Churches and church architecture

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Following the introduction of Christianity to Nubia many of the country's pagan temples were promptly converted to churches. Before long, however, separately designed church buildings began to make their appearance, and their number steadily increased. By Classic Christian times every village of any size had at least one church; many had two, three, or even more churches. There is no obvious relationship between the size of a settlement and the number of its churches; this remains something of a mystery.

Within the territory of Nobadia, which has been surveyed nearly from end to end, no fewer than 148 ruined church buildings have been identified, and most have been excavated by archaeologists. Thus far only 23 churches have been identified within the territory of Makouria and 8 in the territory of Alodia, but this only reflects the limited extent of archaeological survey in those regions.

The basic plan of the Nubian church was that common to all east Christian churches: a tripartite division involving a central nave and flanking aisles, a sanctuary usually apsidal in shape at the east end, and flanking sacristies on either side of the sanctuary. Except in the rarest cases the exterior plan was a simple rectangle, without projecting porches of towers. Cathedrals had two rather than one aisle on either side of the nave. Distinctly Nubian features, not found in other churches, involved entryways in the north and south walls rather than at the west end, and a narrow passage behind the sanctuary, connecting the two sacristies. This latter feature made its appearance in Classic Christian times, and disappeared again in Late Christian times. Late Christian churches usually had a square or rectangular sanctuary rather than an apse.

Nobadian church buildings became continually smaller over time. Early Christian churches had average dimensions of 20 x 12 m, diminishing to 14 x 10 m in Classic Christian times, 9.5 x 8.5 m in Late Christian times, and 6.5 x 6 m in the three known examples of Terminal Christian churches. W.Y. Adams (1965 and 2009) has proposed a comprehensive typology of Nobadian churches involving a succession of six major types and eight subtypes. Not enough is yet known to say whether the churches of Makouria and Alodia exhibit the same typological characteristics.

The majority of churches were built of mud brick, rough stone, or a combination of the two. Cut stone construction was employed in some cathedrals, and a very few churches were built of red brick. Most though not all Early Christian churches had flat, timbered roofs, resting on either piers or columns, but this method was abandoned when good building timber from the Levant was no longer available. All later churches had barrel-vaulted brick roofs. Late churches often had a small domed cupola rising above the center of the building.

Churches tended to remain in use for long periods of time, and many underwent substantial modifications. One such was the insertion of a "tribune" (stepped choir seats) within the apse, in Classic Christian times. In early churches which had had a timbered roof resting on columns, the latter were pulled down and replaced with masonry piers when good roofing timber was no longer available. Some churches, like those at Gebel Adda and Meinarti, were rebuilt from the ground up one or more times.

Sources: Mileham 1910; Clarke 1912; Monneret de Villard 1935; Adams 1965; and now especially Adams 2009, which includes a floor plan and description of every known Nubian church.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)