EPARCH OF NOBATIA
The Nubian kingdom of NOBATIA was subjugated by the larger kingdom of MAKOURIA in the seventh century. Nobatia thereafter lost its independence but not its name or separate identity. It was governed throughout the Middle Ages by a kind of viceroy, the eparch of Nobatia, who was appointed by the king of Makouria. In the earlier medieval period the eparch had his principal residence at FARAS. When the disturbed conditions of later medieval times demanded a more militarily secure base, the eparchal residence was transferred first to QASR IBRIM and finally to JABAL ‘ADDA. It is evident, however, that the eparchs, like the kings of Makouria, had residences in more than one place.
The eparchs of Nobatia are mentioned in a number of medieval Arabic texts, usually under the title Lord of the Mountain. The source of this epithet is obscure. It does not appear in documents written by the Nubians themselves, where the title “eparch” is always used. Since the Arabic texts are unpointed, Hinds (cited in Plumley, 1970, p. 14) has suggested a reading of the eparch’s Arabic title as “Lord of the Horses” rather than as “Lord of the Mountain,” but this suggestion is rejected by Vantini (1975, pp. 478-79, 602). It may be noted that at a later date the viziers of the Funj sultanate, in the central Sudan, bore the title Sd al-Kom (Lord of the Heap), which might conceivably be a latter-day derivative of “Lord of the Mountain.”
The eparch of Nobatia was evidently a true viceroy, to whom many of the king’s traditional powers were delegated. Like the king, he could found churches and celebrate the mass. Among the medieval church murals preserved at Faras (see FARAS MURALS) and ‘Abd al-Qadir there are a number of portraits of eparchs, who are typically shown in the same rich garb and in the same stylized poses as are the Nubian kings. They are, however, depicted wearing a distinctive double-horned headdress, which was evidently emblematic of their office. At ‘Abd al-Qadir, one late medieval eparch is shown holding a model of the church in his hands.
Additional information about the eparchs has come from a great many letters, both official and private, found in the archaeological excavations at QASR IBRIM. These make it clear that one of the eparch’s chief responsibilities was the conduct of relations with Muslim Egypt, and with Muslims who traveled and traded in Nubia. According to IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI, Nobatia in the tenth century was a free trade zone in which Egyptians could trade freely, and where Egyptian money was in circulation. By contrast, the upriver territories of Makouria were closed to foreign traders. All cargoes destined for Makouria were delivered into the hands of the eparch, who then forwarded them to the king of Makouria.
One group of twelfth-century letters found at Qasr Ibrim refers to commercial transactions between the eparch and a Fatimid palace official, who handled cargoes and sold slaves on behalf of the king of Makouria. Much of the other eparchal correspondence relates in one way or another to commerce. A command of the Arabic language must have been one of the qualifications for office, for many of the letters addressed to the eparch are in Arabic, although most of those written by him are in Old Nubian.
Some late medieval Arab writers apparently believed that the eparchal office was hereditary, but there is no good evidence to support this. Indeed, in one of the letters found at Qasr Ibrim, a son congratulates his father on his appointment as eparch.
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 464-69, 526-27, 534-35. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Arkell, A. J. A History of the Sudan, from the Earliest Times to 1821, 2nd ed., pp. 191-93. London, 1961.
- Plumley, J. M. “Qasr Ibrim 1969.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 56 (1970):12-18.
- . “The Christian Period at Qasr Ibrim: Some Notes on the MSS Finds.” In Nubia, récentes recherches, ed. K. Michalowski. Warsaw, 1975.
- Vantini, G. Oriental Sources Concerning Nubia, pp. 478-79, 602. Warsaw and Heidelberg, 1975.
- . Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 72-81, 118-26. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS