Ancient Nubia Now the Brightest Star in the MFA Sky

Ancient Nubia Now (through January 20, 2020)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The ancient world poses a challenge for those who naively believe that history is linear and progressive. It’s simply not the case that things progress over time; the globe is replete with cultures whose glory days lay in the misty past, not the tangible present. Today, South Sudan has a distinction that no nation desires; its per capita income of $246/year makes it the world’s poorest country. And even though the Republic of the Sudan to its north has a yearly per capita income nearly 5 times that of the south, it is the 28th poorest nation on earth.

It’s hard to imagine that at one point in history, powerful and wealthy kingdoms flourished in the Sudanese desert. It was the Biblical Kush for you Old Testament readers and was long a rival to Egypt to the north–sometimes as a desired target of annexation and sometimes as Egypt’s sovereign. The Sudan, like Egypt, depends upon the Nile River to bring life to an otherwise parched land. It’s an important waterway, but also one with six cataracts (waterfalls and rapids) that acted as transportation barriers that had to be bypassed by traders and armies.

Perhaps you’ve barely heard of ancient Nubia. If so, Egypt is the reason why. Ancient Egypt has been extensively studied and the great civilizations it spawned so widely admired that almost all of the cultural flowering of northeast Africa is attributed to Egypt and its pharaohs. Whenever we see pictures of pyramids, golden jewelry, ancient deities, mummies, and sarcophagi, we immediately thinks of Egypt. When such things are found elsewhere, they were surely imported from Egypt, yes? Why would we assume this? Who is to say Egypt exported its culture rather than importing or blending it? Could race have anything to do with our misassumptions? Egyptians tended to be olive-skinned, whereas most Sudanese were of Negroid stock.

Of course race has been a factor! The Museum of Fine Art in Boston’s Ancient Nubia Now serves to draw attention back to the splendor that was once Nubia. The show is arranged thematically, but also focuses on the three capitals that corresponded with ancient Nubian historical development: Kerma (2100 BCE-1550 BCE), Napata (750 BCE-337 BCE), and Meroe (333 BCE-364 CE). In brief, the Kerman period was one in which Egypt and Nubia were on parallel path and separated by the first three Nile cataracts. Toward the end of the period, fear of Nubia’s rising might led Old Kingdom Egypt (2700 BCE-2180 BCE) to conquer northern Nubia. Kerma regained control after 2188 BCE, but declined over the next 300 years. Nubia was conquered again during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (1580 BCE-1090 BCE). As you can imagine, quite a bit of syncretism took place during Egyptian control.

Around 750 BCE, though, a reversal took place. Nubians from the new capital of Napata invaded Egypt and controlled it for nearly 400 years. Nubia also mastered Egypt for part of its Meriotic period, which lasted from 333 BCE to 364 of the Current Era (though direct Nubian control was much shorter). Plenty of Nubian art from periods of Egyptian control shows dominance from its northern neighbors, but when Nubia reigned, Egypt’s art became more Nubian–blacker if you will. This is more visibly evident in human figures which had looser poses and faces with Negroid features.

The who is influencing whom question is always a hard one for anthropologists to answer. Does one art form suggest another because that style was forced upon the subjugated, or does it look that way because of choice, homage, and syncretism? Nubian art and society underwent subsequent changes when others came and went: Persians, Romans, ancient Eritreans, Christians, and, after the 14th century, Muslims. Today the land of Kush struggles.

But here’s the secret to enjoying the exhibit: If you wish, you can forget the history lesson and simply revel in the beauty and fine craftsmanship of the various objects on display. The takeaway points are more important, the first being that “Black” Africa was not the proverbial “sticks.” Nubia (and many others elsewhere) gave rise to sophisticated kingdoms and artistic achievements of the first order. Nubian artists represented both themselves and their conquerors. (Tomb findings confirm that many of the fabulous and fanciful finds were fashioned by local hands.) There are also quite a few crossover cultural artifacts. You will see enough gold to make you don sunglasses and virtually everything you encounter will destroy notions of the adjective “primitive.”  

Ancient Nubia, like ancient Egypt, also challenges us to view those worlds through their worldviews, not our own. It helps to think of the pre-17th century CE world as one of kingdoms and empires rather than nation-states. Kingdoms tended to be regional rather than ethnic, and if those kingdoms became empires, ethnicities were blurred further. If your view of ancient Egypt is white, you have been the victim of bad teaching and ahistorical thinking. Ancient Egypt was also black and black Nubia was also white, Get over it.

A final note. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts expecting to be blown away by its exhibit on women artists. It is the case, however, that Ancient Nubia Now is the brightest star in the current MFA sky.

Rob Weir 

Note: Archaeologists use the terms BCE (Before Current Era) and CE the way Westerners use the terms BC and AD. They do so because many of the world’s cultures are not Judeo-Christian and often measure time differently.  

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