The Nubian Museum
The area of Egypt we now call Nubia follows the River Nile from Aswan, 350km south to the town of Dabba, near the Fourth Cataract and the Sudanese border. It is thought that the name Nubia may be derived from the ancient Egyptian word for gold, ‘nbu’, as it was from this land that Egypt obtained most of its rich source of gold and Nubia was the passage from ancient Egypt to the exotic African lands farther south. Many pharaohs built small temples and fortresses along the banks of the Nile in Nubia and exported ebony, ivory, incense and precious metals and minerals back to Egypt, as well as Nubian slaves. Throughout Egyptian history Nubia has been alternatively an enemy or a conquered race, apart from a brief period in Dynasty XXV, when the Nubian (or Kushite) kings rose to rule Egypt as pharaohs.
Archaeologists have found close cultural ties between Egypt and Nubia from Prehistoric times and there is much evidence of this from the Egyptian objects found in Nubian graves. Scholars generally divide the history of Nubia into different cultural groups, assigning letters to each group: A, B, C, D etc. A-Group and B-Group cultures are loosely tied to the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom in Egypt. C-Group culture arose towards the end of the Old Kingdom and stretched into the Early New Kingdom, whilst the Third Intermediate Period is represented by the Kushite Kings and the Persian, Late and Ptolemaic Periods in Egypt were contemporary with the Meroitic Period in Nubia. At the peak of the Meroitic Period, around the 1st century AD, Egypt became a Roman province. Nubian culture went into a decline after this time and was dominated by different groups of desert tribes until the 6th century AD – a period assigned to X-Group culture. In 380AD, the Byzantine Emperor Theodisius I declared Christianity the official state religion in Egypt and ten years later banned all pagan religions in all parts of his empire, ordering the closure of temples in all parts of Egypt and Nubia, including the Temple of Isis at Philae in Aswan. The Nubians resisted and Isis continued to be worshipped for another two centuries, although by this time the new religion had found its way into the hearts of the Nubian people and many Coptic monasteries and churches had been built. By the 8-9th centuries, the Arabs had also established their presence in Nubia.
This is perhaps an over-simplified history of the Nubian culture, but it is this rich and varied heritage which is represented by the new Nubian Museum in Aswan. The new museum is definitely a product of the 21st century and supplements the old Aswan Museum which is situated on the southern end of Elephantine Island. Many treasures have been brought from other museums in Egypt to enhance the collection.
1 Statue of a lion, from Qasr Ibrim, Meroitic Period
2 Statue of Harwa, steward of Divine Adoratrice Amenirdis I, Dynasty XXV
3 Ankhnesneferibre, ‘God’s Wife of Amun’, Dynasty XXVI, from Karnak
4 Silver crown studded with carnelian stones, 3rd-6th centuries AD, from Ballana
The new Nubian Museum was opened in 1997 and the beautiful lines of its architecture alone is worth seeing. Nestled into the hillside, it covers 50,000 square metres of landscaped gardens and buildings which are divided up into different sections. It is partly an open-air museum where the visitor can wander the paths, meandering between a prehistoric cave with painted rock-art, ancient Egyptian statues, obelisks and columns, Roman frescoes and even a complete Nubian house.
Inside the museum a flight of stairs leads down from street level to the entrance of the temperature and light controlled exhibition space. The focal point is an 8m high Nubian sandstone statue of Rameses II, brought from storage after 27 years. The visitor is led around the exhibits in a chronological order, beginning with the Prehistoric, through the Pharaonic era to Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods of art. Large ‘history-boards’ on the walls near each exhibit provide plenty of background information on Nubia’s role in Egyptian history. Other exhibition zones depict the story of irrigation, the UNESCO campaign to save the Nubian monuments threatened by flooding after the building of the High Dam and many folk and heritage displays. There is an information centre, a gift shop and toilets on the ground floor and stairs and lifts to other areas. This museum is a showcase for the future of Egyptian museums and is a tribute to those who took part in its design, which has recently been awarded the prestigious International Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
How to get there
The new Nubian Museum is situated east of the Old Cataract Hotel, at the southern entrance to the town and about half an hour’s walk from the town centre. You should allow yourself at least two hours for a quick tour if you want to see all the exhibits, but I have found several visits are necessary to take it all in properly. Entrance tickets to the Nubian Museum cost LE50.