Images and Attitudes

Ancient Views of Nubia and the Nubians

By: Frank M. Snowden, Jr.

Originally Published in 1993

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Ancient Nubia was clearly perceived by its contemporaries as an independent country, rich in coveted resources and inhabited by dark and black-skinned Negroid peoples. These peoples at one time conquered and ruled Egypt and laid the foundations of a state that survived for more than a thousand years. Various sources leave no doubt whatsoever that the inhabitants of this region, designated as Kushites, Ethiopians, and Nubians, were perceived as physically different from Egyptians (see box). Their physical characteristics were faithfully depicted not only in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and early Christian art, but also in detailed Greco-Roman and early Christian writ­ings.

While recognizing physical differ­ences among the peoples of their world, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and early Christians attached no special stigma to skin color and did not develop notions of race involving a hierarchy with ‘whites” in the highest position and “blacks” in the lowest. Underlying this unbiased view was an objective approach to man’s diversity, in which skin color was mere geographical accident. To see how those we today call black Africans were known to their contemporaries, let us take up, in turn, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and early Christian representations of the peoples of Nubia.

Egyptian Views

The history of Egyptian-Nubian encounters is in large part the story of Egypt’s policy of exploiting Nubia’s material and human resources and of Nubia’s resistance to Egypt’s commercial and imperial ambitions. This state of affairs throws light on the heavy military emphasis in and the ambivalence of pharaonic records relating to Nubians. Egypt’s southern neighbors were depict­ed, on the one hand, as enemies whose country was to be invaded, seized, and exploited whenever necessary to fulfill pharaonic objectives. On the other hand, in spite of their successes in Nubia, Egyptians had a high respect for the mili­tary capabilities of Nubian soldiers and their ability to thwart Egypt’s plans for the south.

Recruitment of Nubian mercenaries, enlisted ford serviced in Asia as early as the Sixth Dynasty (Old Kingdom), was stepped up in the First Intermediate Period and eventually became an important factor in strengthening Egypt’s mili­tary effectiveness (Fig. 4). Inscriptions and stelae of Nubian bowmen from Gebelein, south of Thebes, and wooden models of Nubian archers from a royal tomb at Assiut, farther north in central Egypt, point to a sizable Nubian element in the Egyptian population about 2000 B.C.

The Second Intermediate Period saw the flourishing of Kerma, a powerful Nubian kingdom just below the Third Cataract which replaced Egypt as the controlling force in Lower Nubia. Karma’s position as a political and mili­tary power at the time was recognized by the Ilyksos King Apophis, then in control of northern Egypt. Apophis invited the ruler of Kerma to join him in a campaign to defeat the Egyptians and to divide Egypt between them. The pharaoh Kamose himself frankly admitted the reality of Kerma’s power in these words: “Let me understand what this strength of mine is for! (One) prince [the Hyksosl] is in Avails,
another in Nubia, and (here) I sit associated with an Asiatic and a Nubian! Each man has his slice of this Egypt, dividing the land with me.”

During the New Kingdom Tuthmusis I began to break the power of Kerma which had played a leading role in Nubia’s resistance. He described his black foes as “helpless in his grasp,” and boasted that there was not “a single sur­vivor among them.” It is in an adversarial rather than an “anti-black” context, how­ever, that Egyptian expressions of superi­ority such as these should be understood. Similarly, the stele mandating mainte­nance of Egypt’s southern boundary that Sesostris III erected at Semna was not the “first color-bar,” as it was once called; it was merely an announcement of the pharaoh’s determination to call a halt to Nubian activity north of the boundary he had established. Other pharaonic and written documents have been interpret­ed as evidence that Egyptians lacked respect and showed contempt for Kushites (as Nubians were called in Egyptian sources), but it should be emphasized that Egypt’s Asian foes were portrayed and described in the same or similar manner. A few pieces from Egyptian workshops dating to the reign of Tutankhannun illustrate the pharaonic practice of symbolizing Egypt’s power and might by portraying both defeated Asians and Kushites as humiliated foes: a wooden chest depicting the pharaoh slaughtering Syrians on one side and Kushites on the other; a footstool deco­rated with alternating Kushite and Asiat­ic captives dressed in their native garb; and a ceremonial throwing stick combin­ing a black African in ebony and a beard­ed Asiatic in ivory.

