But who are the Nubians and what is Nubia? Henry Louis Gates, Jr. embarks on an epic journey of discovery through Egypt and the Sudan. As he admits at the start of his journey, people may have heard of Nubian princesses or Nubian slaves, but this five-thousand-year-old African civilisation is all but unknown in the wider world.
Seven centuries before Christ, the black kings of Nubia conquered Egypt, and founded the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Pharaohs. A thousand years later, centuries after Egypt had fallen to Rome, Nubian kings still ruled a vast kingdom from their grand capital, Meroe.
Their stone temples, painted tombs and dozens of pyramids still stand in the Sudanese desert - in fact, there are more pyramids in the Sudan than in the whole of Egypt. The oldest city so far discovered in the whole of Africa is now being excavated in Nubia.
His journey takes him from the tourist trail of Egypt to the most distant outposts in the Sudanese desert, where few foreign visitors ever set foot. His journey begins at the Pyramids of Giza. How is it that ancient Egypt is the only ancient African civilisation that anyone has heard of? Travelling south by night-train towards Aswan, on the ancient border with Nubia, he reflects on the fact that, in the ancient world, the Nubians were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
At the stunning temple of Abu Simbel, which was built in northern Nubia by Ramses II, he finds signs that, far from despising Nubian culture, the Egyptians actually sought to emulate aspects of Nubian culture. As his guide, Bassam el Shammaa tells him, there is an ancient Egyptian poem that says: "I wish my lover were a NubianĄ"
In southern Egypt, he finds that there are still people who call themselves Nubians, and consider themselves the descendants of this ancient culture. Aswan and the surrounding area is now home to the thousands of Nubians who were displaced by the building of the Aswan dam in 1962. Lake Nasser flooded the whole northern third of Nubia.
Little of ancient Nubia survives within the borders of modern Egypt. Gates heads south to Khartoum. As an American, he's understandably rather nervous about travelling through the Sudan.
A half-day's drive from Khartoum, he reaches the spectacular ruins of Meroe. Ali Osman Saleh, a Nubian archaeologist, shows him round the royal cemetery, studded with 64 pyramids, the tombs of forty generations of Nubian kings and queens. Meroe flourished for a thousand years as a trading city, before it was finally abandoned in the fourth century A.D. Ali believes that the mysterious columned buildings nearby at Musawwarat are the remains of an ancient college. These extraordinary ruins, marooned in the Sudanese desert, feel to him like some strange mirage.
Sudan is a vast country, and most of the north is empty desert. His journey takes him on a two-day short cut across empty desert to reach the next bend of the Nile. At the sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal, Irene Liverani, an Italian archaeologist shows him the temples built by the Nubian kings who, in the seventh century BC, conquered the whole of Egypt, and, for almost a century, were the most powerful rulers in the ancient world. He wonders why Nubian culture has received so little attention. Irene believes it was a kind of racism - when scholars first found these extraordinary ruins here in Nubia, they immediately ascribed all of Nubian culture to the Egyptians. Climbing down into a beautiful painted tomb, he finally finds the real Black Pharoahs of the Nile.
On the way to his final destination, he finds that history is repeating itself. Another hydroelectric dam across the Nile is being planned by the Sudanese government on the northern reaches of the Nile. Sudan needs electricity and water, but what is certain is that dozens more villages will be lost, more Nubians will be displaced, and thousands more acres of Nubia will be drowned, and who knows what archaeological still to be uncovered will be lost forever. He hears that many Nubians today believe that a less damaging site could have been chosen for the dam. There is a suspicion that the fundamentalist regime have chosen to disperse even more of the Nubian population, because they dislike their independent sense of identity and history.
The final leg of his journey takes him on to Kerma, where some of the most extraordinary discoveries in African archaeology are being made. The site is dominated by an extraordinary four-thousand year-old building, which looks like a giant termite mound. It was once the vast temple of Nubia's earliest capital city. Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet has been excavating Kerma for over thirty years, and now believes that Kerma dates back over five thousand years - a thriving city built before Stonehenge, and the most ancient city uncovered so far in the whole of Africa.