Cushitic branches, respectively.[14][15] The Nilo-Saharan Nobiin language today contains a number of key pastoralism related loanwords that are of Berber or proto-Highland East Cushitic origin, including the terms for sheep/goatskin, hen/cock, livestock enclosure, butter and milk. This in turn suggests that the C-Group and Kerma populations, who inhabited the Nile Valley immediately before the arrival of the first Nubian speakers, spoke Afroasiatic languages.[14]

However, it is uncertain to which language family the ancient Meroitic language is related. Claude Rilly has proposed that it, like the Nobiin language, belongs to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family.[20][21] Kirsty Rowan suggests that Meroitic, like the Egyptian language, instead belongs to the Afroasiatic family. She bases this on its sound inventory and phonotactics, which are similar to those of the Afroasiatic languages and dissimilar from those of the Nilo-Saharan languages.[22][23]

Modern Nubians

The descendants of the ancient Nubians still inhabit the general area of what was ancient Nubia. They currently live in what is called Old Nubia, mainly located in modern Egypt. Nubians have been resettled in large numbers (an estimated 50,000 people) away from southern Egypt since the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was built on the Nile, flooding ancestral lands.[24] Some resettled Nubians continue working as farmers (sharecroppers) on resettlement farms whose landowners live elsewhere; most work in Egypt's cities. Whereas Arabic was once only learned by Nubian men who travelled for work, it is increasingly being learned by Nubian women who have access to school, radio and television. Nubian women are working outside the home in increasing numbers.[24]

In the 1973 Arab–Israeli War Egypt employed Nubian people as codetalkers.[25][26][27]


Nubians have developed a common identity, which has been celebrated in poetry, novels, music and storytelling.[28]

Nubians in modern Sudan include the Danaqla around Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract to Wadi Halfa, and the Sikurta around Aswan. These Nubians write using their own script. They also practice scarification: Mahas men and women have three scars on each cheek, while the Danaqla wear these scars on their temples. Younger generations appear to be abandoning this custom.[29]

Nubia's ancient cultural development was influenced by its geography. It is sometimes divided into Upper Nubia and Lower Nubia. Upper Nubia was where the ancient Kingdom of Napata (the Kush) was located. Lower Nubia has been called "the corridor to Africa", where there was contact and cultural exchange between Nubians, Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, and Arabs. Lower Nubia was also where the Kingdom of Meroe flourished.[19] The languages spoken by modern Nubians are based on ancient Sudanic dialects. From north to south, they are: Kenuz, Fadicha (Matoki), Sukkot, Mahas, Danagla.[30]

Kerma, Nepata and Meroe were Nubia's largest population centres. The rich agricultural lands of Nubia supported these cities. Ancient Egyptian rulers sought control of Nubia's wealth, including gold, and the important trade routes within its territories.[31] Nubia's trade links with Egypt led to Egypt's domination over Nubia during the New Kingdom period. The emergence of the Kingdom of Meroe in the 8th century BCE led to Egypt being under the control of Nubian rulers for a century, although they preserved many Egyptian cultural traditions.[32] Nubian kings were considered pious scholars and patrons of the arts, copying ancient Egyptian texts and even restoring some Egyptian cultural practices.[11] After this, Egypt's influence declined greatly. Meroe became the centre of power for Nubia and cultural links with sub-Saharan Africa gained greater influence.[32]


Today, Nubians practice Islam. To a certain degree, Nubian religious practices involve a syncretism of Islam and traditional folk beliefs.[33] In ancient times, Nubians practiced a mixture of traditional religion and Egyptian religion. Prior to the spread of Islam, many Nubians practiced Christianity.[29]

Ancient Nepata was an important religious centre in Nubia. It was the location of Gebel Barkal, a massive sandstone hill resembling a rearing cobra in the eyes of the ancient inhabitants. Egyptian priests declared it to be the home of the ancient deity Amun, further enhancing Nepata as an ancient religious site. This was the case for both Egyptians and Nubians. Egyptian and Nubian deities alike were worshipped in Nubia for 2500 years, even while Nubia was under the control of the New Kingdom of Egypt.[11] Nubian kings and queens were buried near Gebel Barkal, in pyramids as the Egyptian pharaohs were. Nubian pyramids were built at Gebel Barkal, at Nuri (across the Nile from Gebel Barkal), at El Kerru, and at Merroe, south of Gebel Barkal.[11]


Modern Nubian architecture in Sudan is distinctive, and typically features a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. A large, ornately decorated gate, preferably facing the Nile, dominates the property. Brightly colored stucco is often decorated with symbols connected with the family inside, or popular motifs such as geometric patterns, palm trees, or the evil eye that wards away bad luck.[29]

Nubians invented the Nubian vault, a type of curved surface forming a vaulted structure.


