Nubian Church Organization


The three kingdoms of NOBATIA, MAKOURIA, and ‘ALWA were converted to Christianity at various times in the sixth century. There seems to have been rival missionary activity of Monophysites and Melchites in all three kingdoms, with differing results. Nobatia and ‘Alwa were both converted by the Monophysites from the beginning, while Makouria may initially have favored the Melchites. After the seventh century, however, the Monophysite Coptic church was clearly ascendant throughout NUBIA, although the Melchites continued their efforts to win over the southern countries.

An eighth-century Egyptian commentator reported that the church was headed by a metropolitan appointed by the patriarch of Alexandria, and that he had the responsibility of ordaining priests and throughout the kingdoms. However, this testimony does not accord well with other textual or with archaeological evidence. In their funerary stelae, none of the Nubian bishops claims primacy over the whole region, and we can recognize no eccelesiastical title comparable with that of the Abyssinian ABUN.

The evidence tends, rather, to suggest that the church was treated as integral with that of Egypt, under the direct governance of the Coptic patriarch. The appointment of directly by the patriarch is attested in a number of documents. Notwithstanding this organizational unity, Greek rather than Coptic was always the preferred liturgical language in Nubia (see LANGUAGES AND LITERATURE), and ARCHITECTURE developed its own distinctive traditions.

A late medieval source, of obscure origin, lists thirteen sees in Nubia: seven in the kingdom of Makouria, and six in the kingdom of ‘Alwa. The existence of sees at TAFA, Qurta, QASR IBRIM, FARAS, SAI ISLAND, and DONGOLA has been independently confirmed by textual or archaeological evidence. Of the six reported sees in ‘Alwa, only that at SOBA can now be located.

Some information about the Nubian has been gained from the study of mural representations and funerary inscriptions found in the cathedral at Faras. The bishops are shown richly attired in an inner gown and an outer chasuble, with an sash of office hanging from the shoulders. They either are bareheaded or have a fine white cloth draped over the head and shoulders. None is shown wearing a pectoral cross or carrying a staff, although both these items have been found in the bishops’ tombs. In the Faras paintings the bishops are always shown holding the Bible in the left hand and making the sign of blessing with the right.

There are no representations of lesser clergy in the churches. From their it appears that they bore the title presbyteros. There are also many references to deacons, and a few to archdeacons, “epideacons,” and “hypodeacons.” The monastic orders apparently consisted of monks and archimandrites.

Linguistic evidence suggests that many of the and monks in Nubia were Egyptians, although other bishops, as well as most of the lower clergy, were Nubians. The Egyptian prelates and monks used the Coptic language in funerary and mural inscriptions, and quite possibly also in the liturgy, while the indigenous clergy used Greek, later increasingly supplemented by Old Nubian. IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI reported of the kingdom of ‘Alwa: “Their [sacred] books are in the Greek tongue, which they translate into their own language.”

Bishop of and Faras was consecrated at Cairo in 1372. He apparently died shortly after reaching his see in Nubia. His consecration documents, which were found buried beside him, provide the last definite evidence of a link between the church and the Coptic patriarch. Some Egyptian writers flatly assert that contact between the Nubian and Egyptian churches was broken at this time, and that the patriarch refused to send into Nubia because of the disturbed state of the country.

are still mentioned in a number of legal documents from the late medieval kingdom of DOTAWO, but there is a suggestion that they were appointed by the king himself and not by the patriarch in Alexandria. There is not, in fact, a clear distinction between civil and ecclesiastical offices in the late Dotawo documents. The last of these to mention a bishop bears the date 1484.

  • Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 471-73. Princeton, 1977.
  • Jakobielski, S. Faras III, a History of the of Pakhoras. Warsaw, 1972.
  • Monneret de Villard, U. della Nubia cristiana, pp. 158-68. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 118. Rome, 1938.
  • Plumley, J. M. The Scrolls of Bishop Timotheos. Egypt Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations, First Memoir. London, 1975.
  • Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 51-59. Bologna, 1981.