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Fernand Braudel

Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt

Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt

UNESCO International Safeguarding Campaigns and the Birth of the Nubian Museum

One of UNESCO's best-known international safeguarding campaigns began on 8 March 1960, when an appeal was made to the international community to help save the 3,000-year-old monuments and temples of ancient Nubia from flooding by the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam. The campaign, supported by more than 60 of the Organization's Member States and numerous international scientific teams, aimed to carry out excavations in areas that would be submerged by the building of the High Dam and to dismantle and then reconstruct various major monuments.

Many of the artifacts now conserved in the Nubian Museum were found on sites that have since been submerged by the waters of the High Dam. Together, they bear witness to the long history of Nubia, which for millennia has acted as a bridge between different regions, most notably between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. They highlight the myriad interconnections and exchanges that have taken place in the region in work that bears witness to remarkable scientific and aesthetic developments.

It is for this reason that the Nubian Museum's collections are relevant to UNESCO's wider emphasis on the dialogue between civilizations, cultures and peoples. Important pieces in the collections, such as decorated Meroitic ceramics, a statue of a Roman soldier from the site of Philae, and the Byzantine-style frescos from the Church of Abdalla Nirqi, are representative of this. Objects from the tombs of Ballana and Qustul represent the indigenous art of the region, while at the same time reflecting styles and motifs from other cultures that settled for different periods in or adjacent to Lower Nubia, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Coptic and Byzantine.

The exhibition, part of a partnership between UNESCO and the Nubian Museum of Aswan, has been conceived in the form of an itinerary through the Museum. Alongside this itinerary, visitors will be able to appreciate the ways in which various cultures and civilizations have interacted with and influenced that of Nubia as part of a long-standing process of historical change.

Introduction to the Itinerary

The Nubian Museum’s rich collection clearly highlights how important exchanges between different civilizations are in the construction of a cultural identity. More than 5000 years of history have shaped Nubian identity in a territory which is now divided between Egypt and Sudan: extending along the Nile Valley of the city of Aswan, in the north, up to the Fourth Cataract in the south. But the ethnic and linguistic frontiers have varied over the millennia.

The area called Nubia, mentioned by Strabo in his Geographica, extended along the Nile from south of Aswan to the town of Dabba, linking Egypt (the northern part of the Nile Valley) to Sudan, to the south. Various indigenous dynasties, such as the Kushite kingdoms of Kerma, Napata and Meroë flourished in Nubia, and the region saw the arrival of cultures and civilizations of Aksum, Ancient Egypt, populations from the Orient, Classical and Ptolemaic Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire and Islam; all of which marked the history of the region and gave rise to different forms of art, religion, sites and monuments, and objects of everyday life. Thus Nubia has long been home for different populations, who crossed the region bringing their respective traditions, cultures, religions and customs with them.

Nature and People

Nubia enjoys an excellent geographical location, important natural resources and people with creative spirit which, together, saw the early development of a sophisticated civilization. From Antiquity, the country was both an obligatory passage to Africa and a crossroads for civilizations. The Nile Valley which extends along Nubia is the major axis connecting sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean; and Nubia was the “corridor to Africa”, according to an expression termed by historians. The Nile, whose springs are located in the heart of Africa, goes through the Ethiopian highlands before reaching Nubia. If, in the south of Aswan, the “cataracts” interrupt the course of the Nile and becomes an obstacle for navigation, the Nile is navigable from Aswan to the Mediterranean where it flows into a majestic delta. Some caravan routes leave the Valley in the direction of Central Africa and the Red Sea. Other routes, like the one that leads to Egyptian oases, crisscross the eastern Sahara. Such a situation is favourable to trade, as seen in examples of Nubia or their colonizers. Exotic products were passed through Nubia such as precious wood, feline skin, elephant ivory, ostrich eggs and feathers. The country possessed an abundance of natural resources, particularly the goldfields which were among the most important in the ancient world. Nubia’s inhabitants practised agriculture, privileging livestock farming from the 3rd millennium BC. The art of ceramics, which reached extreme perfection from the 4th millennium, retained its tradition of excellence until the Middle Ages. Yet, Nubian traders, farmers and artisans were also regarded as excellent warriors. For example, at the time of Egyptian colonisation, they formed auxiliary troops which were highly appreciated by the pharaohs; but at the same time they posed a dangerous threat to the southern border of Egypt. This warrior reputation continued until the Roman period when the legionaries of Emperor Augustus were defeated in 25 BC, by an army led by the Kandaké, the female sovereign of the African Kingdom of Meroë. Ancient Nubia granted women a very privileged place, especially in comparison with their counterparts in the civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin.

