PHASE ONE - The Nile: Cairo to Khartoum


In March 1861 British explorer Samuel White Baker (8 June 1821 – 30 December 1893) started upon his first tour of exploration in central Africa. This, in his own words, was undertaken "to discover the sources of the river Nile, with the hope of meeting the East African expedition under Captains Speke and Grant somewhere about the Lake Victoria." After a year spent on the Sudan–Ethiopian frontier, during which time he learned Arabic, explored the Atbara river and other Nile tributaries, and proved that the Nile sediment came from Ethiopia, he arrived at Khartoum, leaving that city in December 1862 to follow up the course of the White Nile.

Two months later at Gondokoro he met fellow British explorers Speke and Grant, who, after discovering the source of the Nile, were following the river to Egypt. Their success made him fear that there was nothing left for his own expedition to accomplish; but the two explorers gave him information which enabled him, after separating from them, to achieve the discovery of Albert Nyanza (Lake Albert), of whose existence credible assurance had already been given to Speke and Grant. Baker first sighted the lake on March 14, 1864. After some time spent in the exploration of the neighbourhood, Baker demonstrated that the Nile flowed through the Albert Nyanza. He formed an exaggerated idea of the relative importance of the Albert and Victoria lake sources in contributing to the Nile flow rate. Although he believed them to be near equal, Albert Nyanza sources add only ~15% to the Nile flow at this point, the remainder provided primarily by outflow from Lake Victoria. He started upon his return journey, and reached Khartoum, after many checks, in May 1865.

In the following October Baker returned to England with his wife, who had accompanied him throughout the dangerous and difficult journeys in Africa. In recognition of the achievements, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him its gold medal, and a similar distinction was bestowed on him by the Paris Geographical Society.

Sir Samuel White Baker KCB, FRS, FRGS and his wife Florence von Sass (Lady Baker) as illustrated in the London News approx. 1873
In August 1866 he was knighted. In the same year he published The Albert N'yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, and Explorations of the Nile Sources, and in 1867 The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia, both books quickly turned into several editions. In 1868 he published a popular story called Cast up by the Sea. In 1869 he travelled with the future King Edward VII (who was the Prince of Wales at that time) through Egypt.

Baker never received quite the same level of acclamation granted to other contemporary British explorers of Africa. Queen Victoria, in particular, avoided meeting Baker because of the irregular way in which he acquired Florence, not to mention the fact that during the years of their mutual travels, the couple were not actually married.

Isma'il Pasha with attendants circa 1855
A court case involving his brother Valentine Baker (following his indecent assault of a woman on a train) also harmed Baker's chances of wider acceptance by the Victorian establishment.

Baker led a military expedition to the equatorial regions of the Nile, with the object of suppressing the slave-trade there and opening the way to commerce and civilization. Before starting from Cairo with a force of 1700 Egyptian troops - many of them discharged convicts - he was given the rank of pasha and major-general in the Ottoman army. Lady Baker, as before, accompanied him. The khedive appointed him Governor-General of the new territory of Equatoria for four years at a salary of £10,000 a year; and it was not until the expiration of that time that Baker returned to Cairo, leaving his work to be carried on by the new governor, Colonel Charles George Gordon.

He had to contend with innumerable difficulties - the blocking of the river in the Sudd, the hostility of officials interested in the slave-trade, the armed opposition of the natives - but he succeeded in planting in the new territory the foundations upon which others could build up an administration.




The name Nubia is derived from that of the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century, with the collapse of the kingdom of Meroë. The Noba spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, ancestral to Old Nubian. Old Nubian was used in mostly religious texts dating from the 8th and 15th centuries AD. Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia).

There were a number of small Nubian kingdoms throughout the Middle Ages, the last of which collapsed in 1504, when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from 1899 to 1956.

Historically, the people of Nubia spoke at least two varieties of the Nubian language group, a subfamily which includes Nobiin (the descendant of Old Nubian), Kenuzi-Dongola, Midob and several related varieties in the northern part of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. A variety (Birgid) was spoken (at least until 1970) north of Nyala in Darfur but is now extinct.

Throughout the world, Nubia is broken into three unique regions: “Lower Nubia”, "Upper Nubia", and "Southern Nubia." "Lower Nubia" was in modern southern Egypt, which lies between the first and second cataract. “Upper Nubia and Southern Nubia" were in modern-day northern Sudan, between the second cataract and sixth cataracts of the Nile river. Lower Nubia and Upper Nubia are so called because the Nile flows north, so Upper Nubia was further upstream and of higher elevation, even though it lies geographically south of Lower Nubia.


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Nubia and Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt conquered Nubian territory in various eras, and incorporated parts of the area into its provinces. The Nubians in turn were to conquer Egypt under its 25th Dynasty.

Relations between the two peoples however also show peaceful cultural interchange and cooperation, including mixed marriages. The Medjay –from mDA, represents the name Ancient Egyptians gave to a region in northern Sudan–where an ancient people of Nubia inhabited. They became part of the Ancient Egyptian military as scouts and minor workers.

During the Middle Kingdom "Medjay" no longer referred to the district of Medja, but to a tribe or clan of people. It is not known what happened to the district, but, after the First Intermediate Period, it and other districts in Nubia were no longer mentioned in the written record. Written accounts detail the Medjay as nomadic desert people. Over time they were incorporated into the Egyptian army. In the army, the Medjay served as garrison troops in Egyptian fortifications in Nubia and patrolled the deserts as a kind of gendarmerie. This was done in the hopes of preventing their fellow Medjay tribespeople from further attacking Egyptian assets in the region. They were even later used during Kamose’s campaign against the Hyksos and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power. By the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force. No longer did the term refer to an ethnic group and over time the new meaning became synonymous with the policing occupation in general. Being an elite police force, the Medjay were often used to protect valuable areas, especially royal and religious complexes. Though they are most notable for their protection of the royal palaces and tombs in Thebes and the surrounding areas, the Medjay were known to have been used throughout Upper and Lower Egypt.



Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the 12th Dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.

...the XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) originated from the Aswan region. As expected, strong Nubian features and dark coloring are seen in their sculpture and relief work. This dynasty ranks as among the greatest, whose fame far outlived its actual tenure on the throne. Especially interesting, it was a member of this dynasty that decreed that no Nehsy (riverine Nubian of the principality of Kush), except such as came for trade or diplomatic reasons, should pass by the Egyptian fortress and cops at the southern end of the Second Nile Cataract. Why would this royal family of Nubian ancestry ban other Nubians from coming into Egyptian territory? Because the Egyptian rulers of Nubian ancestry had become Egyptians culturally; as pharaohs, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies. (Yurco 1989)
In the New Kingdom, Nubians and Egyptians were often so closely related that some scholars consider them virtually indistinguishable, as the two cultures melded and mixed together.

It is an extremely difficult task to attempt to describe the Nubians during the course of Egypt's New Kingdom, because their presence appears to have virtually evaporated from the archaeological record. The result has been described as a wholesale Nubian assimilation into Egyptian society. This assimilation was so complete that it masked all Nubian ethnic identities insofar as archaeological remains are concerned beneath the impenetrable veneer of Egypt's material culture. In the Kushite Period, when Nubians ruled as Pharaohs in their own right, the material culture of Dynasty XXV (about 750–655 B.C.E.) was decidedly Egyptian in character. Nubia's entire landscape up to the region of the Third Cataract was dotted with temples indistinguishable in style and decoration from contemporary temples erected in Egypt. The same observation obtains for the smaller number of typically Egyptian tombs in which these elite Nubian princes were interred.

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Kingdom of Kerma

The Turin Papyrus MapFrom the pre-Kerma culture, the first kingdom to unify much of the region arose. The Kingdom of Kerma, named for its presumed capital at Kerma, was one of the earliest urban centers in the Nile region. By 1750 BC, the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick. They also had rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife and large human sacrifices. George Reisner excavated sites at Kerma and found large tombs and a palace-like structures. The structures, named (Deffufa), alluded to the early stability in the region. At one point, Kerma came very close to conquering Egypt. Egypt suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Kushites. According to Davies, head of the joint British Museum and Egyptian archaeological team, the attack was so devastating that if the Kerma forces chose to stay and occupy Egypt, they might have eliminated it for good and brought the great nation to extinction. When Egyptian power revived under the New Kingdom (c. 1532–1070 BC) they began to expand further southwards. The Egyptians destroyed Kerma's kingdom and capitol and expanded the Egyptian empire to the Fourth Cataract. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I (1520 BC), all of northern Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative center at Napata, and used the area to produce gold. The Nubian gold production made Egypt a prime source of the precious metal in the Middle East. The primitive working conditions for the slaves are recorded by Diodorus Siculus who saw some of the mines at a later time. One of the oldest maps known is of a gold mine in Nubia, the Turin Papyrus Map dating to about 1160 BC.
The area around 400 B.C.
Kingdom of Kush

