Monday, January 25, 2010

BBC 4’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia


A review by K.N. Chimbiri
The BBC’s four-part Lost Kingdoms of Africa series with art historian Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford began on Tuesday, 5th January with an episode entitled 'Nubia'. The documentary followed Dr. Casely-Hayford’s personal journey of discovery; starting with the early rock art from 7,000 years ago, through to the first kingdom of Kush with its capital at Kerma down the millennia to meet one group of the modern Nuba people. Dr. Casely-Hayford showed us beautiful Kerma pottery from the past and revealed how the tradition has continued until today. He shared his enthusiasm for ancient Kerma before moving on to Jebel Barkal
and then to Meroё.

Surprisingly, there was only one mention of gold. This is particularly surprising since many scholars consider the origin of the word ‘Nubia’ is derived from the Egyptian word ‘nbw’ which means gold. It’s not conclusive, but the documentary did not mention this at all. Instead we were told that ‘there is a suggestion that Nubia might come from Nuba and Nuba means slave’!


Nothing much was said about the legendary reputation of the ancient Kushites as promised at the start of the documentary– in fact had I not known differently I might have felt that all the other ancient civilizations only said bad things about them all the time! Kushite contributions to Egypt other than as ‘tributes’ under colonisation weren’t covered here, so viewers might have been left with the impression that these two neighbouring kingdoms only fought each other and never actually helped each other in any way at all during their thousands of years of history.

The documentary showed beautiful scenery of the landscape, pyramids and ruins like the Deffufa at Kerma and Meroё. It was easy to follow and well presented. The Kushite achievements in pottery making, pyramid building and conquest were all described. And Dr. Casely-Hayford highlighted that Kush ruled ancient Egypt for a time and that the Kushites once achieved a huge empire. I really liked the way Dr. Casely-Hayford linked the past to the present for us through the pottery, iron smelting at modern Meroё and issues of climate change. He was engaging and I especially enjoyed the end when he even tried some of the Nuba wrestling!


Like ancient Egypt, Kush had an economy that was based on agriculture. If this were simply a travelogue it would have been satisfying enough to see the traditions in pottery, music, dancing, wrestling, cattle culture, iron-smelting and ruins which have survived until today. But this was advertised as a history programme and yet it failed to show an accurate picture of Kushite past achievements.

We were told to expect history "as impressive and extraordinary as anywhere else in the world"; but then we were not shown (or even told in passing) about the more complex cultural Kushite achievements, for example, the achievements in literacy, creating an alphabet, the trade in luxury goods, nor anything of the legendary gold working traditions. Nor did we hear of any of the Kushite contributions to Egypt or beyond.

Unfortunately, although it was well-shot and well-presented, Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia did not live up to its own claims. Parents, guardians and teachers around the world often look to documentaries, particularly those by the BBC, as a source of up-to-date information to use at home or in the classroom for educational purposes. Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia could have been a useful resource. However, since the lost aspects of this once great civilization were omitted in favour of present links through singing, dancing, wrestling, etc., educators will have to look elsewhere.


Kandace Chimbiri is a history writer who resides in London. She is especially interested in the classical eras of African history. Her website is http://www.golden-destiny.com/.

If you missed it, Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia is available on BBC iPlayer until 8.59pm on Tuesday 2nd February 2010. Photos shown here are copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

No comments: