The capital city of the medieval Nubian kingdom of ‘ALWA.
It was situated on the east bank of the Blue Nile, a short distance upstream from the confluence with the White Nile. The city is not mentioned by name in any text before the early Middle Ages, but it must have been founded at a much earlier date, for various Meroitic antiquities have been found there.
Soba is probably to be identified with the “city of ‘Alwa,” conquest of which is claimed by the Axumite emperor Aezana (see AXUM) on a stela of 350. This text gives the impression that Soba was the principal city of the NOBA people, who overran much of the territory of the empire of KUSH in the fourth century.
The earliest mention of Soba by name is in the Tarikh (History) of al-Ya‘qubi (fl. 872-891). This merely states that ‘Alwa is a large kingdom to the south of MAKOURIA, and that Soba is its capital. More detailed information is given a century later by IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI: “In the town are fine buildings, spacious houses, churches with much gold, and gardens.
There is a quarter in it inhabited by the Muslims” (Burckhardt, 1819, p. 500). ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN repeats much the same information, adding: “All its inhabitants are Jacobite Christians. Around [the town] there are monasteries, some at a distance from the stream and some upon its banks. In the town there is a very large and spacious church, skillfully planned and constructed, and larger than all the other churches in the country; it is called the church of Manbali” (p. 264).
After the time of Abu Salih there is almost no further mention of Soba by name. The kingdom of ‘Alwa is mentioned in a number of documents, but none of them makes specific reference to Soba, and one or two of them imply that the royal capital may have been shifted to another locality. Nevertheless, the Sudanese folk tradition that is known as the Funj Chronicle clearly indicates that Soba was still the capital at the time it was overrun and conquered by Arab nomads, near the beginning of the sixteenth century.
At that time the Christian kingdom of ‘Alwa came to an end, but there were still some inhabitants at Soba when the intrepid traveler David Reubeni passed through in 1523. The town was apparently in ruins, but some people were still living in wooden houses. Reubeni’s is the last mention of Soba as an inhabited community. Something of the mystique of the place evidently lingered on in oral tradition, for as late as the nineteenth century members of the Sudanese Hamej tribe were known to swear oaths on “Soba the home of my grandfathers, and grandmothers, that can make the stone float and the cotton boll sink.”
One of the ruined churches at Soba, a relatively modest affair with four columns, was excavated in the early years of the twentieth century. Additional archaeological work on the townsite was undertaken by the Sudan Antiquities Service in 1950-1952, and by the British Institute in Eastern Africa since 1982. These excavations have shown that the town in its heyday was a large one, but they have not revealed many specific details of its layout or nature.
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 470-71, 537-39. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Burckhardt, J. L. Travels in Nubia, p. 500. London, 1819.
- Griffith, F. L. Meroitic Inscriptions, Part I, pp. 51-53. Archaeological Survey of Egypt, Nineteenth Memoir. London, 1911.
- Shinnie, P. L. Excavations at Soba. Sudan Antiquities Service, Occasional Papers, no. 3. Khartoum, 1955.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 132-36, 200-01. Bologna, 1981.
- Ya‘qubi, Ahmad ibn Abi Ya‘qub. Tarikh al-Ya‘qubi. 3 vols. al- Najaf, Iraq, 1939.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS