History of the Nuba, part I
History, part II
The Nuba are a group of peoples who share a common geography in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan Province, known as Jibal al-Nuba or Nuba Mountains. The origins of most Nuba peoples are obscure, but there is no doubt that they are Africans. They arrived to the area from various directions and in the course of thousands of years. Today there are over fifty Nuba tribes, who speak as many different languages. Traditionally the Nuba are farmers, but they are now employed in all segments of society. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, labour migrants have formed large Nuba communities in the large cities of North Sudan, like El Obeid, Khartoum and Port Sudan. Their combined number is estimated at 2.5 million people.
Until the Egyptian occupation of Sudan during the nineteenth century, most Nuba tribes lived relatively isolated. Contiguous events that shaped their history are the short but extremely violent rule of the Mahdi and his successor, and colonial rule by the British. Sudan took its independence in 1956 and since the 1960s the Nuba have been at odds with their successive National Governments. From 1987 to 2001, the Nuba Mountains were a battle zone in Sudan's larger civil war between the Government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
A cease fire in the Nuba Mountains eventually led to a Comprehensive Peace Agreement reached in 2005. This CPA included the Nuba Mountains but proved inadequate to solve the differences between the parties. Just weeks before the secession of South Sudan, in 2011, fighting broke out in Kadugli, escalating into another long violent conflict that takes a heavy toll on the civilian population.
The following brief history aims to provide a broad perspective on the history of the Nuba. I have drawn from many different sources, and consulted scientists considered to be expert in their field for the more remote history. For the period of 1970 - 2005, I have relied largely on interviews with Nuba who were closely involved in the developments leading to the war in the Nuba Mountains and eventually the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The most recent developments are mainly a summary of news articles and reports.
For centuries, the geographical area where the Nuba tribes live has been known as Dar Nuba: the land of the Nuba. The Tegali Kingdom (a truly Nuba kingdom indeed) was known under its poper name, as were several individual hills, but to the Arab people living around the area, the people of the Mountains were all Nuba. The Europeans, relying on the Arabs for information, used the same name.
Until very recently the Nuba people themselves would rather use their tribal name and many didn’t really consider themselves to be Nuba. In the words of Yousif Kuwa Mekki:
Please note the word ‘try’ here: linguist and anthropologist A.C. Stevenson noticed that:
Some of the more educated are also shy of applying the term to themselves, they tend to reserve it for those they think of as rustic hill-dwellers: for them ‘Nuba’ is the reverse of a status symbol.2
An old theory supposes a relationship between the word ‘Nuba’ and the Archaic Egyptian nbw [nebu], meaning ‘gold’. In ancient times the land south of Egypt produced a lot of gold and so the people were gold diggers; or the ‘land of gold’ would be called Nubia (which it wasn’t) and its people Nuba… Brief: lots of charming nonsense.3 And then there is A.J. Arkell’s explantion:
The name of the Nuba apparently comes, like so many other tribal names in the Sudan (Berti, Berta, Burgu, etc-) from a word in their own language which means 'slaves'.4Surely there is a connection: the Nuba were harassed by slave raiders for many centuries and to the Arabs ‘Nuba’ became nearly synonymous with ‘slave’. But since Arkell doesn’t mention in which of the many Nuba languages their name means ‘slave’, there is little we can say about his theory, except quoting anthropologist S.F. Nadel:
I will not attempt to trace the origin of this name or to speculate on its original meaning. Suffice to say that in none of the groups which I have studied is the term Nuba indigenous […]5
II. Kingdoms on the Nile
I will first run through Nubian history and then turn to the present insights on any connections between the Nuba of Kordofan and the Nubian Kingdoms.
