The achievements and monuments of ancient Nubia have long been overshadowed by those of ancient Egypt. But in recent years, more and more archaeologists are coming to believe that Nubian civilization was brilliant and innovative in its own right. Still remote but always fascinating, this region of the world is now the subject of the book “Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile,” co-edited by Peter Lacovara, senior curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University.
Lacovara and the book’s collaborators, including photographer Chester Higgins Jr., will discuss ancient Nubia and the PROSE Award-winning book at the Carlos Museum on Tuesday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. We caught up with Lacovara to discuss this ancient civilization and its significance to the modern world.
ArtsATL: For people who aren’t familiar with this realm of archaeology, could you explain what ancient Nubia was? How ancient is “ancient,” and where is Nubia?
Peter Lacovara: Nubia comprises the southernmost part of Egypt and the northern part of what is now Sudan. It’s always been a remote area. It’s surrounded by desert, and south of Egypt there are all these rapids in the Nile, so it’s very difficult to travel to Nubia. As a result, it was far less familiar to people than even Egypt was. It wasn’t until the 20th century that any archaeology was done there. As a result it’s far less familiar to people, but it’s very interesting in its own right.
ArtsATL: As someone with just a museum-goer’s knowledge of ancient Egypt and its artifacts, it’s easy to see that ancient Nubian artifacts are very similar to those of ancient Egypt, but they’re somewhat distinctive, too. How would you best describe what makes them distinctive?
Lacovara: We have a whole series of cultures, so things are very different from one period to another and one place to another. It’s an interesting mix of all kinds of influences. There are African influences, Egyptian certainly, some classical, and very late even some Indian influences. It also has a flavor in its own right. Very inventive technically and artistically.
ArtsATL: How did the book come about?
Lacovara: A colleague of mine, Marjorie Fisher, who was the chief editor of the book, was giving a lecture, and a student was interested in learning more about ancient Nubia, which she had mentioned. She asked Dr. Fisher for references, and when she began to try to look around for a good general work on Nubia, she found there wasn’t anything. She then got the idea that if there wasn’t anything available on Nubia, maybe there should be. We got together and devised the book.
ArtsATL: In studying the artifacts and monuments, did you get a sense of what daily life was like in ancient Nubia?
Lacovara: For the most part, they didn’t have the agricultural lands that the Egyptians had, and still have. It was tougher to get along. It was a desert climate, so it’s a hard place to live, but very beautiful, very unspoiled in many ways. The sites are very beautiful.
The Nubians were and are interesting people. You can see the same thread going all the way through. They’re very independent. They were the only people to defeat the Romans. The Romans tried to conquer them, and they were defeated by a Nubian queen. Of all ancient societies, women were the most equal in Nubian society. Women could legitimately rule in their own right. Some of their tombs were as big as the tombs of kings.
ArtsATL: Tell me a bit more about your travels to the region. You said there’s a thread running through ancient to modern Nubia.
Lacovara: In the course of the book, we went to double-check all the sites and see what’s at them now, and to check the descriptions. In many ways, people live the same. There are a lot of people who trade or are pastoralists: sheep and goat farmers. They’re very warm and friendly, very proud of their history. They’re gaining an appreciation of their history, which they didn’t have before.
ArtsATL: I imagine these sites don’t get a lot of tourists.
Lacovara: It’s something that’s changing and may change now as people get more interested. It’s a little easier to travel there now that more roads have been built. It’s a terrific place to visit because, unlike many ancient sites, it’s not at all fixed up for tourists, so going there is like what it must have been like to travel to some of these places 100 or 200 years ago. You’re completely alone at the sites, with no one else around. There are no gift shops or parking lots or things like that. You’re just out in the desert with these spectacular monuments. Most people don’t know there are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt.
ArtsATL: Which site did you find most impressive?
Lacovara: The pyramids of Meroe. They’re not as big as the pyramids of Giza, but there are just so many of them.
ArtsATL: It all sounds so remote. Did you have any encounters or experiences that were dangerous or scary?
Lacovara: We went to one site, an Egyptian fort that people thought had been lost, covered by water from the Aswan Dam. For over 50 years — it shows how remote it was — no one realized it hadn’t been covered by flood water. Just a few years ago, someone doing a survey re-found it. We went there and we were in little tiny boats to get to it. Someone said, “Look, there’s a crocodile!” I said, “Where? By that big log?” And it was the big log, a huge crocodile not very far from us. Fortunately it seemed not to be interested in us.
ArtsATL: In my college art history class, we studied ancient Egypt quite a bit, but I don’t think ancient Nubia was even mentioned. Why do you think it’s important to add ancient Nubia to studies of ancient cultures?
Lacovara: I think it rounds out our idea of ancient Egypt more. It rounds out how rich the heritage of ancient Africa was. It’s not just Egypt, it’s all of Africa. There were all these other important, innovative cultures that developed there, not just Egypt. People tend to focus solely on Egypt as if there was never anything else in Africa, and that’s certainly not the case.
You can view additional photos from the book here.