The Nubians

Authors Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare explore the history of the Nubian people.

Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare


Nubia comprises the land along the Nile reaching from just south of Dongola to Aswan in Egypt. Its inhabitants are neither Arab nor black – the Nubians have a distinct ethnic and cultural identity, they speak their own language with its own script, and they have a history that reaches back well before the Kingdom of Kush. At times in their history, the Nubians have followed the Pharaonic religions, had an indigenous Christian culture, and now follow Islam.

It’s a history that Nubians are proud of, although they complain that the central government has neglected the long pre-Islamic history of their region in favour of a standard Islamist narrative of Sudanese culture. Nubia remains as neglected as any part of Sudan away from Khartoum.

Modern Nubians are divided into three main groups – the Danaqla around the Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract to south of Wadi Halfa, and the Sikurta around Aswan. Each group speaks a slightly different dialect of the Nubia tongue. In Sudan, the groups also practise facial scarring. Mahas men and women often display three wide scars on each cheek. With the Danaqla, the same scars are found around the temple. Scarification, however, is becoming less and less popular with younger generations.

Nubian architecture is very distinct. Houses sit in a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. The most notable feature of the building is the gateway. The threshold to the property is often of an exaggerated size and highly decorated with stucco and bright colours. Geometric patterns are popular, but also pictures and symbols that may relate to the family inside – vehicles are popular, as are stars and palm trees. Scorpions and eyes ward off the evil eye, while a book (representing the Koran) and the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca may indicate that the owner has performed the Hajj pilgrimage. Where possible, the gate always faces the Nile. Inside the compound a flat-roofed area provides a sitting area facing the courtyard, with separate entrances for the family and guest to maintain privacy. Houses are typically roofed using split palm trunks, but richer owners may roof their properties with mud-brick domes to help keep the inside cool during the day.

Music is important in Nubian culture. Unlike Arabic music it’s based on the pentatonic scale, and so is more immediately accessible to Western ears. Traditional music features a kisir (five-stringed lyre) and a tar (drum). Nubian ‘pop’ music is highly synthesised and often introduces horns to weave further melodies into a heady jazz mix. Whichever style is played, the themes remain the same – call-and-response chants, love songs and songs in praise of the land. The last have become increasingly popular in the last 40 years with the flooding of Nubia’s heartland and the urban drift of Nubians to Khartoum and Cairo.

The best place to hear Nubian music is at a wedding. If you’re lucky enough to get invited to one it will be one of the highlights of your trip. A big wedding can last several days. The groom’s family holds an open house, building up to a large wedding feast. After eating, the music and dancing begins. Men and women dance separately but opposite each other in a highly charged and sensual atmosphere. The bride is prepared with smoke baths, then elaborately dressed, bedecked with jewellery, and painted with henna. On the wedding night, the bride and groom go to the Nile to wash to ensure their prosperity. The groom will have paid a bride-price to the bride’s father, which is one reason why first-cousin marriages are popular, as this keeps wealth in the family. Weddings are an expensive business, and the wages of Nubian expats working in the Gulf have greatly inflated bride-prices, causing problems for poor young men at home.

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