According to Y-DNA analysis by Hassan et al. (2008), around 44% of Nubians in Sudan carry the haplogroup J. The remainder mainly belong to the E1b1b clade (23%). Both paternal lineages are also common among local Afroasiatic-speaking populations. The next most frequent haplogroups borne by Nubians are the Western European-linked R1b clade (10%) and the Eurasian lineage F (10%), followed by the archaic African B haplogroup (8%) and the Europe-associated I clade (5%).[34]

Maternally, Hassan (2009) observed that approximately 83% of their Nubian samples carried various subclades of the Africa-centered macrohaplogroup L. Of these mtDNA lineages, the most frequently borne clade was L3 (30.8%), followed by the L0a (20.6%), L2 (10.3%), L1 (6.9%), L4 (6.9%) and L5 (6.9%) haplogroups. The remaining 17% of Nubians belonged to sublineages of the Eurasian macrohaplogroups M (3.4% M/D, 3.4% M1) and N (3.4% N1a, 3.4% preHV1, 3.4% R/U6a1).[35] Analysing a different group of Nubian individuals inhabiting Sudan, Non (2010) found a significantly higher frequency of around 48% of the Eurasian macrohaplogroups M and N. Of these mtDNA lineages, 16% of the examined Nubians belonged to the M clade (around 9% to M1), with the rest bearing N subhaplogroups (including approximately 8% R0, 3% T1a, and 1% H). The remaining 52% of Nubians carried various Africa-centered macrohaplogroup L(xM,N) derivatives, with about 11% of individuals belonging to the L2a1 subclade.[36]

Dobon et al. (2015) identified an ancestral autosomal component of West Eurasian origin that is common to many modern Nubians and Afroasiatic-speaking populations in the Nile Valley and Horn of Africa, including Sudanese Arabs. Known as the Coptic component, it peaks among Egyptian Copts who settled in Sudan over the past two centuries. The scientists associate the Coptic component with Ancient Egyptian ancestry, without the later Arabian influence that is present among other Egyptians.[37] Hollfelder et al. (2017) also analysed various populations in Sudan and similarly observed close autosomal affinities between their Nubian and Sudanese Arab samples.[38]

In 2015, Sirak et al. also analysed the ancient DNA of a Christian-period inhabitant of Kulubnarti in Nubia. The scientists found that the medieval specimen was most closely related to Middle Eastern populations.[39] Further excavations of two Early Christian period (AD 550-800) cemeteries at Kulubnarti, one located on the mainland and the other on an island, revealed the existence of two ancestrally and socioeconomically distinct local populations. Ancient DNA analysis of specimens from these burial sites found that the mainland samples predominantly carried European and Near Eastern mtDNA clades, such as the K1, H, I5, and U1 lineages; only 36.4% of the mainland individuals belonged to African-based maternal haplogroups. By contrast, 70% of the specimens at the island burial site bore African-based clades, among which were the L2, L1 and L5 mtDNA haplogroups.[16]

Nubian vs Nubi

The Nubians are sometimes confused with the Nubi people also sometimes referred to as Nubians, estimated at 100,000-200,000, who live in Kenya and Uganda.[40] The Nubi are descendants of soldiers conscripted by the British during the colonial era, and they are originally from modern day South Sudan and the Darfur region.[41] In contrast, the Nubians are indigenous to only Egypt and Northern Sudan.

Notable Nubians

See also

  • Barabra is an old ethnographical term for the Nubian peoples of Sudan and southern Egypt.


