(K. Michal Owski) - The social structures and historical events of Nubia's early Christian period were shaped by two main factors
. One of these was the decline of the kingdom of Meroe, which occupied Nubia from the third century before our era to the third century of our era. The other was the Romanization and then the Christianization of Egypt, its northern neighbor. After the kingdom of Meroe fell, a Nobadian state was formed in northern Nubia between the First Cataract and the Dal, i.e. the area between the Second and the Third Cataracts. It emerged after a long series of struggles between the Blemmyes and the Nobades, w h o finally gained control of the Nile valley and pushed the Blemmye s (Bega or Buga) out into the eastern desert.
The excavations carried out by various international missions as part of the campaign to save the Nubian monuments yielded much fresh information on this period of Nubian history. The Polish excavations at Faras confirmed that ancient Pachoras was the capital of the kingdom of the Nobades towards the end of its existence. It was the site of their sovereigns' palace, which was transformed later into the earliest cathedral. The remains of their material culture show that the contrasts in their society's living standards were extreme. The masses were relatively poor.
Their humble burial places made the British archaeologist G .A.von Reisner, who first discovered their civilization, use the term 'the X – Group Culture' — for lack of a more exact historical definition. In contrast to the common people's low level, the ruling classes, princes and court cultivated the traditions of Meroitic art and culture. The most representative remains of the material culture of that tenuous upper crust of society are the lavish tomb furniture of the well-known tumuli of Ballana, discovered in 1938 by W. B. Emery, and the Sovereigns' Palace of Nubia at Faras mentioned earlier.
The interdependence between the Ballana culture and that of the X - Group was not elucidated until quite recently. A short time ago scholars were still disputing it. Some of them held that the X - Group was an enigma in Nubia's history and attributed the Ballana tumuli to chiefs of the Blemmyes, and the other objects of that period to late Meroitic art and culture. Others were inclined to call the whole of that period the 'Ballana civilization'.
The Polish excavations at Faras led to the discovery under the Nobadian Sovereigns' Palace of a Christian church built of unbaked bricks that must have antedated the end of the fifth century. This early dating has, it is true, recently been contested9 but the facts are that among ' X - Group ' tombs there have been found Christian graves10 and that Christian oil lamps and pottery decorated with the sign of the cross appear in X - Group settlements on Meinarti Island. This is strong evidence that very early, even before the official Christianization of Nubia by the mission headed by the priest Julianos which was sent out by the empress Theodora of Byzantium, the Christian faith had reached the Nobades and readily made converts among the poor. A further argument for an early penetration of Nubia by the Christian faith is the existence there of monasteries and hermitages since the end of the fifth century. It can therefore be confidently stated that the Christian religion had gradually infiltrated into Nubia before its official conversion which, according to John of Ephesus, took place in + 543.
Many factors explain this early Christianization of the country of the Nobades. Both the Roman empire, still hostile to Christianity in the third century, and the Christian empire of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries persecuted those who did not obey official injunctions with regard to religion. Hence many Egyptians perhaps, and also Nubians fleeing from Egypt, may have brought their faith to the Nobades dwelling south of Aswan. The traders' caravans passed through Aswan on their southward route, carrying beliefs along with the rest. Byzantine diplomacy, too, played anything but a minor role in the fifth and sixth centuries, Byzantium being anxious to remain on good terms with Aksum in the face of the Persian threat in the Red Sea. In 524 a formal treaty enabled Aksum to send Blemmyes and Nobades to take part in the projected expedition in the Yemen. The priests were certainly not inactive in these transactions and relationships.
By order of the empress Theodora the priest Julianos gave Monophysite baptism only to the sovereigns of the country. Under the influence of Christian Egypt most of its people had been strongly attracted to the new faith and had adopted it much earlier. A church on the banks of the Nile in an outlying district was serving a humble Christian community back in the sixth century. The conversion of the Nobadian rulers to Christianity was for them an important political act. They no longer had a well-defined religious ideology with which to hold the people's allegiance and Christianity now gave them access to Egypt, where since the fourth century bishops had resided on the island of Philae.14 Through Egypt they could reach the Mediterranean and the center of the civilization of that era Byzantium. The kingdom of the Nobadae (Nüba in Arabic), known as Nobadia, extended from Philae to the Second Cataract. Its capital was Faras. In the south, as far as ancient Meroe, another Nubian kingdom emerged in the sixth century with Old Dongola (Dungula in Arabic) as its capital. This kingdom was later called to northern Nubia, which had adopted the Monophysite doctrine, Makuria was converted to orthodox Melkite by a mission which the emperor Justinian sent out in 567-70.
As a result of the Polish excavations carried out at Old Dongola since 1964, four churches and the Christian royal palace have been identified. One of these buildings dates back to the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century. Beneath it the remains of an earlier church built of unbaked bricks have been discovered. This religious building, which was not the cathedral, had five naves and was supported by sixteen granite columns 5-20 meters in height. In view of the magnitude of the remains discovered, there is reason to think that the enthusiastic descriptions given by an Arab traveller in the eleventh century were historically accurate: Dongola was an important capital, at least as regards its monuments.
Finally, between 660 and 700 the Makurites also adopted the Monophysite doctrine and the fact was not without important consequences. Towards 580, with the support of the Nobadae, a Byzantine mission came to Alodia and its leader, Bishop Longinos, noted that the country had already been partly converted by the Aksumites. Towards the end of the sixth century Nubia was therefore a Christian country consisting of three kingdoms: Nobadia in the north, Makuria in the center and Alodia in the south. Their mutual relations are not even yet entirely clear, at any rate in respect of the first period of their independence. '
Until recently the history of Christian Nubia was a part of Egyptology, ancient history and palaeo-Christianity, and most often of the history of Coptic Egypt. Ugo Monneret de Villard's standard work contains all that was known about Christian Nubia in 1938. His four-volume survey of medieval Nubia provided a wealth of illustrative material when it appeared, and still helps research workers to study many points of detail.
He deals in his books with the results of archaeological excavation, but he has meticulously combed Arabic texts, which are still often the only sources of confirmation about important facts of Nubian history and the chronology of Nubian kings. Some of the most important of these are the writings of Al-Yáqübi (874), Al-Mas'udi (956), Ibn Hawqal (c. 960), Selim al-Aswäni (c. 970), A b u Sâlih (c. 1200), Al-Makïn (1272), Ibn Khaldun (1342-1406) and, in particular, Maqrizi (1364-1442).
Since Monneret de Villard's research, many archaeological discoveries have been accumulated, particularly through the 'Nubian campaign' organized under the auspices of UNESCO in 1960-5 to explore ground that was to be flooded by the Nile water above the Sadd al-'Aalï, the High Dam . In some parts of northern Nubia the slow rise of the water level in the storage basin has allowed digging to continue until 1971, and at Qasr Ibrim, which is not flooded, until now.
The results of the research of the last few years have often been exceptionally valuable and have brought the problems of Christian Nubia back into the foreground. The first reports of the diggings were published in Kush for Sudanese Nubia, and in the Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Egypte for Egyptian Nubia. Som e reports have appeared in independent series of publications. N e w summaries have appeared, and archaeological research has been transferred south of the threatened area.