Exhibition: Nubia. Kingdoms of the Nile in Sudan
Madrid, 23 September 2003
The Greeks called their inhabitants Ethiops, the “burnt-faces”. Herodotus described the population as the world’s most slender, handsome and even-tempered, and their archers as strong and skilful. It is no coincidence that the region was known as Ta-Seti, “land of the bow”. For the Egyptians, however, it was the “land of gold”. A crossroads between Black Africa, Pharaonic Egypt and the Mediterranean, Nubia once boasted the most time-honoured kingdoms on the African continent and was a marketplace of bustling trade in precious metals, exotic animals, raw materials and manufactured goods. There, kingdoms donning a mythical aura flourished: the Kerma, Kush, Napata and Meroe. Despite the significance of its historical and archaeological heritage, the ancient kingdoms of Nubia are practically unknown to today’s general public. With 350 singular objects, ”la Caixa” Foundation will reveal some of their secrets in the largest exhibition ever held on these cultures in Spain. Entitled Nubia. Kingdoms of the Nile in Sudan, it spans from prehistoric times up to the middle ages, and shows the influence of Christianity and Islam. The works come from fifteen different institutions and museums, such as the British Museum of London, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (Madrid) and the Sudan National Museum (Khartoum).
The exhibition, Nubia. Kingdoms of the Nile in Sudan, organised by Carmen Pérez Die, chief curator of the Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (Madrid), can be seen at the Sala de Exposiciones of ”la Caixa” Foundation (C/ Serrano, 60), from 24 September, 2003 to 4 January, 2004.
In the modern era, the mid-Nile region, stretching from the first cataract at Aswan to the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile in Khartoum (Sudan) has been christened with the name of Nubia. In ancient times, it was an independent, united political entity, documented in Egypt as the Kingdom of Kush, although Greeks and Romans referred to it as Ethiopia, “land of the burnt-faces”.
Despite the fact that the first Nubian expeditions and studies date back to 1820, it wasn’t until the 20th century was well underway that a comprehensive analysis of the area was carried out, unearthing hundreds of works of art from the ancient Nubian kingdoms. In 1960, the UNESCO organised an international effort to save Nubian heritage, doomed to disappear under the waters of the Nile upon construction of the Aswan dam. Several foreign missions undertook salvage excavations. Spanish participation was especially intensive, and many of these discoveries are now conserved in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.
The exhibition Nubia. Kingdoms of the Nile in Sudan takes visitors on a thematic circuit based on an awesome collection of 350 objects (sculptures, ceramics, religious objects, utensils, charms, jewellery, reliefs and much more). The art works are distributed over seven ambits, which span from the earliest remnants of rustic art to pottery and iron tools from medieval times. The impacts of Christianity and Islam are also evident in many of the artefacts.
The first six ambits are devoted to Nubians and their surroundings, Nubia: relations with Egypt and Rome, Royalty and society, Technology, Religion and The funerary world. The exhibition closes with a final epilogue section which describes the recovery of this exceptionally beautiful and intriguing historical and archaeological heritage.
Nubia had always been something of a crossroads between Pharaonic Egypt and Black Africa. The Nile was the inroad south, to the origin of African products; raw materials such as wood, resin and exotic animals. Gold, hard and semi-precious stones (corralline, quartz, agate and obsidian) could be found in Nubian territory. This privileged geographic position allowed Nubia to control the main trade routes and engage in close commercial relations with its neighbours, for example, Egypt, to which it had special ties. Considered until recently a subsidiary of Egypt, Nubian identity has come into its own, and now the relationship between these two cultures is described in terms of reciprocity and mutual influence. Throughout their history, these two cultures interacted through raids, trade missions, conquests, annexations and colonisations.
The Kushite kings, originally from Napata, emerge in Egyptian history as of the second half of the 8th century AD, with the annexation of vast territories and subsequent conquest of Egypt’s millenary throne. Piye, the first of the black pharaohs, narrated his conquest of Egypt and the warfare with local rulers on two stelae. His successors Shabaqo, Shabataka, Taharqa and Tanutamon considered themselves the true sovereigns of the entire Nile Valley, adopting numerous Egyptian customs, including the funerary rites. With the arrival of the Assyrians in Egypt, the Kushites retreated to their country of origin. The situation of condominium reached during the Ptolemaic period came to an end with the arrival of Rome. At the end of the 3rd century, Dioclecian abandoned all efforts to control Nubia, receding the border to Aswan.
Kore means “king” in Nubian language. The sculptures and reliefs included in the exhibition depict vigorous leaders with Negroid features and rounded faces. Their attitude and clothing evoke Egyptian royalty in their depictions as sphinxes or donning Pharaonic crowns, although they are frequently shown with Kushite biretta, with the uraeus in front and two rear ribbons extending over the neck, down to the back. Egyptian motifs of triumphant pharaohs were adopted by the Meroitic royals: the iconography shows the king with one leg extended forward, grasping his enemies by the hair with one hand while brandishing a battle axe with the other.
Much of what we know about ancient civilisations comes from discoveries made in their necropoli. Though the Neolithic tomb consisted of a single circular or oval-shaped pit, during Pharaonic colonisation the sloped pyramid came into use. Among the possessions buried with the dead are grooming effects (paints and hair ornaments) and others of a more cosmetic bent (eye make-up, ointments, and oils stored in recipients of alabaster, wood and ivory). There have also been modern discoveries of necklaces, and wrist and ankle bracelets, as well as ceramics depicting different animals: lions, giraffes, hippopotami, crocodiles, ostriches, monkeys, scorpions, frogs, horses, and others.
The first anthropomorphic portrayals date back to the Neolithic era. These are extremely simple depictions of women, with tattoos, broad hips and thick heads of hair. Usually given the name of Venus, they can be interpreted as the guarantors of fertility to perpetuate the race. Starting in the Napatean era, the adoption of certain Egyptian gods is widely documented: Amon received exaltation in the Kushite pantheon as the supreme god and guarantor of the royal throne. What is more, the Meroites worshiped other deities from the African universe. The most widely-known was Apademak, the lion worshiped as the victory god, in close association with vegetation and fertility.
From the earliest times, metalwork was under development in Nubia. Daggers, mirrors, jewels and other instruments of copper and bronze found in the more well-to-do tombs are just a few of the relics that have survived to this day. There is evidence pointing to the existence of iron in Meroe as early as the 1st century AD, and electrum (alloy of gold and silver) and silver were used for jewellery and ritual recipients. Ceramics were expertly crafted in Nubia, with striking shapes and decorations. The Neolithic pottery repertoire is truly remarkable, with calciform recipients worthy of special attention. Likewise, Meroitic ceramics are gorgeous in their variety. Workshops were established for their manufacture.
Faience (consisting of silica and alkali) was a raw material used to produce a wide array of items. With widely-appreciated symbolic properties and beauty, its green colour was related with regeneration. The vitreous paste was used in the manufacture of beads, and throughout the Roman Hellenistic period, glass workshops manufactured luxurious renditions later placed in tombs: drinking cups, ampoules and perfume bottles.
Throughout the 20th century, the regions of northern Nubia were flooded and ruined with the construction of the Aswan dam. Before the water rose, archaeological salvage campaigns were organised and participated in by numerous countries. Part of the heritage unearthed then is now on display in this exhibition.
Nubia. Kingdoms of the Nile in Sudan
From 24 september, 2003 to 4 January, 2004
Sala de Exposiciones of ”la Caixa” Foundation
C/ Serrano, 60
Tel.: 902 22 30 40
Monday to Saturday, 11 am to 8 pm
Sundays and holidays, 11 am to 2:30 pm