Date: September 4, 1993
Subject: Women in Nubia
Tara L. Kneller
Neither Goddesses Nor Doormats: THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN NUBIA
Why Such an Undertaking?
The Kingdom is Possible Because of the Queen... The King is the Sign...While the Queen is
the Symbol... - Warren Blakely
Nubia is an area of scholarship that was largely overlooked in favor of its splendid neighbor, Egypt. Past finds in the area were attributed to Egypt; current excavation of the area is impossible because of Egypt's construction of the High Aswan Dam. However, renewed interest in Africa- brought on largely by Afrocentric scholars such as Cheikn Anta Diop - has resulted in a proliferation of scholarly work on ancient Nubia.
Much of the scholarly work up to this point is dealing with the massive archeological digs that occurred just prior to the building of the High Aswan Dam. As a result of this work, the amount of available information on Nubia has increased immeasurably. Evidence has emerged that shows a people who, after decades of colonization by the Egyptians, rose above and established themselves as a force to be dealt with in Africa. Nubians developed a culture and people distinctly different from the Egyptians.
After preliminary investigation into the area of ancient Nubia, a striking contrast emerged. The Nubians has an unusually high number of ruling queens, especially during the golden age of the Meroitic Kingdom (1). Although ruling queens, in themselves, may not be unusual, the portrayal of Nubian queen is exceptional. A panel on display at the exhibit "Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa" showed the queen smiting her enemies. This type of representation has no equivalent in either Egyptian or Western Art (2). This unusual find has led to research in the role of the women in Nubian society, both past and present. The result has been a surprising contrast between the docile Nubian woman of today and the warrior queen of ancient times.
A History of Nubia*
In modern day Africa, Nubia would be a five-hundred mile long stretch of land along the Nile river that is one-third in modern day Egypt and two- thirds in the modern day Sudan (3). The kingdom of Ancient Nubia began a bit before the first cataract and extended past the sixth cataract to Khartoum (4). As with the Egyptians, the fertile Nile valley gave rise to the civilization of Nubia.
The first Nubian age spanned from 3100 to 1000 B.C. This Bronze Age contained three cultures:
A-Group, C-Group, and the Kerma culture (5). The latter of the three, Kerma, existed in the Upper Nile. These people developed a strong trading culture that traded to both Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean (6). During this period, the Egyptians called this area "Kush." Kush was the general term for Upper Nubia and was considered to be a province of Nubia (7). The A-Group and C-Group cultures are those that existed in the Lower Nile. For most of the early part of their history, these cultures were dominated by Egypt.
The period of 1550 B.C. to 1100 B.C. marked the colonization of Nubia by Egypt. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had control over Lower and Upper Nubia, while Southern Nubia remained independent (8). The Egyptians began to call "Lower Nubia the land of Wawat and Upper
*Note: For the purposes of this paper, Nubia refers to the entire region between the first and fifth cataracts. Therefore, any reference to Kush, considered to be a Nubian province, would be considered part of Nubia in general. Nubia the land of Kush" (9). This colonization resulted in the disappearance of a particular Nubian C-Group; these peoples began to adopt Egyptian culture in favor of their own (10). This colonization was especially bitter as it occurred during the reign of Tutankhamen who was the son of a Nubian woman (11).
Soon after the Twentieth Dynasty in Egypt, the Egyptians lost control over Nubia and the land was plunged into a dark age. Around 900 B.C., evidence of a Nubian monarchy begins to emerge. Since this monarchy begins in Upper Nubia, it was often known as the Kingdom of Kush (12). These early rulers were buried in tumulus - a distinctly Nubian tradition. This ceremony has led many to believe that the Kushite Kings were of Nubian ancestry (13). By 770 B.C., these kings were extending their rule to the North. In Nubian history, the period is commonly called the Napatan Period (named for the royal capital of the time). Soon, Nubians "paid back the insult by subjugating the 'all powerful' nation" of Egypt to Nubian control. (14). The Kings now wore the crown of the double cobra - signifying the unity of both Egypt and Nubia (15).