Inline citations

  1. Hale, Sondra (1973). Nubians: A Study in Ethnic Identity. Institute of African and Asian Studies, University of Khartoum. p. 24. Retrieved 14 November 2017.
  2. Charles Keith Maisels (1993). The Near East: Archaeology in the "Cradle of Civilization. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04742-0.
  3. "Ancient Sudan~ Nubia: Burials: Prehistory".
  4. Christopher Ehret
  5. 1 2 "Nubia - ancient region, Africa".
  6. .Draper, Robert. "Black Pharaohs". National Geographic.
  7. Brier, Bob; Hobbs, A. Hoyt (2008). Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-313-35306-2.
  8. Sesana, Renato Kizito; Borruso, Silvano (2006). I Am a Nuba. Paulines Publications Africa. p. 26. ISBN 9789966081797.
  9. 1 2 "The History of Ancient Nubia - The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago".
  10. 1 2 Bianchi, Robert Steven (2004). Daily Life Of The Nubians. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 2, 5. ISBN 9780313325014.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Remier, Pat (2010). Egyptian Mythology, A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 135. ISBN 9781438131801.
  12. 1 2 Asiatic Society Monograph Series, Volume 15. Asiatic Society. 1968. p. 43. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  13. Bianchi, Robert Steven (2004). Daily Life Of The Nubians. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780313325014.
  14. 1 2 3 Marianne Bechaus-Gerst, Roger Blench, Kevin MacDonald (ed.) (2014). The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography - "Linguistic evidence for the prehistory of livestock in Sudan" (2000). Routledge. p. 453. ISBN 1135434166. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  15. 1 2 Behrens, Peter (1986). Libya Antiqua: Report and Papers of the Symposium Organized by Unesco in Paris, 16 to 18 January 1984 - "Language and migrations of the early Saharan cattle herders: the formation of the Berber branch". Unesco. p. 30. ISBN 9231023764. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
  16. 1 2 Sirak, Kendra; Frenandes, Daniel; Novak, Mario; Van Gerven, Dennis; Pinhasi, Ron (2016). Abstract Book of the IUAES Inter-Congress 2016 - A community divided? Revealing the community genome(s) of Medieval Kulubnarti using next- generation sequencing. IUAES.
  17. "Meroe".
  18. Jakobielski, S. 1992. Chapter 8: "Christian Nubia at the Height of its Civilization." UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume III. University of California Press
  19. 1 2 Lobban, Richard (2004). Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Scarecrow Press. pp. liii. ISBN 9780810847842.
  20. Rilly, Claude & de Voogt, Alex (2012). The Meroitic Language and Writing System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1107008662.
  21. Rilly, Claude (2004). "The Linguistic Position of Meroitic" (PDF). Sudan Electronic Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  22. Rowan, Kirsty (2011). "Meroitic Consonant and Vowel Patterning". Lingua Aegytia, 19.
  23. Rowan, Kirsty (2006), "Meroitic - An Afroasiatic Language?" SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics 14:169–206.
  24. 1 2 Fernea, Robert A. (2005). Nubian Ceremonial Life: Studies in Islamic Syncretism And Cultural Change. American University in Cairo Press. pp. ix–xi. ISBN 9789774249556.
  25. "Changing Egypt Offers Hope to Long-Marginalized Nubians". 1 February 2014. Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  26. "Remembering Nubia: the Land of Gold - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online". Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  27. West, Cairo. "El Nuba - Cairo West Magazine". Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  28. Kemp, Graham & Douglas P. Fry (2003). Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies Around the World. Psychology Press. p. 99. ISBN 9780415947626.
  29. 1 2 3 Clammer, Paul (2010). Sudan: the Bradt travel guide. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 138. ISBN 9781841622064.
  30. Lobban, Richard (2004). Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Scarecrow Press. pp. liv. ISBN 9780810847842.
  31. Bulliet, Richard W., and Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Lyman L. Johnson, Steven W. Hirsch (2007). The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History to 1550. Cengage Learning. p. 82. ISBN 9780618771509.
  32. 1 2 Bulliet, Richard W., and Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Lyman L. Johnson, Steven W. Hirsch (2007). The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History to 1550. Cengage Learning. p. 83. ISBN 9780618771509.
  33. Fernea, Robert A. (2005). Nubian Ceremonial Life: Studies in Islamic Syncretism And Cultural Change. American University in Cairo Press. pp. iv–ix. ISBN 9789774249556.
  34. Hassan, Hisham Y. et al. (2008). "Y‐chromosome variation among Sudanese: Restricted gene flow, concordance with language, geography, and history". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 137 (3): 316–323. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20876. PMID 18618658. Retrieved 11 October 2017.
  35. Hassan, Hisham Y. "Genetic Patterns of Y-chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Variation, with Implications to the Peopling of the Sudan". University of Khartoum. pp. 90–92. Retrieved 13 November 2017.
  37. Begoña Dobon et al. (28 May 2015). "The genetics of East African populations: a Nilo-Saharan component in the African genetic landscape" (PDF). Scientific Reports. 5: 9996. doi:10.1038/srep09996. PMC 4446898. PMID 26017457. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  38. Hollfelder, Nina; Schlebusch, Carina M.; Günther, Torsten; Babiker, Hiba; Hassan, Hisham Y.; Jakobsson, Mattias (2017-08-24). "Northeast African genomic variation shaped by the continuity of indigenous groups and Eurasian migrations". PLOS Genetics. 13 (8): e1006976. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1006976. ISSN 1553-7404.
  39. "Optimizing ancient DNA yield from Saharan African samples" (PDF). Sirak et al. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  40. Akcay, Ahmet Sait (2016). "Nubians Still Stateless in Kenya after 150 Years". Anadolu Agency. Retrieved 24 November 2016.
  41. "The Nubi of Kenya and Uganda". Orville Boyd Jenkin. 2006. Retrieved 24 April 2076. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)

General references

  • Rouchdy, Aleya (1991). Nubians and the Nubian Language in Contemporary Egypt: A Case of Cultural and Linguistic Contact. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-09197-1. 
  • Valbelle, Dominique; Charles Bonnet (2007). The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. ISBN 977-416-010-X. 
  • Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth; Robert A. Fernea (1990). Nubian Ethnographies. Chicago: Waveland Press Inc. ISBN 0-88133-480-4. 
  • Black Pharaohs - National Geographic Feb 2008
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