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A NOMADIC STATE? THE ‘BLEMMYEAN-BEJA’ POLITY OF THE ANCIENT EASTERN DESERT

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 February 2021

Julien Cooper*
Affiliation:
Research Centre for History and Culture, Beijing Normal University & UIC

Abstract

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.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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Footnotes

This research is supported by the project ‘Nomadic Empires: A World-Historical Perspective’, which is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Program (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement no. 615040.

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87 D. Welsby, The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia (London, 2002), 17. Some historians are more disparaging, having described Blemmyean polities as ‘political entities pretending to the status of “kingdom”’; see T. Papadopoullos, Africanobyzantina (Athens, 1966), 20–2.

88 Dijkstra, Philae, 163–6.

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99 FHN III, no. 319.

100 Pekka Hämäläinen defines this type of polity as ‘a power regime that revolved around a set of mobile activities: long distance raiding, seasonal expansions, transnational diplomatic missions, semi-permanent trade fairs, recurring political assemblies and control over shifting economic nodes’; see Hämäläinen, P., ‘What's in a concept?: the kinetic empire of the Comanches’, History and Theory, 52:1 (2013), 85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

101 For varying definitions, see Honeychurch, B., ‘Alternative complexities: the archaeology of pastoral nomadic states’, Journal of Archaeological Research, 22:4 (2014), 292–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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