for a recent general overview, see; ' THE NUBIAN PAST ' - by David N Edwards   (University of Leicester)

La nécropole néolithique d'el-Kadada au Soudan central - Volume I (2008) - by Jacques Reinold

The Neolithic of the Middle Nile Region (2010)- Azhari Mustafa Sadig

La Pioche et la Plume. Autour du Soudan, du Liban et de la Jordanie
Hommages archéologiques à Patrice Lenoble, edited by Rondot, V., Apli, F. and Villeneuve, F. (2011)


ANF cover  The MAHAS SURVEY PROJECT - 430pp report now published (April 2012) - available here


The home of the earliest kingdoms and civilisations south of the Sahara, the rich archaeological heritage of Sudan and Nubia still remains little known. In a vast country, archaeological work is still thinly spread and under-resourced. Archaeologists are only at the very beginning of the study of the first great kingdom of Sudan at Kerma (c.2500-1500 BCE), the Kushite/Meroitic Empire (c.800 BCE-350 CE), the prosperous medieval Nubian kingdoms and the great Sultanates of Funj Sennar and Darfur of the post-medieval period. Unfortunately very little archaeological work has ever been carried out in South Sudan so, as yet, we know very little of its early past.  While the name 'Nubia' is commonly associated with the areas of northern Sudan, and southern Egypt, medieval Nubia (the land of the 'Nuba'/'Noba') was a much greater region, extending far to the south of Khartoum - while the family of Nubian languages seems to have been widespread across much of what is now west, central and northern Sudan. It has become traditional to refer to all the ancient inhabitants of this region as 'Nubian', although that name is only being commonly used by the 'Nubians' themselves quite recently.


By c.2500 BCE we can already see the development of urban centres and a highly complex social world in northern Sudan, centred on Kerma. The religious centre of the town is marked by this great mudbrick monument; in the foreground the foundations of a massive round wooden building - perhaps a palace or audience hall - are marked out. By c.1500BCE Kerma was surely ruled by kings although it may be premature to assume the existence of a centralised kingdom in earlier periods.

Until recently, the Kerma civilisation was known only from the townsite and cemeteries of its metropolitan centre and smaller sites to the north, towards Egypt. However, recent survey and excavation work has identified many new sites south of Kerma, many located on channels of the Nile, now dry, which lay to the east of the modern course of the river. This pattern of settlement indicates a substantial population and for the first time provides us with some sort of context in which we can place Kerma itself. Survey work in advance of the Merowe (4th Cataract) Dam has confirmed the presence of Kerma sites at least as far upriver as the Abu Hamed/Mograt island area.

As the long history of Egyptian military activity in Lower Nubia indicates, Kerma was at times perceived as a major threat to Pharaonic Egypt. In the absence of written records from Kerma, our perceptions of 'Nubia' during this period have of course been greatly influenced by Egyptian historical records. They, however, only tell half the story of the frontier wars and the gradual colonisation of Lowerand Middle Nubia. Increasingly, the results of archaeological work in the Kerma heartlands is beginning to make it possible to tell the story from the other side.....


Following the collapse the Egyptian New Kingdom, by the early first millennium BC the kingdom of Kush re-emerged in its own right as a great power in the Middle Nile. Between 712-657 BCE, Sudanese kings conquered and ruled Egypt, as the XXVth Dynasty. After losing control of Egypt, the Kushite Empire survived in its homeland for nearly 1000 years - until c.300-350 CE - at its greatest extent controlling as much as 1,000km of the Nile valley.

With its original core in the Dongola Reach, by about 400 BCE the centre of the kingdom had shifted south to the Meroe region in central Sudan. Great cemeteries marked by pyramids mark the burials of the kings and queens.


Located on the northern margins of the Sudanic savannah lands, Meroe exploited substantial areas away from the Nile. Many Meroitic sites are known from the Western Butana - south of Meroe, northeast of modern Khartoum. This remarkable temple is at Musawwarat es Sofra, an enigmatic complex of temples and enclosures - probably a pilgrimage centre.




The famous 'kiosk' at Naqa, also in the western Butana, again reflects the use of northern architectural styles by the Meroites. While this photograph was taken during a period of extreme drought (1985), the valleys around Naqa can still be very productive agriculturally when there are good rains. In the Meroitic period the potential for cultivation, grazing and hunting was probably considerable.

In the past, these highly visible monuments have tended to dominate our perceptions of the Kushite-Meroitic culture. However, while the Meroitic elite drew on many elements of Egyptian religion and culture, the Kushite world must be seen as a phenomenon of Sudanic Africa with its own rich heritage. With its own language, written first in hieroglyphs and later a unique cursive script we also find the first written African language south of the Sahara ...

for an important new study of the Meroitic language , and another coming soon see:-

Rilly, C. 2007. La Langue du Royaume de Meroe, Paris: Editions Champion. (ISBN 978-2-7453-1582-3)
Rilly, C. and de Voogt, A. 2012. The Meroitic Language and Writing System, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(ISBN-13: 9781107008663) - to be published October 2012


Medieval Nubia

Following the collapse of the Meroitic state (c.300-350 CE), the Middle Nile broke up into a number of smaller political units - by about 500CE, three major 'Nubian' kingdoms had emerged, Nobatia in the far north (Lower Nubia), Makuria in the Dongola Reach, and Alodia in central Sudan (with its capital at Soba), extending up the Blue Nile. The Nubian kings were converted to Christianity after 540 CE, and the influence of the Church and its institutions becomes increasingly apparent in many elements of medieval Nubian culture from that time. While a single unified kingdom on the scale of Meroe never reappeared, medieval Nubia prospered, enjoying generally peaceful relations with Islamic Egypt, in which long-distance trade flourished.

The royal palace/throne hall at Old Dongola, capital of Makuria. The building was converted to a mosque in the early 14th century. (photo: 1990)



A land of farmers and riverine villages, traders and herders, medieval Nubia also develops a widely used written language (Old Nubian) possibly in several dialects, while Greek, Coptic and latterly Arabic were also widely used. As might be expected, much emphasis was placed on the translation of biblical texts and a substantial body of such material has been found during archaeological excavations. Equally, however, administrative documents, legal texts and letters were also written in Old Nubian - a rare early flowering of an indigenous written language in Africa south of the Sahara. Modern ' Mahas ' Nubian is closely related to the medieval language of northern Nubia.

A late medieval 'vase' from Lower Nubia. Elaborately decorated pottery is a prominent feature of Nubian material culture in Makuria and Nobatia

The increasing political weakness of the Nubian kings saw a gradual erosion of their power during the 14th and 15th centuries and the slow disintegration of their kingdoms. Whether cause or effect of this collapse, increasing numbers of 'Arab' immigrants seem to have contributed to growing insecurity and socio-economic decline of much of the Middle Nile. The era of the Christian Nubian kingdoms is traditionally seen as over by about 1500, with a new power (the Funj Sultanate) emerging along the Blue Nile, centred on Sennar, with areas further north gradually becoming more Arabised.

The experience of the far north was rather different, as during the 16th century, most of Lower Nubia was controlled by Ottoman Egypt, who extended their rule as far south as the Third Cataract in the 1580s. The Ottoman presence was limited to two garrisons (at Qasr Ibrim, and Qa'lat Sai) and a few minor outposts, and an reputedly rapacious and arbitrary local administration. It was within this environment that Nubian language and culture has survived most obviously, although substantial areas of the northern Dongola Reach (Ed Debba - Kerma) have also retained their own distinctive Dongolawi Nubian language and traditions.

El Khandaq (near Dongola) - a major Ottoman Egyptian centre of the early 19th century. The site was clearly of some importance in the medieval Christian and Funj periods - but has yet to be investigated. Much of the old town is now abandoned and empty. The tower of the 'Ottoman' mosque, built in the 1820s can be seen in this picture. (photo: May 1999)

The power of the Funj was finally broken in the early 19th century with the conquest of the Middle Nile by the Egyptian army of Mohammed Ali in the years following 1820 - beginning the period of 'Ottoman' Egyptian colonial rule - the 'Turkiyya' - expelled during the Mahdiyya.

return to index

have a look at the archaeology of a regional survey in northern Sudan, the Mahas Survey

about the Department of Archaeology, University of Khartoum

Kerma Museum
inaugurated 28 Jan 2008

Chicago Oriental Institute
in Nubia

French archaeology in Sudan
Section Française de la Direction des Antiquités du Soudan)

The Nubian Museum,

Faras Gallery -
Warsaw Museum

SAG Berlin

Dongola Reach Survey

British Museum/SARS
Kawa Excavations

'Medieval Nubia' -
by Peter Shinnie

Sudanese Artists

ARKAMANI- Sudanese Archaeology & Anthropology - Arabic & English

The Manasir Cultural Research Project

Hamadab (Meroitic) excavations

Kadero Neolithic excavations

Naqa (Meroitic) excavations

Libyan/Sahara Rock Art & links

Archaeology in South Sudan

Sudan Archaeological Research Society (SARS)

 El Salha Project (Central Sudan)

Merowe Dam reports


 Meroitic El-Meragh


 Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean (PAM)


 Meroitic News Letter (MNL) online



Neolithic cemetery publication - 2008

La nécropole néolithique d'el-Kadada au Soudan central - Volume I


 The Neolithic of the Middle Nile Region: An Archeology of Central Sudan and Nubia

by Azhari Mustafa Sadig (2010)


  ** KERMA - the Swiss Archaeological Mission in Sudan **


updated 03/01/2015