The word ‘Nubia’ is used to describe the land along the Nile south of Egypt; divided into a ‘lower Nubia’ for the area between the first and the second cataract, and an ‘upper Nubia’ for the land beyond the second cataract. Historically however there never was any kingdom or tribe or civilisation by the name Nubia. The use of ‘Nubia’ for the region seems to originate with European atlas makers of the early renaissance who drew maps based on the work of the astrologist and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (90-168 AD).6
The earliest Egyptian kings (pre-dynastic and those of the first dynasties) referred to the people to their south as Ta Seti or ‘people of the bow’, for their skill as archers. The Ta Seti were well organised, and their civilisation was not unlike that of the first Egyptians. They disappeared however.
By the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2323-2150 BC), Egyptian references to Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju seem to identify different small kingdoms in Lower Nubia. They also mention Yam, a kingdom in upper Nubia. There was trade between Yam and Egypt.
While the Middle Kingdom replaced the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2134-2040 BC), political changes also took place in Upper Nubia. ‘Yam’ disappeared from Egyptian texts and was replaced by Kush, which the Egyptians described as ‘vile’ or ‘contemptible’. Kush became a major power in the south and it took over Lower Nubia around 1700 BC.
Chances turned again and the Egyptians of the New Kingdom (c.1532-1070 BC) crushed the Kush kingdom and its capital Kerma. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I in 1520 BC, all of Upper Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative and religious centre at Napata; the Nubian elite adopted the worship of Egyptian gods and the hieroglyphic writing system. This way a lot of the ancient Egyptian culture was kept alive for many centuries while the power of Egypt slowly declined.
By 800 BC Egypt had fragmented into rival states, but in 747 BC the Kushite king Piankhy (Piyi) marched north from his capital at Napata and reunified Egypt. Kushite kings ruled both Nubia and Egypt until the invasion of an Assyrian army in 667 BC. The Nubian king fled back to Napata and was defeated decisively in 664 BC.
In 656 BC Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 BC his successor Psamtik II invaded Kush and sacked and burned Napata. The kings of Kush moved their capital to Meroe;, where they continued to build temples to Nubian and Egyptian gods. The kings were buried in pyramid tombs. Meroe; developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. His empire was short lived and Egypt once again became a kingdom, under the Ptolemy Dynasty (306-30 BC). The Ptolemies were of Greek descent and in official records the people to the south are now referred to as Aethiopians: Greek for ‘burned faces’. This name, given to them by the first great historian Herodotus, was kept by the Romans, who took control over Egypt in 30 BC.
During the reign of the Ptolemies, Meroe prospered. The initial relationship with the Romans wasn’t that good. According to geographer Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), in 24 BC:
[the Aethiopians] attacked the Thebaïs and the garrison of the three cohorts at [Aswan], and by an unexpected onset took [Aswan] and Elephantine and Philae, and enslaved the inhabitants, and also pulled down the statues of Caesar.7
In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius,
first compelled them to flee to Pselchis, an Ethiopian city, and sent ambassadors demanding the return of what they had taken, and the reasons why they had begun the war.The Aethiopians didn’t respond, so in 22 BC Petronius attacked them at Pselchis. Defeating the Aethiopians there, he advanced to Premnis. He took the city and continued to the capital of the Aethiopians at Napata, which he sacked. After some more hostilities, the Aethiopians and the Romans came to a peace agreement, and trade between them flourished for several centuries.
Before turning to the Nuba, I want to stress once more that wherever Nubia is mentioned, we must remember that there are no historic sources from antiquity that use this name. For the word Nuba, it’s a different story.
2. The Nuba enter history
[…] the parts on the left side of the course of the Nile, in Libya, are inhabited by Nubae, a large tribe, who, beginning at Meroe;, extend as far as the bends of the river, and are not subject to the Aethiopians but are divided into several separate kingdoms.8
Erasthotenes is working his way downstream along the Nile, so he means that the Nubae lived between Meroe and Dongola.. It’s important that he makes a clear distinction between the Aethiopians and the Nubae.
I’ve already mentioned Claudius Ptolemaeus’ Geographica, that in c.150 AD places the Nubae south of Egypt. Contrary to what many people assume, he puts them east of the Nile. Ptolemaeus says the Nubae live to the far west of the Avalitae. Point is: Ptolemaeus is in this paragraph generally talking about the people east of the Nile, and he places the Avalitae to the African coast of the bay of Eden. Actually, Ptolemaeus mentions several tribes living between the Nubae and the river Nile.
Anyway: the Kings of Meroe no longer cared much for Lower Nubia, and neither did the Romans: Procopius of Caesarea (500-565 AD) relates how the Emperor Diocletian (245–312 AD) decided to withdraw Roman troops from Lower Nubia. Two nations to the south worried him though: the Blemmyae (Beja) to the southeast and the Nobatae to the southwest at a place called Premnis:
[…] so he persuaded these barbarians [the Nobatae] to move from their own habitations, and to settle along the River Nile […]. For in this way he thought that they would no longer harass the country about Pselchis at least, and that they would possess themselves of the land given them, as being their own, and would probably beat off the Blemmyae and the other barbarians.
Clearly the Nobatae are no subjects of Meroe. At this time, around 300 AD, Meroe’s power declined rapidly, weakened by the advance of people from both East and West.
In the east Axum was coming up. This Kingdom in what is today Ethiopia, reached the height of its power under its first Christian ruler Ezana (330–356 AD). In an inscription found in Meroe, he announces:
I took the field against the Noba when the people of Noba revolted and did violence to the Mangurto; Hasa and Barya, and the Black Noba waged war on the Red Noba. I fought on the Takkaze [Atbara] at the ford of Kemalke. They fled, and I pursued the fugitives twenty-three days slaying them and capturing others and taking plunder; I burnt their towns, and seized their corn and their bronze and the dried meat and the images in their temples and destroyed the stocks of corn and cotton; and the enemy plunged into the river Seda [Blue Nile].
Despite advances made by archaeologists and linguists in unravelling the complex situation around Meroe, it is still impossible to say what really happened. Apparently the Black Noba were the ones revolting; they attacked the neighbouring people, including the Red Noba and they took over some Kasu towns. But towns still held by the Kasu, were sacked just the same, and the Red Noba territory wasn’t spared by the Axumite armies either.
In the next few centuries three Christian Kingdoms emerged from the ruins of the Kushite Kingdom. The first one is Nobatia in Lower Nubia; there’s little doubt that Nobatia was established by the Nobatae mentioned by Procopius. The second one is Makuria, between the third cataract and somewhere between the fifth and the sixth; also known after its capital as Dongola, it could well have evolved from the part of the Kushite Kingdom that was taken over by the Black Noba. The third is Alodia to the South of Makuria; also known as Alwa, it could have been the remainder of the Kushite Kingdom. The rulers of these kingdoms were converted to Christianity by missionaries from different sects.
Nobatia was annexed by Makuria somewhere in the seventh century AD, probably just before the Muslim invasion of Egypt that commenced in 639 AD. The Muslims pushed southwards, but were halted by the army of the Makuria King, with whom they signed a treaty known as the Baqt, to which both parties seem to have kept for quite a long time. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that Makuria collapsed, soon followed by Alodia, that was overtaken from the south by the newly emerging Funj empire.
The current state of understanding regarding the origin of the Nubians has been summarised by D. A. Welsby. After going through all the available information of historic sources and archaeology, he concludes that:
3. The Nuba on the Nile and the Nuba in the Mountains.
Well, to begin with: for the majority of the Nuba tribes there is nothing to suggest a relationship with the Nuba on the Nile. No archaeological finds, no linguistic relationships. The only Nuba tribes that can be linked to the Nuba on the Nile, are those speaking one of the Nubian languages. In order to understand more about the relationship between the two groups, we need to look into linguistics classifications.