After 295 B.C., a shift in royal capitals from Napatan to Meroe is made for unknown reasons. Some scholars hypothesize that the Kingdom of Kush wished to gain control over Egyptian trade. The problem of determining the reason for the move is made all the more difficult by the beginning of the use of a distinctly Nubian language. This language is based upon the heiroglyphs of the Egyptians, but since no version of it is spoken today and there has not been an effective translation of the language, much of what is written in this Meroitic language remains a mystery. During this time (around 23 B.C.) Egypt fell into Roman control. The Romans attempted to make Nubia pay tribute to them. This led to the first confrontation between Nubia and the Romans. The Meroitic Period proved to be one of tremendous resistance to the forces acting on Africa at the time. Much of this resistance came at the hands of the number of ruling queens during the period. However, by the middle of the fourth century A.D., the Meroitic Period collapsed (16). Two reasons are generally attributed to this: First, that Nomads of the desert made travel overland difficult, and Second, that the rise of the Axumite Kingdom of Abyssinia cause a collapse of the Kushite economy. In any case, the Meroitic empire was no longer in existence by A.D. 320 (17).
Soon after, the X-Group Period began in Nubia. This period was brusquely ended in 540 A.D. with the onslaught of Christianity. Missionary activities continued in the area until approximately A.D. 1550. After this time, the Nubian empire was completely dismantled. The Nubian people were left scattered throughout the fertile Nile valley; two-thirds within Egypt, one-third within the Sudan. With the construction of the High Dam at Aswan in the early 1960's, these peoples were displaced and moved elsewhere in Egypt (18). Although a systematic archeological investigation of the area was conducted, some of the questions that swirl around the kingdom of Nubia are forever lost as Nubia again becomes subject to Egyptian control.
Goddesses, Queens, and Commoners
Upon close examination of the history and culture of Nubia, it becomes apparent that women played an important role. Unlike the rest of the world at the time, women in Nubia exercised significant control. In the Nubian valley, worship of the queen of all goddesses, Isis, was paramount. From the capital of Meroe, warrior queens fought for the interests of the Nubian/Kushite empire. Throughout history, women were portrayed in Nubian art as the bearers of the offspring of the gods. Today, Nubian women have a much different experience. Nevertheless, Nubian women fulfill a demanding and unique series of roles. Throughout Egypt and Nubia, the cult of Isis had a tremendous and devoted following. Isis was not only the Egyptian goddess of magical powers; she was the representation of the queen mother. In the most famous fable of the period, Isis roams the world in search of the corpse of her husband Osiris. She returns Osiris to his rightful resting place, only to have Osiris' evil brother Seth cut him to pieces and scatter him throughout the land. Isis then takes her son Horus and sets out to find every piece of the corpse so she may tenderly bury it in the hopes that she can resurrect him again. She is successful, and Osiris becomes the god of the underworld.
Although Isis, Osiris, and Horus are then established as a trinity, Isis immediately became the most popular of the three (19). This can be partially attributed to her role as the devoted, untiring, nurturer of the land and culture of Egypt and Nubia.
The Cult of Isis was the strongest religion in Nubia (20). In contrast, the Egyptians worshipped Ra (Re) in larger numbers. Ra was the god of the sun, and distinctly male at that. The worship of Isis began with the Meroitic period and extended into X-Group. Many Nubian rulers of the time were pictured with Isis on their crowns. This was considered a homage to her role as the "Queen of All Gods, Goddesses and Women" (21). Since the ruler was considered to be born of the gods, it was only natural that the mother should be paid such a tribute. Another example of this type of tribute is the amulet of Isis suckling a Queen. With the exception of the Nubian/Kushite Empire, Isis was never shown with a queen (22). This tribute was always given to a male ruler, never a female. However, since both Isis and the Queens played such important roles in Nubia, the exception was made.
Another example of the reverence of Isis was the "co-sponsorship" by Egypt and Nubia of her temple at Philae (23). Here her cult continued, populated largely by Nubians, until the sixth century A.D. (24).
Perhaps as a result of the strong influence of women figures in religion, Nubia and its Kushite rulers gave way to a number of strong queens during its history. Ten sovereign ruling queens are recognized from the period. Additionally, six other queens who ruled with their husbands were considered significant to the history of Nubia (25). Many of these rulers were immortalized in statuary; it was unheard of for non-ruling queens or princesses to be immortalized in art (26). These queens were often portrayed as being very rounded; this portrayal was all part of the queen-mother model (27). These queens were called both gore, meaning ruler, and kandake, meaning queen mother (28). This last term has been corrupted to the English form Candace. Subsequently, there has been much confusion; some Western scholars muddle the actions of queens together under the general name. The emergence of the queen as a viable player in the politics of the day has its roots in the earliest Kushite tradition. Kushite rulers married and then passed more royal power into the hands of the queen (29). The perfect example of the expanded powers of the queen is Kushite Queen Amanirenas. In 24 B.C., she was threatened by the Roman Empire. Egypt was under the subjugation of Rome and the frontier of the Kushite/Nubian empire was seventy miles south of Syene (Assuan) (30). The Nubians were constantly raiding their Egyptian neighbors. On one of these journeys, the Kandace Amanirenas went along. When confronted, she led her armies into battle and defeated three Roman cohorts. In addition, the Kandace defaced a statue of Emperor Augustus Ceasar; bringing the head back to Nubia as a prize. This head was buried in the doorway of an important building as a final act of disrespect (31).
During battle, the Kandace lost an eye; but this only made her more courageous (32). "One Eyed Candace," as then Roman governor Gaius Petronius referred to her, was chased by the Romans far into her own territory to Pselkis (Dakka) (33). After a three day truce, the Romans struck back. The Kandace and her armies made another stand at Primis (Kasr/Brim), but there were soundly defeated. Although Rome destroyed the religious capital of Napata, there was still the danger of retaliation by the Kandace's armies. At this point, the leaders negotiated a treaty that she was to break in a few years (34). A historian of the period remarked "This Queen had courage above her sex" (35). On a broader level, this is a telling example of a European civilization unprepared for the "fierce, unyielding resistance of a queen whose determined struggle symbolized the national pride of a people who, until then, had commanded others" (36).
Furthermore, these queens of the Nubian/Kushite Empire were given the special distinction of assuming a priestly role in the divine succession of kings (37). In other societies of the period, the divine right of the king passed from god to ruler, there was no room for a maternal figure. However, Nubian queens are often portrayed at the event of the divine birth. A fine example of this is the representation of Queen Amanishakheto appearing before Amun. The Queen is pictured with a goddess (possibly Hathor - a goddess of fertility) and is wearing a panther skin. This signifies her priestly role in the birth of the successor to the throne (38). This piece is one of a series. In the first, the Queen is elected by god - this establishes her position as rightful ruler. Soon after, the divine child is conceived out of a meeting between the god and the Queen. Finally, the child, and heir to the empire, is delivered to the Queen by the god (39). This complex and important role does not seem to have an equivalent in other cultures (40). Additionally, by the beginning of the twenty-fifth dynasty - the Egyptian dynasty governed by Nubian rulers - the Queen was given the additional role of being a priestess of Nut (Nuit) (41). This would place the Queen in the role of trusted servant to the goddess known as the eternal mother (42). Nut is also the mother of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, and Set (43). The close association of the Queen with this figure is significant. Nut is, in the Nubian and Egyptian religions, the mother from which all the current gods and goddesses came. She plays the role of female initiator; the Queen is her trusted confidant on earth.
Also at this time, the Queen is beginning to be represented in royal art with the cowrie shell (44). This shell was often used for currency and trade. In art, the shell was thought to symbolize the vulva and, by extension, verbal communication (45). The use of the cowrie shell, either real or representative, was reserved only for women and their ornaments (46). A possible explanation for this could be that women were allowed to speak freely (and often). In any case, it shows that the artisans of the period connected the art of verbal communication with the ruling Queens and other influential women of the period.
Conclusion: Nubian Women of Today
Much has changed since the warrior queens of the Meroitic period struck fear into the cold hearts of the Romans. The Nubian civilization has become less defined and separate. The Nubians of today have been dispersed throughout Egypt and the Sudan because of the flooding of their homeland. Outside influences have made the impact of their past seem a bit more distant. It is difficult to determine what to make of the Nubian woman of today.
Nubians have a largely agricultural society. This fact, coupled with the largely disproportionate number of women to men, has led to the continuation of the matrilineal society. Relations are strongest on the side of the mother; some families go so far as to have the son take on the name of his mother (47).
Since the sex ratio is so great, women tend to dominate the culture of present day Nubian life due to sheer numbers alone (48). The importance of women in culture is just as great; but the roles have changed. Today's Nubian woman has no great Queen to look to; nor do they have a religion based on the worship of the all-knowing mother figure. But, what Nubian women do have is a chance that there ancestors never had. With the last period of resettlement, some Nubian women have decided to move to the cities of Egypt and the Sudan (49). Of course, their standard of living may not increase, but this shows an independence unheard of among the common women of the ancient period.
Expecting all Nubian women to live up to the strong Queens of their past is a bit much. Nevertheless, there must be an impact on the lives of the descendants of these Queens. Perhaps the small steps toward independence by the Nubian woman of today shows a courage beyond their sex. In any case, the unique roles of the women of ancient Nubia revel a unique and startling strength in both the women and the culture.
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