Though I’m sure few people bother to see it, the Nubian Museum in Aswan is a must not miss.
Most people who travel to Egypt learn that there is a group of people called Nubians who lived in what is now northern Sudan southern Egypt, and parts of Ethiopia – the upper parts of the Nile. Much of the area where they lived was flooded by lake Nasser, after the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But aside from those facts, not many people come away from Egypt with any sense of who they were and how Nubians actually contributed substantially to ancient Egypt.
Fortunately, since 1997 there is now a first-class state of the art museum dedicated to Nubians, their history, way of life, relationship with ancient Egyptians, and documenting how the dam changed their lives.
When I say state of the art, I mean it. After suffering through several days at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, the Nubian Museum – while not on par with the Louvre or British Museum – is surprisingly good. Displays of artifacts thousands of years old are temperature and humidity controlled (and you can actually believe it, unlike at some facilities in Cairo) and well labeled and explained in English and Arabic. (I’m not sure but I’d wager French would be soon to follow as French, historically, is important in Egyptology).
Egyptian society was more complex than our two-dimensional view of pharaohs and slaves, and one of the ways we can see the complexity is in its relationship with Nubia: one of trade, war, conquest, plunder, peace, cultural assimilation and influence. Indeed, in the current nation-state of Egypt, the government’s relationship with its Nubian citizens is often complex as well.
Another myth of Egypt, that its civilization began in 3000 B.C., is flatly rejected upon a trip back through old Nubia. Though the northern and southern kingdoms of ancient Egypt were united slightly before that time, some of the aritfacts in the museum date from well before the 4th millenium B.C. and point to a cultural development that stretched back much earlier. Pottery is the main source, with its various design styles and animal drawings, providing us with images of a cultural group that, while not yet on par with the high civilization of the Old Kingdom, was much more developed than modern Western people usually give it credit for or know about.
To get a glimpse of it all in an entertaining way (yes, even museums can be entertaining – there is a model of a Nubian house, huge statues, etc.), check out the Nubian Museum. It’s just South down the Corniche from the Cataract Hotels, a 3 minute walk from the large white Coptic Christian church. Admission is about 20 L.E., but remember they take a rather long siesta from 1:00-5:00 (open from 9am-9/10pm). If you happen to forget, walk back to the church and wander around – the local minister/abbot/pastor? is quite happy to talk about it with visitors.