Researchers of the nineteenth century already acknowledged the linguistic affiliation between the Nuba on the Nile, several Nuba tribes in the Mountains and some scattered communities in Darfur.12 They all speak Nubian languages, classified with the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. For a long time, the burning question was: did the Nuba in the Mountains come from the Nile, or did the Nuba on the Nile come from the west?
Despite the Arab conquest of Egypt and the ensuing Islamisation, the people along the Nile in Lower Nubia retained their original language, known as Nubian, or Nobiin for linguists. Closely related to Nobiin is Dongolawi, spoken up the river around Dongola in present day Sudan. Nobiin and Dongolawi probably drifted apart about 1100 years ago – give or take a century or two. Their languages, and specially Nobiin, are considered to be remnants of Old-Nubian, spoken in the Christian Kingdoms of Nobatia, Dongola and Alwa.
Both Nobiin and Dongolawi are related to the so-called Hill Nubian languages of the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. The tribes that speak Hill-Nubian include those of Dilling, Kadaru and Ghulfan; Wali, Karko, Habila, Debri and some tribes more to the West like Tabag and Abu Jinuk.13 Looking at their geographical dispersion, you can imagine them coming from the northeast, some entering the Nuba Mountains from the side of Kadaru, some moving on westward around the Nyimang hills.
This combines well with events at the Nile in the 13th century AD. After centuries of stability, Bedouin tribes driven south by the Mameluks14 , started raiding Makuria. To the east the Beja were harassing Egypt and the Mameluks decided that if Makuria couldn’t keep the Beja in check, it was time to take matters in their own hands. The region was completely destabilised and we can imagine the people from Makuria fleeing south, until they found refuge in the Nuba Mountains. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Well… to make a long story longer: linguistic evidence rules against it. Apart from Nobiin, Dongolawi and Hill-Nubian, there are two other Nubian language group: Birgid and Meidob, found further to the west scattered over Darfur (Meidob being extinct by now). Combining linguistic data from the different Nubian languages, J.H. Greenberg concluded that ‘to assume any split between Hill Nubian and Nile Nubian more recent than 2,500 years B.P. [before present] would be incorrect.’15
Of course we can’t give up a beautiful ancestry that easily: C. Herzog noticed that some Hill-Nubian languages have Christian words for days of the week, and other loan words too: the Nuba in Kordofan came from the Nile after all!16 But R. Thelwall wasn’t impressed:
It might be a disappointing conclusion for some Nuba, but by now no scholar would still argue that the Nuba in the Mountains are descendants of the Nubian Kingdoms. But let’s not linger with the Nubians any longer: there’s more to explore!
1. ‘We have always lived here.’
There are simply neither written sources nor archaeological finds that can shed more light on what wanderings brought all the different Nuba tribes to their present place. Below we will see that for the groups that arrived most recently (within the past millennium or two) we have at least an idea of where they migrated from. But beyond that: nothing.
2. The classification of Nuba languages
The Nuba Languages can be classified into members of two or perhaps three language families: Nilo-Saharan and Kordofanian.
3. Linguistic settlement
However, for ‘The Linguistic Settlement of the Nuba in the Mountains’ Thelwall and Schadeberg20 analysed all the available data from the Nuba languages, and they came up with the following hypothesis regarding the relative chronology of the linguistic settlement of the Mountains:
I. Heiban is spoken in a large area that has a geographical centre in the town of Heiban. It can be subdivided in an eastern section, with Kau and Werni in the south-east; a central section with Koalib, Laro, Heiban, Otoro, Shwai and Logol, and a western section with Moro and Tira.
For these tribes, memory doesn’t reach back far enough to retain any information about the origins of the people. We might learn that the Nuba of Kau, who became world-famous through the photographs of Leni Riefenstahl, have been living in their present location for at least 200 years. According to J. C. Faris:
But what does this mean? It could be 500 years; 2000 years… we don’t know.
