The most important of the Christian kingdoms of medieval Nubia. Its territory probably extended from about the Third to the Fifth Cataract of the Nile, although there is some uncertainty about the locations of both the northern and the southern frontiers. The kingdom presumably took its name from the Makkourai, a Nubian tribal people who are first mentioned by Ptolemy (Geographia, IV, ii, 19).
Nothing is known of the history of Makouria prior to the time its ruler was converted to the Christian faith. According to John of Biclarum, this took place in 569 or 570. The account of John of Biclarum has been taken to imply that Makouria was converted initially by Melchite missionaries, but this has been questioned by recent scholars. After the seventh century, the evidence is very clear that the kingdom, like the neighboring lands of NOBATIA and ‘ALWA, was firmly in the Monophysite camp, and it so remained until the end of the Middle Ages.
The capital and principal royal residence of Makouria were at the city of DONGOLA, situated on the east bank of the Nile about halfway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts. The medieval city, now entirely in ruins, should not be confused with the modern provincial capital of the same name. Modern Dongola, or Dongola al-Urdi, is situated about 60 miles (100 km) north of the original Dongola, and on the opposite bank of the Nile.
In the years following their conquest of Egypt, the Arabs tried twice to annex the kingdom of Makouria as well. Their first attack, in 642, resulted in a resounding defeat of the invaders. A second attack ten years later was militarily inconclusive and was followed by the conclusion of a negotiated truce, called the BAQT. Under its terms the political and religious independence of the Nubians was guaranteed, in exchange for an annual tribute of slaves. The obligations of the Baqt were not consistently met, but the agreement remained at least nominally in force for more than 600 years. As a result, the development of Nubia’s medieval civilization was little hindered by the Egyptians or other Arab powers.
Late in the tenth century Makouria was visited by the Fatimid envoy IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI. The excerpted account of his mission that is preserved in AL-MAQRIZI’s Kitab al-Muqaffa‘ is the most detailed firsthand description of medieval Nubia that we possess. Ibn Salim describes a peaceful and prosperous realm with many towns and with broad, fertile fields. The kingdom of Makouria proper (i.e., excluding the northern territory of Nobatia, which was under Makourian rule but was separately designated) was under close direct supervision of the king. Muslim traders were not permitted to enter the territory of Makouria, where all foreign commerce was a royal monopoly. As a result, no money was in circulation.
The principal royal seat of Makouria was at Dongola, but according to Ibn Salim, the king had residences in other places as well. The court retinue consisted of officials called the domestikos, protodomestikos, meizon, protomeizoteros, and primikerius. These are familiar Byzantine titles, but we know nothing of their specific functions in the Nubian kingdom. Some Arab sources assert that, in addition to the “great king,” there were a number of vassal kings in the territory of Makouria. The dependent northern territory of Nobatia was separately governed by the eparch, who was a royal appointee.
It is clear from a number of references that in early medieval Nubia the royal succession passed from father to son. After the eleventh century, however, we can observe a curious reversion to the older Nubian practice of matrilineal succession. According to ABU SALIH, “It is said to be the custom among the Nubians, when a king dies and leaves a son and also a nephew, the son of his sister, that the latter reigns after his uncle instead of the son; but if there is no sister’s son, then the king’s own son succeeds” (Abu Salih, pp. 271-72). This rule of succession apparently was not consistently followed, with the result that there was a great deal of dynastic strife in Makouria in the late Middle Ages.
After the eleventh century both Nubia and Egypt began to be affected by the spirit of military feudalism that was also engulfing Europe and the Levant. The result was a period of economic decline and of growing political instability. The feudalistic Mamluks seized the Egyptian throne in 1250, and they soon began intervening in the dynastic affairs of Nubia as well.
A number of military expeditions were sent into Makouria to support the cause of one dynastic claimant or another, and in 1276 the Nubian king Shekenda was forced to accept the Mamluk sultan Baybars as his suzerain. Although the king himself remained a Christian, he and his subjects were now obliged to pay the JIZYAH (poll tax) like any other Christian subjects of the sultan. Under these circumstances, many ordinary citizens, as well as some members of the royal family, converted to Islam, and in 1323 a Muslim claimant succeeded to the royal throne. The great bulk of his subjects, nevertheless, continued to practice Christianity until at least a century later.
The accession of a Muslim ruler ended the Mamluk incursions into Nubia, but it did nothing to restore political stability. Dynastic intrigues continued, and in addition the country was now overrun by various nomad tribal groups that had been driven out of Egypt. Under their influence the kingdom finally broke up into warring principalities, and Makouria ceased to exist as a political entity. The date and circumstances of its final dissolution have not been recorded, but it was evidently before the time of Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who wrote in the Kitab al-‘ibar (The Book of Examples):
The clans of the Juhaynah Arabs spread over their country, settled there, occupied the country and made it a place of pillage and disorder.
At first, the Nubian kings tried to check them, but failed; then they tried to find favor with them by giving them their daughters in marriage.
The result was that their kingdom broke up and passed by inheritance to certain sons of the Juhaynah on account of their mothers, according to the custom of the infidels which establishes the succession of the sister or the sister’s son. In this way their kingdom disintegrated and Arab nomads of the Juhaynah tribe took possession of it. But their rule retained no semblance of the monarchic rule of the kings, because of the evil which makes discipline impossible among them. Consequently, the Nubians divided themselves into many parties, and have remained thus up to the present time. No trace of efficient authority has survived in their country.
(V, 922-23; translated in Hassan, 1967, p. 127).
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 438-531. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Hassan, Y. F. The Arabs and the Sudan: From the Seventh to the Early Sixteenth Century, p. 127. Edinburgh, 1967.
- Ibn Khaldun. Al-’ibar wa-diwan al-mubtada’ wa-al-khabar. Beirut, 1879.
- Kirwan, L. P. “Notes on the Topography of the Christian Nubian Kingdoms.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935):61-62. Monneret de Villard, U. Storia della Nubia cristiana, pp. 61-221.
- Orientalia Christiana Analecta 118. Rome, 1938.
- Ptolemy. Geographia, ed. S. Munster. Amsterdam, 1966. Reprint of Basel, 1540.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 33-198. Bologna, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS