From Pagan To Christian To Islam, Religious Wars In Ancient Sudan
A change in religion more often than not, leads to bloodshed and war as gods hold on to their powers, and their priests and kings and queens take up arms to defend them. The history of Sudan has seen the Nubians defend their religion first against the Romans, but the pagan gods were no match against the wave of Christianity, who by the early medieval age had settled firmly in the Sudanese Nile basin, when the mighty Kingdom of Kush split into three Chrisitan kingdoms. After the crusades by the beginning of the 16th century, Islam invaded from Egypt and the Red Sea and insurgence erupted from within the territory of Old Kush itself. And it all began on a tiny island in the Nile, just above the First Cataract, in the region of Aswan.
Queen Amanirenas And The Romans
Just above the First Cataract of the Nile, at Aswan there was a little island in the river, no more than 380 metres (1,250 feet) long and about 120 metres (390 feet) broad, called Philae – it was actually an appellation of two small islands, but Philae proper was a very sacred place, both to the Egyptians, for it was considered the burial place of Osiris, well as to the Nubians, who had built a Temple to Amun there. So holy was this temple that it was sequestered and denominated "the Unapproachable” and the priests were not even allowed to dwell there, neither did the fish of the Nile approach it, not did the birds even fly over it. Yet the region of the First Cataract was also the centre of commerce between Meroë of Kush and Memphis of Egypt.
Although the First Cataract marked the southern border of Egypt, and the island of Philae fell within Egyptian territory, during the era of the 25th Dynasty, when the Nubians ruled Egypt as the Black Pharoahs, Pharaoh Taharq had built a temple dedicated to Amun on the island. Subsequently Egyptian and Ptolemaic pharaohs also erected temples on the holy island. Pilgrims came from all over the world to pay tribute and worship the gods. Kushan King Arqamani who ruled in Meroë at the time of the Egyptian revolt of Horwennefer against Ptolemy IV Philopator (reign 221–204 BC), and his successor King Adikhalamani, both made the pilgrimage.
During the first century BC Roman rule of Egypt, pilgrimages declined, but not by the Nubians. It was during this period in 25 BC, that a daring Queen of the Kingdom of Kush called Amanirenas, and her son Akinidad engaged in a full-on war with Roman-Egypt over this territory, probably to reclaim the holy island for the Nubians and to benefit from the trade relations of the First Cataract. Initially the pugnacious queen and her son enjoyed victory. In her rage against the Roman rule, she even had the audacity to raid the temples at Philae, transgressing the rule of “Unapproachable”, desecrated the temples, destroyed statues and brought the head of a statue of Emperor Augustus home, to be buried under the steps of a temple at Meroë, where people would symbolically trample the enemy emperor under foot. The Roman retaliation was swift and brutal – although the statue head was only recovered centuries later in 1912 and now sits in the British Museum.
By 20 BC Queen Amanirenas of the Kingdom of Kush had lost not only her eye in battle, but also her son to the Romans and she was ready for peace. She sent an emissary for peace to Emperor Augustus, who was at Samos and the peace treaty was signed. A permanent frontier between Meroë and Roman-Egypt was established at Maharraqa. The Temple of Maharraqa was in the process of being built during the Roman times, but was never finished. It features an architectural curiosity with a winding spiral staircase at a corner of the court, which led to its roof. This is the only Egyptian temple in Nubia with a spiral staircase. The Nubians did not gain Philae, but they were granted Qasr Ibrim, perched on a cliff above the Nile. The Temple on Philae was eventually shut down in 535-538 AD and the Nubians were forbidden to enter it, so they moved their Isis cult to Qasr Ibrim. The peace only lasted for a few centuries.
Queen Amanirenas’ breach of the ‘Unapproachable’ was of no consequence 2,000 years later, when the Aswan Dam was built and the island of Philae was submerged. However, the temple complex was dismantled and moved to nearby Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project. Qasr Ibrim became an island in Lake Nasser, holding the ruins of the Christian Eparch of Nobatia and the source of the largest collection of Old Nubian documents ever found. Queen Amanirenas lived until 10 BC and was buried at Jebal Barkal.
Christian Nubia: Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia
By the sixth century AD, the political landscape of Sudan had changed. The Kingdom of Kush had split up into three Nubian kingdoms: Nobatia in the north, which had its capital at Pachoras (Faras); the central kingdom, Makuria centred at Tungul (Old Dongola), about 13 kilometres (eight miles) south of modern Dongola; and Alodia, in the heartland of the Old Kush kingdom, which had its capital at Soba (now a suburb of modern-day Khartoum). It was during this century that Christianity arrived via the shores of the Red Sea and the camel caravans criss-crossing the land.
