BMCR 2022.01.05

The Oxford handbook of ancient Nubia

, , The Oxford handbook of ancient Nubia. Oxford handbooks. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 1201. ISBN 9780190496272 £150.00.


Since the seminal work by W. Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (1977), which covered the entire history of Nubia—that is, roughly, the region between Khartoum and Aswan and the adjoining deserts to the east and west—and was based on the results of the Aswan High Dam Campaign of the 1960s, the only other overview of Nubian history was the small (but insightful) monograph The Nubian Past by David Edwards (2004). Over the past few years, however, Nubian studies have received considerable attention, especially in the field of archaeology. The Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project and the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, made possible by the research potential of the vast unexplored Sudanese territory and the openness of the local authorities to foreign missions, constitute the backstage of this situation. It was clearly the right moment to compile a handbook of ancient Nubia. In fact, two such projects have come to fruition in the last two years: one edited by Dietrich Raue and published by De Gruyter in 2019[1] and The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia.

The editors of The Oxford Handbook note that the two handbooks target different audiences. However, it is difficult to substantiate this claim, given the likeness of the contents and the several contributions by the same authors to both handbooks, without a thorough comparison between the two volumes. However, the following overview will point to some elements that are possibly unique to the Oxford Handbook.

The Oxford Handbook reflects the recent progress in Nubian studies, with 55 chapters spanning 1201 pages, including almost 200 pages dedicated to bibliographical references at the end of each chapter and 52 pages dedicated to an index. The volume is structured into three rather uneven parts. The first part, titled “Contexts for Nubian Studies,” consists of four chapters. It contains two histories of research (Chapters 1 and 2) and two studies setting the geological background and presenting the earliest human activities recorded in Nubia (Chapters 3 and 4, respectively). The second part, titled “Nubia: A Deep History,” consists of 40 chapters encompassing all the cultural horizons of what the editors define as “Nubia” (see relevant critique below). These chapters can be divided into seven groups, dealing with: prehistory (Chapters 5–14); the Egyptian conquest of Nubia at the end of the first complex state of Nubia (Chapters 15–20); the Napatan kingdom and its aftermaths (Chapters 21–26); the Meroitic kingdom (Chapters 27–34); the so-called post-Meroitic period (Chapters 35 and 36); the Christian states and cultures of medieval Nubia (Chapters 37–42); and the formation of the post-medieval state, when Islam became dominant (Chapters 43 and 44). Finally, the third part, titled “Perspectives on Nubia,” consists of 11 studies, some of which (e.g., Chapters 46, 47, and 52) could perhaps have been incorporated into Part 1, while others could have been parts of the single periods of “Deep History” that they actually cover (e.g., Chapter 45–prehistory, Chapter 48–Meroe, and Chapters 49 and 50–Napatan and Meroitic). Perhaps the unclear boundaries of this distribution are symptomatic of the nature of such handbooks, which try to present as comprehensive an overview of the main topic as possible.

At the same time, the inevitable variety of approaches stemming from such compilations demands that the editors strike a balance between individual opinions (for which Emberling and Williams abstain from taking responsibility, as they state in their Introduction) and the overall agenda of presenting the state of knowledge of ancient Nubia. Τhis agenda maintains the theoretical backbone of the body of evidence assembled in Adams’ Corridor (and followed by Edwards’ Nubian Past)—namely, the roles of continuity and change in the development of Nubian cultures in the Middle Nile Valley through the centuries.

The difference between a single-authored study and a multi-authored volume is the variety of opinions represented by the contributors to the latter. Thus, for the focal points of the volume—namely, the terms “Nubia” and “Nubian”—this variety determines the overall understanding of the handbook’s positioning in Nubian studies. To most authors, Nubia is defined by the geographical area stretching on both sides of the Middle Nile Valley and into the deserts; hence, people developing their secular and religious patterns of life therein can be understood as Nubians. Others (e.g., Chapter 13) push this understanding to the extreme, suggesting that groups such as the Medjay and Blemmyes (living in the Eastern Desert) were also Nubian. A third group (e.g., Chapter 32) maintains that Nubia was the region where Nubian-speaking people lived. Under this definition, although it may encompass almost the entire territory of modern-day Sudan from Darfur and Kordofan across the Nile Valley and up to the Red Sea and the Kassala mountains, the Nile Valley was not predominantly “Nubian”—or under the control of Nubian states—before the demise of Meroe in the fourth century CE. Finally, there is an extreme position on the other end of this spectrum: In the study on “Islam and the Funj and Ottoman Periods in Sudan,” (Chapter 43) Nubians are never explicitly mentioned, even when the Christian medieval past appears in the narrative. Conversely, the other chapter on the Islamic states of the Middle Nile is eloquently titled “Islamic Nubian Kingdoms,” (Chapter 44) and it is one of the most successful descriptions of the way in which continuity and change work in the transition from one period of the Sudanese past to the next.

