Nubia, the land of liquid gold

After Augustus Caeser defeated Antony and Cleopatra (ending Ptolemy rule of northern Egypt and Alexandria) he pressed on south hoping to take Nubia.

He wanted gold and war elephants, mercenaries and slaves, and control of the trade routes and precious waters that ran through the land of Nubia.

But the Nubian Queen did not surrender.

Neither did her warriors.

Eventually a peace treaty was reached in which the terms were more favourable to the Nubians than to the Romans (unusual in the times) and so it was that the ever expanding Roman Empire never reached further south than Aswan.

I am in Aswan now, a city on the Nile river in southern Egypt, and I have been learning lots about Nubia.

These days an international border runs through Nubia dividing it into the current countries of Egypt to the north and Sudan to the south. Ancient Nubia also included parts of what is now Ethiopia.

In those days southern Nubia was well watered, green and fertile. Heavy rains in the mountains ran off into numerous little streams which wound through the landscape creating pastures until they eventually joined together to form the mighty Nile river which plows on through the desert in its relentless quest for the sea.

On the flight from Cairo to Aswan you see the landscape from above. Wind blown Sahara sands stretch between one endless horizon and another, broken only by what appears from the aeroplane to be a little stripe. That stripe is the Nile river. It has a narrow green fringe on either side. Beyond that, nothing but desert.

Now we know why Egyptian culture centred around the Nile river. There was nowhere else to live. And we also know why Nubia was so powerful, because those fertile lands that surrounded the southern Nile river were the only practicable gateway between the North African settlements along the Mediterranean and the luscious lands of subSaharan Africa. All trade must pass through those lands along the river. Nubian lands extended to the sea enabling maritime trade with spice countries like India and China. So whomever held Nubia was very powerful.

One of the oldest maps is a map of a Nubian gold mine. The name itself is said to be derived from the Egyptian word for ‘gold’ . The land was saturated with gold and precious metals like iron and the Nubians were skilled metal workers. They were also skilled trainers of war elephants. They were also famed as mercenaries. They traded in slaves, exotic animals and produce from Africa, and precious commodities from the Arabian lands like frankincense.

Interestingly they also built pyramids. An article in the current National Geographic History magazine says there are more pyramids ‘ over the border’ in Sudan than in the whole of Egypt.  The article features pyramids in a Nubian ( now Sudanese) city called Meroe. I have read elsewhere there are obelisks ‘hidden’ by remote jungles of Ethiopia which are far bigger than any found in Egypt. So the question is who first started building these mysterious structures and why? Recently discovered in a remote area of old Nubian lands are remnants of stone circles much older and as accurately aligned as Stonehenge. So ancient history might be rewritten soon as we make more and more exciting discoveries. I am sure there are lots of intelligent people working on it.

Meanwhile I can’t help but feel sad.

It’s about the water.

So it is in these lands, and in all lands, that there is a fragile balance, and as the civilisation expands and grows more hungry it guzzles water, and that is where the scales tip and now those beautiful lands have become desert. From over use. The city of Meroe, once famous and said to have been so surrounded by pastures and running waters that it appeared like an island, gradually turned into a desert and was abandoned. Now there is no one there and the pyramids are surrounded by dust.

Get the National Geographic, it is interesting.

There is also great info online

Here in Aswan is the Nubian museum which is really well done. There is also a newly opened Nile museum which I will come to in a second, though I suppose they are connected. In an attempt to address the need for water a monumental decision was made to dam the Nile River. Because these plans were going to ‘drown’  a whole section of Nubian land and its ancient artefacts a UNESCO call for help was heeded by countries from all around the world who sent archeological teams to collaborate in the massive job of salvaging and moving as many precious relics of Nubian culture as possible before they disappeared forever below the waters of the dam. Much if these are now housed in the Nubian museum in Aswan. Even more incredible was the work involved to move two huge sites, Abu Simbel, and the Temple of Isis, brick by brick to higher ground. I go to these sites in the next few days but meanwhile I am aware of the famous and mammoth job done to label each brick and take such care to ensure that the whole site was rebuilt exactly as it was at its new location on higher ground. Even more amazing was that Abu Simbel in particular had been hewn into the rock and so instead of moving bricks they had to go one step further and ‘carve it back out ‘ of the rock to move it. Some of the statues in particular were so big they had to be carved into moveable size pieces to enable them to be relocated and then reassembled.

Aside from archeological teams there were simultaneously teams of builders and engineers creating the dam (Lake Nasser) which is a modern engineering feat of as much scale as any ancient site. The Nile Muesum shows you a lot about this.
Previously Egypt relied on the annual Nile flood to survive. They show you the system they used to measure the height of the flood. Ideally it would be 7 metres. A metre too low and it would not fertilise and water enough land and people would starve. A metre too high and it was a wash out and destroyed things and people died. The height of the flood also determined the amount of taxation for the year so it was very solemnly measured at specially designated sites along the river.

But we can’t win.

I have read that an unexpected effect of damming the Nile and reducing the nation’s vulnerability to the flood has been a gradual salination and change in Ph of soils along the river such that they are longer as fertile and productive as they once were. It has affected production levels of cotton, once Egypt’s signature export, and recently the Egyptian government has begun to import wheat which was traditionally grown along the Nile. A brilliant adaptation to the design of the dam allowed it to also operate as an electrical generator allowing all Egyptian homes to have electricity including air conditioning and televisions. The increased number of people staying indoors led to an unexpected population boom. It was really more of a mushroom cloud than a boom. So now the government has the problem of more people to feed but reduced productivity from the agricultural lands along the Nile.

Hopefully someone smart is working in this problem also.

It is after all just a little stripe through the desert which a whole civilisation clings to for survival.


Enough history, next post will have photos and some chit chat -should be up soon – if the Egyptian WiFi gods so permit …

Meanwhile here is one of me standing outside the Nile  Museum …. yes there is a hippo watching me …. no it’s not real … actually the whole entrance and facade is designed to have water trickling down and around it but the water features are all turned off at present to conserve water .


5 thoughts on “Nubia, the land of liquid gold

  1. Dear Mehera. You are leading me into a world of history and amazing tales so vivid that I can see the glistening Nile and the green cotton and wheat pastures, the harsh sun bleaching the desert sands and relentlessly shifting to swallow up man’s fragile artifacs. I can see the sweat on the brows of the thousands salvaging, stone by stone, the treasures from the threat of the dam waters . I’m totally immersed into this world where the Nubian Queen outwitted, by sheer guts and steely resolve, the might of the Roman Empire about to swallow her up. I can’t wait for the next instalment dear miss Mehera!


  2. Wow! Fascinating!
    Have you got any photos from the Nubian museum?
    You must be so excited!
    When does the tour start?
    As l said before, very jealous!!!


    1. No photos inside Nubian museum there was some bother at the ticketing office about me having to lay e tra if I wanted photos which I didn’t really pay attention to because I just said no. Having said that once in there it would have been great to take photos really awesome museum.
      Jetlag is wearing off and I am feeling very excited to be in Egypt and feeling very at home here. I am already planning to come back and the tour hasn’t even started


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s