The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Jasmine Dispatch

Greetings, Nubian Queen!
Jasmine's Not in L.A. Anymore!

It's been four weeks now, four weeks of pyramids and pharaohs, of Coptic and Muslim history, of Arab caliphs and Mamluk and Turkish sultans, and of the founding and falling of great dynasties. We have seen so much, dipped back into the deepest depths of history - as far back as more than 5,000 years ago, when Menes unified Egypt into one country - but there's more!

What more could there be? I'll give you a clue: the phrase "Menes unified Egypt," though it signified the dawn of a new Egyptian civilization, also signified the end of the previous way of life. The question is, what civilizations and what people did he unify to create a unified Egypt? That's a question many wonder, but few have been able to answer completely.

Click image for larger view
Jaz exploring the beauty of Nubia
We're talking about thousands of years ago, and about nations which didn't leave us books or a code to decipher the language. We're not even sure if they were able to write as we do today. What we do know is that, prior to King Menes, Egypt was separated into two major sections: Upper and Lower Egypt. Because the Nile River flows south, the southernmost section is known as Upper Egypt and the northern part of the country, Lower Egypt. (That's a little tricky, like calling Southern California, Upper California even though it's below Northern California.) The people of the southern area of Upper Egypt, which is now a city called Aswan, lived in a state called Nubia. They were the "burnt-skinned" or Black neighbors of the fair-skinned Arab Egyptians, and are thought to be related to the Africans of Sudan and Ethiopia.

Vocabulary Box

civilizations - a large group of people who have writing and a language
kinky - wavy
coarse - rough to the feel
inferior - not as good
unified - to bring together

"Greetings, Nubian Queen," said the dredlocked brotha' to the sista' who passed him on the sidewalk. "Greetings King," she replied, as, with utmost respect, they smiled at one another and continued on their ways. This was often the scene, not here in Aswan, but in L.A. where I come from, in a small, distant corner of the world called Leimert Park. "Nubians, in Los Angeles?" you ask? Definitely, in spirit, but more like descendants of Nubians actually. It's a term we use, as African-Americans, to acknowledge our African heritage-one that resounds with the distinct tone of respect and pride, one that was immediately familiar to me when I arrived here in Aswan.

Click image for larger view
Jaz hanging out with friends
I never knew much about where the term Nubian came from actually, except that it referred to our ancestors, the great Pharaohs and Queens of Egypt. But once we began to study the Old Kingdoms, it was apparent that few of those Dynasties were Nubian or Black. So what could it mean? Was there a mix up somewhere, a misunderstanding perhaps? I'd hoped we'd find some answers in Aswan, and sure enough...we did!

Kavitha, our friend Gidon and I arrived in Aswan after a ten-hour, overnight train ride from Cairo. And from the moment we arrived we noticed something very different here: the people were no longer light-skinned. Though I did see many Arab-looking people, most had features more closely related to Black Africans. They had hair like mine, kinky and coarse, and I often heard people refer to themselves as Nubians. I smiled to myself knowing this trip would shed some light on my questions.

We stayed at the Bob Marley Hotel, and after deciding to take a felucca trip up the Nile and back toward Cairo, we hooked up with some guys from a boat company called the Jamaica Family. They invited us to their home for tea to discuss the details of the trip, and we joined them one afternoon just before sunset. They lived on Elephantine Island, a ferry ride away from the mainland and home to many of the Nubians of Egypt. We made a plan to leave the next morning, but not before we took a tour of this island homeland.

Click image
for larger view
Nubian children playing with Jaz
To the ancient Mediterranean world, the land south of Egypt was a territory of mystery and legend. Wealth and exotic products came from there. It was the home of the Ethiopians, whom Homer called "blameless," and stories about its great achievements endured to tantalize the modern world. This land, which now includes Nubia, is a land of enormous distances, and its exploration was long impeded by problems of transport and political unrest. In the last hundred years, Nubia has slowly yielded its secrets - its vanished peoples, abandoned cities and lost kingdoms brought to light. The land of Nubia is a desert divided by the river Nile. For want of water and rich soil, most of Nubia has never been able to support a large population for long periods. However, some of Africa's greatest civilizations emerged here, centers of achievement whose existence was based on industry and trade.

Because the people of these centers did not write their own languages until very late in ancient times, we know them largely through their archaeology and what the Egyptians and Greeks said about them. The Nubians are believed to be the first human race on earth, and most of their customs and traditions were adopted by the ancient Egyptians. To the Greeks, they were known as Ethiopians, and Nubia as the land of Ponts, or gods. It is difficult to judge the truth of what is said, though, because none of these writers saw Nubia firsthand. And it wasn't until the second century B.C. that the Nubians began to write down their own language. In addition, most of what was Nubia is now under water, as a result of the Aswan Dam project, which displaced the 40,000 Nubian and Sudanese inhabitants who have occupied these lands for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the destruction of Nubian culture has been a theme throughout history. Despite the great strength of Nubian empires and dynasties - which existed during the time of the Egyptian dynasties - they were defeated when Nubia began to pose a threat to the Egyptian throne. Though they are most often outshined by the Egyptian Dynasties, the Nubian Pharaohs peeked out from behind the shadows of the Egyptian Pharaohs in the 6th, 18th and 25th Dynasties, with great Ethiopian rulers like Taharqo and his successor Tanutamani. When finally Nubia was completely captured, the Nubians were thought of as inferior to the Arab Egyptians, who often don't even consider themselves Africans.

Click image for larger view
Barbed wire keeps the tourists in and the locals out
Nubians today still face the same division and discrimination. The 5 Star Hotel, for example, which has taken over most of the southern end of Elephantine Island, is completely walled in with barbed wire fences, "to keep tourists in and Nubians out," as our guidebook clearly states. It saddened me that after all the years these people battled to keep some part of their identity, they continue to face constant reminders of their subordinate position in the Egyptian world around them.

As we walked around the island - one of the last remaining places Nubians can call home - I was overwhelmed by the sweet-spirited kindness that was extended to us. Beautiful Nubian children played, sang and danced with us, and Nubian women invited us to sit and talk with them. We neither spoke their language nor knew how to accept their kindness and generosity, but we soon found that some things, like hospitality and a smile, speak a universal language everyone can understand.

And despite all that's taken place throughout history and until today, the Nubian people remain strong and proud. They welcome all with open arms, and they taught us so much in the short time we spent with them. Above all, they answered my questions, and I hope they opened your mind to another aspect of Egyptian history as well!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Kavitha - Fighting the Rising Tide - Controlling the Nile River
Monica - No Thanks: Sexual Harassment in School and at Work
Monica - When Does Flirting Become Hurting?
Team - The Story of the Suez Canal

Meet Jasmine | Jasmine's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Jasmine