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March 20, 2019

From Nubia, with Love

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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For years, I longed to visit the Nubian villages of Upper Egypt, to meet the people, eat local food, shop in their markets, hear traditional Nubian languages, and listen to their music.

Finally, my wish came true and I visited there during February, 2019.

But before taking this memorable trip, I eagerly read about Nubian history and arts to prepare myself. I was even happier to find and purchase in Cairo the best-selling Nubia: Sketches, Notes and Photographs (2004) by Egyptian-born Swiss artist, Margo Veillon (1907-2003).

Veillon received her formative fine arts education and training in Europe, but returned to Egypt in 1932 while still in her mid-20s, to pursue the artistic theme that would capture much of her long and creative life; recording the daily lives of Nubians. I am so glad she did.

Between 1936 and 1962, Veillon made several more trips to Nubia. Her final visit came just before the rising waters of the Nile, just south of Aswan, became Lake Nasser in the aftermath of the High Dam’s construction.

Upper Egypt south of Aswan is home to three different cultures – Nile Valley dwellers; Eastern Egyptian Desert inhabitants (from the edge of the Nile up to the Red Sea); and the Nubians of Upper Egypt.

These three groups have been closely integrated since ancient times, yet still maintain distinct cultures.

The Nubians inhabited the Nile Valley mainly on the west, from Aswan to the Egyptian-Sudan border, extending to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The history of the Nubian people and their civilization covers five periods:

(1) Pre- written history, before 3000 BCE

(2) Pharaonic era, 3000 to 300 BCE

(3) Greco-Roman era, 300 BCE to 400 CE

(4) Christian era, 400 to 700 CE

(5) Islamic era, 700 CE to the present.

Many notable artifacts from the oldest three periods are elegantly displayed at the Nubian Museum in Aswan.

Nubia was culturally, economically and politically linked to Egypt from ancient times, although it had its own regional tribal governments. Its people exchanged sheep, goats and gold-bearing quartz and iron ore with the Egyptians from the fertile lower Nile in exchange for grains, vegetable oil and military protection.

Although occasional skirmishes occurred between the Egyptian army and chiefs of the Nubian tribes, their overall relationship was friendly and a state of mutual respect has existed throughout history. Moreover, a Nubian family actually ruled Egypt for 100 years and a papyrus (c. 2300 BCE) refers to this cultural group as the “peaceful Nubians.”

Ramses II, the most prolific temple-builder of ancient Egypt constructed six temples in Nubia, all of them (like the world-famous Abu Simbel) hewn out of solid rock from mountains overlooking the Nile.

In addition to noting their peaceful ways, Egyptians also called Nubians “the beautiful people.” For eons, Nubians have maintained an essential link between Egypt and the rest of Africa through trade, arts, language and culture; and they continue to do so today.

The colours in Margo Veillon’s paintings are carefully selected to produce the most authentic and beautiful records of Nubian life – they witness her obvious love for this ancient people. And she made me love this remarkable culture even more, for which I am very thankful.

The food here is similar to that of Cairo's but spicier. In fact, Aswan is Egypt's spice capital where a great variety of seasonings are used.

My young Nubian driver, Khalid, taught me a few Nubian words over the six days I spent here. Nubian languages are written in the Arabic alphabet and sound like Arabic, but their structure and vocabulary are different. During the Sinai Liberation War of 1973, the Egyptian army used one of the Nubian languages for communication and it successfully confused the Israeli troops.

Veillon was sad to see the resettlement of Nubians to higher ground further north as a result of the Aswan High Dam and creation of Lake Nasser that covered so much of their historic territory. But she always believed that the essence of Nubia would never die; Nubians had survived and thrived for more than 3000 years and she felt they could continue as a culture for many generations yet.

In 1960, she wrote: “A feeling of anxiety takes hold of you when you see things of such outstanding beauty. You become conscious of the artist's obsession to externalize and feel the need to put all that you see down on canvas or paper. Occasionally, and this is almost painfully beautiful to witness, the Nile becomes a long, flat mirror; the reflection upon its surface has a completely abstract quality and the light on the water reflecting the sky is extraordinary. One single ripple will carry streaks of an intense cobalt blue and of yellow – or rather gold, bronze and creamy yellow – all sparkling with lilac and mauve. From time to time in this seemingly flat landscape there will appear a black mountain enveloped in sand.”

Words like these make me feel as if Margo Veillon was truly writing a love-letter to Nubia, creating as she did so a majestic portrait, almost willing the land, by the force of her writing, to endure forever.

As an entranced visitor to this place, I can understand the passion she felt for it, a passion I share from the bottom of my heart.

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