Daily Life

Diet and Water


Agriculture along the narrow strip of the Nile valley provided the people of Kush with their necessary food supply. Each year the Nile flooded Upper Nubia providing silt for the fertile agricultural lands. The Kushites used the Shaduf (i.e. a traditional device operated manually for raising water from a lower depression that is connected to a source of water, to a higher depression where the water is distributed to farther depressions to irrigate the field/s) for watering their farms.1 Sometime in the late Meroitic period, Kushite farmers began to use the Saquia (i.e. a water wheel), which was brought to Sudan from Southwest Asia.2

Click here for larger view. Geographical map of Nubian.
Nubia map

There are numerous hafirs (i.e. a depression dug on flat ground to collect rain water) discovered in Sudan including many at Musawwarat es Sufra.3 However hafirs would not have provided enough water for watering the farms. The only known Kushite dam used for water storage was found at Shaq el Ahmar.4

The main food crop seems to have been sorghum; evidence for this is found in Kushite pottery. Date is a sweet fruit that grows in palm trees. Dates are one of the most available fruits along the Nile, especially in Upper Nubia. A realistic description was provided by the Roman Geographer Strabo in the second century CE:

"The Aethiopians [Kushites] live on millet and barley, from which they also make a drink; but instead of olive-oil they have butter and tallow. Neither do they have fruit trees, except a few date-palms in the royal gardens." (Strabo xvii Ch. 2: 2)5

In the sixth century AD, the Nubians were well known by the Arabs for their good date-wine production.6 Date-wine is a common traditional drink in North Sudan today.

The extensive production of a different palm fruit called doam is also evident from New kingdom Egyptian relieves in which Nubians are depicted carrying as gifts to the Egyptian pharaohs.

A concern for food might have triggered the Kushite control for other regions like the Buttana in the east, where sorghum was easily grown depending on rain. As a matter of fact, it is evident from the haffirs dug there in the Meroitic period that Kush had certainly practiced considerable powers over the Buttana during that period.

Relief from Jebel Qeili in Nubia (modern day Egypt near the Sudanese border), depicts Nubian king Shorkaror as being offered a hand full of sorghum by an unknown Nubian god.
Nubian king

One non-dietary crop that is widely grown in Nubia was cotton. Just like today, cotton was used for domestic cloth making and was possibly transported to other locations. Cotton clothes were found abundantly in Kushite graves, including the cemeteries at Kerma.

In the first century CE, a Roman geographer wrote that the Nubians, "use meats, blood, milk, and cheese"(Strabo xvii Ch. 2: 2) for food. Unlike the Egyptians and beside agriculture, the Nubians heavily domesticate cattle and sheep for their food and other sources. Extensive left over of sheep bones were found at the offering chapels and temple kitchens in Kerma.7 Cattle were also sacrificed in great numbers in the Kerma graves, indicating the importance of their presence in the Nubian life.

Nomads wondered the semi-arid regions on both sides of the Nile valley with their flocks in search of good pastures. The Kushites were in almost constant warfare with these hostile nomads. However, both the nomads and the farmers have in many cases benefited from each other, i.e. exchanging animal products for agricultural produce and the vise versa. The farmers of Kush allowed the nomads to herd their flocks on harvested farms so that the dung of the animals would fertilized the farms.8


A wall painting at Kerma dating to 1600 BC depicts a well in profile with a robe pulling a buck of water. Hafirs have been discovered in various locations in Sudan. At every excavated Kushite settlement, hafirs were present. At Kawa and Musawwarat es Sufra there were large numbers of hafirs. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the Kushite main source of water was from wells. Wells would be shallow if the settlements were close to the Nile river, and deeper the farther from the river.

Tracing of a wall painting from Kerma dating to 1600 BC . Shown, is a well in profile with a robe pulling a buck of water while two cows, each stands by either side of the well.

Since the people of Kush had domesticated animals, milk would have been a common drink. Strabo, a Roman geographer who lived in the first century BC writes that Kushites live on the "meats, blood, milk, and cheese.”(Strabo xvii Ch. 2: 2) Traces for milk have also been found on the teeth of Kushite mummies and pots.9

Wine was one the most popular products in Kush. Pottery containing wine was found in almost every grave. At Kerma, dating to about 1600 BC, 250 jars of wine were found deposited in a ground depression.10 The jars were turned upside down to prevent the odor of alcohol from spreading. About fourteen vine presses for producing wine were discovered in Sudan. Although vines were not apt for growth in arid and semi-arid environments like that of North Sudan, a limited production is possible.

Other types of diet:

One prominent diet was ostrich eggs. An ostrich egg was found in almost every grave at Kerma. Fruits may have included oranges and grape-fruits which are extensively grown in Sudan today. Pigs may have been eaten in limited amounts. (Like that of the Egyptian and other Near Eastern religions, Kushite religion is likely to have forbidden the eating of pigs).

  • 1 B. G. Trigger, Nubia Under the Pharaohs (Westview P, 1976) 130.
  • 2 W. Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton UP, 1977) 346-7, and W. Y. Adams, "Sudan Antiquities Service Excavations at Meinarti, 1963-64", Kush 13 (1965).
  • 3 D. N. Edwards, The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (Routledge, 2004).
  • 4 F. W. Hinkel, Alim-El Hosh-Shaq el Ahmar, eds. Geus and Thill. (1985).
  • 5 Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, The Loeb Classical Library (1932).
  • 6 Uniwersytet Warszawski Studium Afrykanistyczne, Africana Bulletin (Uniwersytet Warsawski, Studium Afrycanistyczne., 2002), and G. Vantini, Oriental Sources concerning Nubia (Heidelburg and Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975).
  • 7 C. Bonnet, "Archaeological Excavations At Kerma (Soudan): Preliminary report for 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 campaigns," Arkamani Sudan Electronic Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology, Aug. 2001, Dec. 2008 <http://www.arkamani.org/arkamani-library/pre-kerma-and-kerma/prelim_report1.htm>.
  • 8 D. A.Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires (Marcus Wiener, 1998) 154.
  • 9 C. D. White, and H. P. Schwarcz, "Temporal trends in stable isotopes for Nubian mummy tissues," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 93 (2005): 165-87.
  • 10 Bonnet, note 7 above.
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Marc. 2009.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.