Wawat Chiefdom Flourishes in Lower Nubia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The region of Wawat became the Nilotic base of both the C-Group and Pan-Grave peoples, and the groups that settled there provided soldiers for the armies of First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom Egypt.

Summary of Event

Wawat is the ancient Egyptian name for the region of Lower Nubia and for any state or administrative division within that area. During the Egyptian Old Kingdom (c. 2687-c. 2125 b.c.e.), the Wawat appears to have encompassed all of Lower Nubia, although some scholars believe Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju were all situated within Lower Nubia. The land immediately to the south of Wawat was Irtjet, an area probably including the site of Kerma, the center of a strong Nubian kingdom during the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-c. 1650) and the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-c. 1570). American Egyptologist George Reisner classified phases of ancient Nubian culture into three groups, of which the A-Group (c. 3100-c. 2700) and C-Group (c. 2300-c. 1550) are currently recognized. The region of Lower Nubia, a center of A-Group Nubian culture, early came under the control of Egyptian pharaohs. Egypt conquered Wawat near the end of the Predynastic Period (c. 3050-c. 2925) and established a major outpost at Buhen during the Old Kingdom. Repeated Egyptian raids into the area appear to have obliterated most traces of Lower Nubian native culture by the end of the First Dynasty (c. 2925-c. 2775), although some archaeological remains fit the space of Reisner’s now-discarded B-Group. Lower Nubia appears to have been all but abandoned until the late Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-c. 2345).

During the latter part of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-c. 2055 b.c.e.), the C-Group culture occupied the area. The archaeological vestiges of the C-Group occur in their greatest concentration between Wadi Kubbaniya in the north and the Second Cataract in the south. This culture group had affinities to the west and south and, apparently, spoke a Berber language. They were not a political unity and probably were the population bases of the toponyms Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju.

C-Group settlements are not well known, perhaps because of the accidents of preservation and excavation; most C-Group settlements of the Nile Valley are now lost beneath the Aswān High Dam’s reservoir. If, as David O’Connor has suggested, the cemetery locations may provide some evidence of patterns and intensity of settlements, the C-Group may have concentrated in three major areas of Lower Nubia: between Gerf Hussein and Qurta, at Wadi es-Sebua, and around Aniba, with Aniba itself apparently the center of the C-Group. The excavated settlements are primarily of dry stone construction. Areika had rectilinear structures and incorporated some brick architecture as well; Wadi es-Sebua had rectilinear and round structures. Both settlements were walled. Archaeologists have also recognized a so-called Oasis C-Group culture. Although often temporally disparate materials have found a place under this heading, the origins of the C-Group do appear to lie in southwestern Nubia.

The inscriptions of the Sixth Dynasty adventurer Harkhuf (fl. c. 2300-2200 b.c.e.) show that during the late Old Kingdom Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju were able to hinder Egyptian trade and could form an alliance. Yam was apparently a superior power and could provide escort for Harkhuf through Lower Nubia. The Sixth Dynasty ruler Pepi II (r. c. 2278-2184 b.c.e.) mounted a campaign against Wawat and Irtjet, and Old Kingdom Egypt recruited large numbers of Wawat Nubians into the Egyptian service. Inscriptions in the Khor el-Aquiba demonstrate that during the high Old Kingdom, district governors from as far away as the Nile Delta could lead apparent impressment gangs into the area and recruit thousands of soldiers/servants.

During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, the Pan-Grave culture also appears in the region of Wawat. The Pan-Grave people ranged through Lower Nubia, the Eastern Desert, and even much of Upper Egypt. Often associated with strategically important areas, the Pan-Grave people appear to be identical with the Medjay, important auxiliary troops of the Egyptians. The Pan-Grave people appear to have acculturated into Egyptian society during the Middle Kingdom; recruits from the Kerma culture begin to replace them in Egyptian military service during the late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Periods.

When Montuhotep II (fl. 2055-2004 b.c.e.) reasserted Upper Egyptian control over Lower Nubia following his reunification of Egypt (c. 2055 b.c.e.), Wawat was of particular importance. A fragmentary royal document, probably attributable to the reign of Montuhotep II, records the annexation of Wawat and the oasis road to Wawat. The rock inscriptions of the Nubian soldier Tjehemau reveal that the reason for this interest was a desire to ensure direct Theban access to the military recruiting grounds of Wawat. Tjehemau, an inhabitant of Wawat who joined the Egyptian forces late in the reign of Montuhotep II, served on the loyalist side during a series of conflicts during the internal problems that threatened to destroy the Middle Kingdom during the reign of Amenemhet I (r. c. 1985-1956 b.c.e.) early in the Twelfth Dynasty.

