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Laszlo Torok. Between two worlds: the frontier region between ancient Nubia and Egypt 3700 BC--500 AD.

LASZLO TOROK. Between two worlds: the frontier region between ancient Nubia and Egypt 3700 BC--500 AD (Probleme der Agyptologie 29). xxii+652 pages, 48 plates, 25 tables. 2009. Leiden: Brill; 978-90-04-17197-8 hardback 180 [euro] & $281; 978-90-4742-5298 e-book.

This massive book is a welcome addition to existing syntheses of the history and archaeology of Egypt's southern borderlands. While especially concerned with Lower Nubia (the region between the Aswan first cataract and the second cataract) the scope is much wider, providing a more general study of the relations between Egypt and its Nubian/Kushite neighbours over a considerable timescale.


A brief first chapter introduces the 'African' on the Egyptian frontier in the form of a Hellenistic figurine, suggestive of a Nubian cult attendant/priestess of the Isis cult at Philae, the long-standing religious focus for both Egyptians and Nubians, and reputedly the latest surviving pagan sanctuary of the Roman world. Chapter two explores some issues relating to 'frontiers' and their study, with a particular interest in Roman and Egyptian understandings and representations. The bulk of the remaining seventeen chapters presents a detailed chronologically-ordered narrative, beginning with the first 'late Mesolithic' populations of a region then part of a more-or-less wide and open 'green' Sahara. From their late Neolithic origins, the development of a series of Bronze Age (chieftain?) societies is traced, culminating in what can almost certain[y be conceived as the earliest sub-Saharan kingdom, centred on Kerma in Upper Nubia in the second millennium BC. Developing its power to pose a significant challenge to Pharaonic Egypt, Kerma and its territories were conquered and at least partly colonised by New Kingdom Egypt during the later second millennium BC. By the end of this period, ongoing aridification had established Lower Nubia as an increasingly restricted linear oasis--the 'Nubian Corridor'--linking Egypt with the Nubian centres of power and population which were to shifi southwards over the coming centuries. Through the first millennium BC, this remained little more than a corridor, first linking a revived Kushite/Nubian kingdom with its Egyptian domains (following the Kushite conquest of Egypt through the XXVth Dynasty), and then during the Meroitic period, as the zone of interaction with first Ptolemaic and then Roman Egypt. Within this context the author explores the particularly interesting regional culture of the Meroitic north, which developed many distinctive cultural features reflecting its proximity and easy access to Roman Egypt. What is perhaps a new beginning actually draws the volume to a close: the emergence of a late antique 'Noubadian' kingdom in Lower Nubia, following the disintegration of a unified Meroitic kingdom, latterly incorporated (as a frontier province) into the Christian kingdom of Makuria. The final chapter briefly revisits three periods (in the fourth and third millennia, and late antiquity) when Lower Nubia enjoyed a degree of political autonomy, first in the form of emergent chiefdoms (if such they were), and latterly in the brief existence of independent Noubadia.

As suggested by the series title (Probleme der Agyptologie), this remains a synthesis framed within essentially Egyptological narrative history; one of the interesting challenges in this region is the contrast between the histories which can be written, depending on whether a northern (text-based) or southern (cultural/archaeological) perspective is taken. With the particular focus on northern Nubia 'a region dividing and at the same time connecting two powerful states ...', varied themes of acculturation, religious syncretism, cultural continuities and change are repeatedly explored through the changing political contexts of this frontier zone and its varied histories of coexistence, conflict and colonial occupations, which make this such a fascinating field of study. The author has written prolifically in this field over more than thirty years and has made many major contributions to what may be termed 'Nubian Studies' over that time. Much of the material here will be more or less familiar to the small body of regional specialists, but both for them and less specialist readers, this is a valuable and up-to-date presentation of a huge body of the author's work, interweaving more general synthesis and compilation of scholarship.

The mass of data assembled here certainly represents another tour-de-force for the author, not least in bringing together an impressive range of disparate material, at least some of which is likely to be unfamiliar, particularly to the more determinedly anglophone. For those coming from a more general archaeological background, the access this provides to what sometimes seems an overly introspective specialist literature will be particularly welcome. The relative dominance of historical literature, as opposed to the more explicitly archaeological, of course reflects the underlying premises of the kind ofhistory which is being written here. The essential prehistoric character of one half of the relationship being explored here is, however, one that perhaps invites greater use of the methods of prehistoric archaeology to exploit the full potential of the mass of archaeological data collected. Some of the more archeologically-focused case-studies (e.g. relating to Bronze Age ceramic culture or Egyptian colonial impacts on mortuary practices) are likely to be particularly interesting for this readership. One aspect of this history--the fundamental changes the landscapes of Nubia underwent over the millennia through environmental change--seems however neglected. While sharing a similar physical space, Lower Nubia was a totally different 'place' at the beginning and end of the story, an aspect that perhaps does not fully emerge from the narrative presented here.

Within these pages the author identifies a wealth of topics awaiting investigation, since much of the vast body of archaeological data assembled remains largely unanalysed. Some of these at least Torosk touches upon in his many excursi. In the absence of any comparable synthesis framed at this level of detail, this volume should become an essential point of departure for any researcher working in the fields of Nubian history and archaeology. Dense, complex and on occasions frustratingly unfocused, it will probably rarely be read as a single whole (not least because of its scale), but consulted for its parts and the many masterly studies it contains. As ever, the scope of the volume and the detailed level of argumentation has its cost: it is unfortunate that such a useful volume has such a high price tag as it deserves a wider readership than this is likely to allow.


School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK

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Author:Edwards, David N.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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