Nubian Culture (part 1)

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What’s unique about Nubians?

  • A very brief History

The Nubian people are a culture that is thought to have survived 17 000 years of history, and possibly have one of the earliest civilizations.

Traditionally these Nubian people lived in what is now Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan: the Lower Nubia (being near the 1st and 2nd cataract) and upper Nubia (near the 2 – 6th cataracts). This in total covered 120 000 square kilometers of land. It was a strategic area and was the passageway for much trade between Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

In modern history, due to the building of the dams (Aswan Dam in 1902 and High Dam in the 1960s) and the resultant rising water, particularly Lake Nasser, hundreds of villages were flooded, and over a hundred thousand Nubians had to be re-settled, from Sudan and Egypt. Much of their land is now beneath the waters. This displacement has led to quite severe cultural disintegration with many men moving to northern Egypt to the cities to seek employment.

Nonetheless, their long and proud history can still be seen and found today.

  • Name and character

The word Nubia is thought to have come from the word “Nub”, which means gold, as in the past it was a land rich in gold. It was known as “Kush”, the land of the Bow. In the days of old, Nubian men were known (and feared) due to their skill and precision with bows and arrows as well as their horsemanship.

Nubians are usually tall, slim and dark, more “African” looking than many of their Arab neighbours. They are known, stereotypically, as being gentle, quiet, helpful, hospitable, reliable and hardworking.

  • Houses / architecture

Houses were traditionally built at the edge of arable land, but close to the river, and thus having the desert as your back garden! This means that traditionally Nubian homes had wonderful views of the river in the front, the desert at the back, and a lovely breeze!

The design of their traditional homes is unique. Usually they are made of mud, are stand alone homes, and house an extended family.

They are beautiful and practical and elicit a feeling of harmony and peace. They usually have a rectangular design, in the centre being a broad central courtyard of……. sand! This large expanse of sand in the middle is like the heart of every home: it represents the land, the desert: one of the loves of every Nubian. They love to sit on it, walk barefoot on it (Nubian foot massage!), run it through fingers, look at it! There are always mats and chairs handy so that you can sit and rest. This sand is clean, pure, and is usually swept daily to be kept neat and tidy. There is no roof, as it hardly ever rains in the desert!

Around this courtyard are usually corridors of rooms: sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom. The house expands as the children marry and need more living space for their new family.

In the bedrooms, you will often find plates/bowls hanging from the ceiling. These have a dual purpose of reflecting the evil eye and bringing blessings of fertility to the happy couple. On occasion, you can find that some little sparrows have taken up residence in some of these.

The gate/door is usually a key feature of every home. The door will be large and decorated, usually facing the Nile. Near the door will be a reception area / guest room, and within you will be able to see the interior “sandy” courtyard.

The artwork continues on the colored walls of the house: symbols, motives, pictures. Most of these reflect the things they love: the river, palm trees, nature. Some are charms/amulets against the evil eye, some tell of the pilgrimage of the owner to Mecca. Sometimes you will find household utensils or even the odd crocodile hanging from the wall. The paintwork on the mud walls is usually in colors of blue, sand, red-earth (desert at sunset).

The roof is usually domed: to reflect the rays of the sun, which beat down in the long summer months: It also improves the air circulation I am told!

After the re-settlement, these riverine communities have become increasingly dense, many losing the stereotypical sandy courtyard. Yet even so, staying in a Nubian home still gives you a unique experience and a delightful connection with these kind, gentle and hospitable people.