Medieval Nubian Archaeology


Although Nubia was a part of the world of Coptic throughout the Middle Ages, the region was very rarely visited, and still less often described, by Egyptians. Almost the only firsthand accounts of medieval NUBIA that survive are those of IBN HAWQAL and IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI, and both are preserved only in abbreviated form. The NUBIANS wrote little about themselves. As a result, knowledge of the art and the culture of medieval Nubia comes largely from archaeology.

The investigation of medieval Nubian remains was mostly neglected by the First Archaeological Survey of Nubia, which explored the region between and Wadi al-Sibu‘ah in 1907-1911. This deficiency was partly offset by the pioneering excavations of F. L. GRIFFITH in the churches and cemeteries at FARAS, and by the early studies of Nubian church made by G. S. Mileham and by Somers Clarke. During the Second Archaeological Survey of Nubia (1929-1934) there was again no attention to Christian remains by the principal investigators, but during the same period Ugo MONNERET DE VILLARD made a thorough inventory of churches and other medieval remains between Aswan and Khartoum. His four-volume medioevale remains the most comprehensive survey work on medieval Nubian archaeology that has been published.

P. L. Shinnie, during his term as Sudanese commissioner for archaeology (1948-1955), did much to advance the study of medieval Nubian archaeology through his excavations in the townsite of SOBA and in the monastery at Ghazali. These were the first field investigations to employ acceptable professional standards of excavation. The real breakthrough in medieval Nubian archaeology came, however, in the decade between 1960 and 1970, as a result of the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. Excavations were carried out in more than fifty churches; in the major townsites of QASR IBRIM, JABAL ‘ADDA, and DONGOLA; in more than a dozen smaller towns and villages; in a number of large and small fortresses; and in monasteries, pottery workshops, and cemeteries. These excavations, now reported in more than fifty major publications, have provided a far more complete and more rounded picture of life in medieval Nubia than was formerly available.

The medieval Nubians, as revealed through archaeology, were primarily small farmers who dwelt in small and scattered villages along the Nile. There were only a few provincial towns in the country, and none of them approached in size the great urban centers of Egypt. The typical Nubian village, especially in the earlier Middle Ages, might comprise from twenty to fifty houses, and from one to three churches. There were usually no other buildings, and the settlements were unwalled. Houses were modest affairs of brick, usually comprising from three to five rooms plus, in a few cases, an open courtyard. Most of the churches were also of mud brick and were relatively small and simple in design, but there were a few more of rough or dressed stone. All of the churches, large and small, were elaborately decorated with brightly colored murals.

The disturbed political conditions of the later Middle Ages are reflected in a change in Nubian living patterns. Many smaller and outlying settlements were abandoned as the population drew together into larger and more defensible localities. There was a wholesale movement of settlers into the rugged and isolated BATN AL-HAJAR region, which previously had counted few inhabitants. Many of the late settlements, both in Batn al-Hajar and in Lower Nubia, had defensive walls. In the twelfth or thirteenth century there appeared a new type of two-story fortified dwelling, which over time evolved into a kind of miniature castle. Churches in the meantime became smaller and simpler, so that by the end of the Middle Ages the castle had replaced the church as the main architectural expression of Nubian civilization.

The most highly developed arts of the medieval Nubians were church decoration, pottery decoration, and weaving. Other important manufactures were ironwork, various kinds of ornamental as well as utilitarian woodwork, leatherwork, and basketry. Abundant examples of all these industries have been found in the well- preserved townsite of QASR IBRIM. Bronzeware, glass, glazed pottery, and certain kinds of fine textiles were imported from Egypt, as were such luxury foodstuffs as oil and wine. In exchange the Nubians sent slaves, and possibly cotton goods and ivory, to their northern neighbors. Evidence of this trade is found both archaeologically and in the recorded texts of the BAQT treaty.

That the medieval Nubians were devout Christians is attested by many aspects of their everyday life and culture. Nearly every community of any size had its church or churches. The number of such sometimes appears out of all proportion to the needs of the immediately surrounding settlements. Most of the surviving literature, in Coptic, Greek, and Old Nubian alike, is of a religious nature. Specifically religious motifs, such as decorative crosses, doves, and fishes, were employed in pottery decoration, and religious mottoes or cabalistic symbols were inscribed on house and church walls, on pottery vessels, and on the nearby cliffs and rocks. The Michael evidently conferred especial protective power, for his name occurs in votive inscriptions far more often than does that of any other holy personage.

Every settlement had its cemetery, sometimes adjoining the church and sometimes removed from it. Medieval Nubian mortuary practices were austerely simple, especially in contrast with the elaborate mortuary cult of the immediate pre-Christian period. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud and was laid on its back in a plain rectangular pit, oriented toward the west. Usually there were no grave offerings, but a few of the Nubian bishops were gorgeously attired and were accompanied by crosses and staffs of office, and in one instance by pottery vessels.

Ostentation in mortuary practice is observable chiefly above ground. Many graves were marked only by a paving of bricks or stones, but others had more elaborate superstructures. An especially popular form of grave covering was a small brick mastaba about 24 inches (60 cm) high, with a cross in raised relief on the top. Still more elaborate superstructures were cruciform mastabas and small qubbas (dome-shaped edifices). Nearly all superstructures, whether elaborate or simple, had at the west end a small, rectangular brick- lined niche in which a votive lamp could burn. Some tombs, especially of ecclesiastical officials, had attached to them an ornamental stela bearing the euchologion mega or some other popular funerary formula.

The study of medieval Nubian archaeology has made it possible to recognize developmental trends in house architecture, church architecture, pottery, and textiles. These trends have permitted a of the thousand-year period of Nubian Christianity into early, classic, late, and terminal Christian periods, and sometimes into earlier and later subdivisions of the main periods. This chronological framework has in its turn been useful in suggesting the probable date of occupation for a great many Nubian archaeological sites for which no documentary evidence is available. [See also: Nubian Christian Architecture; Nubian Ceramics; Nubian Church Art; Nubian Inscriptions, Medieval; Nubian Monasteries.]


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