Imagine a civilization so powerful it conquered the ancient Egyptians, with people so industrious that they built more pyramids than the Egyptians did.
Such a place actually existed in ancient Nubia, the region to the south of Egypt, located along the Nile in what is now northern Sudan. Nubia was an important part of the trade route from ancient Egypt to other parts of Africa.
Tirhaka, mentioned in the Bible as the king of Ethiopia (II Kings, 18-20; Isaiah, 37-38), actually was Taharqa, king of Nubia and Kush. He ruled Egypt from 690 to 664 BC during its 25th Dynasty.
The Kingdom of Kerma was the first Nubian kingdom to unify much of the region. Its capital city was one of the earliest urban centers in tropical Africa.
The kings of Kerma left behind rich tombs, which were filled with their possessions and sacrificial offerings. The metalworking and eggshell pottery created in Kerma was even finer than that produced in Egypt.
The Nubian pyramids were built in the Kingdom of Kush, which survived longer as a kingdom than Egypt did. The residents of Meroe developed a written language called Meroitic, which had an alphabet of 23 signs.
“Meroitic has never been translated,” says Dr. Ronald Bailey, a visiting professor in Africana Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Savannah State University. “They haven’t found a Rosetta Stone to provide a key.
“We look at the work of scientists and think they know everything about Nubia,” Bailey says. “But they don’t know it all because they can’t crack the language.”
Like the Egyptians to the north, the Nubians developed a complex civilization that lasted 6,000 years. So why isn’t the story of ancient Nubia as well known as that of ancient Egypt? Why aren’t there as many tourists visiting the ancient tombs, pyramids and monuments in Nubia as there are in the Valley of the Kings?
Nubia has gotten some attention (for example, Verdi’s Aida is the story of a Nubian princess who has been enslaved by the Egyptians), but not nearly as much as it deserves. As to why, I’ll be blunt. The Nubians were black.
For many years, despite the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary, scientists refused to believe that people with dark skin could have developed such a rich, complex society on their own. Bailey has worked diligently to change that assumption.
“More and more information has come out of this area through archaeology,” Bailey says. “It’s forced scholars to review their theories.
“At one time, scientists believed Nubia, as a black civilization, was a corrupt offshoot of Egypt,” he says. “They were convinced the Nubians weren’t capable of creating thin eggshell pottery.
“For a long time, Science felt Nubia was not up to snuff,” Bailey says. “A lot of Nubian artifacts were kept in basements.”
At least one Nubian treasure remains buried in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “It’s the burial chamber of a king that’s too heavy to move up to the other floors,” Bailey says.
Bailey had a grand idea — develop an interactive exhibit that could be used to showcase the achievements of the Nubians and introduce students to science and technology at the same time. The result is digNubia, an interactive exhibit, Web site and documentary film.
“All three can be used as stand-alones,” Bailey says. “The exhibit also has a manual that educators can use to integrate the information into their classrooms.”
The creation of digNubia was funded by a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation as digNubia: Exploring the Science of Archaeology. Bailey is the founding principal investigator for the project, which was completed by a staff he organized at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass. in 2002.
A grant to bring the exhibit to SSU was provided by the Georgia Humanities Council. After traveling around the country, digNubia will be presented in SSU’s Adams Hall through March 2 as part of Black History Month and the Savannah Black Heritage Festival.
“The exhibit is quite sophisticated in design and fabrication,” Bailey says. “We wanted to take it to more places other than the big museums.
“All the crates are on wheels, and there are instructions to set up everything step-by-step,” he says. “You can set it up with just four people, but we’re using teams of students and faculty.”
School and recreational groups already are signing up for tours, but Bailey says the exhibit is for anyone who wants to learn about Nubia and archaeology. The display focuses on three areas and eras of ancient Nubia: Kerma, Napata and Meroe.
Through digNubia, participants can actually take on the role of an archaeologist. The exhibit includes an archeologist’s tent, with all the equipment and materials found on an actual dig.
“Timothy Kendall is the archaeologist we partnered with,” Bailey says. “In one of the activities in the tent, we tell the students, ‘We just got a call from Dr. K. He wants you to go on a dig. What should you take?’”
In other parts of the display, visitors can help re-build an ancient chapel, investigate life-sized skeletal remains, study pottery and collect data in a real laboratory. These activities have been faithfully recreated at the Web site (www.digNubia.org), which visitors can explore before and after they visit the exhibit.
A documentary about the project has been created, and will be shown several times while the exhibit is in Savannah. “What I wanted to do was address the digital divide,” Bailey says. “I wanted to use technology so students can learn more about the Internet and the World Wide Web, as well are archaeology.”
Interest in Nubian culture was renewed in the 1960s when the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan Dam at the Nile’s first cataract. The resulting flooding created Lake Nasser, threatening many ancient buildings and statues.
“They called in international teams to move the monuments,” Bailey says. “Those teams first tried to save it, then to salvage it and finally to reconsider what they thought they knew.”
A similar crisis may be unfolding today. “At the fourth cataract, the Sudanese government is building a massive dam,” Bailey says. “It will do the same thing — wipe out many monuments if they aren’t moved to safety.”
Bailey himself became interested in ancient Nubia while teaching at Northeastern University in Boston. The Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University teamed up to support an archaeological mission to the Sudan, and the resulting exhibition fascinated Bailey.
“A lot of us got involved,” he says. “We see so many negative images coming out of African and not all the positive influences.”
But there is hope. The February issue of National Geographic magazine features a cover story called The Black Pharaohs: Conquerors of Ancient Egypt.
Nubia still holds many mysteries waiting to be discovered. “How could such a powerful civilization fall on hard times?” Bailey asks. “Was it an issue of the environment or an issue of how people treat each other?
“In African American studies, we begin with our ancestral roots,” Bailey says. “Now with the Human Genome Project it’s pretty clear that the oldest human being existed on the continent of Africa. The bones prove it, the fossils prove it. Africa has to be the starting point for every human experience.”
The public is invited to visit the digNubia exhibit free of charge at Savannah State University’s Adams Hall through March 2. Hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 2-5 p.m. Special reservations for classes and groups should be made by calling Gwendolyn Falero-Fleming in SSU’s Center for International Education at 353-4942. Falero-Fleming also can provide information on related speakers, screenings of the documentary and other information.