Here, a comment is in order regarding the way in which “ancient” Nubia is defined in this book—namely as an “archaeological” past beginning with the earliest traceable human activities in the Middle Nile region and stretching beyond the conventional understanding of “antiquity” to include the medieval and post-medieval centuries. Several issues of periodization have been discussed in the context of Nubiology, some of which are also raised in the Oxford Handbook. Perhaps one of the most pertinent and persistent discussions concerns what George Reisner almost prophetically called “the X-Group culture,” which was later identified as the culture of Lower Nubia after the fall of Meroe and before the creation of the Christian states of medieval Nubia. Much ink has been spilled over the understanding and nomenclature of this period, and in Chapter 36, one finds a nuanced discussion of the differences of all the so-called post-Meroitic cultures. The author, Mahmoud El-Tayeb, offers a thorough overview of grave types and ceramic finds that lead him to both interesting observations on the period in question (which he calls “Terminal Meroe”) and a clear division of cultural zones along the Middle Nile based on evidence from funerary archaeology. Unfortunately, the publication displays the wrong map, and, therefore, the regional division proposed by El-Tayeb is not adequately illustrated.

There are a few more issues with the illustrations (for example, Figures 13.3 and 16.2 depict the same object), as well as some typos in almost all chapters. Nevertheless, these minor flaws, do not reduce the quality of the Handbook.

The Handbook is indeed a treasure chest for those who seek to enrich their knowledge of the Nubian past. This is primarily thanks to the latest achievements in the field of archaeology, based on the continuing fieldwork in the same localities, such as Meroe and the Makuritan heartlands, for more than half a century. This fieldwork has amassed extensive data that have broadened the perspectives of Nubiology and has created schools of Nubian studies that have produced impressive results. This is exemplified by Pawel Wolf and Ulrike Nowotnick’s study on “The Meroitic Heartland,” both from Humboldt University in Berlin with long-standing research into the Meroitic past; and by Bogdan Zurawski’s study on “The Topography of Power in Medieval Nubia” and Dobrochna Zielinska’s study on the “Arts and Crafts of the Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia,” both from Warsaw University.

It must also be stressed that some of the most insightful approaches to the topics touched upon in the handbook are achieved through the combination of the archaeological record with written sources, using methodologies from anthropology and sociology. These can be seen primarily in some contributions dealing with pre- and protohistory (Chapters 7, 9, 13, and 20). However, some approaches to the material from historical periods are also noteworthy. On the topic of the historical consciousness of the Kushites, Chapter 21 exemplifies the potential of careful source critique for understanding the minds and identities of the human past. Moreover, Rachel Dann’s study on the “Perspectives on the Body in Ancient Nubia” and Kathryn Howley’s study on “Kushites in Egypt, 664 BCE–14 CE” vividly depict the beauty of Nubia and its past, shedding light on overlooked aspects of human experience in ancient Nubia and illuminating through robust and innovative methodological approaches a period that has remained in the dark for generations.

Though most contributors are European, both editors are American and represent two different generations in Nubiology. Williams is one of the most active editors of publications of material from the Aswan High Dam Campaign. He contributes three chapters to this volume, apart from the Introduction, which he coauthored with Emberling, who in turn contributes two chapters. The first of these is Chapter 49 on “Trade in Ancient Nubia,” coauthored with Mahmoud Suleiman Bashir, one of the most important contemporary Sudanese archaeologists.

There are two more papers coauthored by Sudanese researchers, while another three are solo contributions (Chapters 1, 36, and 43). The participation of local researchers in studies of the African past is seen as a positive development in all academic fields—an important step toward the “decolonization” of a given discipline—and is therefore a praiseworthy quality of the Oxford Handbook (see also how this approach is exemplified in Chapter 2 of the Oxford Handbook). Moreover, this trait differentiates this Handbook from the one edited by Raue, in which no Egyptian or Sudanese scholars participated. Along similar lines, the last chapter (55) of the Oxford Handbook, the second one coauthored by Emberling, sets the tone for the future of “Archaeological Practice in the 21st Century: Reflecting on Archaeological Community Relations in Sudan’s Nile Valley.” Although the involvement of Nubian scholars in the reconstruction of the Nubian past remains a desideratum, Nubiologists seem to be grasping the necessity of this postcolonial approach to the field.


[1] Dietrich Raue (ed.), Handbook of Ancient Nubia, Berlin: De Gruyter 2019.