5000 Years of Civilization

Nubia was always historically a coveted region, the source of tensions and conflicts that were exacerbated by her gradual desertification. But her strategic position equally facilitated the exchange and diffusion of cultural influences. Nubia’s originality cannot be fully understood without considering the cultures that succeeded in the Middle Nile since Prehistory. Carvings dating from the earliest times show that this was an area of great Saharan rock art. Then it was the appearance of exceptional quality pottery which defined the stages of development in the region during the Neolithic period. During its history, Nubia saw the succession of numerous political regimes before being integrated into the world of Islam: she was part of the African kingdoms of Kerma, Napata and Meroë; and repeatedly colonized by Pharaonic Egypt before a Nubian dynasty occupied the Egyptian throne in the 8th century BC. When the power of the pharaohs declined and foreign dynasties ruled over Egypt, Nubia opened her doors to the Mediterranean world through this intermediary: this was the time of the Persian Empire, the successors of Alexander the Great who spread Hellenistic culture, and then the Roman and Byzantine empires. This movement of people, ideas and material goods is reflected in an exceptionally rich cultural integration of foreign cultures into one that is original.


The objects selected for this itinerary illustrate the strengths of Nubian identity and the importance of cultural exchange for its construction.

Vessel decorated with a rowing boat from the Naqada period (around 3500-3200 BC) is a good example summing up the main elements of Nubia’s natural environment: water and the boat- as the privileged means of communication- the desert and its fauna. We find themes that are permanently nestled in the Nubian decorative repertoire: evoking the Nilotic landscape and the surrounding deserts with their wilderness and wildlife. This vision of the world was shared with Egypt, the provenance of this vase, and the country where contacts with Nubia became more common from the time of Naqada. All throughout the history of Nubia, the representation of animals, plants or landscapes referred to the nature that a person is rooted in and which is gradually domesticated by that person.

We shall find in the course of the exhibition the representations of fish (amulet in the shape of a fish), crocodiles (beaker with two crocodiles), desert animals (Naqada vase, Horus in the shape of a falcon, kohl pot in the form of a sphinx), and livestock (bowl with cattle representations). Gold amulets in the shape of fish or of Horus materialized the brightness of this precious metal that was abundant in the country. Prospectors, gold washers and miners exploited the gold of Nubia all throughout Antiquity, usually working in appalling conditions. Control of large goldfields, especially those in Wadi Allaqi, was the source of many conflicts.

The expertise of Nubian farmers and artisans was reputed; and was enriched by new contributions throughout their history. A saqia, or water wheel, illustrates this role of the borrowings of foreign techniques. Introduced to Nubia in the Hellenistic period, it revolutionized the possibilities of irrigation and provided a revival to agriculture. The series of decorated ceramic vases in the itinerary demonstrate the excellence and variety of Nubian pottery during the millennia: bowl with cattle representation, hemispherical bowl, beaker decorated with two crocodiles. Two Egyptian representations of Nubians show their warrior-like characters and the ambivalent relationships that they maintained with Egypt: first, the model of Nubian soldiers show the disciplined forces in the service of the pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty (around 1960-1780 BC) who had colonized Lower Nubia; and second, dating from the time of Ramses (around 1295-1186 BC), two faience tiles show Nubian chiefs as captives. This submission, while certainly not corresponding to reality, was a means to curb the threat posed by the Nubians using the magical power of images. More than five hundred years separate these two representations. Meanwhile, the region saw the emergence of the African kingdom of Kerma, which extended from the Fourth to the First Cataract of the Nile. At its peak, around 1600 BC, Kerma threatened the fragile balance of Egypt by forging an alliance with the Hyksos, the Semitic people who had settled in the Nile Delta.