The Tira have an idea of where they came from, but their place of origin is still within the Nuba Mountains, and the time frame is also rather limited:
In connection with Tira, it might be nice to include a story told by S. C. Dunn. Having researched gold washing practices in the Nuba Mountains, he writes that gold could be found mainly in Tira Mandi, with some small deposits in Dungur and Atoro. He also went to Sheibun, which was universally believed to be a place where gold was found…
Sheibun did turn out to be the main market where the gold from Tira Mandi was sold though.
The Moro also have only a limited awareness of their history:
The Koalib have a tradition that says that:
the northern Koalib lived originally in Kortala, side by side with [a tribe called] Nyemu. Arab (?) pressure drove the Nyemu to Jebel Dair, and some of the Koalib to their present habitat.26
In his 2003 Land Study, Simon Harragin writes:
II. Katla, which holds both Katla and Tima, is spoken in the hills southwest of Dilling. I didn’t find any sources related to their origin.
III. Rashad can be divided into three languages: Tegali, spoken in the Tegali hills, the Rashad hills and the town of Rashad; Tagoi, spoken in Tagoi, Moreb and Tumale, and Tingal, also in the Tegali Hills.
The Nuba of the Tegali kingdom are basically the only ones to have a documented history that goes back beyond the 19th century. It doesn’t provide any clues however, to their origins. The founding stories of the kingdom speak of a ‘wise stranger’ coming to Tegali and starting a dynasty – a common theme in Sudanese traditions29 . I will gladly get back to the kingdom in the next chapter.
IV. Talodi is a group of languages mainly found in the southern part of the Mountains. It can be divided into Lafofa on the central Eliri range and some adjacent hills, and a large Talodi proper group that can be broken down into four groups: Talodi is spoken in Talodi town and on Jebel Talodi; Eliri on the southern Eliri range; Masakin, with Dagik and Ngile as two separate languages, is spoken in the Masakin hills; in Buram, Reikha and Daloka, and finally Tocho, branched into Acherun, Limun and Tocho.
The first Nuba people to hit the coffee tables in an impressive book by Leni Riefenstahl, were the Masakin Qisar, as she calls them. Reifenstahl stayed with the Masakin on several occasions, for weeks or months, but she doesn’t seem to have inquired after their origin. To her, they were ‘Menschen wie von einem anderen Stern’: people that might just as well have come from another planet. And of course, in a sense, that is true. We don’t know where the Masakin came from, just as we don’t know where the other Nuba from the Talodi group originated.
5. Nyimang, Temein and Kadugli
There is not an awful much to tell about the origins of each individual group, but let’s have a look at them anyway:
I. Nyimang is spoken by the people living on the seven hills of Nyimang: Salara, Tendiya, Kurmeti, Nitil, Fassu, Kelara and Kakara. It is also spoken by the people in the Mandal Hills and at Sobei, and by the more distantly related Afitti in Jebel Dair. The Nyimang call themselves Ama – ‘People’ – or ama mede kolat: people of the seven hills. Little is known about their origin, but S. F. Nadel reports that:
With R. C. Stevenson this becomes Kwuja or Kwija, which could be Kubja in the El Odaiya area. According to Stevenson the Nyimang:
The way the Hill Nubian tribes surround the Nyimang makes this scenario rather improbable. Stevenson remarks that it’s more likely that the Nyimang occupied a larger territory – stretching at least as far as Dilling, until the Hill Nubians arrived.
