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Nubia: Nubians in Egypt

The evidence for Nubians in Egypt may be divided into written sources and archaeological record: the human remains from the latter would provide the most direct or primary sources, but they have not been analysed in numbers or methods suitable for demographic studies.

The classic Middle Egyptian phase of the Egyptian language provides evidence for Egyptian attitudes to the inhabitants of lands immediately south of Egypt: there seem to have been two main words used, Nehesy (nHsy) for inhabitants of the river valley, and Medjay (mDAy) for a group or groups from the deserts east of the Nubian Nile Valley. This indicates the view from Egypt, as mediated through language: it is possible that it represents a simplifying generalisation for a more complex linguistic and ethnic map of Nubia.

The evidence for Nubians living in Middle Kingdom Egypt is open to several interpretations. The name Nehesy - 'Nubian' appears several times: does it refer to a Nubian, either born in Egypt or someone who changed their foreign name? Was it just a 'fashion' to call somebody 'Nubian' or was the child darker-skinned than usual so that the parents decided to give him that name? What does darker skin mean? This question leads to the modern debate over race in ancient Egypt.

Dark skinned people are sometimes depicted in Middle Kingdom art. It is again very difficult to draw any conclusion from this. It seems almost impossible to decide, whether these were Nubians or whether the dark skin is chosen for other reasons ('rebirth'). Further research is needed, with a comprehensive catalogue illustrated in colour for all examples of each period. For the Second Intermediate Period there is good evidence from material culture that inhabitants from the Nubian eastern desert settled in Egypt (pan-graves).

seals of the 'eldest king's son' Nehesy
UC 11591 UC 11597

seals of the 'chief scribe of the treasurer' Nehesy
UC 11408 UC 11469


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