For centuries a nomadic group, called the Blemmyes, lived in the land between the Nile and the Red Sea north of Meroë. Gudrun Dahl (2006) describes this region as: “Politically, it was a sort of no-man's land where caravans, unless they were provided with considerable escort, were delivered to brigands.” Although nomadic, the Blemmeys considered themselves a kingdom and during the third century AD, made several raids into Roman-Egypt, to the extent that they were recognized by the Romans as a formidable military adversary. The Blemmyes even joined forces with the Palmyrans against the Romans in the battle of Palmyra in 273 AD. In 298 AD, Diocletian made peace with the Nobatia and Blemmyes tribes, agreeing that Rome would move its borders north to Philae.
While the Blemmeys occupied the area around the Red Sea, at the same time the Nobatians occupied the Nile's west bank in northern Kush. Around 400 AD the Kingdom of Nobatia defeated the Blemmeys and established their territory between the Second and Third Cataract, with Pakhoras (modern Faras) as their capital. The brigands were well-armed bands of horse- and camel-borne warriors who sold their services for protection; eventually they intermarried and established themselves among the old Meroitic people as a military aristocracy.
When they were forbidden entry to Philae and upon moving the Isis cult to Qasr Ibrim, some of the Nobatian elite had already converted to Christianity, but 543 AD is given as the official date when Nobatia, as a kingdom, converted. Although the Taharqa Church was most likely built between 542 and 580, paganism was deep-rooted and it was only after Nobatia was incorporated into the kingdom of Makuria, around 628 to 642 that Qasr Ibrim became a centre for Christianity and the cathedral was built.
The Kingdom of Axum (in Ethiopia) had adopted Christianity as the state religion in the mid-fourth century under King Ezana, much earlier than the Kingdom of Kush. The stele of Ge'ez, discovered at Meroë, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, refers to an unnamed ruler of the Kingdom of Axum, probably Ezana who was "King of the Aksumites and the Omerites”. Meroë was sacked by the Kingdom of Axum in 330 AD. At this time, people from Kordofan began settling in the Nile Valley and intermingled with the Meroitic people, causing social transformations. Thus, from the ashes of the Kingdom of Kush, covering the area along the Nile River from the Third Cataract to somewhere south of Abu Hamad as well as parts of northern Kordofan, the Kingdom of Makuria arose. Meroë and its pyramids fell into ruin and by the late fifth century, one of the Makurian kings moved the centre of power from Napata to Dongola. In 530 AD Emperor Justinian had a plan to incorporate and convert Makuria to Christianity in attempt to buffer the Sassanian Persian expansion. By the sixth century Makuria was thus converted to Christianity.
A little background to the conversion of Nubia is to consider the Byzantian division of believing in two different natures of Jesus Christ. Emperor Justinian belonged to the Chalcedonian sect, the official denomination of the empire, while his wife Theodora was a Miaphysite, who was the strongest sect in Egypt. John of Ephesus described how two competing missions were sent to Nubia, with the Miaphysite arriving first in, and converting, the northern kingdom of Nobatia in 543 AD, but Makuria embraced the Chalcedonian doctrine and in 573 AD a Makurian delegation arrived in Constantinople, bringing gifts of ivory and a giraffe, and declaring alliance with the Byzantines. In the early seventh century the Sassanians managed to capture Egypt, weaking the northern Kingdom of Nobatia who had good relations with Egypt, to such an extent that it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Makuria.
The Arabs invaded Makuria from Egypt and besieged its capital Dongola, but they were repelled by the Nubians, famous for their archery. The invasion failed and Muslim abi Sarh and the Christian Makurian King Qalidurut drew up a peace treaty known as the Baqt, which stipulated trade exchanges and a small tribute to Egypt. The Baqt was honored for six centuries. Later King Merkurios made the most of the peace agreement, declared Miaphysite Christianity to become the official creed of Makuria and founded the monumental Ghazali monastery in Wadi Abu.
The Kingdom of Makuria flourished during the ninth and 11th centuries. Upon King Ioannes' death in 835 AD the tribute as stipulated by the Baqt had been in remiss. An emissary from the Abbasid Empire threatened war if the outstanding payments were not delivered. Georgios I was just crowned king and amidst great fanfare and pageantry, he travelled to Baghdad. The 12th-century Syriac Patriarch Michael described the entourage: “Georgios rode a camel, wielded a sceptre and a golden cross in his hands and a red umbrella was carried over his head”. He was well educated and well-mannered and managed to convince the caliph of remitting the Nubian debts and reducing the Baqt payments. After his return a new church was built in Dongola, the Cruciform Church, as well as the Throne Hall of Dongola, of which the ruins still stand today.
In the tenth century Makuria attacked Egypt and after several skirmishes managed to secure the area along the Nile up to Aswan. In 961 AD the Shiite Fatimids had conquered Egypt and their emissary Ibn Selim el-Aswani visited the Makurian King Georgios III, who honored the reinstatement of the Baqt, but declined the offer to convert to Islam, instead inviting the Fatimid governor to embrace Christianity. Relations between Makuria and Fatimid Egypt were to remain peaceful, as the Fatimids needed the Nubians as allies against their Sunni enemies.
