Towns, villages and houses

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Medieval Nubians, like all peasant farmers before and since, lived in tightly clustered villages, which might vary in size from a few houses to several hundred. There were no communities in Nubia that would qualify as "cities" by modern standards; even the royal capitals at Dongola and Soba, and the great ecclesiastical centers of Faras and Qasr Ibrim, probably numbered no more than a few hundred inhabitants. Some large villages like Meinarti and Arminna probably functioned as market towns, though specific identifying features are lacking. Most settlements however were no more than farming villages, comprising family residences plus one or more churches. Because of the limited agrarian resources of Nubia, they were seldom anywhere near as large as the peasant villages of Egypt.

The medieval Nubian house was a single family residence, having only one entry. It was usually constructed of mud brick, except at a few localities where rough stone was preferred. The structures show a distinctly marked evolutionary development. Early Christian houses, like those of the preceding Ballana period, were generally small and irregular in plan, with thin walls that can only have supported a flat roof. No consistently recurring layout of rooms has been identified.

The houses of the Classic Christian period, though still generally thin-walled, were consciously larger than those of the earlier period, bespeaking the country's increased prosperity. The typical plan consisted of a fairly large front room, to which the outside door opened, two or more smaller store rooms behind the front room, and an L-shaped passage leading beside and then behind the store rooms to a latrine at the back of the house. This feature of "indoor plumbing" was the single most unique feature of medieval Nubian housing, and it persisted until the end of the period.

Houses of the Late Christian period reflected the increasingly disturbed conditions of the time, specifically the danger of marauders. While the basic house plan remained the same, the thin walls of earlier times gave way to much heavier walls, and flat, timbered roofs were replaced by brick barrel-vaults. Many houses now had one or more store rooms that had no lateral entrance; they could be entered only from above, by ladders. These structures, unlike those of earlier times, did not share party-walls with their neighbors; each was built as an architecturally self-contained unit. As a result, they are sometimes called "unit houses."

In the Terminal Christian period there appeared also a kind of two-story fortified structure that has been termed the "castle-house." The upper floor retained the typical house plan of earlier times, with front room, store rooms, and latrines, while the lower floor consisted mostly or entirely of blind cellars that could be entered only from above. A special feature of all these structures was a secret chamber so cleverly concealed within the thickness of the walls that it might escape the notice even of marauders. Only about 30 "castle-houses" have been identified, scattered mostly through the region of Batn el-Haggar, although there were also a few in Lower Nubia. Most villages had only a single "castle-house," alongside a much larger number of ordinary dwellings. Probably, like the local castles of medieval Europe, it served as a place of refuge for the whole village in times of attack. In addition, a few late settlements were fortified.

Sources: Adams 1977, 488-85; Welsby 2002, 112-37. For "castle-houses," Adams 1994.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)