Out of the shadow of Egypt

The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia
January 10, 2003

The upper part of the Nile Valley produced the civilisations of Napata, which conquered its northern neighbour in the 8th century BC, and Meroe, which proved a strong rival to the Roman empire. In ancient terms, this region was known as Nubia in the north - an area that is today divided between Egypt and the Sudan - and Kush in the south. Northern Nubia was a land of austere beauty but meagre resources. Its importance lay more in the control of the trade with central Africa that travelled along the Nile.

The earlier history of Nubia was amply covered by Derek Welsby in his monographs The Kingdom of Kush and The Napatan and Meroitic Empires . Now comes the third volume, The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia, which deals with a period of African history that is nowhere near as well researched. The author has no difficulty in showing that the culture of medieval Nubia is also impressive. The Afrocentrist school, which is based mainly in the US, makes a great deal of trying to claim ancient Egypt for the history of black Africa. It might do better to focus on the achievements of the Nubians. Up-to-date and detailed surveys such as Welsby's are an excellent starting point.

The author begins this new episode in Nubian history with the tumulus burials at Ballana and Qustul. The discoveries at these sites are one of the high points of African archaeology, and they deserve to be better known, but it took the threat of the raising of the Aswan Dam in the late 1920s before these were excavated. The human sacrifices that accompanied these burials are well placed by Welsby in the context of similar African traditions. The regalia found in the tumuli suggest that the rulers buried there regarded themselves as viceroys, presumably for the Byzantines. They will have included Silko (c. 450), whose Greek inscriptions are the most informative from this otherwise shadowy period.

Nubia, however, rapidly became Christian. The area remained Christian well into modern times, and there are some present-day Nubians whose grandparents were Christian rather than Muslim. As a result, it found itself sandwiched between two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, which had adopted the monophysite view of Christianity that was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Nubians, who had suffered for much of their history from the influence of their more powerful neighbour to the north, chose not to follow Egypt's line on such matters and remained Orthodox. But Nubian Christianity developed themes of its own, notably a strong attachment to the cult of the archangel Michael and a concentration on the symbolism and connotations of the cross.

The political history of this period is complex, all the more so for needing to be pieced together from chance references in Greek or Arabic sources. Archaeology helps to an extent, but the results are extremely patchy and are yet to be fully appreciated, as the book's detailed and well-illustrated narrative makes clear. The area divided itself into a northern principality, Makuria, and a southern one, Alwa. Alwa may well have had more resources but written evidence from and about the southern state remains scanty: Welsby is one of the few archaeologists to have excavated in this area and the only one to do so on a large scale.

In one respect, the historian of medieval Nubia is better off than his ancient counterpart. The languages of ancient Sudan were nearly all unwritten, while the one substantial exception, Meroitic, can be read but is yet to be deciphered. The earlier periods have to be studied through the medium of Egyptian texts, which tell the story from the point of view of a superior rival. For the post-Roman period, there are sources in Greek, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopic and, increasingly after the 11th century, Arabic. These are welcome but biased.

Fortunately, Greek was also used by Nubian rulers for historical inscriptions. Its grammar may horrify classicists, but the material is at least indigenous. In addition, the Nubian language, the ancestor of several modern dialects, puts in an appearance from the 8th century, when it was written down, like Coptic, in a modified form of the Greek alphabet. Medieval, or Old, Nubian is increasingly being understood thanks to scholars, and this will not only restore a lost language but should give us something of the Nubians' own view of their history.

The importance that scholars are coming to attach to the history of Nubia can be seen in a symbolic, but nonetheless significant, act. Some while ago, the Department of Egyptian Antiquities in the British Museum renamed itself the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, acknowledging the debt that is owed to both countries. Publications such as this will go a considerable way towards showing that there is substance behind this change of name. For political, economic and cultural reasons, Sudanese scholars feel an acute sense of isolation. They need, and deserve, to be part of the international community of learning. Let us hope this isolation is coming to an end.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.

The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims on the Middle Nile

Author - Derek A. Welsby
ISBN - 0 7141 1947 4
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £29.99
Pages - 296

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