Nubian Christian Architecture


According to the testimony of JOHN OF EPHESUS (507-586), Nubia was evangelized in the second quarter of the sixth century by Julian and Theodorus, bishop of Philae. Christianization quickly made great progress. From the end of the sixth century, the country may accordingly be considered as essentially Christian. A monumental Christian architecture in Nubia can be reckoned with only from this period on. Individual hermits may indeed have conducted missionary campaigns even earlier, but this did not result in communities of a size capable of supporting and maintaining church buildings in the ordinary sense of the term.

The oldest church buildings of the early Christian period (i.e., sixth century) have been found in the chief towns of the country— FARAS (Pachoras, the capital of Nobatia) and Old DONGOLA (capital of MAKOURIA), as well as the fortress of QASR IBRIM (Primis). From the southernmost capital SOBA in ‘ALWA there are as yet no relevant results from excavations.

Since Nubia was evangelized from Egypt, the church architecture is substantially determined by Egyptian models. This means that for the early Christian period the basilica, in particular, must be considered the leading type of building, with the special features current in Egypt at that time. To these belong the side rooms of the apse, employed almost everywhere in Egypt since the fifth century, and also the return aisle. In addition to these, a feature special to Nubia was a connecting passage running along behind the apse, which was probably the result of a simplified development of the apse side-room plan, and has some representatives in Egypt also (Abu Mina, predecessor of the East Church; Grossmann, 1980, pp. 222ff., fig. 8). In some churches in Nubia, it appears very early indeed.

However, it becomes canonical in the proper sense in the high Middle Ages, and then consists of a small simple passage that merely connects two apse side rooms one with the other. The basilica is usually constructed with three aisles. Examples of five- aisled basilicas have been found at Old Dongola and Qasr Ibrim. In Old Dongola, there is, in addition, a kind of transept basilica, in which the central aisle is constructed normally. Only the outer sidewalls of the church turn outward in the eastern part of the naos, just before the sanctuary area, so that at this point the side aisles widen out.

In the eighth century, the building forms become richer. Both in Old Dongola and in Faras there were cruciform buildings with several aisles, which at the end of the transverse axis had exedras relating to the central zone. There is no information so far about buildings of this kind in Egypt, though they must certainly have existed (a reduced representation of this type may be seen in the church of al-Hayz Oasis). However, there are examples in North Africa, for example, in Damous al-Karita and Junca III. Alongside these churches, there appears, from the seventh century on, a type of four-pillared building with an ambulatory, equipped with corner pillars. Presumably, it too follows in the train of preceding development in Egypt, and it can be traced, with some changes and simplifications, practically down to the end of Christian architecture in Nubia.

From the early Middle Ages down to the beginning of the high Middle Ages, the basilica remained to a large extent the leading form of building, alongside a modest development of buildings with a central core. Down to the tenth century, preference was given in particular to barrel-vaulted, pillared basilicas, of which several examples have been identified in the neighborhood of Faras. In front of the apse almost all examples contain a thick transverse wall with a wide central opening, which significantly extends only the breadth of the nave and thus clearly points to strong influence from Egypt. However, while in Egypt the area set apart in front of the apse was developed into the khurus, in Nubia this motif was never employed.

During the same period the western part of the Nubian churches also assumed its final form. The western return aisle, present as in Egypt in the early Christian phase, was remodeled and merged with the staircase and a further corner room to form a group of three rooms, of which only the middle one could be entered directly from the naos of the church. It was open to the naos for almost its entire breadth, and in this form represents the former western return aisle. Down to the thirteenth century, this form of the western part remained canonical and was employed both in the building of basilicas and in churches built around a central core. Only in the fourteenth century, when the dissolution of the canons of form in Nubian church building set in, did this form of the room also begin to disappear.

From the high Middle Ages or the beginning of the eleventh century in Nubia as in Egypt, the domed structure took on increasing importance. Hence from this period on there were some longitudinal churches with domes, such as were built in Egypt. The increased building of domes promoted to a much greater extent the idea of centrally planned churches. An extraordinary number of examples have survived from the medieval architecture of Nubia in the form of four-pillared buildings with square or cruciform pillars. From these, small arches were thrown across on the four sides, which in a way divided the whole area into nine smaller areas.

While a high dome on squinches was usually erected over the center, the side areas were sometimes roofed with small barrel vaults relating to the center, or with shallower sail vaults. Frequently these were set at a different height in the several areas, the areas in the axes being given preferential treatment. In this way, there came into being a form not unlike that of the Middle Byzantine cross-in-square churches, and there is therefore hardly any doubt that these buildings were influenced from there by way of Egypt.

In another case, the domed church at Kulb is a specimen of the Middle Byzantine octagon-domed church, which has its closest relatives in the area of Aswan. It has, however, no lateral link of rooms, which is the case also in the Saint Saba church of Dayr al- Qusayr at Turah (near Cairo) and stands thus close to the representatives of this architectural form in the Greek examples. It is distinguished from these by a certain emphasis on the transverse axis, which does not occur in the Greek buildings. For the rest, the church at Kulb contains all the peculiar features of Nubian church architecture, such as find expression in particular in the eastern cross-passage and the tripartite western group of rooms.

In this phase the building of basilicas gradually faded out. A characteristic feature was the gradual decline in the number of pillars. The buildings, which now show only two columns on each side, are in their ground plan scarcely to be distinguished from the four-pillared buildings arranged around a central core. In fact, there are also some cases in which the area circumscribed by the pillars is roofed with a dome. Here the only thing that remains to indicate their origin from the basilica is the absence of any subdivision of the side aisles. In contrast to the centrally oriented type, they are roofed with a barrel vault running right through.

From the late Middle Ages or the beginning of the thirteenth century, the buildings are further simplified. As in Egypt, there appears a hall church executed on the four-pillar system, in which the complicated changes involved in vaulting are replaced by the uniform use of sail vaults carried to the same height. It thus forms a simplification of the four-pillar buildings of the high Middle Ages. Only the middle still remained emphasized by a high towering dome. At the same time, the bays became closer to one another in size. This type is hardly any different from the late medieval hall church such as appears in Egypt in the Mamluk period. The only thing it does not share is the increase in the number of sanctuaries characteristic of Egypt. In the churches of Nubia, right to the end, there is only a single sanctuary.

The last phase of the Nubian church building is marked by a decline in the whole development. There was a reintroduction of barrel vaulting overall spatial areas, while the tripartite western group of rooms was renounced. In the same way, the original tripartite sanctuary became a single wide chamber accessible only in the middle. This development clearly shows that Christianity had already entered into a phase of decline. People made do with small houses of prayer of an uncomplicated form.


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