It has also been argued that Egyptian contempt for Kushites was intended in expressions such as Kush-Khesyt (“Kush the contemptible or the vile,” as it was once translated; “Kush the defeated,” as it is now understood). Similar expres­sions, however, were used for Egypt’s Syrian-Palestinian foes. Kamose, for example, referred to the Hyksos ruler Apophis as a “base Asiatic”; Tuthmosis III, in a reference to a rebellion headed by a prince of Kadesh (a city on the Orontes), described Asiatics as the vile enemy of Kadesh; and Amenhotep II characterized his northern foes as a use­less lot. In short, Egypt’s enemies, regardless of color, were portrayed and described similarly, with no more signifi­cance attatched to the color and features of dark- or black-skinned Nubians than to those of the lighter-skinned, bearded Asiatics.

During the entire history of Egypt’s exploitative relations with Nubia, Egyp­tians developed no special theory con­cerning the inferiority of blacks. The spirit of the Great Hymn to the Aten was reflected in the Egyptians’ manner of dealing with Nubians.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt Thou settest every man in his place… Their tongues are separate in speech, And their natures as well; Their skins are distinguished, As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.

In other words, all human beings are off­spring of the Aten, the sun disk, who made them diverse in skin color, speech, and character.

The Nubians’ color did not affect their day-to-day contacts with Egyptians. Intermarriage of Nubians and Egyptians was not uncommon (Fig. 5). The practice dates back at least to the Fourth Dynasty when the Nubian wife of a noble at the court of Memphis was accorded the same position as that of Egyptian women. In the New Kingdom the chil­dren of some conquered chieftains, both Asiatic and Nubian, were educated at schools in Egypt. Nubians trained in Egypt were sometimes incorporated into the bureaucracy of Kush or employed in Egypt as policemen and soldiers. A few attained positions of wealth and power. Maiherpri, the fan-bearer of Tuthmosis III, for example, received the high honor of burial in the Valley of the Kings.

In many respects, the Nubian pharaohs of the Napatan Twenty-fifth Dynasty were seen by Egyptians as native rulers rather than foreign invaders. Regarding themselves as per­petuators of Egyptian culture, they main­tained the image of the pharaohs, adopting traditional titles such as “Beloved of Amun,” renovating and enlarging existing temples and construct­ing new ones in various parts of Egypt. It is not surprising, therefore, that some Delta chieftains looked to Nubian lead­ership in their efforts to cast off the yoke of Assyrian domination. Rebellious Egyptians, according to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, turned to the Nubian pharaoh Taharka as one of their own. They sought Taharka’s help in freeing Egypt from Assyrian domination with this plea: “Let there be peace between us and let us come to mutual understand­ing; we will divide the country between us, no foreigner shall be ruler among us!” In other words, Taharka was viewed as a kind of native son, not as a foreign invad­er like the Assyrians.

Nubia also appears to have been tradi­tionally regarded as a region offering sympathetic asylum to Egyptian refugees and a friendly ear to Egyptian causes. Nectanebo II, one of the last of the Egyptian pharaohs, is reported to have fled into Ethiopia with the expectation of receiving assistance in his efforts to pre­vent a second Persian conquest.

In summary, Nubians fared no differ­ently than did many other foreigners who settled in Egypt. Egyptians distinguished these foreigners from themselves not in what we would call “racial” terms, but by regional or political names. Like many other “outsiders” who lived in Egypt, learned the language, and adopted Egyptian customs, Nubians were accepted as one of “the people.” Color did not handicap their full participation in Egyptian society.

A Note on Terminology

The question of who were and who were not

African blacks in the ancient world has given rise to much emotional rhetoric. One particularly erroneous statement is the unsupported assertion that Egyptians as well as inhabitants of northwest Africa—the Moors and Carthaginians, for example—were predominantly blacks or Negroes in the twentieth century sense of these words. It has been mistakenly assumed that in classical texts the word Afer (African) and adjectives denoting color such as melbas (black), niger (black), and fuscus (dark) are always the equivalents of “Negro” or “black” as used in the modern world. In classical usage, however, Afri (Africans) referred in general to the peoples of the countries west of Egypt along the northern coast of Africa, the Carthaginians, and the inhabitants of the Roman province of Africa—peoples whose physical charac­teristics Greeks and Romans dis­tinguished from those of the darker – skinned inhabitants of the interior of northwest Africa. Furthermore, ad­jectives mean­ing “dark” and “black” were ap­plied to a num­ber of peoples, including Egyp­tians, Indians, and Moors, who were darker than Greeks and Ro­mans but whose color and other physical features differed from those of sub-Sa­haran Africans.

