EVANGELIZATION OF NUBIA
Nubia was not a part of the Roman empire, and thus did not follow Egypt into the Christian fold in the fourth century. The worship of the ancient Egyptian deities, and particularly of Isis, lived on for another two centuries, and Nubian votaries were permitted by the Roman authorities to worship in the Temple of Isis at PHILAE.
In the sixth century, Christian Egypt was rent by the dispute between Monophysites and Melchites, and it was apparently this dispute that prompted both parties to attempt the conversion of the Nubians to their respective causes. Both apparently had some initial success, but the final triumph went to the Monophysites, and Nubia became an integral part of the Coptic world.
Information about the conversion of Nubia to Christianity comes from two contemporary writers, John of Ephesus and John of Biclarum, and two later ones, Eutychius and Michael the Syrian. The fullest, as well as the most entertaining account, is that in the Ecclesiastical History of John of Ephesus. According to this source, the idea of converting the Nubians was first put forward by a Monophysite priest named JULIAN. He sought and obtained from the Byzantine empress THEODORA a commission to undertake missionary work in the northern Nubian kingdom of NOBATIA.
When Emperor Justinian was apprised of this, he ordered that a Melchite mission be sent to Nobatia instead. Theodora then secretly arranged that the Melchite missionaries be detained in Egypt, with the result that Julian arrived on the Nubian scene first, in 543. According to John of Ephesus, his mission was warmly received, and the conversion of the Nobatian king and his subjects soon followed. Julian remained in Nobatia for two years, and then was succeeded by a certain Theodore, bishop of Philae, who continued the work of evangelization until 551. After his departure there was an interruption of missionary activity until the arrival of LONGINUS in 569. According to John of Ephesus, it was Longinus who completed the conversion of the northern Nubian kingdom.
It is not entirely clear how rapidly the Christianization of Nobatia proceeded. All accounts agree in suggesting that the process of conversion began with the king, who welcomed and perhaps even invited the Monophysite missionaries, and that after his conversion, that of his subjects rapidly followed. This might be dismissed as reflecting the biased outlook of ardent Christian propagandists, but the cemeteries of Lower Nubia do suggest a very rapid replacement of pagan by Christian burial practices in the latter half of the sixth century (see NUBIAN MEDIEVAL ARCHAEOLOGY).
South of Nobatia lay the Nubian kingdom of MAKKOURAI, which in the sixth century was apparently on bad terms with its northern neighbor. Perhaps for this reason, neither Julian nor Theodore seems to have made any attempt to preach among the Makkourai. Nevertheless there is evidence, both direct and indirect, of the conversion of Makouria to Christianity before the end of the sixth century. What little direct information is available comes from a Spanish monk, John of Biclarum, who records that around 568 the people of Makouria received the faith of Christ.
Five years later, according to the same source, a delegation of Makkourai arrived at Constantinople, bringing gifts to the emperor. This testimony, together with other textual allusions, has been taken as suggesting that the original conversion of the Makkourai was to the Melchite rather than to the Monophysite cause. EUTYCHIUS, writing at a much later date, states categorically that the “Nubians” (by whom he presumably meant the Makkourai) became Jacobites during the interval between 637 and 731, when there was no Melchite patriarch in Alexandria. However, the evidence on this issue is not incontrovertible, and some scholars argue that Makouria, like Nobatia, was Monophysite from the beginning. Certainly it was so after the seventh century.
The conversion of the southern Nubian kingdom of ‘ALWA was undertaken by the same Longinus who had earlier worked for six years in Nobatia. The account of his work comes once again from John of Ephesus. According to John, as early as 575 the king of ‘Alwa had sent a letter to Longinus, asking him to extend his missionary labors into the southern kingdom. However, the letter arrived in Nobatia after Longinus had left for Egypt, and because of a political dispute within the patriarchate, he was not able to return to Nubia for five years. In the meantime, according to John of Ephesus, Melchite missionaries had made an effort to convert the people of ‘Alwa but were rebuffed by the Nubians, who would accept no one but Longinus.
In 580 Longinus reappeared in Nobatia, and almost immediately afterward set out for ‘Alwa. Because of the hostility of the king of Makouria, he could not travel directly up the Nile, but had to take a roundabout route through the Eastern Desert in the company of a BEJA camel caravan. Eventually, after considerable privations along the way, he arrived in ‘Alwa, where he was met by a royal welcoming party. The conversion of the king and his subjects immediately followed. This completed the conversion of the three main Nubian kingdoms, which thereafter remained faithfully in the Christian fold for nearly a thousand years.
The accounts given by John of Ephesus and John of Biclarum of the rapid and easy conversion of the Nubians are undoubtedly colored by the religious zeal of the authors. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the evangelists found a highly favorable climate for their work in the Nubian kingdoms. Egypt by then had already been in the Christian fold for more than 200 years, and Nubians traveling to Philae and other Egyptian towns had plenty of opportunity to observe the newly built churches, many of them made by the conversion of older temples, and to absorb some of the influences of the new faith. This latter development is reflected in the Christian paraphernalia found in late pagan graves in Nubia (see BALLANA KINGDOM AND CULTURE).
There was, moreover, a colony of Egyptians resident within Nubia at QASR IBRIM, and their conversion to Christianity may actually have preceded that of the Nobatian monarchy. There may also have been private missionary activity in Nubia prior to the royally sponsored missions of 543. AXUM, the Abyssinian kingdom that adjoined Nubia to the southeast, had, like Egypt, been Christian since the fourth century, so that the Nubians were subject to Christian influences both from the north and from the south. When Longinus arrived in ‘Alwa in 580, he found Christian emissaries from Axum already on the scene.
The very rapid transformation of Nubian culture wrought by the acceptance of the new faith is evident in the archaeological remains of seventh-century town and village sites, as well as in the Nubian cemeteries.
[See also: Julian, Evangelist; Longinus, Evangelist.]
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 433-45. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Donadoni, S. “Les Débuts du christianisme en Nubie.” Mémoires de l’Institut d’Egypte 59 (1969):25-33.
- John of Ephesus. Historiae ecclesiasticae pars tertia, ed. E. W. Brooks. CSCO 105-106, Scriptores Syri, ser. 3, vol. 3. Louvain, 1952. Reprint of 1935-1936 edition.
- Kirwan, L. P. “Studies in the Later History of Nubia.” University of Liverpool Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology 24 (1937):88-105.
- . The Oxford University Excavations at Firka, pp. 49-51. London, 1939.
- . “Prelude to Nubian Christianity.” In Mélanges offerts à Kazimierz Michalowski, ed. M. L. Bernhard, pp. 121-28. Warsaw, 1966.
- Kraus, J. Die Anfänge des Christentums in Nubien. Vienna, 1930. Monneret de Villard, U. Storia della Nubia cristiana, pp. 61-70.
- Orientalia Christiana Analecta 118. Rome, 1938.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 33-50. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS