Archaeology Magazine Archive

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At the Museums: A Walk Through Time Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Angela M.H. Schuster

More than 11,000 years ago, nomadic bands who had hunted and fished along the upper reaches of the Nile for millennia began settling in small hamlets along the river near its fourth cataract, where, at sites such as Nabta, archaeologists have found the remains of houses and tombs. It was small communities such as these that gave rise to the Nubian civilization, one of Africa's most dynamic cultures.

When the Greek geographer Strabo visited the lands south of the Nile's first cataract in 29 B.C., he remarked on the region's mineral wealth. He knew the area as Nubia, a name some scholars believe is derived from nbu, the Egyptian word for gold, one of Nubia's prime exports. The Egyptians, however, called the land stretching from Aswan in the north to Khartoum just south of the sixth cataract Ta-Seti or "Land of the Bow," after the Nubians' preferred weapon.

Capitalizing on its strategic location, Nubia flourished during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 B.C.), becoming the conduit through which exotic African goods--ebony, ivory, incense, leopard skins, and ostrich feathers--reached Egypt and the wider Mediterranean world in exchange for oil, honey, wine, beer, and linen. Nubia also prospered from the export of gold, copper, and semiprecious stones such as carnelian, jasper, and amethyst, which it possessed in great quantity. The region's wealth, however, had its drawbacks. Nubia continuously courted invasion by Egypt, its northern neighbor, which jealously eyed its vast mineral reserves.

The Nubia Museum at Aswan, which opened in the fall of 1997, is a fitting tribute to this African civilization. Designed by architect Mahmoud al-Hakim, the museum, on a hilltop overlooking the Nile, was built following the canons of traditional Nubian architecture. Gently curving stone walls punctuated by groups of triangular windows are crowned with chevron fretwork. A winding path circling the museum leads visitors through an outdoor exhibition featuring a man-made cave adorned with rock art from prehistoric sites along the Nile, a collection of Islamic tombs, and a contemporary Nubian dwelling.

Arranged chronologically under headings such as "Birth of Culture in the Nile Valley," "The Age of Pyramids," and "The Rise of the Kingdom of Meroe," the museum's artifacts trace the development of Nubian civilization from its beginnings more than 11,000 years ago to the present.

With its splendid artifacts and didactic materials, the museum offers a compelling narrative of one of Africa's greatest cultures. Open daily, the museum is located just outside Aswan on the main road to the airport; tel. 011-20-97-31-38-26, fax 011-20-97-31-79-98.

Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

* Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America