"Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa," an exhibition at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, takes you deep into the history of a volatile part of the continent.
The show occupies two small galleries, but spans a 500-mile stretch of the Nile River Valley (now Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt) and more than 2,250 years (from about 3000 B.C. through 750 B.C.). During that time conquerors became the conquered; trading partners were reborn as bitter enemies.
A brief summary: Beginning in about 3000 B.C., Southern Nubia developed into a powerful kingdom known as Kush. Egypt, increasingly nervous about this neighbor, conquered a large swath of it in 1500 B.C. Four centuries later the Egyptian empire collapsed; a dark age followed. Then, around 900 B.C., Nubia rose again. By 750 B.C., its Napatan kings had control of Egypt - at least until the Assyrians arrived, in 650 B.C.
In addition to charting these dizzying power swings, "Nubia" reminds us how little we know about this ancient culture. For one thing, Nubians did not develop their own written language until the second century B.C.; their story has largely been told by the Egyptians, who were prolific scribes.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
This narrative is biased, of course. To Egypt, Nubia, at its most powerful, was "vile Kush."
The first room, of pottery and faience, offers a glimpse of Nubia before the Egyptian conquest.
The Nubians, who were among the earliest peoples to fire clay, became expert shapers of it. Their tradition of hand-formed ceramics disappeared when the Egyptians arrived with pottery wheels.
The real treasure in this show is the story of the Nubian queens; because kings often married their sisters, some scholars say power descended through the female line.
A delicate crystal pendant showing the Egyptian goddess Hathor with a cow's horns is one of the show's most extraordinary objects. And it reminds us that for all we know about Egypt, there's much we may never know about Nubia.