Greeks and Romans commonly used the word Ethiopians, literally “burnt-faced persons,” to refer to African peoples whose various combinations of physi­cal characteristics were similar to individuals designat­ed today as Negroid or black. These burnt-faced peoples came from regions of the Nile Valley south of Egypt (Kush, Ethiopia, Nubia) and the southern fringes of northwest Africa. The context of the Ethiopians’ “blackness” is further illustrated by a familiar classical color-scheme succinctly stated in the 1st century A.D. by Manilius, who classified dark- and black-skinned peoples as follows: Ethiopians, the blackest; Indians, less sunburned; Egyptians, mildly dark; and Moors, the lightest.

The ancients considered physical characteristics be­sides color in their depictions of African peoples (Figs. 1, 2, 8, 10). According to copious evidence from con­temporary witnesses, inhabitants of the Nile Valley south of Egypt were perceived as having various com­binations of blackish or dark skin, flat noses, woolly or tightly curled hair, medium to thick lips, and flat-bridged noses. Southern Nubians were seen as differ­ing from northern Nubians in that they were in general darker, with broader noses, thicker lips, and hair more tightly curled. The physical features of Egyptians, on the other hand, according to ancient evidence as sum­marized by Frank Yurco, consisted of complexions varying from a light Mediterranean type to a darker brown in upper Egypt; hair ranging from straight to wavy and even to tightly curled; lips from thin to full; and noses from high to flat-bridged, with bulbous to broad nostrils. In other words, the ancients saw a con­tinuum of physical features, including color, from the Mediterranean into the interior of Africa. Along this continuum, Egyptians were clearly distinguished as physically different from the dark and black-skinned peoples designated as Kushites, Ethiopians, and Nu­bians. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were also aware of the presence of a mixed Egyptian-Nubian element in their world. Realistic portrayals of mulattoes and other mixed “black-white” types in ancient art provide striking confirmation of references to racial mixture in classical texts.

Greek and Roman Views

The most detailed and variegated pic­ture of Nubians from the ancient world is provided by classical authors. Not limit­ing themselves to military reportage, Greeks and Romans touched on a broad range of subjects, including history, anthropology, sociology, and religion. Africanists have found many observations of classical writers of considerable value in reconstructing the Napatan-Meroitic Kingdom of Kush.

Although Nubians and other south­erners had from the earliest times been a familiar part of the daily scene in Egypt, they were, in a sense, a newly discovered people to the Greeks and Romans. Upon their first introduction to dark- and black-skinned Africans, the Greeks were obviously struck by the novelty of a peo­ple who had once conquered Egypt and ruled an empire extending from deep in the Nile Valley to the Mediterranean.

The earliest information about black Africans in the Greek world comes from the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. In a fresco from Cnossos (ca. 1550-1500 B.C.), a procession of black soldiers—perhaps Nubians whom a pharaoh could no longer trust or defectors from Egypt—are led by a Minoan comman­der. A later fresco from Pylos on the Greek mainland, dated about the second half of the 13th century B.C., depicts a procession of white and black men in a scene that may be offertory or tributary. This evidence and the mention of an ai­tijoqo (Aithiops) among landowners in the Pylos tablets suggest that Homer’s Ethiopians (as Nubians were called in Greek, Roman, and early Christian sources) may have been more than mere figments of the poet’s imagination.

It was not until the 7th and 6th cen­turies B.C. that Greek colonists and mer­cenaries encountered sizable numbers of black Africans. The Greek mercenaries of the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus II’s Nubian campaign were apparently among the first Europeans to meet black Africans in military combat on African soil. This Greek military experience in Egypt is reflected in the prominence given to black warriors in 6th century Greek art (Fig. 7). During Xerxes’ inva­sion of Greece (480-479 B.C.), black sol­diers among the Persian troops stimulated the interest and curiosity of 5th century Greeks. For most mainland Greeks, the Nubian soldiers were the first black Africans they had seen in the flesh. Evidence of Greek interest in Nubians is attested by the popularity of black African themes in 5th century Greek art and of “Ethiopian” themes in the theater.

Knowledge of Nubia and Nubians was considerably enlarged during the Ptole­maic period when the Greeks are report­ed to have traveled to Meroe and beyond. Agatharchides, the 2nd century B.C. geographer and historian, rein­forced the image of a black military power south of Egypt; he mentions the preparations of an unnamed Ptolemy, perhaps Epiphanes, for an Ethiopian campaign for which five hundred Greek horsemen had been recruited.