Other works show us the physical features of the Nubian population: the statues of senior officials Harwa and Iriketakana, the statues of a Meroitic royal couple, in addition to the ba-statue of the Viceroy Maloton. Works by local or Egyptian artists more or less emphasized the African features of Nubians. Discovered in Aswan, the bust from a female statuette was carved in the purest style of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1550-1295 BC). Her elaborate hairstyle, with a multitude of braids, corresponds to the ideal hairstyle still alive in Nubia and in sub-Saharan Africa. One can easily imagine that the comb found in the much later site of Qasr Ibrim was used to discipline such hair.

Groupings of objects illustrate the important steps of cultural contacts and exchanges between Nubia and the civilizations of the ancient worlds. The engraved hemispherical bowl, model of Nubian soldiers and the model of the boat show the predominant influence exercised by Egypt on Nubia in the Middle Kingdom. These objects all date from the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, the period corresponding to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. Towards 1900 BCE, Lower Nubia came under Egyptian control. Managed by representatives of the Pharaoh, the region established fourteen fortresses between Aswan and Semna. They sheltered Egyptian garrisons and at the same time were checkpoints for local populations and commercial centres for imported products. Statues, stelae and jewellery made in Egypt were found there, but they display more of coexistence than a cultural mix.

The engraved bowls are a typical example from C-Group, which was the dominant culture of Lower Nubia until the 16th century BC, when the local population adopted Egyptian customs. During the second Intermediate Period (around 1710-1550 BC), Egypt retreated to north of Aswan. The C-Group culture reached its peak with urban development and a social hierarchy which can be seen in the furnishing of tombs.

Three Egyptian statues evoke the period when Egypt was ruled by Nubian pharaohs who also ruled over the African kingdom of Napata, located on the outskirts of the Fourth Cataract: the Divine Adoratrice Amenirdis, Harwa and Iriketakana. Towards 715 BC, Piankhy, the brother of Amenirdis I conquered Egypt and became Pharaoh, establishing the 25th Dynasty, called the “Kushite” or “Ethiopian” Dynasty. The sovereign of Napata, Piankhy, like his subjects, was very strongly influenced by the civilization of Pharaonic Egypt. This Egyptian influence remained very perennial in Napata, particularly in religious and funerary practices: thus kings were buried in small pyramids.

Indeed, Nubia remained Egyptian for close to 500 years until around 1050 BC. Since its re-conquest in the 18th Dynasty, the region extending from the First to the Fourth Cataract became an Egyptian province governed by a senior official, the “Viceroy of Nubia”. Egyptian colonists settled there and saw the construction of temples and new towns; particularly in the city of Napata such as the great temple of Amun of Jebel Barkal. After his victory, Piankhy returned to Napata to enlarge the temple of Jebel Barkal and be buried in the capital city. His Nubian successors ruled Egypt for nearly 100 years (c. 715-664 BC).

The monumental statue depicting a Meroitic queen accompanied by a prince is a symbolic testament of African civilization of Meroë, which flourished between 4th century BC and 4th century AD. The Meroitic Empire united local kingdoms around its capital city Meroë, located in the south of Khartoum; at its peak, it extended from the region of Khartoum, in the south, up to Aswan, in the north. The period saw the rebirth of local power and the development of an original culture, integrating African substrate components inherited from the Pharaonic era, along with contemporary borrowings of elements from Hellenistic and Roman civilizations. The creation of a specific writing, inspired by hieroglyphics and notably a language close to Nilo-Saharan languages, was an essential element of the Meroitic identity. We shall find the cursive version of this writing on an ostracon (inscribed shard) from Amara. The inscription of Meroitic temples, whose architecture was based closely on the Pharaonic era, were carved in hieroglyphics. Their pantheon combined Egyptian gods such as Amun with local deities such as the lion Apedemak. The representation of queens (the Kandaké) held exceptional importance reflecting the place reserved for women in the Meroitic civilization. At Meroë, royal tombs were surmounted by pyramids and in the tombs of notables, statues of man-bird were found: inspired by a Pharaonic model. The ba-statue of Viceroy Malotin is one of the most remarkable examples of this. The Greco-Roman influence is very present in the objects and decorations.

