Slideshow: Portraits of Nubian Life

Rare photos of Nubians in the 1960s

Egypt’s Nubians have suffered several bouts of displacement over the past two centuries. The latest and most massive was in the early 1960s, when almost fifty thousand Nubians were forced to resettle north of their villages on the southern Nile Valley to make way for Aswan’s High Dam. Their villages were eventually flooded.

The Nubians not only left behind remnants of an ancient civilization in the form of monuments and ruins, but also risked losing their way of life and rich culture when they moved. From Nubian architecture to social and daily life practices such as building houses, baking bread, weaving baskets, and celebrating weddings and moulids, this slideshow—through the rare photographs of Abdel-Fattah Eid—offers a glimpse into how Nubians lived before the last displacement.

Eid was a photographer for Al-Ahram newspaper who joined the American University in Cairo’s “Ethnographic Survey of Egyptian Nubia,” an anthropological expedition undertaken by the Social Research Center as part of the university’s effort to document Nubian life and social organization in the 1960s. His collection is available at AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library.

Women plaster the floors and walls of court in front of their houses by scattering and spreading dry sand over the surface. Usually, this is the last step in a building process that includes mixing and spreading mud on the walls, plastering the door frame, and leveling the plastered exterior.

Kenuzi women weave together strips of palm fronds from which mats and baskets are then made. Old Nubia consisted of three peoples divided by their language and geography: the Kenuz, the Mahas, and the Arabic-speaking Nubians. The Kenuz lived in northern Nubia and spoke Kenzi.

Boy scouts in Ismalia, Ballana in the southern Mahas-speaking area of Nubia on their way to meet an Aswan official arriving on a speedboat.

Landscape of central Nubia, also known to be the Arab region because the majority of its residents spoke Arabic.

In 1963, this was the only man in the Meleki village in the Arab region who still practiced weaving.  

Wedding guests in Behna in northern Nubia sit in a row below a portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

At the moulid of Sidi El Hassan, a man dances around pole while waving the flag of his saint. Each tribe presents gifts such as bottles of sherbet or thinned fruit juice as offerings that are placed in sacks. Men and women also dance the Kaaf, a traditional Nubian dance.

Nubians meet with foreign women in a room adorned with ceiling decorations of hanging plates and strings of white shells.