Nubian Monasteries


THE ARMENIAN, in his Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries, speaks of numerous and imposing monasteries in Nubia. Archaeology suggests, however, that the monastic movement was never as important in Nubia as it was in Egypt. Fewer than a dozen Nubian monasteries have been identified archaeologically, and none of these can compare in size or splendor with the great establishments at Suhaj and in the Wadi al-Natrun. The largest of the Nubian monasteries might perhaps have accommodated fifty or sixty monks, but many were considerably smaller.

Most of the known Nubian monasteries seem to date from the period between 900 and 1200. Only two of them, at Qasr al-Wizz near FARAS and in the Wadi Ghazali, have been investigated with any thoroughness. In both places a central church was enclosed within a compact cluster of adjoining buildings, and the whole was surrounded by a girdle wall. At Qasr al-Wizz it is possible specifically to recognize a cluster of monks’ cells, a central kitchen and refectory, and workshops. Some of the earlier Nubian monasteries, like the one at Wadi Ghazali, stood slightly removed from settled areas, but none was truly isolated (as were many Egyptian monasteries).

Nubian seems to have declined rapidly after the eleventh century, probably as a result of unsettled political conditions. Detached settlements like those of Qasr al-Wizz and Wadi Ghazali were abandoned, and colonies of monks apparently attached themselves for protection to already existing communities. In the late Middle Ages there was one such colony at MENARTI, where the monks shared the village church with the lay inhabitants of the community. Similar accommodations may have taken place at some of the island sites in the BATN AL-HAJAR region. All Nubian monastic communities seem to have come to an end before the fifteenth century, though the Christian itself persisted for another hundred years.

There are neither surviving nor firsthand descriptions to suggest how the Nubian monasteries were organized and governed. The abundance of Coptic tombstones at Wadi Ghazali, Faras, and Qasr al-Wizz suggests that many, perhaps even most, of the monks at these places were Egyptians rather than Nubians. However, the style of church architecture exhibited at all the Nubian monasteries is distinctly indigenous and not Egyptian. In addition to cenobitic monks, there were isolated hermits living in caves and ancient tombs in various part of Nubia. One such anchorite, a certain Theophilus, decorated the walls of his tomb home with a remarkable series of Coptic liturgical and magical inscriptions, dated to 739 (see NUBIAN INSCRIPTIONS, MEDIEVAL).

[See also: Nubian Christian Architecture; Nubian Church Organization; Nubian and Literature; Nubian Archaeology, Medieval.]


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