BMCR 2003.01.16

The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia. Pagans, Christians and Muslims along the Middle Nile

, The medieval kingdoms of Nubia : pagans, Christians and Muslims along the Middle Nile. London: British Museum Press, 2002. 296 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0714119474. £29.99.

There has been a renewed interest in the ancient cultures of Sudan in recent years.1 A very informative and well received introduction to this subject was published in 1996 by Derek A. Welsby, an experienced field archaeologist who has been excavating in the Sudan for the past two decades. He is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities in the British Museum, where he is in charge of the Sudanese collections. In his The Kingdom of Kush,2 he outlines the history and culture of the Napatan and Meroitic empires. The early rulers of these people even controlled Egypt and therefore formed the XXVth dynasty (ca. 747-656 BC). These kingdoms dated from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD. Now W. has produced a sequel about the subsequent history and archaeology of medieval of Nubia until the 16th century. In the introduction (pp. 7-14) W. explains the term Nubia and the Nubians. The latter occupied the area that once stretched from the north of Aswan to ed-Debba beyond the Third Cataract. Medieval Nubia basically consisted of three kingdoms: Makuria, Alwa and Nobadia, the last becoming a part of Makuria not later than the eight century. After an interesting summary of how the Arab authors viewed this region, the author gives a description of the geography and environment and then proceeds to the relevant sources, ranging from archaeological finds (graffiti and inscriptions) to Roman, Byzantine, and Arab writers to modern explorers, and to questions of chronology (cf. table 1, p. 13 from the ninth century BC till the early sixteenth century).

Chapter 2 deals with “The emergence of the Nubian kingdoms” (pp. 14-30) after the end of the Kushite state. The people mentioned in Greek, Roman, Aksumite, Byzantine, and Arab sources as Nubae, Nobades, Nobates, Annoubades, Noba, Nouba, and Red Noba may loosely refer to the same people, sub-groups or different peoples altogether. W. concludes that the Nubians may largely have come originally from the Gezira, the land between the White and Blue Nile, and infiltrated the Kushite state, thus weakening it and eventually bringing its end. He also points to the problems posed by numerous sources for northern Nubia since almost none of the literary, epigraphic, and textual material can be precisely dated. In contrast, the early development of the southern kingdoms of Makuria and Alwa cannot fully be explained due to a total lack of sources. This is exacerbated by the fluid situation of the border region between Egypt and Lower Nubia and also the loose nature of the tribal confederacies of the Blemmyes, who controlled the eastern deserts. In this case one part of them might have been aligned with Rome while other parts of their people might have been at war. The following subchapters cover the relationship of the Blemmyes and the Nobadae and their ties with Rome, the upcoming Nubian hegemony, and the kingdoms in the sixth century. Very helpful are the three maps that depict the territory of Nobadia (later the Makurian province of Maris), Makuria and Alwa.

The arrival and impact of Christianity is the theme of chapter three (pp. 31-67). W. starts with the literary evidence from the accounts of numerous church historians. According to them Melkite (= Chalcedonian = orthodox) and Monophysite (= anti-Chalcedonian) missionaries were sent to Nubia by Justinian (= Melkite) and Theodora (= Monophysite). Therefore two creeds were originally established in the Middle Nile region, yet archaeologically they are difficult to distinguish. An extensive treatment is given of the funerary culture in those kingdoms ranging from Kushite to Christian burial. Interesting is an example from Esebi of Pagan-Christian tumulus and Christian mastaba tombs side by side (pp. 39 f. + fig. 13), which may indicate the respect of the later Christian population for their pagan ancestors. Additional sections deal with Pagan Nubian and Christian Nubian graves, tomb monuments, respect for the dead, tombstones, and popular religion, pagan traditions and magic.

The relationship of the Nubians and their neighbors from the seventh to the early thirteenth century comprise chapter four (pp. 68-82). It deals with the Arab invasions following the rise of Islam and the subsequent conquest of Egypt. The first intrusion occurred in 641 or 642 when the Emir Amru b. El-As sent an army of 20,000 men into Makuria. The Nubian resistance was so massive that the Muslims gained very little by their expedition and had to sign a peace treaty (baqt) according to some Arab writers. The peace did not last, however, and after a second campaign in 652 another treaty between the Muslims in Egypt and Nubia was concluded which marked the independence of Makuria. The subsequent conflicts with the Tulunids and Ayyubids, as well as the Nubian (= Makurian) relations with the Christian Kingdoms of Alwa and Ethiopia, are also summarized here. A very interesting subchapter concerns the army of the Nubians (pp. 78-82) and its weaponry. The sources on this topic are sparse and the author basically has to draw his conclusions from archaeological finds in some tombs.

