The rich cultures of ancient Nubia, located in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan, are the subject of an exhibition on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University from March 11 through June 12, 2011.

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World Exhibition Opens Window Onto Little-Known Cultures of Ancient Nubia
Head of a Nubian, Faience, Kerma, 1700–1550 BC (Classic Kerma Period). Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition: 20.1305a. Photography © 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa” illuminates Nubia’s relationship with Egypt,

among other topics -- on view March 11 – June 12, 2011

The rich cultures of ancient Nubia, located in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan, are the subject of an exhibition on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University from March 11 through June 12, 2011.  Entitled Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa, the exhibition evokes the rise, fall, and re-emergence of Nubian power over the course of some 2,500 years, from the earliest Nubian kingdoms of about 3000 BC through the conquest of Egypt beginning in about 750 BC. With more than 120 objects, ranging from statues portraying kings to military weapons, jewelry, pottery, and more, the exhibition illuminates the culture of ancient Nubia—particularly its ongoing, complex relationship with Egypt—and reveals its remarkable and distinctive aesthetic tradition.

Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and conceived by Jennifer Chi, associate director for exhibitions and public programs at ISAW, and Geoff Emberling, an independent curator, scholar, and archaeologist. In addition to loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, supplemental material has been loaned to ISAW by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Chi states, “Ancient Nubia cannot be understood in isolation from its neighbors, particularly Egypt, with whom it was alternately trading partner and fierce enemy. In fact, our understanding of Nubia has long been shaped by ancient Egyptian texts and works of art that portrayed Nubians as stereotyped enemies, using such terms as ‘vile Kush.’ We hope that the objects on view in the exhibition, which tell the story of Nubia on its own terms, will enlighten visitors to these cultures, whose riches have yet to be fully understood. We are grateful to Geoff Emberling for bringing his knowledge and expertise to this exhibition.”      

Ancient Nubia

Nubia encompassed a diverse population that lived along a 500-mile stretch of the Nile Valley. While the earliest Nubian kingdoms, located in the north of the region, developed by 3000 BC, they were short-lived, as a result of raids by the Egyptian army. Further south, however, a different cultural tradition—one that would prove to be wealthy, powerful, and long- lasting—began to flourish around 3000 BC. The Egyptians came to call this kingdom “Kush,” and in the years after 2000 BC they erected a series of fortresses along the Nile in an attempt to control trade and protect themselves against the formidable Kushite military power. (Indeed, the kings of Kush frequently formed alliances with distant rulers, and around 1600 BC they nearly captured the Egyptian capital at Thebes.)

In about 1550 BC, Egypt succeeded in conquering much of Nubia, and from that point on, the histories of the two kingdoms were increasingly intertwined, with Egypt working to assimilate Nubians into the Egyptian empire, despite the latter’s longstanding position as an enemy. Egypt maintained control over the territory until about 1100 BC, when its empire in Nubia collapsed, precipitating a dark age in the region that lasted until a Nubian revival in about 900 BC. The new Nubian dynasty, based in Napata, adopted important religious and political practices from Egypt, which it would soon conquer and rule as its 25th Dynasty from about 750 to 650 BC. At this point the Assyrians took control of Egypt.


The objects on view in Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa offer insights into Nubian cultures and history, illustrating such practices as craft production, burial, worship, and warfare, and revealing the ways in which Nubia was affected by ongoing contact with Egypt and other societies, including those to its south.

The exhibition begins in the first of ISAW’s two galleries, which focuses on pottery and faience, two mediums in which Nubia excelled. Early vessels, dating to about 3000 BC, show the spectacular development of hand-crafted ceramic vessels. Later examples here include a bowl with spiral decoration, a pitcher in the form of a hippopotamus, and a beaker, all dating from 1700–1550 BC. While these come from the Kushite capital of Kerma, similar vessels have been found along a long stretch of the Nile, suggesting the expansion of the power of Kush, as well as more extensive trade relations. From the same period are numerous early examples of faience, which Nubians learned from Egyptian artisans by about 1700 BC. These include a head of a Nubian shown in profile and large-scale wall inlay in shape of a lion.

The objects on view in the second gallery, more clearly expressive of Nubia’s increasingly complex relationship with Egypt, highlight the selective adoption and modification of Egyptian royal iconography, sophisticated craft techniques, and funerary practices. A stone statue of the Nubian king Senkamanisken (ca. 643–623 BC), for example, is carved in an archaizing Egyptian style, but depicts the king wearing ram’s-head amulets and a cap crown that are distinctively Nubian. In another example of the integration of Egyptian practices into Nubian culture, Nubian kings in later times constructed pyramids for their burials, rather than the mounds that had traditionally covered their burial chambers. The exhibition includes some precious vessels made of gold and silver that were preserved following the collapse of one of the chambers of Nubian King Aspelta’s pyramid. Intricate works of ancient artistry, including an exquisite pendant of gold and rock crystal depicting the Egyptian goddess Hathor, were also found in pyramid tombs of some Nubian queens.

For more detailed information on the exhibition, click here


Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa is supplemented by a 60-page illustrated publication with essays by guest curator Geoff Emberling that provide a historical overview of Nubia and its excavations. It also includes a map and timeline of the region, checklist of objects in the exhibition, and selected bibliography. It is available for $10 at ISAW.

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Established in 2006, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University is an independent center for scholarly research and graduate education, intended to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world.

ISAW encourages approaches in research and graduate education that are geographically inclusive, encompassing cultures from the western Mediterranean to China, and that cross the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, promoting methodologies open to the integration of every category of evidence and method of analysis. ISAW also engages the larger scholarly community and the public with an ongoing program of lectures, publications, and exhibitions that reflect its mission and scholarship.

ISAW was established with funds from the Leon Levy Foundation. The inspiration for the Institute was the lifelong passion for the study of the ancient world shared by the late Mr. Levy and his wife, Shelby White. This led them to envision an institute that would encourage the study of the economic, religious, political, and cultural exchanges among ancient civilizations across geographic, chronological, and disciplinary boundaries. Ms. White is the Founder of ISAW and the Chairman of its Board. Leon Levy Director of ISAW is the historian and papyrologist Roger S. Bagnall; director for exhibitions and public programs is Jennifer Y. Chi, an expert in Roman imperial sculpture.



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