Nubian PharaohsWhen the Egyptians pulled out of the Napata region, they left a lasting legacy that was merged with indigenous customs forming the kingdom of Kush. Archaeologists have found several burials in the area which seem to belong to local leaders. The Kushites were buried there soon after the Egyptians decolonized the Nubian frontier. Kush adopted many Egyptian practices, such as their religion. The Kingdom of Kush survived longer than that of Egypt, invaded Egypt (under the leadership of king Piye), and controlled Egypt during the 8th century, Kushite dynasty. The Kushites held sway over their northern neighbors for nearly 100 years, until they were eventually repelled by the invading Assyrians. The Assyrians forced them to move farther south, where they eventually established their capital at Meroë. Of the Nubian kings of this era, Taharqa is perhaps the best known. Taharqa, a son and the third successor of King Piye, was crowned king in Memphis in c.690. Taharqa ruled over both Nubia and Egypt, restored Egyptian temples at Karnak, built new temples and pyramids in Nubia, and repelled some Assyrian attacks.
The pyramids at Meroë

Meroë (800 BC – c. AD 350) in southern Nubia lay on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, ca. 200 km north-east of Khartoum. The people there preserved many ancient Egyptian customs but were unique in many respects. They developed their own form of writing, first utilizing Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later using an alphabetic script with 23 signs. Many pyramids were built in Meroë during this period and the kingdom consisted of an impressive standing military force. Strabo also describes a clash with the Romans in which the Romans were defeated by Nubian archers under the leadership of a "one-eyed" (blind in one eye) queen. During this time, the different parts of the region divided into smaller groups with individual leaders, or generals, each commanding small armies of mercenaries. They fought for control of what is now Nubia and its surrounding territories, leaving the entire region weak and vulnerable to attack. Meroë would eventually meet defeat by a new rising kingdom to their south, Aksum, under King Ezana.

The classification of the Meroitic language is uncertain, it was long assumed to have been of the Afro-Asiatic group, but is now considered to have likely been an Eastern Sudanic language. At some point during the 4th century, the region was conquered by the Noba people, from which the name Nubia may derive (another possibility is that it comes from Nub, the Egyptian word for gold). From then on, the Romans referred to the area as the Nobatae.

Christian Nubia: Makuria, Nobadia, and Alodia

Around AD 350 the area was invaded by the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed. Eventually three smaller kingdoms replaced it: northernmost was Nobatia between the first and second cataract of the Nile River, with its capital at Pachoras (modern day Faras); in the middle was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and southernmost was Alodia, with its capital at Soba (near Khartoum). King Silky of Nobatia crushed the Blemmyes, and recorded his victory in a Greek inscription carved in the wall of the temple of Talmis (modern Kalabsha) around AD 500.

While bishop Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated one Marcus as bishop of Philae before his death in 373, showing that Christianity had penetrated the region by the 4th century, John of Ephesus records that a Monophysite priest named Julian converted the king and his nobles of Nobatia around 545. John of Ephesus also writes that the kingdom of Alodia was converted around 569. However, John of Biclarum records that the kingdom of Makuria was converted to Catholicism the same year, suggesting that John of Ephesus might be mistaken. Further doubt is cast on John's testimony by an entry in the chronicle of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria Eutychius, which states that in 719 the church of Nubia transferred its allegiance from the Greek to the Coptic Church.


Nubian woman circa 1900

By the 7th century Makuria expanded becoming the dominant power in the region. It was strong enough to halt the southern expansion of Islam after the Arabs had taken Egypt. After several failed invasions the new rulers agreed to a treaty with Dongola allowing for peaceful coexistence and trade. This treaty held for six hundred years. Over time the influx of Arab traders introduced Islam to Nubia and it gradually supplanted Christianity. While there are records of a bishop at Qasr Ibrim in 1372, his see had come to include that located at Faras. It is also clear that the cathedral of Dongola had been converted to a mosque in 1317.

The influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom around 1504. A major part of the modern Nubian population became totally Arabized and some claimed to be Arabs (Jaa'leen – the majority of Northern Sudanese – and some Donglawes in Sudan). A vast majority of the Nubian population is currently Muslim, and the Arabic language is their main medium of communication in addition to their indigenous old Nubian language. The unique characteristic of Nubian is shown in their culture (dress, dances, traditions, and music).

Islamic Nubia

In the 14th century the Dongolan government collapsed and the region became divided and dominated by Arabs. The next centuries would see several Arab invasions of the region, as well as the establishment of a number of smaller kingdoms. Northern Nubia was brought under Egyptian control while the south came under the control of the Kingdom of Sennar in the 16th century. The entire region would come under Egyptian control during the rule of Mehemet Ali in the early 19th century, and later became a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium.


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copyright Julian Monroe Fisher 2012-2016