The treaty of 652 established a peace between Islamic Egypt and Nubia which remained nearly unbroken till the Ayyubid aggression in the twelfth century. These peaceful centuries mark “The heyday of the Nubian kingdoms” (chapter 5, pp. 83-111). This period brought considerable prosperity and a rich Christian culture for the people from the First Cataract down to Soba East. This chapter introduces the relevant aspects of the society. After outlining the topography and borders W. gives a detailed description of royalty and regalia, as well as the administrative structures (king, kinglets, eparch and other officials). The royal succession was matrilineal. It was normally the kings nephew (= his sister’s son) who inherited the throne. If this was not possible, the king’s son, other members of the royal family or even outsiders could become king. Another extensive portion is devoted to the church — the second most important state institution — with sections on the history of Melkite and Monophysite Christianity, the church’s role in the administration, monasticism, and anchorites. W. further explains that it is difficult to establish the fate of the Kushite population. The only certain fact is that the Nubian culture was homogenous when Christianity arrived along the Middle Nile. After the emergence of Islam in Egypt the racial and cultural composition was gradually altered, when Muslim communities settled along the river south of Aswan and as far as the kingdom of Alwa. The chapter continues with summaries on longevity and disease, coiffure (as found on buried bodies and wall paintings), and pastimes.

The relevant settlements in Nubia are presented in the sixth chapter (pp. 112-136). After discussing the state of archaeological research W. introduces the metropolises Faras, Old Dongola and Soba East, and the other major centers Qasr Ibrim and Jebel Adda, before he goes on to lower ranking settlements in Nobadia and in the Makurian Province of Maris (Arminna West, Debeira West, Abdullah Nirqi, Meinarti, Serra West, and Hambukol). Special attention is given to fortified sites in the early and late medieval period.

The longest section of this book (chapter seven, pp. 137-182) concerns the architecture of Nubia. The preservation of medieval monuments has been upset by the building of the Aswan high dam. The state of preservation also depends on differing climates: in the dry north buildings were protected by wind-blown sand while in the southern areas that are affected by seasonal rainfall many more buildings were erected in red brick, which can easily be reused for new constructions, but they fared much worse in those rainy parts, however. W. makes it clear that given these factors, the discussion on architecture must basically be focussed on Nobadia and Makuria, while there is little to include from Alwa. Since the impressive fortresses have been already dealt with in the previous chapter, W. can elaborate here on the church architecture at great length. He begins with the impact of Christianity, which demanded a different solution for a place of worship than the old Egyptian-Nubian religion. Unlike the temple, which as the house of the god had normally been entered by the priesthood only, the church was a public building largely occupied by the congregation. Here only a small sanctuary at the western end marked the area preserved for the priest. After a general introdution about the specifics W. comments on the various types of churches: converted temples, the development of freestanding churches, and the churches in Upper Nubia, Makuria and Alwa. Further attention is given to different functional church types such as community churches, cathedrals, monastic churches, memorial churches, double cathedrals and churches, chapels, and baptisteries. Also mentioned are palatial buildings, monasteries, and domestic architecture, followed by a detailed analysis of building construction itself. W. includes numerous illustrative floor plans.

The next main chapter (pp. 183-215) is about the various aspects of the Nubian economy, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and trade. The author provides an extra section on the literary and archaeological sources for the trade of medieval Nubia with the outside world. It is interesting to note that nearly all literary references on this topic come from Egyptian Byzantine or Islamic sources. On the other hand there is very little if any evidence about Nubian trade with Southern Sudan, Kordofan, Darfur, and the Ethiopian highlands.

