ALWA , or Alodia
The most southerly of the Christian kingdoms of medieval Nubia. Its territorial extent is unknown but was apparently considerable. According to IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI, it was larger than the neighboring kingdom of MAKOURIA. The frontier between Makouria and ‘Alwa was at AL-ABWAB (the gates), which was evidently somewhere between the Fourth and Fifth Cataracts of the Nile. The capital, and presumably the largest city, was at SOBA, close to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. How much farther the kingdom extended to the east, south, and west is not recorded.
Nothing is known of the history of ‘Alwa prior to the time of its conversion to Christianity in the sixth century. Presumably its principal inhabitants were the Noba, a Nubian-speaking people who overran much of the old territory of the empire of KUSH in the fourth century. According to John of Ephesus, the conversion of ‘Alwa to Coptic Christianity was effected by the missionary LONGINUS in the year 580.
‘Alwa is mentioned by a number of medieval Arab historians, but only IBN HAWQAL was a firsthand observer. However, his description of ‘Alwa is very brief. Ibn Salim al-Aswani recorded a good deal that he had heard about ‘Alwa while visiting in the neighboring kingdom of Makouria, but he does not seem to have traveled to the southern kingdom in person. His account contains some fairly accurate geographical information but says almost nothing about the history or administration of the kingdom.
He was led to believe that “the Chief of ‘Alwa is a greater person than the Chief of Makouria, he has a stronger army, and his country is more extensive and more fertile,” but modern scholars question the reliability of this statement. ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN also wrote about ‘Alwa at second hand in his Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries. Much of his information is evidently copied from Ibn Salim, but he goes on to speak of 400 churches and numerous fine monasteries, apparently drawing mainly on the resources of his imagination.
There is no reliable information about the organization of the church in ‘Alwa, although a late medieval source indicates that there were six episcopal sees within the country. All authors agree that the inhabitants were Jacobite Christians. According to Ibn Salim, “their [holy] books are in the Greek tongue, which they translate into their own language.” Only a few very fragmentary texts in the Old Nubian language have been recovered from the territory of ‘Alwa. On the basis of some peculiarities of writing, F. L. GRIFFITH concluded that the language spoken here may have been different from the Old Nubian of the kingdom of Makouria.
‘Alwa is mentioned incidentally in a number of late medieval Arabic documents, dealing mostly with the various Mamluk campaigns into Nubia. On a number of occasions when the Mamluks attempted to depose the ruler of Makouria, the latter fled for safety to the district of al-Abwab, within the territory of ‘Alwa. This strategy was not always successful, for on at least two occasions the fugitive ruler was captured by the “king of al-Abwab” and was sent as a prisoner to Cairo. It is not clear from these accounts whether the king of al-Abwab was in fact the king of ‘Alwa or whether the southern kingdom at this time was divided into petty principalities, each with its own ruler. A thirteenth-century Mamluk emissary, ‘Alam al-Din Sanjar, reported that he had to deal with nine individual chiefs while on a diplomatic mission to ‘Alwa.
From the thirteenth century onward ‘Alwa, like the neighboring kingdom of Makouria, was increasingly overrun by Arab nomads. A familiar Sudanese folk tradition, the so-called Funj Chronicle, attributes the final downfall of ‘Alwa and its capital city of Soba to a combined attack of bedouin Arabs and the black Funj Sultans of Sennar in 1504. Modern scholarship has suggested that the attack probably took place at an earlier date, and was the work of the ‘Abdallab Arabs alone. When the ‘Abdallab in their turn were subjugated by the Funj, the latter appropriated to their own history the story of the capture of Soba. At all events, the place was in ruins when it was visited by David Reubeni in 1523, although a few surviving inhabitants were living in temporary shelters. The missionary John the Syrian, who had visited the country at about the same time, reported that the people “are neither Christians, Moors, nor Jews, but they live in the desire of becoming Christians.”
As a political entity the kingdom of ‘Alwa perished along with the Christian faith. It was incorporated first within the tribal territory of the ‘Abdallab, and later in the Funj kingdom of Sennar.
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 438-538. Princeton, N.J.; 1977.
- Kirwan, L. P. “Notes on the Topography of the Christian Nubian Kingdoms.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935):57-62.
- Monneret de Villard, U. Storia della Nubia christiana, pp. 68-221.
- Orientalia Christiana Analecta 118. Rome, 1938.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 44-207. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS