Ancient nomadic peoples in Northeast Africa, being in the shadow of urban regimes of Egypt, Kush, and Aksum as well as the Graeco-Roman and Arab worlds, have been generally relegated to the historiographical model of the frontier ‘barbarian’. In this view, little political importance is attached to indigenous political organisation, with desert nomads being considered an amorphous mass of unsettled people beyond the frontiers of established states. However, in the Eastern Desert of Sudan and Egypt, a pastoralist nomadic people ancestrally related to the modern Beja dominated the deserts for millennia. Though generally considered as a group of politically divided tribes sharing only language and a pastoralist economy, ancient Beja society and its elites created complex political arrangements in their desert. When Egyptian, Greek, Coptic, and Arab sources are combined and analysed, it is evident that nomads formed a large confederate ‘nomadic state’ throughout late antiquity and the early medieval period — a vital cog in the political engine of Northeast Africa.