On Verge of Extinction

Fresh Bid to Save Dying Nubian Language in Egypt

Gehad Ashraf, co-founder of Nobig Koro, posing for a photo in Heisa, one of the last remaining Nubian islands to survive the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.
Gehad Ashraf, co-founder of Nobig Koro, posing for a photo in Heisa, one of the last remaining Nubian islands to survive the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.

On Verge of Extinction

Nobig Koro, or Learn Nubian, is a fresh initiative made by young Nubians living in Cairo to teach their language which is on the verge of extinction.

“Unfortunately, most of Nubian youth are not speaking Nubian language. We work hard to save our language for fear of its extinction,” co-founder of the initiative Gehad Ashraf, 28, told Majalla.

“The language is dying out. Families in Nubia are not interested in teaching their children the Nubian language. Most of those who know Nubian language are older people,” she added.


Nubia lies in southern Egypt along the Nile River banks and extends into northern Sudan and is regarded as the land of the ancient African civilization.

Nubian is a Nile-Nubian language descended from Old Nubian, spoken along the Nile in northern Sudan and southern Egypt and is a Northern Nubian language of the Nilo-Saharan language family. 

The Nubians embraced Christianity for more than a thousand years, during which they wrote in their own language. With the advent of Islam, they replaced the Nubian with Arabic language. Nevertheless, they preserved Nubian language orally, with what remained of the inscriptions on the walls of temples dating back to the Meroitic era (3rd century BC – 4th century AD), and from the Bible and religious rituals recorded during the Coptic era on the walls of churches.

Nubians were subjected to displacement after the flooding of dozens of villages as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.

Before displacement, Nubian was the primary spoken language in the region. Nubian migration had a significant impact on the decline in the use of the Nubian language. 

According to unofficial statistics, there are three or four million Nubians in Egypt. Only 30 % of the Nubian villages in Aswan speak the Nubian language, while 70% know only some words.

However, the Nubian song still has the greatest impact on preserving the language. Ashraf depended on this fact when launching her initiative.


Ashraf said that the story of launching the initiative went back to 2020, when she and a number of Nubian friends took courses to learn Nubian language at the hand of Khairia Mousa, the only female Nubian language teacher in Egypt. According to Ashraf, Mousa is one of the most prominent female voices defending the Nubian language, customs, and traditions. Mousa worked as a teacher for many years, and after retirement she decided to teach the Nubian language in Cairo.

Ashraf said, “We studied the alphabet, grammar, reading and writing. The only thing we didn't know was how to collect vocabulary in order to form sentences.”

“So, I came up with the idea of translating Nubian-language songs into Arabic and study its vocabularies from which we can learn how to form sentences and study nouns and verbs,” explained Ashraf, who hailed from Aswan and obtained a diploma in legal translation from the American University in Cairo.

She added that Mousa helped her team in translating the vocabularies of many songs, which Nubians are still playing in their wedding parties. 

“We know the songs and dance to its rhythms in wedding parties but actually we don't understand the words,” Ashraf said.

To reach more Nubians, she spread the idea of the initiative on social media platforms. “Our friend Malek sings Nubian songs without instruments as our focus is on the words and nothing else,” she said, adding that Arabic subtitles are provided in their recorded videos.

They gathered at Cairo-based Nubian cultural centers such as Nubadia and Debod to sing and study the vocabularies of the songs.

Regarding the topics of these songs, Ashraf said that they are based on their own agricultural heritage.

“The songs focus on Nubian nature and agriculture like that one about waterwheels, a place where two lovers meet each other. Another song is about palm trees and their dates,” she said.

Many Egyptians are astonished by the idea of the initiative, according to Ashraf.

“People see the initiative as strange. We receive comments like “do you want to divide Egypt” … messages that have no basis,” she said.

“We just want to save our grandfathers’ language which I think will disappear within 50 years,” she added bitterly.

Ashraf and her team plan to visit villages in Aswan where the old people are speaking proper Nubian in order to record their pronunciation of the words and to make a Nubian-talking dictionary.

“This next step will require more funds, which we are lacking right now.”

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