History

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Although the medieval Nubians were literate in four languages, they made no effort to record their own history. Our knowledge of it, which remains very incomplete, comes primarily from Egyptian Arabic sources, and in the earliest years from Byzantine sources. Inevitably, it concerns itself mostly with Nubian-Egyptian relations. Some additional information can be gleaned from documents found in Nubian archaeological sites.

The original conversion of Nubia to Christianity was recorded by two ecclesiastical historians, John of Ephesus and John of Biclarum. It can be inferred from their account that the process of conversion began in AD 543 and was completed in 580, presumably through the conversion of the kings. Although the evangelists speak of three distinct Nubian kingdoms at this time, it is not certain that this was still true when, a century later, the country was invaded by an Arab army. The Arabs, who conquered Egypt between 640 and 642, were at first anxious to add Nubia to their domains, but two invasions in 642 and 652 were successfully repulsed. After the second incursion a treaty, called the Baqt, was negotiated, which guaranteed the freedom of Nubia from Arab invasion, and from the imposition of Islam, in return for an annual tribute of slaves.

The Baqt is a document unique in the annals of Islam, guaranteeing as it does the independence of a non-Muslim nation. It was under this protective umbrella that Nubia's Christian civilization grew and flourished. There are several recorded versions of the treaty, of which the most reliable is probably that of Maqrizi (translated in Burckhardt 1819, 511-512). According to this account the Nubians were to deliver annually 400 head of slaves, but were to receive in exchange gifts of wheat, wine, fine textiles, and horses. Although there were occasional infractions on both sides, the Baqt remained theoretically in force for more than 600 years. The Nubians were however frequently unable to meet its demand for slaves, and in the year 835 they succeeded in negotiating a reduction in the treaty requirement to once every three years. Especially peaceful and profitable relations with Egypt obtained during the years of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt (AD 969-1171), for this heretical Shi'ite regime relied heavily on the Nubians for both economic and military support.

The long peace was drastically shattered when the Fatimid regime was overthrown in 1171. The new Ayyubid ruler Salah ed-Din (Saladin in Western literature) promptly sent a military expedition into Nubia, to forestall any action in support of the Fatimids, and it wrought massive destruction in many of the communities in Lower Nubia. After its withdrawal peaceful relations and trade were resumed, but the Nubians never again took their security for granted. An accelerating process of population relocation began in northern Nubia, as many long-established villages were abandoned, and people clustered increasingly in larger and more defensible communities, some of them walled.

When the Mamluks seized power in Egypt in 1250, the Baqt was as usual in arrears, and the new rulers made its non-payment an excuse for a succession of incursions into Nubia. At the same time the ruling dynasty in Makouria became unstable through disputed successions, and the Mamluks intervened more than once to place their own claimant on the throne. In 1373 they actually oversaw the installation of a Muslim on the Makourian throne, but then helped to reinstall a Christian a generation later.Mamluk incursions became so frequent that in time the Egyptians claimed suzerainty over Lower Nubia, which they called the Province of al-Maris, though in reality they never effectively exercised it. In these circumstances the process of population displacement which had begun earlier was accelerated, as many refugee communities were established on the rocky, previously uninhabited islands of the Second Cataract and the Batn el-Hajjar.

Several historians have taken the year 1373, with its installation of a Muslim on the Makourian throne, as marking the end not only of the Christian Kingdom of Makouria but even Nubia's medieval civilization, but this is a decided error. For one thing, a Christian ruler was back on the throne, with Mamluk blessing, a generation later; for another, there was no interference with the organized practice of Christianity as a result of Mamluk incursions. A Bishop of Ibrim and Faras was actually appointed by the Coptic Patriarch a century later.

The end of the medieval Nubian kingdoms and civilizations was brought about not by the Mamluks but by the wholesale invasion of Arab nomads, at the end of the Middle Ages. Some were driven out of Egypt under Mamluk pressure, but many others crossed the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula. Warlike like all pastoral nomads, they easily overcame the effectively undefended Christian kingdoms. How and when the kingdoms finally fell remains unrecorded; it may have already happened in the late 14th century in the case of Alodia, and certainly in the 15th century in the case of Makouria. The two kingdoms disappeared into the mists of history as mysteriously as they had arisen.

With them disappeared not only the whole apparatus of government, but even most of the institutions of civilization, including literacy, church architecture, mural art, and fine decorated pottery. Nubia relapsed into a backward area with only a bare subsistence economy, while rival meks (sheikhs) fought for control over fragments of the old kingdoms.

In the far north - the old territory of Nobadia - the desert was too barren to offer any attraction to pastoralists, and here a splinter Christian kingdom survived for as much as a century. It called itself Dotawo, but one of its main officials was still the Eparch of Nobadia, an office surviving from much earlier times. This kingdom too finally disappeared around the end of the 15th century, under circumstances that are unrecorded. Half a century later, the whole of its territory was annexed to the Ottoman Empire, as Egypt had earlier been annexed.

Contemporary sources: the only first-hand account of medieval Nubia that has come down to us is that of Ibn Selim el-Aswani (late 10th century), translated in Burckhardt 1819, 495-503. The anonymous Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries (14th century), translated in Evetts and Butler 1895, has information about many places, but it is compiled entirely from second-hand sources and is far from reliable. The most informative and reliable second-hand Arabic sources are an-Nuwayri, Maqrizi, and Ibn Khaldun, all of whom wrote in the 14th century. Their accounts as well as every other known medieval source on Nubia are translated in Vantini 1974, a work of unparalleled value.

Modern sources: Monneret de Villard 1938 is the first attempt at a history of Nubia in modern times. It is still of considerable value, though a great deal more information has subsequently been obtained. For the most up-to-date overviews see Adams 1977, 433-545; Edwards 2004, 212-255; and above all Welsby 2002.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)