Nubian exhibit fills in missing history

April 13, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Gazing at the curious markings on the stone behind the glass exhibit case, Arnold Lehman focuses on the recurrent ones that look like a familiar punctuation mark for anyone who's taken even grade school English.

"I love what looks like the colon," Lehman says. "It's probably a punctuation mark indicating a stop." The stone is from Nubia, the African nation that competed with Egypt for supremacy in the ancient world. The scribblings are part of the Meroitic alphabet, the Nubian writing system some scholars say was much superior to the Egyptian.

The stone -- along with pottery, steles, weapons, utensils, jewelry and other items -- are part of the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibit called "Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa." The exhibit began in February and ends tomorrow. So if you haven't seen it, you don't have much time.

Lehman, the director of the museum, theorizes that the writing on the stone probably has to do with Nubian royalty.

"Nothing you or I would want to say would be put into stone," he said. "This [the writing on the stone] is probably an edict." The piece in the exhibit is a stele -- an inscribed piece of stone -- probably from what is called Nubia's Meroitic period that lasted from 100 B.C. to 300 A.D.

A former art history professor, Lehman sees the exhibit as extending the historical background of African art, which scholars had previously thought began with Benin. Traditional textbooks hardly mentioned ancient Nubian art when he taught art history, Lehman claimed. Excavations of ancient Nubian sites done by University of Pennsylvania ar-chae-ol-o-gists now show that African art extends back some 4,000 years.

Traditional historians thought Nubia was merely a collection of tribal kingdoms that Egypt subdued at will. Today, other historians believe that Nubia was a powerful state that, although sometimes conquered by Egypt, was more of a rival. The 25th Egyptian dynasty that lasted a little less than 100 years was actually a Nubian one that conquered Egypt.

"The Egypt-Nubia rivalry made [the exhibit] fascinating for us," Lehman asserted. This exhibit will fascinate anyone with a bit of the historian in them, especially with the current controversy over whether ancient Egypt was a black, white or multiracial civilization and whether it was indeed spawned by Nubia.

That debate has produced the current brouhaha between mainstream historians and Afrocentrists. The former claim ancient Egypt was not an African civilization, the latter that it was. The debate is lost on me, since I feel at least three things are needed for a society to be defined as civilized: indoor plumbing, flush toilets and bathroom tissue. Hence neither Egyptian nor Nubian society would qualify, but hey, I'm funny that way.

Arguments about civilization aside, the BMA's exhibit goes a long way to filling a gap in African history. It is a history that is "totally new to 99 percent of the population," Lehman estimates, but black historian Chancellor Williams devoted an entire chapter to a period of Nubian history in his book "The Destruction of Black Civilization." The authors of the exhibit's historical texts -- which are posted on walls near the artifacts -- and Williams actually agree on some history. That's an interesting development, given that Williams, since his death, has been put on the neoconservative hit list for his book's Afrocentric tone.

"Nubia was dotted with churches all over, including some cathedrals," the exhibit tells us. "Christian Egypt fell to the Muslims in A.D. 641, but the Nubian kingdoms were strong and wealthy and resisted conquest. Instead they made a treaty with Muslim Egypt guaranteeing Christian Nubia its independence."

Williams' book says much the same thing, except that he adds the reason Muslim Egypt signed the treaty: a shellacking given Arab armies by the warriors of a Nubian king named Kalydosos. Williams says that battle occurred in 643 A.D., and it should give us food for thought about whether the current Arab Muslim vs. black Christian conflict in today's Sudan is but a continuation of it. At the very least, it should provide an amusing dilemma for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan about where his loyalties lie in the current conflict.

"Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa" should provide such lively discussions among all those who see it. There are basically two types of people in the world: those who believe no significant history occurred before they were born and those who simply love history. I urge the latter to hasten to the Baltimore Museum of Art either today or tomorrow and take in a truly marvelous exhibit.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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