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New Light on Medieval Nubia

  • P. L. and M. Shinnie

The importance of the Christian states of Nubia in medieval times has hitherto been under-estimated by historians of Africa. There is now sufficient information to show that they played a significant part in the history of the Nile valley for some 800 years. Not only did the existence of Christian states impose a barrier to the expansion of Islam, but the Dongola kingdom at least was at times an important force in the politics of the area.

The recent campaign of excavations made necessary by the building of the Aswan dam has provided much new information about the material culture of the period, and shows a much higher artistic and social development than earlier emphasis on ecclesiastical monuments had suggested. Nubia is now seen to have had a highly developed civilization with considerable urban development. Detailed study of the pottery has made possible more precise dating of buildings and objects, as well as showing periods of increased and decreased trade with Egypt.

The discovery of important frescoes in the cathedral at Faras makes it possible to study the artistic development, and also adds new material for a study of the eastern, particularly Persian, influences already suspected in Nubian art. Information about domestic life is made available by the excavations at Debeira West, the first predominantly domestic site to have been excavated, whose material remains provide new evidence on diet, crafts and agriculture.

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1 Kush, XI, 315–19.

2 de Villard, Monneret, Storia delia Nubia Cristiana (Rome, 1938).

3 de Villard, Monneret, La Nubia Medioevale (Cairo, 1935).

4 Clarke, Somers, Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley (Oxford, 1912).Mileham, , Churches in Lower Nubia (Philadelphia, 1910).

5 Monneret de Villard, Storia della Nubia Cristiana, p. 72.

6 Now known as Dongola el aguz, ‘Old Dongola’, to distinguish it from the modem town of Dongola, more properly known as el Urdi.

7 But see Holt, , Journal of African History, IV, 3 (1963), 3955 for a reconsideration of the traditional date for the fall of Soba.

8 Monneret de Villard, op. cit. 220–1.

9 Illustrated London News, No. 6519, II July 1964, pp. 50–53.

10 Glidden, , Kush, ii (1954), 63–5.

11 This text, frequently referred to, has never been adequately published.

12 Kush, xii (1964), 39 and 249–50.

13 From the excavation at Soba and Ghazali. See Shinnie, , Excavations at Soba (Khartoum, 1955), and Shinnie, and Chittick, , Ghazali—A Monastery in the Northern Sudan (Khartoum, 1961).

14 Michalowski, , Faras—Fouilles Polonaises 1961 (Warsaw, 1962), and Kush, XI (1963), 235–56, Kush, xii (1964), 195–207.

15 Adams, Kush, X (1962), 243–88. This classification has been much modified by a typescript ‘Field Manual of Christian Nubian Pottery Wares’ made available to expeditions in the field.

16 journal of Egyptian Archaeology, xiii (1927), 141–50.

17 The tracing of such sources is a matter of some importance. Some seem to be Persian and some Fatimid Egyptian. But much is still unknown. Compare Shinnie and Chittick, op. cit. 30.

18 For the arguments on which this is based see Adams, op. cit. In the periods proposed here Early is equivalent to Adams's periods 3–5, Middle is 6 and 7, and Late is 8. Adams himself grouped these periods into three main ones similar, to these suggested here Kush, XI, 32, 63n.

19 Shinnie, op. cit. 77.

20 Shinnie and Chittick, loc. cit.

21 Some were inadequately published, Shinnie, , Sudan Notes and Records, XXXI, 297–9. More have since been found and will shortly be published.

22 For a list of Nubian bishoprics see de Villard, M., op. cit. 162–5.

23 The chronology is discussed by Michalowski, Kush, xii (1964), 195–207.

24 Kush, xi (1963), 240 and 313–14.

25 Kush, xi (1963), PI. LXI.

26 Kush, XII (1964), PI. XLIIb.

27 Kush, xi (1963), 257–63, xii, 208–15.

28 The technique of building is described by Mileham, op. cit. 8–10.

29 The Castor oil seeds are cut in half and rubbed over the dish on to which is then poured a thin mixture of flour and water.

30 Kush, xi (1963), 132.

31 Oates in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, xxxxix (1963), 161–71, has shown from a study of several gravestones how some of the aberrant spellings reflect contemporary Greek pronunciation, and argues that colloquial Greek must have been known in Nubia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

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The Journal of African History
  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-african-history
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