With genetic sequencing, researchers might determine if modern-day Nubians, Egyptians, or one of hundreds of ethnic groups from the surrounding regions might trace their heritage to this early civilization. To find the lost language of ancient Nubia, I sought out Claude Rilly, a linguist specializing in ancient languages, at Soleb and Sedeinga — sites recognized by majestic and crumbling temples and a field of small pyramids. The stretch of desert between those sites and Tombos is post-apocalyptic: scorched, flat earth and sable boulders as far as the eye can see.
At a point when sand completely covers the road, I transfer into a rickety motorboat. Rilly is waiting on the riverbank. Unprompted, Rilly begins to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into the sandstone columns of the temple at Soleb.
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But he is eager to show off his most valuable finds: stele, stone slabs engraved with Meroitic text from ancient Nubia. Rather, Rilly has found ties between Meroitic and a handful of languages spoken today by ethnic groups in Nubia, Darfur, and Eritrea. At Soleb, Rilly deciphers Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into sandstone columns, but he is eager to show off his most valuable finds: stele, stone slabs engraved with Meroitic text from ancient Nubia.
To figure out what the words mean, he compares each precious tablet of text to another, searching for commonalities and themes. They fall into slants like heavy metal logos. In late , Rilly found a painted stele that had fallen between the bricks of a funerary chapel at Sedeinga and was shielded from sand storms and rain. The top of the stone is decorated with a sun disk encircled by a pair of golden yellow cobras, and surrounded by a pair of red wings.
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An engraved line separating the illustration from the text is blue — a rare pigment. And the text includes a word Rilly has never before seen. Rilly is desperate to find more text so that he can narrow down the meanings of more words, and decode the stories they tell about Nubian religion. He feels there must be a buried city near the temples, where our ancestors might have left notes on papyrus. The boxy machine calculates the magnetic signal at the surface of the ground, and compares it to the signal two meters below. If the density between the spots is different, the point is assigned a medium-gray to black shade on a map of the region, indicating that something irregular lies underground.
M odern-day Nubians have heard tales about ancient Nubia, passed down through the generations. And whether or not they descend directly from the Kushites, the past is inextricably intertwined with their identity. On holy days, families from the Nile River town of Karima hike up the sandy side of Jebel Barkal, a holy mountain that is distinguished by a foot spired pinnacle that was decorated with etchings perhaps 3, years ago. As the sun sets, the view can only be described as biblical, stretching from the green banks of the Nile to a dozen temples in the shadow of the mountain, to pyramids on the horizon.
When ancient Egyptians conquered the region, they identified Jebel Barkal as the residence of the god Amun, who was believed to help renew life each year when the Nile flooded. They carved a temple into its base, and illustrated the walls with gods and goddesses. And when ancient Nubians regained control, they converted the holy mountain into a place for royal coronations, and constructed pyramids for royalty beside it.
There is another holy mountain further north on the Nile, in a town where Ali Osman Mohamed Salih, a year old professor of archaeology and Nubian studies at the University of Khartoum, was born. His parents taught him that God lives in the mountain, and that because people come from God, they too are made of the mountain. This logic links the present with the past, and a people with a place. Estimates from activists in Sudan suggest that hundreds of thousands of people could be displaced by the dams.
Salih has protested Nile River dams before. While passing through Egypt on his way back home in , he was detained in Cairo for his open opposition to the Aswan High Dam near the border of Sudan in Egypt. The dam created a mile long reservoir that submerged hundreds of archeological sites, although the most grandiose were relocated to museums. It also forced more than , people — many of them Nubians — from their homes. Governments of countries along the Nile justify hydroelectric dams by pointing to a need for electricity.
However, history shows that those whose lives are uprooted are not always those who benefit from electricity and the profit it generates.
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A planned dam near the town of Kajbar in Sudan would flood more than archaeological sites. Sudan built its own dam on the Nile upstream from Meroe in the late s. In January, he met with leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia to discuss region-wide dam projects.
Since , his security forces have shot more than people and beaten, imprisoned, and tortured many others who have protested the dams and other politically charged topics. International archaeologists who wish to continue working in the country dare not speak ill of the dams on record. And most national archaeologists stay mum knowing they could disappear into jails. Other wonders, such as Jebel Barkal and Tombos, are threatened more acutely by population growth and the desire to live modern lives with higher education and electricity.
