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Galleries of Africa: Nubia at the Royal Ontario Museum

6 September 2011 No Comments

Nubian Queen from Napatan Period

By Anya Wassenberg

Beside Egypt and around the corner from Rome is where you’ll find the Galleries of Africa: Nubia at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It’s a location that makes sense in both geographic and historical terms, and the gallery is one of four that just opened in the summer of 2011.

Galleries of Africa: Nubia, like many, isn’t massive in terms of square footage, but manages to pack a lot of information and a lot to see in the space. It includes a video, cases displaying artifacts and panels that detail some of the history. Many of those artifacts come from the ROM’s own archaeological digs.


Nubia refers to the Middle Nile region that begins near the first cataract of the Nile at Philae and extends south to Khartoum in what is now modern day Sudan. Inhabited since ancient times by a succession of peoples, it was home to the great Kush Empire that flourished from about 800 BC to AD 400 and produced the African continent’s second oldest urban and literate society after Egypt.

Nubia Grand Portico of the Temple of Philae

Rich in natural resources, Nubia’s relationships with its neighbours were often antagonistic, and its history is inextricably entwined with that of Egypt. There is evidence of contact between the two Empires since the 12th Dynasty (1991 to 1786 BC) when Senwosret I of Egypt and his successors began a series of campaigns to expand their empire south. Among the sites excavated in modern times is the Temple Island at Philae on the border, featuring an expansive temple of Isis built in 370 BC. The temple was used by both Egyptian and Nubian rulers in turn as the area went back and forth in their military skirmishes.

The Kush Empire had two capitals over its history. The first, established around the 8th to 9th centuries BC, was located at Napata, a city at the foot of the mountain at modern day Jebel Barkal. In 591 BC, Egyptian forces destroyed it in one of their forays, and after that date, a second capital city was established farther south at Meroe. The Meroitic Period was a golden one in Nubian history that saw a flowering of indigenous arts and culture. They developed the continent’s second oldest written language using a series of 23 sounds that could be reproduced as either linear characters or hieroglyphics.

Kushite society also developed the ceramic arts to a high degree of technical accomplishment, and the ROM’s displays feature several samples, including vases, bowls, cups and more. The cult of the lion god Apedemak became popular, and the finds leave many other interesting clues to their lives and customs. Images of rulers overpowering their enemies are common to the period, and one temple relief sculpture shows the Queen smiting heads along with the King, evidence of the more vibrant role of Kushite women as opposed to their Egyptian counterparts.

Nubia Pyramids of Meroe

They built pyramids, some with a rounded or squared zenith, and the Kushites practiced mummification, burying small clay figures called Shawabitis along with the deceased. Equipped with hoes, these elaborately detailed figurines were meant to work in the grain fields of heaven in the afterlife.  Many of the funerary tombs were plundered by the robber archaeologists of the 19th century who brought treasure troves of intricate and skilfully crafted gold jewellery and other items home to Europe. Kushite society also produced iron work, faience (a decorative form of ceramics), and glass work.

By 750 BC, the Kush Empire had in turn conquered Egypt, and the 25th Dynasty of Egypt is also known as the Kushite Dynasty. With centres in the Nubian cities of Napata and Meroe as well as Egypt, Napatan Kings (as they were named by historians) effectively controlled the entire Nile Valley from the Mediterranean to the Ethiopian Highlands in their heyday. Kushite Pharoahs ruled until they were driven out by Assyrian forces in about 663 BC.

The Kush Empire came to an end in about AD 350, and eventually nomadic peoples took over the plains to either side of the Nile. Artifacts from the post-Kushite period display a mixture of Egyptian, Nubian and Greco-Roman influences, but remnants of the old Meroitic Empire remain even in modern times in the form of pottery and ceramic arts produced with the high degree of skill that continued to develop over the centuries.

Much remains to be discovered about this fascinating and sophisticated ancient culture and people, and the ROM has a decades long history of supporting archaeological research at Nubian sites. Since 1999, that has included active involvement in a joint project with the University of Khartoum at Meroe, and some of the results are what you’ll find on display at the Museum.

Dr. Krzysztof Grzymski, the ROM’s Senior Curator and curator of the Galleries of Africa: Nubia, has been involved in excavating in the Sudan since 1982. He will be one of the speakers at a free all-day symposium taking place on September 27, 2011 where various experts will be talking about ancient Nubia and what has been discovered about its civilization. There’s more information at the link:


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