The mercenaries over whom Montuhotep II sought direct Theban control were but the final wave of foreign soldiers, both Nubian and Asiatic, who swelled the ranks of the pharaonic and local armies during the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. By the Twelfth Dynasty, the highly militarized society within Egypt, under pressure from now unengaged soldiers, suffered from the depredations of roving bands of brigands originating in the Egyptian, Asiatic, and Nubian elements of the pharaonic realm. Inhabitants of Wawat formed elements of these groups. Perhaps uncertain as to how to solve the problem of the mercenaries within his newly reunified realm, Montuhotep II inadvertently exacerbated the problem.

During the early Middle Kingdom, Lower Nubia remained a problematic area. Several rock inscriptions in the area recorded the establishment of what appear to have been temporary fortifications and the occasional practice of a scorched-earth policy in raiding the riverine Nubians. The early Middle Kingdom established a series of fortresses north of the Second Cataract; during the late Twelfth Dynasty, new hilltop fortresses rose within the Second Cataract itself. These provided bases for the patrols guarding the routes through Wawat and protection for the caravans and “ships of Wawat,” carrying among other things the gold of Wawat coming out of the Eastern Desert. During the Second Intermediate Period, the kingdom of Kush, culturally Classic Kerma, dominated all of Upper and Lower Nubia. Eventually, during the New Kingdom, the Egyptians termed all of Nubia (south of Aswān) Kush. Wawat remained, however, the specific designation for Lower Nubia.


Wawat was the northernmost region of Nubia proper and was one of the first areas into which the fledgling pharaonic state began to expand. Essentially depopulated after the late Old Kingdom Egyptian subjugation and perhaps absorption of the A-Group Nubian culture, Wawat became the Nilotic base of both the C-Group and Pan-Grave peoples. The region of Wawat had become a major military recruiting ground by the end of the Old Kingdom, and the new groups that settled there provided desert fighters for the armies of First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom Egypt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourriau, J. “Relations Between Egypt and Kerma in the Middle and New Kingdoms.” In Egypt and Africa: Nubia from Pre-History to Islam, edited by W. V. Davies. London: British Museum Press, 1991. Pages 129-144 provide an archaeological study of the interrelationships between Kerma and Egypt, particularly focusing on the Second Intermediate Period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darnell, J. C. “The Route of Eleventh Dynasty Expansion into Nubia: An Interpretation Based on the Rock Inscriptions of Tjehemau at Abisko.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 130 (2003). A discussion of archaeological and epigraphic material demonstrating the importance of Lower Nubia as a military recruiting ground for Eleventh Dynasty Thebes. Also contains a discussion of the mercenary-exacerbated unrest during the reign of Amenemhet I (early Twelfth Dynasty).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1993. A well-illustrated overview of Nubian history, although it does not recognize the Western Desert/Libyan origin of the C-Group. See in particular pages 1-69.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, David. “The Locations of Yam and Kush and Their Historical Implications.” JARCE 23 (1986): 27-50. Contains a discussion of the toponyms of Nubia, especially helpful in clarifying the extents of the regions—including Wawat—during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, David. “Urbanism in Bronze Age Egypt and Northeast Africa.” In The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns, edited by T. Shaw, P. Sinclair, B. Andah, and A. Okpoko. New York: Routledge, 1993. Pages 570-586 give an overview of the development of settled society in Egypt and Nubia.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sadr, K. The Development of Nomadism in Ancient Northeast Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A study of the interactions of sedentary and nomadic groups in the area. See in particular pages 95-108.
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    xlink:type="simple">Säve-Söderbergh, T. “Middle Nubian Sites.” The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia 4, no. 1 (1989): 6-24. Provides an overview of history and culture in the area. The entire volume is an excellent presentation of archaeological sites from the area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trigger, B. History and Settlement in Lower Nubia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. A slightly dated but still useful study.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wegner, J. “Regional Control in Middle Kingdom Lower Nubia: The Function and History of the Site of Areika.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 32 (1995): 127-160. A study of a smaller Nubian fortress, apparently the base of Egyptianized Nubians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, B. B. “Serra East and the Mission of Middle Kingdom Fortresses in Nubia.” In Gold of Praise, edited by E. Teeter and J. A. Larson. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations 58. Chicago: Oriental Institute Press, 1999. Pages 435-449 give an overview of the purpose and functioning of the great series of Middle Kingdom fortresses near the Second Cataract.
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