BMCR 1996.04.03

Fontes Historiae Nubiorum

, Fontes historiae nubiorum : textual sources for the history of the middle Nile region between the eighth century BC and the sixth century AD. Bergen: University of Bergen, Dept. of Classics, 1994-. 4 volumes. ISBN 9788299141161 NOK 180.

The history of the middle Nile valley (ancient Kush; Aethiopia; medieval Nubia [ ancient eg. nb“gold”]) has been intertwined with that of Egypt since the Old Kingdom when the first attempts were made to dominate lower Nubia by establishing permanent settlements, and the ties have been intimate economically and socially throughout the history of pharaonic civilization. A knowledge of the region, roughly from above Aswan to the region of the fourth cataract at Gebel Barkal, is essential for the study of Egyptian imperialism and the diffusion of Egyptian culture beyond its borders. Excellent recent historical summaries of the history of Nubia and interaction with Egypt may be found in Kitchen, 1986; Updegraff, 1988; Taylor, 1991; Adams, 1995 and in the Actes de la VIIIe conférence des études nubiennes, Lille, 11-17 September 1994. Vol. 1 Communications principales. Cahiers de Recherches de l’Institut de papyrologie et d’Égyptologie de Lille ( CRIPEL) 17 (1995).

It was not until the intensive archaeological reconnaissance necessitated by the building of the High Dam above Aswan in the 1960’s that the history of the middle Nile valley and assessments of Nubian culture and its relationship to Egyptian civilization received proper treatment. The relationship between the two cultures was essentially based on trade: gold-mining and incense trade in particular being of primary importance throughout Egyptian history. “Peaceful” Nubians were settled in Egypt since at least the early Middle Kingdom and served as policemen and guards of temples as well as herdsmen of sacred flock. The ancient Egyptian concern with Nubian trade was balanced with their concern for the control of the nomadic and potentially dangerous eastern desert populations. Such concern is attested by the massive fortified towns built in the region of the Second Cataract (particularly those at the Semna gorge). Cultural interaction and diffusion of Egyptian culture southward was very strong, especially with the Theban area, and it should come as no surprise that Nubians were especially devoted to the worship of the Egyptian god Amun, a devotion which is strongly attested in all of the Hieroglyphic texts (mainly stelae) here translated. In the period after the collapse of the New Kingdom, Nubia came into her own as a political force, establishing a dynasty of rulers who imitated pharaonic culture closely and established hegemony over Egypt itself with the campaigns of Piye in the late eighth century B.C.

In the spirit of James Henry Breasted’s monumental Records of Ancient Egypt, this volume is the first of four planned to provide the specialist and non-specialist scholar alike with an easily available collection of primary texts in translation covering the history of the middle Nile valley from the eighth century B.C. to the mid fifth century B.C. Only previously published texts are included and no text from Egypt proper relating to the 25th dynasty is included. Transliterations of the texts (some are excerpted passages from larger texts) written in Hieroglyphic Egyptian, demotic and Greek, are provided as well as translations, bibliography and source criticism of the texts themselves. Updated discussions of the chronology of the Nubian kings is a very important aspect of the work since the study of the chronology is notoriously difficult and not by any means settled yet. For each Nubian king an entry giving all of the attested names and the textual evidence for each reign precedes the translated texts from the reign.

For the classicist, the importance of Nubia becomes clear with the Roman struggle with the Blemmyes (descendants of the Medjay-people commonly occurring in texts from the New Kingdom) in the eastern desert. However, Blemmyes occur much earlier as troublesome to the Nubian kings (Cf. P. Rylands 9-text 50, though the reading of the ethnic “Blemmye” in this text is not accepted by all demotist). This book will be a useful background to these later struggles. Many Egyptian historical texts have a rather anachronistic quality to them, and it is important for the historian, when assessing documents, to have a sense of the tradition. As one example, the visit and subsequent legitimation of Alexander the Great’s rule at Siwa oasis may be usefully compared to Piye’s similar affirmation by oracle at the temple of Amun at Napata ( Gebel Barkal) (p. 61). In both cases, outsiders sought legitimacy in Egypt through divine decree.

This volume begins with the Nubian Napatan Dynasty (Dynasty 25 according to Manetho). These texts are not only crucial for historians but for linguists as well, and it is fascinating to see Nubian kings utilizing the Egyptian language and Egyptian concepts of divine kingship to bolster their legitimacy. In essence the historical texts included in this volume are based on the Egyptian “konigsnovelle” whose main purpose was to justify earthly rule through divine appointment.

