Nubia is a geographical term as well as the designation of a people. Nubians traditionally lived in the Nile valley in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are characterised by having retained their own languages – Kenzi, Nobiin and Dongolawi – in an Arabic-speaking environment throughout the last centuries. Language boundaries go along with ethnic groups. The Kenzi- and Nobiin-speaking groups were very much affected by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, as its reservoir – called Lake Nasser in Egypt and Lake Nubia in Sudan – flooded much of their homeland. This led to large-scale resettlements both in Egypt and Sudan as well as to the generation of substantial diaspora communities, particularly in Cairo, Khartoum, the US and the UK.
In the Sudanese part of the Nile valley, Nubian communities still live in the area from the Second Cataract up to ad-Dabbah, north of the Great Nile Bend. As almost all Nubian speakers use Arabic in their daily life, their own languages are now under threat.
Opinions differ as to when and from where the first Nubian speakers migrated to the Nile valley. They probably came from somewhere in the southwest of present-day Sudan, since other Nubian languages are still spoken in this area today. While some scholars believe that they arrived as early as the third millennium BC, others think that they only arrives in the early first millennium AD, contributing to the fall of the Meroitic Empire.
The designation Nubae appears in Graeco-Roman sources for the first time, referring to an ethnic group south of Egypt. A Nubian language was spoken and written in all three medieval kingdoms along the Middle Nile valley. Thus, Nubian communities must have been present, and constituted the ruling elite, by this time. The language, Old Nubian, is thought to be ancestral to present-day Nobiin.
The topographical term Nubia is derived from the distribution of Nubian speakers in the Nile valley in the recent past, before the construction of the Aswan Dam. It designates the area of southernmost Egypt and northern Sudan. Lower Nubia more specifically denotes the area between the First and the Second Nile Cataracts, a region which has now been almost completely flooded by the reservoir of the Aswan Dam.
The term Nubia is also often used to refer to the (pre)historic cultures in this region – although, as outlined in the previous paragraphs, a political entity based on a Nubian-speaking community cannot as yet be proven in the area before the Middle Ages.