II. Temein is spoken in the Temein hills (north of Julud); the related Keiga and Teisei are found in Keiga Jirru (west of Debri) and Teisei um-Danab (north-east of Kadugli) respectively. There is nothing to tell about the origin of the Temein, except that:
III. Kadugli as a collective name is not really covering the large range of related languages that are grouped together here. Usually Kadugli is mentioned together with Katcha and Miri; they are so closely related that they could be considered dialects rather than separate languages. There are a number of Nuba languages put together with Kadugli-Miri-Katcha as ‘unclassified’ Nilo-Saharan languages: Tulishi, Kanga, Keiga, Korongo and Tumtum. They are clearly related to each other and to Kadugli-miri-Katcha, but the exact affiliation hasn’t been determined. R. C. Stevenson calls them the Kadugli-Krongo group:
In recent publications the group is referred to as the Kadu languages; I will use this term for convenience. The languages from north-west to south-east:
Tulishi is spoken around Jebel Tulishi, Lagawa, Kamdang and Dar El Kabira.
There is not much to tell about the origins of the people speaking one of the Kadu languages: no one knows where they came from. The linguistic and cultural affiliation among the different tribes is clear though. G. Baumann, who spent 18 months among the Miri people, doing research, says:
Relationships between the communities are usually recognised by the people themselves, and some myths of origin exist, but only for movements within the Nuba Mountains. S. F. Nadel recorded for example that the people of Korongo:
Another example can be given for the people of Tulishi:
This is confirmed by G. Baumann, who writes:
And that’s it as far as these the Nyimang, the Temein and the Kadugli language speaking Nuba are concerned.
6. Hill Nubian
Ghulfan and Kadaru are grouped together. Ghulfan is spoken in Ghulfan Kurgul and Ghulfan Morung; Kadaru in the hill communities of Kadaru, Kururu, Kafir, Kurtala, Dabatna and Kuldaji.
Thelwall and Schadeberg can’t say more as to why or when exactly the Hill Nubians migrated south:
It was probably a gradual process. R. C. Stevenson writes:
The most detailed account of how some of the Hill Nubians came to the Nuba Mountains is given by S. F. Nadel:
7. The Daju speaking tribes
Linguistically things don’t seem to be too complicated: following R.C. Stevenson44 we differentiate between Eastern and Western Daju.
Looking at the linguistic data, Robin Thelwall is convinced that the Eastern Daju languages separated from the others long ago, perhaps as much as 2000 years. The Shatt and Liguri have been in the Mountains much longer than the Lagawa, and because of the considerable linguistic distance between the Shatt and the Liguri, it is likely that their migration into the Nuba Mountains predates not only the Lagawa, but also the Nubian arrival in this area45 .
So linguistically it seems clear. Historically it’s a bit hazy though. There is no doubt that 250 years ago there were two people, Daju and Shatt, living in the area of Muglad west of the Nuba Mountains. K. D. D. Henderson, one of the first British district commissioners of Western Kordofan District, says the Daju and Shatt arrived there from Darfur around 1710.46 According to Ian Cunnison they were driven away by the Messyria:
Henderson says the Messeria Baggara came to Muglad around the decade of 1765-1775,48 so we have a pretty exact indication of when the Daju came to Lagawa. But what about the Shatt? They went south until they met the Ngok Dinka and were driven west?
The last two groups are living in South Sudan, so that makes sense. It doesn’t explain however why Watkiss Lloyd, the first Governor of Kordofan, would report:
We must assume that he just listened to the wrong natives. And what to make of the reconstruction of the Daju and Shatt migration that R.C. Stevenson distilled from K.D.D. Henderson’s data? In his account, the Daju and the Shatt were migrating east together, reaching Muglad around 1710 and moving sort of leisurely towards the area west of Lagawa in the following decennia. From there some of them continued to Liguri and Soburi while others (the Shatt) settled south of Kadugli.51 Stevenson was a distinguished linguist; but somehow he didn’t realise that the differences between the Daju and the Shatt were too big for them to have come to the Nuba Mountains together.
And this, for now, brings me to the end of the investigation into the origins of the Nuba. The results can’t be called glorious, can they? (But the struggle is heroic.) In the next chapter we will focus on more substantial stories of the period before the Mahdiya.
History, part II
1. Interviewed by N. op ‘t Ende; London, February 12 and 13, 2001
Written by Nanne op 't Ende.