The mummified head at Abu Fatima was in fact found because of such developments. A few yards away from where it was buried, farmers had hit bone with a bulldozer. After consulting with archaeologists, they agreed to halt while researchers excavated the cemetery.
The Consciousness of Reality
That was lucky, and no one has any illusions of other developments coming to a halt. Nature is a destructive force as well. With funding from Qatar, archaeologists have attempted to remove sand accumulating in the necropolis.
Another reason, he suggests, is that overgrazing nearby stripped vegetation and promoted desertification. And once winds carried sand into the basin where Meroe lies, the sand got trapped within the surrounding mountains, sweeping violently back and forth each season. Above her was a stele, a slab like a gravestone that was engraved with Meroitic text.
University of Michigan anthropologist Abagail Breidenstein studies skeletal remains to learn about the people who inhabited Nubia in the Jebel Barkal area. He says he would not have predicted that the Islamic State, or ISIS, would eventually raze ancient temples in Palmyra, and execute a Syrian archaeologist, hanging his headless body from a column. S pencer, the British Museum archaeologist excavating pyramids and neighborhoods buried beneath the sand in Amara West, prepares for loss as he works.
The sand starts encroaching every afternoon. And if a dam planned further up the Nile is built, it will submerge Amara West entirely.
Standing beside a labyrinth of recently excavated walls just below the surface of the ground, Spencer unfolds a magnetometry map, a blueprint that guides him. He points to a spot on the map outside of the grey lines of the settlements, and then off into an ocean of dunes in the distance. Indeed, Spencer has revealed how different the region was about 3, years ago. With Optically Stimulated Luminescence — a technique used to determine when sediment was last exposed to light — his team dated the layers of fluvial clay buried beneath quartz in the strip on the map.
It reveals that Amara West was in fact an island in the Nile when ancient Egyptians and Nubians inhabited the land. By 1, B. Their bones are often pocked — a sign of malnutrition that Binder believes occurred as farms failed. She has also found signatures of chronic lung disease in ribs — sand and dust had polluted the air. The research suggests that the town did not end through war or poor governance, as some earlier archaeologists hypothesized, but that climate change drove people out.
To piece the picture of Nubia together, archaeologists will need the time and funds required to explore vast territories of arid land. Both are in short supply. Amara West is uninhabitable today because of sandstorms. In the frigid wee hours of the morning, he and his team travel to the site by boat under an ocean of stars. They start early because by noon, winds pick up and carry in clouds of sand and small flies. In addition to documenting their findings with notes, drawings, video, and models, the team also flies kites attached to digital cameras above ruins.
The camera snaps a shot every two seconds. Back in London, the team can input these models into the same software used to develop first-person-shooter video games. On his laptop, Spencer shows me the results. He navigates through the suburb we had visited earlier that day with the scroll of mouse.
The corridors that Spencer virtually walks through are so narrow that his shoulders seem to brush against the walls. He enters a cramped room with a bust of a man with a black wig and a red painted face. It is depicted precisely as Spencer found it.
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Spencer exits the virtual room and scrolls down through the floor to expose older houses that the team had discovered buried below the more recent Egyptian-style settlement. A dome appears with a yolk-shaped area sectioned off. He presses another key, and the viewer swoops high into the sky like a runaway kite.
Tamarisk and acacia trees stand as they did back then, according to microscopic analyses of charcoal near the dusty banks of the Nile. Digital reconstructions of tombs and pyramids from elsewhere in ancient Nubia are making their way online as well. And many of the archaeologists working in Sudan post their annual finds on blogs — their academic publications following after. The interpretation of relics may shift as well, as Sudanese archaeologists lead projects and perceive the findings through an African, as opposed to European, lens.
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In the near future, high school teachers might inspire students with stories of ancient Nubia, and endow those relics with all the glory bestowed on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. But to piece the picture together, archaeologists will need the time and funds required to explore vast territories of arid land.
Related The Stone The Builders Rejected: Rediscovering the Lost Light of Human Consciousness
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