Modern Nubians and allies defend an ancient land

From TV specials to museum exhibits, the ancient civilization is back

In the dim light of the ancient Temple of Isis, Rodney Ryland decides now is the time. The African-American tourist turns to his girlfriend and asks her to marry him.

"If there was any place I should do it, it was in this place, because of Isis Temple, built by us and for us," he says.

Mr. Ryland is fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit the land of his ancestors. In particular, he's come to Egypt to see the Pharaonic-style monuments built by Nubians - a people who have lived for centuries along the Nile Valley in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and who for a time ruled ancient Egypt.

Ryland joins a growing group of Americans interested in learning about this brilliant African culture, which is similar to the Pharaohs' in many respects. This interest has resulted in an increasing number of museums sponsoring Nubian exhibits, and in "Nubia" popping up in organization titles, store names, and literature.

In October, PBS aired a special on Africa, "Wonders of the African World," which included a segment on Nubia.

But while the American public discovers this intriguing culture of yesterday, the Nubians of today are fighting a desperate battle to preserve traditions - such as their music, a mix of Arabic sounds with African undertones, and the design of their mud-brick homes along the Nile, each featuring a courtyard in the middle. More than that, Nubians, who number about 3 million, are fighting for their very existence.

"Our people have become an endangered species," says Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, a leading Nubian activist in Khartoum, Sudan. "The world's animals are being protected. Why aren't people protecting us?"

For decades, flooding has forced Nubians to leave their homes along a fertile 1,000-mile stretch of the river from Aswan south to Sudan, tearing apart their social fabric and forcing them to integrate into the larger and more influential societies of Egypt and Sudan. Now, Nubians say, the Sudanese government is threatening to build yet another dam that would flood the largest remaining Nubian population center - along with invaluable Nubian archaeological monuments.

Sudanese Nubians still vividly remember moving to make way for the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. They were relocated to concrete blocks of government tract housing miles into the desert. Egyptian Nubians, meanwhile, moved into bland government housing more than one mile from the Nile.

"The houses were a shock," says Magda Ali, a Nubian from Sudan, who was 13 at the time. "There was nothing green. The windows were made of aluminum, and the floors were covered with cement, instead of lovely yellow sand."

Mindful of the past, Nubians are conducting demonstrations and international letter-writing campaigns to oppose the new dam. They're also supporting an Egyptian government agricultural project that will relocate Nubians back to the Nile, south of Aswan.

As part of the campaign to preserve their culture, they are forming grass-roots organizations, publishing pamphlets, launching Web sites, and even developing a dictionary to help transform their spoken language into a written one.

Nubians also want to enlist African-Americans in their cause. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a major voice in African-American studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., has lent his support to the campaign.

Tourism has helped by raising awareness of Nubian culture. "When I show them the proof, it will open their eyes," says Keith Saunders, a history teacher from Hempstead, N.Y.

"Originally Egyptians were African like me," says Yosef Ben Jochannan, who was leading Ryland's tour group at the Isis Temple.

The Nubians were ruled by Egyptian pharaohs for 1,200 years, until the 25th-dynasty Nubian kings took power for nearly a century from 747 to 656 BC. They seized the Egyptian capital of Memphis and revived Egyptian art and architecture in a grand cultural flowering. In succeeding centuries, the Nubians ruled from Meroe, farther south. There they developed a distinct culture from the Egyptian pharaohs, creating their own burial techniques and worshiping their own gods.

Beginning in 1902, successive flooding along the Nile began the forced relocation of Nubians. The new hydroelectric Kajabar Dam, located 250 miles south of the Egyptian-Sudanese border in Sudan, will inundate dozens of their last remaining villages, displacing tens of thousands of people, Nubians maintain. They say this long-neglected area already suffers from depopulation, with many people leaving due to a lack of jobs, adequate health care, and food.

The Kajabar Dam will also flood ancient Nubian monuments, along with other antiquities dating to 5,000 years ago.

"What makes me sad is that a lot of [ancient Nubian culture] could still disappear before anyone really has a chance to understand it," says Prof. Gates in the recent PBS documentary, which he hosted.

The Sudanese government maintains there are no Nubians in the dam area. "There are only Arabic tribes. They are not the original Nubians," says Al-Khatim Abdullah, the press adviser for the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo.

The government has not implemented the relocation project, he says, because it still needs funding.

Yet risks to Nubian culture remain, and Nubians will need all the help they can to preserve their traditions. Judging from the reactions to the Nubian monuments by the members of Dr. Ben's tour, African-Americans will probably be set to help.

"I'm not even gone yet, but I can't wait to come back," says Charles Dillard, a teacher from Redbank, N.J. "There's so much to explore. I want to bring my family back, people in my neighborhood back."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.