Roman encounters with Nubians were also military in nature. A bronze coinage found in northern Italy, with a Negro on the obverse and an elephant on the reverse, has been interpreted as referring to Negro mahouts in the Carthaginian army (Fig. 12). From the Augustan era onward, Romans found Nubians a threat to the southern bound­ary of Roman-occupied Egypt. Roman countermeasures, according to Strabo, resulted in the capture and destruction of Napata and the sale of Nubian prison­ers. (However, the extremely favorable terms of Augustus’s peace settlement suggest that Strabo’s account of the Roman victory may have been exaggerat­ed.) In northwest Africa Romans also encountered black Africans both as par­ticipants in sporadic revolts against them and as soldiers in Roman units.

This brief sketch highlights the exten­sive role of military engagements in Greco-Roman encounters with black Africans. It explains why Greek and Roman impressions of them as soldiers rather than as slaves contributed to the overall favorable image of black Africans in the Greco-Roman world. Continued to recount, without rancor, familiar “Ethiopian” themes—military power, love of freedom and justice, piety, and wisdom.

Shadowy individuals in Homer, Nubians gradually became African reali­ty—black and flat-nosed and living south of Egypt in Xenophanes. Some Nubians, according to Herodotus, were said to be the tallest and handsomest men in the whole world. Meroe, their capital, was “a great city” whose inhabitants paid high honor to Amun and Osiris. In the histori­an’s account, the Ethiopian Sabacos, after invading Egypt with a great army, ruled for fifty years in a humane manner, never putting wrongdoers to death but instead requiring them to perform worthwhile civic undertakings, And the king of the “long-lived Ethiopians,” according to Herodotus, rebuked the Persian king Cambyses for coveting terri­tory that did not belong to him and for attempting to enslave a people who had never wronged him.

The image of pious and just Ethiopi­ans persisted until late in the Roman Empire. According to Diodorus, a histo­rian of the late 1st century B.C., Ethiopi­ans were the first of all men. They were the first to worship the gods, who looked upon them with such favor that attempts by foreign rulers like Cambyses to invade and occupy their country were doomed to failure. Ethiopians, in Diodorus’s account, were not only pioneers in reli­gion but also the originators of many beliefs and customs of the Egyptians, who were colonists sent out from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian king’s contempt for Cambyses spies, first mentioned by Herodotus, evoked the admiration of Seneca. And in the 4th century the Aethiapica of Heliodorus painted a full vignette of a just Ethiopian king, Hydaspes. This Ethiopian ruler, a model of wisdom and righteousness, shuns putting men to death and instructs his warriors to refrain from slaughter and to take the enemy alive. In a charitable spirit he heeds the plea of his bleeding Persian foe and spares his life; like Herodotus’s Ethiopian king, he has no desire to expand his kingdom by conquest but is content, because of his reverence for justice, to retire within the natural bound­aries of the Cataracts.

In the course of time, along with continuing highly favorable reports about Ethiopians and the Napatan kingdom of Kush, stories were circulated about primi­tive Ethiopians living beyond Napata and Meroe whose way of life contrasted sharply with Greco-Roman customs. Some of these people were reported to practice complete or partial nudity, some to have wives in common, and others to be with­out belief in any gods. Furthermore, in the early Roman Empire, lesser-known regions of both the distant south and the far north were reported to be inhabited by fabulous creatures. According to Pliny the Elder, there were in inner Africa creatures with no voices, others without eyes but heads and noses attached to their chests, and still others who ate human flesh. In the north, especially in Scythia and beyond, were creatures with a single eye in the center of their heads, some with feet turned backward who ran through forests like wild beasts, and oth­ers who were cannibals.

Differences between the Ethiopians inhabiting the region adjoining Egypt, those in the neighborhood of Meroe, and those who Lived beyond Meroe were explained in terms of an environment theory. After describing the effects of the excessive cold of the north on Scythia and its inhabitants and of the torrid heat of the south on Ethiopia and Ethiopians, Diodorus states “it is not at all surprising that both the fare and manner of life as well as the bodies of the inhabitants of both regions should be very different from those that prevail among us.” According to this environment theory, people who lived at the outer regions of the earth, regardless of their color, fol­lowed customs that differed from those of populations of temperate climates. It is important to note that blacks were not stereotyped as primitive or cannibalistic. In fact, it was some white people, accord­ing to Straho, who were said to be the most “savage” in the world—more savage than the Britons were the inhabitants of ancient Ireland who considered it honor­able to devour their fathers when they died and to have intercourse with their mothers and sisters.