The texts are arranged in chronological order, beginning with texts from the reign of Kashta (whose name means the “Kushite”). The Egyptian texts themselves are rendered clause by clause with a translation beneath each Egyptian clause. This makes for less than scintillating, not to say slow, reading but the editors perhaps cannot be faulted for their conservative approach given the difficulty of translation of some of these texts. However, to give the transliterated Egyptian without the Hieroglyphic text may prove frustrating for the Egyptologist.

The triumphal stela of Piye (text 9) is a text of utmost historical importance and the subject of several separate studies. Those who are used to literary theory applied to classical texts will be surprised to learn that such Egyptian texts have hardly received any treatment from the standpoint of style or narratology. It demonstrates once again how much basic work remains to be done with Egyptian historical texts. The lengthy text is memorable, among many other reasons, for the detailed description of Piye’s (formerly Piankhy, a Nubian name transcribed into Egyptian with an ankh -sign probably functioning as an ideogram) bloody siege of Memphis. The stela is also of supreme importance for the study of Egyptian geography and is graphic testimony to the political fragmentation of Egypt in most of her postclassical period. It is against this backdrop of fragmentation, so well-attested in the demotic cycle of stories of Pedubastis (Kitchen, 1986, pp. 455-61), that the Saite reforms (and reunification of the country) and the Persian and Hellenistic periods must be read.

Several texts in this volume will be of interest to historians of the classical world. The stela of Taharqo from the temple of Amun at Kawa (text 22), for example, recording the exceptionally high Nile in regnal year 6 (ca. 685 B.C.) is, as the editor Török notes, important in the light of the Herodotus passage discussing the sources of the Nile (2.20-22).

Many of the royal texts mention the marriage of the king to his sister (sometimes more than one sister). Given the paucity of evidence for it within the Egyptian royal family in the New Kingdom, the phenomenon is striking and may be relevant in the light of Hopkins’ (1980) and Shaw’s recent studies of consanguineous sibling marriage in Roman Egypt. (1992; see too Manning, forthcoming). Some of the texts included in this edition will be well-known to classical historians. The inscription left by the mercenaries of Psammetichus II at Abu Simbel, for example, is published as text 42 with good bibliography on all aspects of the text. Passages in Herodotus concerned with the Nile above Aswan are also included in the volume. (passages treated are: 2.29-31; 3.97.2-3; 7.69; 2.42.3-4; 2.137.1-4; 4.197; 3.114; 2.152.1; 2.161.1; 3.17.1-25.7; 4.183.4) Of interest to the general historian will be the discussion here (pp. 304-06) of Fehling’s “literary” thesis that Herodotus was never in Upper Egypt. There is much valuable commentary to the Herodotean passages. The bibliography is by no means complete. I would add the very valuable discussions given by Hartog (1988) and particularly Redfield (1985) on Herodotus’ ethnography.

This volume is not always easy to use. In attempting to cross-check texts, I spent far too much time sifting through the pages instead of looking at headers which would have pointed me to the text I was looking for. At present we must wait for the completion of the fourth volume to have indices to the whole. I would have personally preferred, as an Egyptologist, to have before me the hieroglyphic text of each source as well as the transliteration. I also felt the need for a drawing or photograph of the hieroglyphic texts. Those scholars who do wish to see the lunette depictions or the texts themselves will have to do some searching through many old volumes not readily available. Again in the interest of the non-specialist, a chronology and royal genealogies would have been instructive. Despite these criticisms of formatting, the book is very useful with excellent commentary. In particular the discussions of the role of Nubian queens, the gods’ wife of Amun and the royal descent patterns will be of interest to many scholars in the ancient world and to social anthropologists. The editors have done an enormous service to scholarship by making these texts available. We can look forward with eagerness to the subsequent volumes in this series.

  • Adams, William Y. 1995. “The Kingdom and Civilization of Kush in Northeast Africa,” in Jack M. Sasson, ed. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Vol. 2, pp. 775-789.
  • Hartog, François. 1988. The Mirror of Herodotus. The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hopkins, Keith. 1980. “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt,”Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, 303-354.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. 1986. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 B.C.). 2d. ed. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
  • Manning, J.G. “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt: An Egyptologist’s Response,” unpublished manuscript.
  • Redfield, James. 1985. “Herodotus the Tourist,”Classical Philology 80/2, 97-118.
  • Shaw, Brent. 1992. “Explaining Incest: Brother-Sister Marriage in Graeco-Roman Egypt,”Man 27/2, 267-299.
  • Taylor, John 1991. Egypt and Nubia. London: British Museum Press. Updegraff, Robert. 1988. “The Blemmyes I: The Rise of the Blemmyes and the Roman Withdrawal from Nubia under Diocletian.”ANRW II 10.1, 44-97.