Following the completion of the old Aswan Dam in 1902, and again after its height was raised in 1912 and 1934, the high-water level of the Nile in Lower Nubia gradually rose from 87m to 121m, partially submerging many of the monuments in the area and, by the 1930s, totally flooding a large number of Nubian villages. With their homes flooded, some Nubians moved north where, with government help, they bought land and built villages based on their traditional architecture. Most of the Nubian villages close to Aswan, such as Elephantine, Gharb Aswan (West Aswan) and Seheyl, are made up of people who moved at this time. Those who decided to stay in their homeland built houses on higher land, assuming they would be safe, but they saw their date plantations, central to their economy, destroyed. This meant that many Nubian men were forced to search for work further north, leaving the women behind to run the communities.
Less than 30 years later, the building of the High Dam forced those who had stayed to move. In the 1960s, 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were relocated to government-built villages around Kom Ombo, 50km north of Aswan. There has been a huge diaspora of Nubians, and Nubians today are doing all they can to keep their traditions and culture intact, and reclaim their Nubian identity.
The Nubians have paid the highest price for Egypt’s greater good. They have lost their homes and their homeland, and with a new generation growing up far from the homeland, as Egyptians, or even Europeans and Americans, they are now also gradually losing their distinctive identity and traditions.
What is left of Nubian culture then seems all the more vibrant. Nubian music, famous for its unique sound, was popularised in the West by musicians such as Hamza Ad Din, whose oud (lute) melodies are ethereally beautiful. In addition to the oud, two basic instruments give the music its distinctive rhythm and harmony: the douff, a wide, shallow drum or tabla that musicians hold in their hands; and the kisir, a type of stringed instrument.
The Nubians in Southern Egypt speak their own language, known as Nobiin, as well as Egyptian Arabic. The language seems to come from Old Nubian, and it is spoken by over 600,000 Nubians in Egypt and northern Sudan. There is no standardised orthography, so the language is written in both Latin and Arabic scripts. Part of reclaiming the Nubian identity is the plan to to revive the old Nubian alphabet.
Less known abroad is Nubia’s distinctive architecture, which was the main influence on Egyptian mud-brick architect Hassan Fathy. Traditional Lower Nubian houses are made with mudbricks; unlike the Upper Egyptian houses, they often have domed or vaulted ceilings, and further south the houses usually have a flat split-palm roof. They are plastered or whitewashed and covered with decorations, including ceramic plates. The basic forms of these houses can be seen in the Nubian villages around Aswan and in Ballana, near Kom Ombo. They are often painted in plenty of colours with geometrical decorations.
Nubians also have their own marriage customs. Traditionally, wedding festivities lasted for up to 15 days, although nowadays they are a three-day affair. On the first night of the festivities, the bride and groom celebrate separately with their respective friends and families. On the second night, the bride takes her party to the groom’s home and both groups dance to traditional music until the wee hours. Then the bride returns home and her hands and feet are painted with beautiful designs in henna. The groom will also have his hands and feet covered in henna but without any design. On the third day, the groom and his party walk slowly to the bride’s house in a zaffer (procession), singing and dancing the whole way. Traditionally, the groom will stay at the bride’s house for three days before seeing his family. The couple then set up home.
It’s one of those strange quirks, but it’s almost easier to hear and buy Nubian music in the West than it is in Egypt (Aswan is the exception). Nubian music, very different to the more ubiquitous Egyptian music, is rarely heard on national TV and radio, and hard to find in music stores in Cairo. But Nubian artists sell CDs by the rackload in Europe and play to sell-out audiences.
The biggest name is Ali Hassan Kuban. A former tillerman from a village near Aswan, Kuban grew up playing at weddings and parties and made the leap to a global audience after performing at a Berlin festival in 1989. Before his death in 2001 he released several CDs on the German label Piranha (www.piranha.de), including Walk Like a Nubian.
The Nubian sound is easily accessible, particularly to a Western audience familiar with African music. It is rhythmic, warm and exotic, mixing simple melodies and soulful vocals. This can be heard at its best on a series of CDs by a loose grouping of musicians and vocalists recording under the name Salamat. Look out especially for Mambo Al Soudani (again on the Piranha label).
A slightly different facet of Nubian music is represented by Hamza Ad Din, a Sufi-inspired Nubian composer born in Wadi Halfa in 1929 and widely respected in the West for his semiclassical compositions written for the oud (lute). You can find Ad Din’s Escalay (The Waterwheel) in a recording by the composer himself, or in an excellent version by the Kronos Quartet on their CD Pieces of Africa.
The best places to pick up CDs of Nubian music are from the music stores in the Aswan souq, where the sales assistants are happy to let you listen to different musicians. To hear authentic live Nubian music, try to get yourself invited to a Nubian wedding in Aswan. You can also head to Eskaleh in Abu Simbel, where the renowned Nubian musician Fikry El Kashef plays with his friends.