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Nubia: A Lost Homeland

by Pierre Kfoury

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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.

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