Some Nubian principalities perpetuated the traditions of the Meroë Empire even after its demise. This can be seen through a series of beautiful objects from the tombs of Ballana and Qustul, located near the ancient city of Faras, north of the Second Cataract: usually dated 4-6th centuries AD, these tombs belonged to local potentates. They show the permanence of ancient cults and close contacts which united the owner with the Mediterranean world. The silver diadem, revealing the royal rank of the deceased, includes a series of decorative motifs inherited from Pharaonic art but also combines symbolic and compositional elements already present in Meroitic works. This is the same for the kohl pot in the form of a sphinx: the theme is Egyptian but its interpretation reveals diverse influences- the massive proportions and the seated position is typical of Meroitic art whereas ringlets aligned on the forehead and facial features are Hellenistic. The horse bit belonged to the panoply of weapons and war equipment buried in the tombs. The focus was especially placed on horses, used by the elite corps, and Nubians showed a special attachment to the animal from the reign of Piankhy. The lamp in the form of a male head reflects a strong Mediterranean influence; it may perhaps be a piece imported from Alexandria. The later tombs of Ballana and Qustul contained objects decorated with Christian symbols (the Cross or Chi-Rho) witnessing the conversion of Nubian potentates to the new religion.

The frescoes from the church Abdulla Nirqi illustrate the importance of Coptic and Byzantine influences with the birth of the three Christian kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria and Alwa who settled in Nubia from the 6th century AD. They dominated until the 14th-16th century, opposing Arab incursions. The kingdom of Nobadia extended from the First to the Third Cataract; the city of Faras being the capital. Egyptian merchants and monks were the first to evangelize the region which explains the common points between the Christian art of Nubia and that of Christian Egypt (Coptic). The rapidity of Christianization was brought about by the missionary actions of Justinian, Emperor of Byzantium, whose motivations were more political than religious. The new religion entailed the construction of many buildings of which designs were inspired by Egyptian and Byzantine models. We find from then on decorations with Christian values on stele, furniture and ceramics: symbols such as the Cross, Chi-Rho, fishes, and symbols of the Evangelists. The transition to monotheism profoundly transformed spirituality without totally erasing the memory of former religions. Thus the Cult of the Virgin could be considered as a distant recollection of Egyptian and Roman Isis whose beautiful bronze statuette can be found in the course of the exhibition.

Project of: UNESCO and the Nubian Museum of Aswan

Project sponsor: Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation

Associated sponsor: ISESCO

Project director: Ossama A.W. Abdel Meguid (Director of the Nubian Museum)

UNESCO Project Officer: Nao Hayashi Denis assisted by Minji Song (Museums Section)

Scientific coordinator: Mohamed Rageh (Nubian Museum)

Technical Advisors: Guy Lecuyot, Christiane Ziegler

Project Education Team: Thanaa Hassan, Naglaa Gharib, Ragab Sayad, Somya Shaker

Special thanks to: The Government of Egypt (Dr Gihane Zaki), UNESCO Cairo Office (Tarek Shawki, Costanza De Simone), Permanent Delegation of Egypt to UNESCO (Dr Mohamed El Zahaby), National Commission of Egypt to UNESCO (Mr Safwat Salem), UNESCO Headquarters (Alain Godonou, Akio Arata, Oriol Freixa Matalonga, Katerina Stenou, Ali Mousa, Mohamed Ziadah, Christian Manhart, Vanessa Kredler, Abdelghani Baakrim, Michèle Camous, Isabelle Alonzo, Agnès Hugon), David Tresilian.

view all items from this museum

Statue of Iriketakana

Statue of Iriketakana

Statue of Harwa

Statue of Harwa