The environment theory, cited by Diodorus and many others, was a key­stone of the classical view of other peo­ples and one of the reasons why Greeks and Romans developed no particular the­ory of the inferiority of blacks qua blacks. This explanation of racial differences was applied in a uniform manner to. all peo­ples. The basic human substance—the same in all peoples—was tempered dif­ferently in different climes. The black, woolly-haired Ethiopians of the deep south and the fair, straight-haired Scythi ands of the far north came to be cite( again and again as salient illustration o this theory. These north-south, Scythian Ethiopian contrasts were purposely cho sen by later Greeks and Romans, and b: early Christians to advocate the view tha race is of no consequence in evaluatinq men.

Early Christian Views

Building on classical usages, Christian writers developed a highly spiritual black-white symbolism in which Ethiopians illustrated the meaning of the scrip tures for all men. Origen, thy Alexandrian theologian (A.D. 185-254 was the pioneer in the use of an Ethiopian symbolism. His work became the model for the treatment of Ethiopia] themes by later church fathers. In hi commentary on the “black and beautiful maiden” of the Song of Songs, Origen illustrated the applicability of black-whit imagery to all peoples:

We ask in what way is she black and ii what way fair without whiteness. She has repented of her sins; conversion has bestowed beauty upon her am she is sung as ‘beautiful’…If you repent, your soul will be ‘blacks’ because of your former sins but because of your penitence your soul will have something of what I may call an Ethiopian beauty.

A church that arose from the Gentiles yet called itself black and beautiful, Origen pointed out, was foreshadowed in Moses’ marriage to the black Ethiopian woman, mentioned in the Book of Num­bers. Origen interpreted the marriage as a symbolic union of the spiritual law (Moses) and the church (the Ethiopian woman). Further, the theologian expressed a basic Christian tenet when, making the traditional Ethiopian-Scythi­an formula more inclusive, he declared that it made no difference whether one was born among Hebrews, Greeks, Ethiopians, Scythians, or Taurians. All whom God created He created equal and alike.

In a coherent set of interpretive texts of the first six centuries of Christianity,- blacks were summoned to salvation and welcomed in the Christian brotherhood on the same terms as others. All men were regarded as black who had not been illumined by God’s light and all men, regardless of the color of their skin, were considered potentially Christians. The baptism of the minister of the Ethiopian queen by Philip the Evangelist, described in the Book of Acts, was a landmark in proclaiming that considera­tions of race were to be of no significance in determining membership in the Chris­tian church. All believers in Christ were eligible. Blacks were not only humble converts but influential figures like St. Menas (sometimes portrayed as a Negro), a national saint of Egypt (Fig. 13) whose shrine west of Alexandria attracted pilgrims from Asia and Europe, as well as from Africa. A black Ethiopian named Moses, the picturesque patriarch of the Egyptian desert, is another such figure. Once a brigand, he reached the height of perfection during his life and left seventy disciples at his death. He was frequently cited as a model of humility and the monastic life, as an excellent teacher, and as a “Father’s Father.”

This Ethiopian imagery dramatically emphasized the ecumenical character of Christianity. There is no evidence that Ethiopians of the first centuries after Christ suffered in their day-to-day con­tacts with whites as a result of the metaphorical associations of this symbol­ism. In the early church, blacks found equality in both theory and practice.

In the entire corpus of evidence relat­ing to black Africans in the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and early Christian worlds there are only a few concepts or notions which those who would read a non-existent color prejudice into ancient documents have been able to point to as presumed evidence of anti-black senti­ment. Most scholars who have comment­ed on the misinterpretations of black-white symbolism in classical and early Christian literature, and of other similar misreadings of the ancient evi­dence agree that proponents of such views are expressing the prejudices of the modern interpreters, not of ancient Mediterranean peoples. In short, Egyp­tians, Greeks, Romans, and early Chris­tians were free of what Keith Irvine has described as “the curse of acute color-consciousness, attended by all the raw passion and social problems that cluster around it.”

Cite This Article

Jr., Frank M. Snowden,. "Images and Attitudes." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 2 (July, 1993): -. Accessed February 27, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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