Chapter nine (pp. 216-241) is a very informative section about “Art, language and literacy”. W. points out the marked contrast of Nubian art in the medieval period with the preceding Kushite era. There is an almost total absence of sculpture in the round while decorative relief sculpture is rare and narrative figurative reliefs are totally absent. But commemorative art found its expression in wall painting. After a brief outline of the question regarding continuity of artistic expression a lengthy discussion on the various elements of architectural sculpture is added (bases, columns, capitals, lintels, arches, jambs, balustrades, screens, window grills, friezes, tombstones, mosaics). An extensive section analyses the wall paintings, which are first mentioned by Abu Salih in the twelfth century. Descriptions by early travelers, drawings, and photographs become extremely useful in this field as many paintings have been destroyed even in modern times — “sometimes by the overzealous activities of archaeologists, particularly in the case of converted temples” (p. 224) as W. states. A drawing made in 1818-19 of St. Peter (p. 225; figure 92) in the converted temple of Wadi-es Sebua serves to illustrate this point. A lengthy summary on pottery decorations covers the portable objects of art. This chapter closes with an introduction to the languages of Nubia, where Greek, Coptic, and a written form known as Old Nubian were used for inscriptions. Prompted by settlers from the north, Arabic was the latest language to arrive in the region.

Chapter ten (pp. 242-255) chronicles the decline and collapse of the Nubian kingdoms. After a brief summary of the relevant authors for the late thirteenth century W. gives a table (pp. 242 f.) of the relations between Makurians and Muslims from 1265 to 1365. A more detailed account follows in various subsections. Following a Muslim invasion in 1276 the Christian king Shekanda was installed on the Makurian throne in Old Dongola. This marked the first major Muslim influx in the region, since the invaders demanded from the Makurians the choice of converting to Islam, paying the infidel-tax (jiza) or being killed. The people chose the second option and their kings became the representative of the Sultan. By 1323 Kanz ed-Dawla became the first Muslim ruler of Makuria. Old Dongola was abandoned in 1365-6 as the capital of northern Nubia and the court moved to Daw (probably Jebel Adda some 55 km south of Qasr Ibrim). W. discusses the possibility of Daw being the capital of the ephemeral kingdom of Dotawo, which is only mentioned in some contemporary documents and inscriptions, and concludes this chapter with summaries on the disappearance of Dotawo and the little known fate of Alwa. A brief postscript (pp. 256-258) outlines the aspects of continuity. So some religious site retained their sanctity in the Muslim period. While only a few churches were converted to mosques, cemeteries remained in use; some Christian tombs were even attributed to Muslim saints. The most significant heritage from medieval Nubia, however, is the language. Its still widely spoken though no longer written.

An appendix lists all the known Blemmyan and Nubian kings. It is apparent that in many instances exact dates are not known or sometimes simply estimated. Numerous endnotes with references to sources and literature, a very helpful glossary (pp. 274-276) and an extensive bibliography enrich this study. Like The Kingdom of Kush many of the photos are by author himself or have been contributed by his colleagues. A section of color plates is in the center of the book. The various tables, maps, and drawings cannot be commented on here in detail.

Welsby has written a very thorough and fascinating book, and he can be congratulated for drawing this poorly known topic to the attention of a wider audience. He shows profound expertise in bringing the various complex literary and archaeological sources together. His familiarity with the various classical and medieval authors is a highlight. The same can be said about his insights on archaeological matters. His study also makes known how much information has been lost with the passage of time or might perhaps be retrieved by future research (i.e. excavations).

There are some minimal objections which might perhaps be considered for a paperback edition — which seems likely — as was the case with The Kingdom of Kush. The section on p. 232 on portable works of art and manuscript illustrations is very brief and without any photographs. Some sample pictures of manuscripts or icons would be helpful. Even though the book is richly illustrated one might wish for more pictures alongside the text. The bibliography would also benefit if the ancient and medieval writers were listed separately after the abbreviations. Still, The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia is a very valuable book for the general reader as well as the scholar.


1. This is made evident f.e. by the splendid exhibition which toured several countries beginning in 1996; Cf. D. Wildung (Ed.) Sudan. Antike Königreiche am Nil. Katalogbuch zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung in München, Paris, Amsterdam, Toulouse. Berlin: Wasmuth, 1996; and (English) Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Paris: Flammarion, 1997).

2. Derek A. Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush. The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: The British Museum Press, 1996, 2002 (pb.).