Religion

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The earliest missionary activities in Nubia, in the sixth century, were conducted by rival evangelists, representing on one hand the Monophysite (later to be known as Coptic) Church of Egypt, and the Orthodox Byzantine (Melkite) Church. According to ecclesiastical historians, the kingdoms of Nobadia and Alodia were originally converted to the Monophysite, and Makouria to the Melkite. After the Arab conquest of Egypt, however, the Byzantine Church was no longer a major force in Egypt, and the Monophysites became wholly predominant. Although the actual circumstances are unrecorded, it is evident that Makoura soon thereafter converted to the Monophysite sect, and the whole of Nubia from then until the end of the Middle Ages adhered to a single Christian doctrine.

The Nubian Church, as it existed in all three kingdoms, was integral with the Coptic Church of Egypt, headed by the Patriarch of Alexandria. There was not, as in Abyssinia, a separate abuna (equivalent to an archbishop) for the country. All the Bishops were appointed from Alexandria, and many were Egyptians, as were at least some of the lesser clergy. Notwithstanding its adherence to Alexandria, however, the Nubian church throughout its history retained Greek rather than Coptic as its liturgical language, although religious texts both in Coptic and in Old Nubian were also widely circulated.

According to one very late document there were seven Episcopal sees in the combined kingdom of Nobadia and Makouria, and six in the kingdom of Alodia. Textual records mention a bewildering hierarchy of religious officials, including bishops, "great priests," priests, archimandrites, archdeacons, "epideacons," deacons, liturgists, and elders. Very little is known about the actual functions of these individuals.

A few small monasteries have been identified archaeologically, but it is evident that monasticism in Nubia played nothing like the important role that it did in Egypt. It seems evident too that many of the monks were Egyptian rather than Nubian. In addition to recognized and consecrated monasteries there were some small communities of religious recluses, called lawra, which probably had no official recognition (see Anderson 1999).

Primary sources: Adams 1977, 471-88; Welsby 2002, 97-106.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)