Alodia / Alwa
The third kingdom to arise from the fall of the Kingdom of Kush, was the Kingdom of Alodia or Alwa, incorporating the Fifth Cataract, and stretching below the Sixth Cataract to include the Blue and White Niles. Its capital was Soba, located on the Blue Nile, 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the center of modern Khartoum. It was the last to convert to Christianity in 580 AD. According to John of Ephesus, the King of Alodia requested the King of Nobatia to send a bishop to baptize his people and in 580 Longinus baptized the King, his family and the local nobility. Thus, Alodia became a part of the Christian world under the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria. After the conversion, several pagan temples, such as the one in Musawwarat es-Sufra, were converted into churches.
Alodia was not included in the Baqt peace treaty. While the Arabs failed to conquer Nubia, they began to settle along the western coast of the Red Sea and they founded the port towns of Aydhab, Badi and Suakin - the Red Sea Pearl also known as Ptolemy's Port of Good Hope, Limen Evangelis. Suakin was originally a Beja settlement, but it expanded after the decline of Badi. The Beja – also called the Blemmeys in Roman times - is a nomadic tribe that existed already by 4,000 BC, who occupied the region of the Red Sea.
Shiite Fatimids had conquered Egypt and their emissary Ibn Selim el-Aswani Alodia, who had visited Makuria, also visited Alodia and described it as “being more powerful than Makuria, more extensive and having a larger army. The capital Soba was a prosperous town with fine buildings, and extensive dwellings and churches full of gold and gardens". Despite Alodia being “more powerful” there is evidence that there were close relations between the Alodian and the Makurian royal families. King Moses Georgios, who is known to have ruled in Makuria in the second half of the 12th century, most likely ruled both kingdoms.
The Christian Kingdoms At War
The Shiite’s fear of the Sunni’s realized when in 1171 Saladin, a Sunni Muslim Kurd, overthrew the Shiite Fatimid Dynasty. Saladin dispatched his brother Turan-Shah to deal with the Makurian raids. Turan-Shah sacked Qasr Ibrim in January 1173, taking many prisoners, pillaging the church and converting it into a mosque. He sent an emissary to the Makurian king, Moses Georgios, intending to answer a previously requested peace treaty with a pair of arrows, which King Moses Georgios answered by stamping a cross with a burning hot iron on the emissary's hand. Turan Shah’s troops sacked the cathedral at Faras.
During the 13th century several skirmishes between the Makurians and Egyptian Mamluks erupted, and the Makurians destroyed Aswan. At the Battle of Dongola in 1276 the Mamluks gained a victory over the Makurians, forcing their King David to flee. King David’s nephew Shekanda - a Christian -was appointed as a vassal king of Egypt on the throne and a Mamluk garrison was stationed in Dongola. Several tug-of-wars ensued over Dongola until the Mamluks again occupied the kingdom in 1312, placing a Muslim member of the Makurian Dynasty, Sayf al-Din Abdullah Barshambu on the throne, who began converting the nation to Islam and in 1317 the Throne Hall of Dongola was turned into a mosque, leading to civil war.
In the 12th, 13th centuries and early 14th century, during the Crusades, there were proposals to ally with the Nubians in a crusade against the Mamluks. In the Epstorf Map of 1300, the Nubians were described as devout Christians, who are rich in gold, but “go naked.”
A period of severe droughts occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa between 1150 and 1500 had a devastating effect on the declining Nubian economy. In the mid-14th century, a plague ravaged Nubia killing many sedentary Nubians. During the 14th and 15th centuries Arab tribes steadfastly began moving into the territory. From Egypt they followed the course of the Nile until they reached Al Dabbah, from where they headed west to migrate along the Wadi Al-Malik to reach Darfur or Kordofan. By 1500 the Nubian Christian kingdoms were in a state of total political fragmentation, as they had no kings, but 150 independent lordships occupied castles on both sides of the Nile. Abdallah Jammah ("Abdallah the gatherer"), was one of the Arabs who had settled in the Alodia valley, and he instigated a rebellion against the Christian rulers and managed to overthrow them. The capital Soba fell to Abdallah Jammah in 1509 and its Christian population was enslaved.
The Christian Kingdoms gave way to the Islamic Kingdoms and in 1504 the Funj people had formed the Islamic Blue Sultanate, right in the middle of the Sudanese Nile basin. So began a new chapter of Islamic Sudan, the Ottoman rule, the Egyptian-British overlordship and the rebellion of Muhammad Ahmad - the Mahdi.
Dr Micki Pistorius has an Honours Degree in Biblical Archaeology
Top Image: Saint Peter inserted into a Pharaonic painting, Wadi es-Sebua (late seventh-early eight century) (Public Domain)
By: Micki Pistorius