Christian Nubia and its churches

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During the late antique and medieval period Nubia was divided into three kingdoms, from North to South: Nobadia, which largely corresponds with the modern Lower Nubia, Makouria in the middle, and Alwa in the south. The most powerful state was Makouria with its capital in Old-Dongola. Since the 6/7th century the kings from Dongola predominated also the state of Nobadia. It was governed by an eparch from Makouria with the authority of a viceroy who resided in Faras (ancient Pachoras), the capital at that time of Nobadia. When, in the 13/14th centuries the situation became unstable, due to invading nomads and power struggles among the members of the royal family of Makouria, the eparch of Faras moved to Qasr Ibrim (ancient Primis) and later to Gabal Adda.

 Basilica of Qasr Ibrim

According to the church history of John of Ephesos, the most important source on the early Christian period of Nubia, the Christianisation of Nubia started officially around a decade before the middle of the 6th century (between the years AD 538-546) with the Mission of Julian, send from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora. He was accompanied by Theodoros, the monophysite Bishop of Philae. There were also some earlier conversions arranged by monks settling in Nubia, and some different tradesmen but, apart of a few Christian artefacts and some textual records, they did not leave important traces. After two years Julian returned to C/pel, while Theodoros remained in Nubia until 551. The Mission was successful. The two men succeeded also in baptizing the king of Nobadia. In 569, after an interruption of 18 years bishop Longinos continued the Evangelisation of the country. He stayed six years in Alwa, baptised the king and put also the foundation for the ecclesiastical organisation by consecrating priests. Makouria was the last Nubian kingdom to become Christianised. As all missionaries were representatives of the monophysite belief that was predominant already at that time in Upper Egypt, it is only natural that the Christianized Nubians as well followed the same belief of their missionaries.

Five bishoprics are attested in Nubia: Kurte, Qasr Ibrim, Faras, Sais, and Old-Dongola. Probably also in Soba, the capital of Alwa was a bishop (P. Vansleb speaks of 13 bishops, seven in Makourios, six in Alwa). As all of these bishops stood under the supervision of the patriarchate of Alexandria. They were all to be consecrated in Alexandria and were apparently sometimes even Egyptian personalities, chosen among the monks of the various monasteries in Egypt.

Under these circumstances it is easily understood that the Christian art and architecture of Nubia followed in a broad sense, although not in every detail, the development in Egypt. The early basilicas have – as in Egypt – a western return aisle (not to be found in any other country or province of the Roman Empire), and since the 7th and 8th cent., at least in the region of Faras, there are several examples with a primary triumphal arch at the eastern end of the central nave, slightly in front of the opening of the apse became fashion, as it was the case in the Egyptian basilicas. But there is only one Nubian example, the church of Shaikh Badawy, which shows also the further development of the primary triumphal arch in the form of the khurus, separated from the nave of the church, as an independent spatial unit in front of the apse, as it was introduced during the second half of the 7th century in the Egyptian monastic church architecture. Since bishops from Egypt were the main personalities who brought Egyptian ideas of the design of the churches into Nubia, it seems likely that bishops living at that time and send from Egypt introduced this way of church construction to Faras, which was after them again abandoned. Apparently also in the Nubian monasteries this development did not find a total acceptance.

When in Egypt, during the Fatimid period, smaller centralized domed churches constructed over four inner pillars or columns (similar to the Byzantine cross-in-square type) were introduced, shortly after similar churches came into being also in Nubia. Contrary to the conditions of Egypt, where the majority of these churches have been lost, these centralized domed churches survived in a considerably large number in Nubia. Therefore the Nubian churches of this type are of very great value for the understanding of the development of these churches and also for gaining an idea of their development among the lost examples of this type in Egypt.

On the other hand, the Nubian churches also have a number of characteristics of their own. Apart from the early basilicas the western end of these churches was always divided into three sections: an open bay in the centre connected usually in its full width with the central nave of the church and two lateral chambers, of which one is usually occupied by a staircase leading up to the roof. Only at the very end of the development of Christian church architecture in Nubia this arrangement was abandoned. As in Egypt the sanctuary consisted of a central altar chamber, usually acting as a central apse, and two side chambers (pastophoria) to be used as liturgical auxiliary chambers. However, somewhat unique is the existence of a narrow corridor behind the apse which was introduced into Nubian church architecture about the middle of the 8th century. It offered the possibility of a direct communication between both pastophoria without disturbing the holy actions in the altar chamber. In Egypt no example of this feature is known.

The end of Christianity in Nubia started with the Mamluk in Egypt period under whose rulers the religious politic was changed and the religious tolerance of the Fatimid rulers was not practised anymore. Since that time the patriarchs in Alexandria then Cairo were fully occupied with their own problems and faced additional difficulties in taking care of their flock in Nubia. Only rarely could new bishops be sent to Nubia. Apparently in 1372 the last bishop Timotheos of Faras, a former superior of a monastery in the region of Faras, was appointed bishop to Qasr Ibrim. Consequently the Nubian people faced the problem of not having sufficient priests and their number decreased continuously. In this way Christianity in Nubia slowly dried out in the true sense of this word. The last churches were built on a very modest scale during the end of the 15th century. However, the Nubian population still demonstrated great respect for the ruins of the old churches, understanding that they were the religious buildings of their parents and grandparents.

Already since the Fatimide period Islam entered into Nubia. It did not spread out as a result of a official Mission but was infiltrated gradually by Arab immigration which slowly caused the Arabization of the country. The most important mosque in Nubia is the mosque of Derr some km to the north of the fortress of Shaykh Dawd. It is datable to the beginning of the 11th century.

Main building types of Nubian church architecture

1) The earliest examples of Nubian churches were true copies of the early Christian basilicas in Egypt, having three or five aisles, the typical Egyptian return aisle in the West and a tripartite sanctuary in the East divided into a central apse and two lateral side chambers (pastophoria).

1a) Apparently for technical reasons (to allow the construction of a continuing barrel vault over the central nave) the western return aisle was soon abandoned and reduced to a narrow western bay corresponding to the width of the nave and flanked on both sides with two western corner rooms, an arrangement which remained standard in the Nubian church architecture until its very end. During the 8th century a new feature, influenced as well from Egypt, but surely attested only in the neighbourhood of Faras, was introduced by the erection of a primary triumphal arch in front of the apse at the eastern end of the lateral colonnades of the central nave. However, it never developed to the khurus, as it was the case in Egypt. (Fig. 2. Riverside church of Adindan)

1b) Generally in Nubia the nave was shortened and the colonnades on both sides of the nave were reduced to two oblong pillars on either side. In this time, apparently about the middle of the 8th century also a narrow corridor behind the apse came into being which offered the possibility of a direct communication between both pastophoria.

2) After the 9th century, and probably under Byzantine influence submitted via Egypt, the so-called cross-in-square type was introduced also in Nubia with the insertion of four regularly distributed columns or pillars which divide the square groundplan of the nave into nine bays roughly of equal sizes of which the one in the center was in all cases covered with a dome. The surrounding bays are covered either with sailing vaults or barrel vaults. The type is represented in two main versions either with square or with cross shaped pillars. All the other features of the Nubian churches remained as they were before.

2a) A short number of roughly contemporaneous churches are furnished with corner pillars. They belong to a different devolopment originating from centralized churches of the early Christian architecture. The aisles are not divided into different bays but form a kind of continuing ambulacrum around the central domed bay.

3) The last building type of Nubian church architecture is a reduction of the cross-in-square type with only one pair of inner pillars or even non.

Peter Grossmann
German Archaeological Institute in Cairo


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