Ancient and modern Nubia: Women and traditions at risk

Ancient Nubian warrior queens honored & protected in the name of their goddesses. Who were these woman & what was their role in ancient & modern Nubia?

EGYPT (Cairo), April 23, 2011 — In March, during Women’s History Month, Tennessee State University extended an invitation for me to speak about Egyptian history, culture and the role of women.

A map of Egypt, showing the Nile and the Nubian desert region.

A map of Egypt, showing the Nile and the Nubian desert region.

The Africana studies Dept. Title III lecture series organized a special lecture on the role of Nubian women in the history of ancient civilization.  

To understand Nubian women, we need to ask where is NUBIA?

The land of Nubia extends from the first, as Aswan, to the fourth cataract, in the Nubian Desert. Nubia is divided into lower Nubia in Egypt and upper Nubia in Sudan.

Nubia’s strategic importance arises from the fact that it is the only continuously inhabited corridor between the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa, which in many ways has shaped its history.

Similar to Egyptian history, Nubian recorded history starts around 3100 BCE, and is divided into Groups A, C and the Kerma culture.

Nubia enjoyed many episodes of political power under the kingdoms of Kerma, Napata as well as the Meriotic kingdoms. The Golden Age of Nubia started after a decline in the Egyptianization of the Kush region-which lies to the south of Egypt and north of Sudan.

Nubian Kings and Queens came to power with the 25th Dynasty and ruled  Egypt during a period known as the Napatan period (760-593 BCE)

The word Nubia derives from the word ‘NUB’ which means gold. Gold was extensively mined there. It may have been the primary motivations for kings like Ramses II, the most famous pharaoh, to build several temples there

Reliefs of Isis and Horus from the temple of Isis at Philae.

Reliefs of Isis and Horus from the temple of Isis at Philae.

In 1960, when the HIGH DAM was built in Egypt, the whole Nubian territory was flooded, together with hundreds of artifacts and temples.

Among The most famous temples that the UNESCO saved are the ABOU SIMBEL temples, that Ramses II dedicated for his 19th wife Queen Nefertari. Her likeness appears on the walls of her temple in her Nubian costume and giving offerings to the cow goddess Hathor, the goddess of motherhood, fertility and beauty.          


Although ruling queens were not unusual during ancient times, the image of a “Warrior-Queen” is a unique find in both Egyptian and western art.

As the divine right of the king passed from god to ruler, there was no room for a female figure. However, Nubian queens were depicted at the event of sacred birth. Examples are many. Queen AMANISHAKHETO, appears with Hathor (goddess of motherhood and beauty), while wearing a panther’s skin like a warrior. This is one of many examples where queens presented themselves as warriors in front of gods and goddesses.

The Goddess Nut, known as the Mother of the Sky and the Queen of the Heavens, is shown with her body bending over, and protecting, her people.

The Goddess Nut, known as the Mother of the Sky and the Queen of the Heavens, is shown with her body bending over, and protecting, her people.

Surprisingly enough, Nubian queens also performed the role of high priestesses of the different goddesses such as NUT, the sky goddess, ISIS, the sorceress, the healer and the goddess of eternal love.

The godess HATHOR, appeared on their crowns.

Nubian queens were trusted servants to NU. According to legend, NUT is the mother of Isis, Osiris and Horus. The artisans of this era connected the queens with the cowrie shell, a shell used as currency for trade.

In art, this shell was thought to symbolize the vulva and, by extension, verbal communication.  Since women were allowed to speak freely, the Nubian artisans connected the art of verbal communication and the cowrie shell, with the ruling queens.

The worship of Isis lasted more than 3,000 years, and was strongest in Nubia. The northern parts of Egypt worshipped Ra, a male figure. Many Nubian queens were depicted with Isis on their crowns, as she is considered the “mother of Egypt.”  The famous temple of Isis is called PHILAE, and is located in Aswan, upper Egypt.

In the kingdom of Kushite, the rulers passed power to the queens. One of the best examples is queen AMANIRENAS, whom a historian mentioned was a  “queen [that] had courage above her sex”.

Nubian Queens played an important role as high priestesses and as domineering mothers. A good example is queen TI, the grandmother of TUTANKHAMOUN and the mother of AKHENATON, she presented her statue higher than her husband AMENHOTEP, III.

Almost seventeen Nubian queens and princesses came to power during the ancient times.


A Nubian villager, Sudan Credit: International Rivers.

A Nubian villager, Sudan Credit: International Rivers.

The Nubian tradition continues. Modern Nubian women are uniquely interested in education, with 80% of all young women being educated.  As modern Nubians are displaced from their homeland, four times this is considered quite remarkable.

The Nubian population is close to one million, most of whom live in Aswan, and Alexandria, as well as in North Sudan.

After building the High Dam in the 1960s, the last 50 years are considered a challenge to both the Nubian culture and the modern Nubian women, as they work to maintain their culture through education and preservation of their customs and traditions.

And just as the Aswan Damn in the 1960’s flooded ancestral lands and antiquities, displacing more than 120,000 Nubian people in Egypt, traditions and the Nubian way of life are once again at risk, as plans to build the Kajbar Dam along the Nile river in Sudan will flood the ancestral lands of Nubians, who lived along these shores for centuries.

Anwaar Abdalla, Ph.D. Helwan University, is a native of Cairo, Egypt and lecturer at Helwan Unv. Ms. Abdalla is also in demand as a lecturer on Egyptian history, Muslim culture and the antiquities and the sites and history of ancient Egypt.

Read more about Egypt, the Revolution and this ancient lands growth in Egypt: Pyramids and Revolutions in the Communities in the Washington Times.


-cl- 4/25/11

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More from Egypt: Pyramids and Revolution
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Anwaar Abdalla

Anwaar Abadallah Khalik Ibrahim has her Ph.D. from Ain Shams University (1999, first degree honour) and currently lectures on Civilization and Cultural Affairs for Helwan University.  Dr. Abdalla Kahlik Ibrahim also works as an official coordinator for the cultural exchange program between Helwan Uni and TSU in the USA entitled “Cultural Immersion 2011-2014.”

Additionally, Ms. Abdallah is a member of the Egyptian and Arab women’s writer’s union and the Cairo Women Association.  She is also the translator of several books published by the Ministry of Culture including Shadows on the Grass, Impossible Peace and The Secret Rapture. Dr. Ibrahim is also an accomplished author and essayist in both Arabic and English publications. 


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