A fortified hilltop settlement in Lower Nubia, about 25 miles (40 km) to the north of the famous temples of Abu Simbel.
A temple seems to have been built there in the Egyptian New Kingdom, and the place was intermittently occupied from that time until its final abandonment in 1811. The name appears in Meroitic texts as Pedeme; in classical texts variously as Primis, Premnis, and Prima; and in some Coptic texts as Phrim. Most Arabic sources give the name as Ibrim or Qal‘at Ibrim. The forename Qasr is seldom encountered before the nineteenth century, although it has been regularly coupled to the name of the town in the recent past.
Qasr Ibrim, in the beginning, seems to have been primarily a religious center. In addition to the New Kingdom temple (which may never have been finished), the “Ethiopian” pharaoh Taharqa built a brick temple in the seventh century B.C. A more overt military and administrative role began when the Ptolemies occupied the place and built a massive girdle wall around it, probably around 100 B.C. They and their Roman successors apparently occupied the place for about two centuries, although a Meroitic invading force took temporary possession in 23 B.C., as recounted by Strabo and Pliny. Around A.D. 100, Qasr Ibrim was returned to the control of the Meroites, who restored the Taharqa temple and built another, larger one alongside it.
Qasr Ibrim retained its strategic as well as its religious importance in the post-Meroitic period. It was seized for a time by the Blemmye nomads (see BEJA TRIBES) who settled in the Nile Valley following the Meroitic collapse, and afterward by the Nobadae, who drove out the Blemmyes. Texts found at Qasr Ibrim suggest that this was the earliest residence of the kings of NOBATIA; later they seem to have transferred their residence to FARAS.
Early in the sixth century the Taharqa temple was made over into a church. This may well have been the earliest church building in Nubia, for archaeological evidence suggests that its conversion preceded the “official” Christianization of Nobatia in 543, as related by John of Ephesus. Other parts of the Taharqa temple complex were apparently converted for a time into a monastery, but this was subsequently dismantled.
A bishopric was established at Qasr Ibrim in the seventh century, and shortly afterward an impressive stone cathedral was begun. A smaller church was built alongside the cathedral at a later date. Meanwhile, most of the secular buildings at Qasr Ibrim seem to have been leveled, and the mountaintop became primarily a religious center in the early Middle Ages. Visitors’ graffiti show that it was an important pilgrimage site, as it had been in Meroitic times.
Nubia was invaded by an Ayyubid force under Shams al-Dawlah Turan Shah in 1172-1173, and the invaders temporarily seized Qasr Ibrim and damaged the cathedral. This event marked a turning point in the history both of the fortress and of Nubia. The town fortifications, which had been neglected, were now restored and heightened. Secular and commercial buildings began to appear again on the mountaintop alongside the churches. The eparch of Nobatia, who had formerly resided chiefly at Faras, transferred his main headquarters to Qasr Ibrim in the twelfth century. Meanwhile, the religious importance of the place continued. A bishop of Faras and Qasr Ibrim was consecrated at al-Fustat (modern-day Cairo) in 1372, and bishops of Qasr Ibrim are mentioned in a number of documents of still later date.
After the medieval Nubian kingdom of MAKOURIA collapsed, its power in Lower Nubia was assumed by the splinter kingdom of DOTAWO. The capital or principal royal seat of this principality seems to have been at JABAL ‘ADDA, but Qasr Ibrim was also an important center within the kingdom. Many of the surviving documents that relate to the kingdom of Dotawo have been recovered from the excavations at Qasr Ibrim. The latest of these bears the date 1464.
Qasr Ibrim may have been largely abandoned by the time the Ottomans took possession of Nubia early in the sixteenth century. They reoccupied and refortified the hilltop and made it one of their two principal control points within Nubia, the other being at SAI ISLAND. Part of the old cathedral was turned into a mosque, and the remainder of the structure was allowed to deteriorate. The original Ottoman garrison, according to local tradition, was of Bosnian origin, and as a result the latter-day inhabitants of Qasr Ibrim were usually termed “Bosnians” both by themselves and by their neighbors. They remained in occupation until driven out by Mamluk refugees in 1810. These in their turn were expelled by artillery fire in the following year, and the 3,000-year history of the fortress came to an end.
Excavations in the Qasr Ibrim fortress were begun in 1963 and have continued intermittently. The original fortress was perched so high above the Nile Valley floor that, unlike any other site in Lower Nubia, it has not been fully inundated by the waters of Lake Nasser. It is now a small island, about 5 acres (2 hectares) in extent, projecting above the lake surface.
Some of the finds from Qasr Ibrim, particularly the textual finds, are of outstanding historical importance. They include letters relating to the BAQT treaty, to the commercial relations of the eparchs of Nobatia, and to the late medieval kingdom of Dotawo. Also important are the intact consecration scrolls of Bishop Timotheus, one in Coptic and one in Arabic, dated 1372.
[See also: Nubian Church Organization.]
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 349-53, 400-404, 412-14, 464-68, 474-78, 579-80. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- ____. “The ‘Library’ of Qasr Ibrim.” The Kentucky Review 1 (1979):5-27.
- ____. “Qasr Ibrim, an Archaeological Conspectus.” In Nubian Studies, ed. J. M. Plumley. Warminster, England, 1982.
- Plumley, J. M. “Pre-Christian Nubia (23 B.C.-535 A.D.). Evidence from Qasr Ibrim.” Travaux du Centre d’archéologie mediterranéenne de l’Académie polonaise des sciences 11 (1972):8-24.
- ____. “An Eighth-Century Arabic Letter to the King of Nubia.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 61 (1975):241-45.
- ____. The Scrolls of Bishop Timotheos. Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations, First Memoir. London, 1975.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 159-61. Bologna, 1981.
- Publication of the archaeological results from Qasr Ibrim has begun. Preliminary excavation reports will be found in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 50 (1964):52 (1966); 53 (1967); 56 (1970); 60 (1974); 61 (1975); 63 (1977); 65 (1979); 69 (1983); and 71 (1985).
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS