The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: The Church at Arminna West

Construction: Phase I

The church originally consisted of a nave and two flanking aisles. At the east end of the church were the apse (3), and the south and north sacristies (5 and 6). The west end of the church contained the north and south chambers (10 and 12). A door led from the north sacristy out onto the east side of the church. There were two other doors inside the church linking the sacristy with the apse and the vestibule (7). Between the two pillars either side of the altar was a stone base to hold an altar screen. This had two sandstone cubes with a hole cut in them at either end to hold the altar screen’s posts. A stone sill ran between the two stone cubes with two large, square indentations on its west side, probably to take two more posts. Running eastwards from the north pillar on the north side of the sanctuary were traces of another wooden screen. Another sill of burnt brick with a 2.5 cm groove in its centre also ran from this pillar. Two pieces of broken tile had also been set into the floor to take the screen. This sill extended as far as the apse at the eastern end of the church. The screen would thus have blocked the entrance from the sanctuary to the vestibule if it had been solid. The two pieces of tile, however, probably held a gate to allow access to the vestibule. A groove to hold another screen ran from the north pillar to the church’s north wall, thus separating the vestibule from the pulpit in the north aisle (8). There was also a screen on the south side of the sanctuary, running from the south pillar to the wall separating the south sacristy from the south aisle (19). The church’s layout during this phase is shown below:

Arminna Church 1a.jpeg

Phase 2

Some time after its construction the church was damaged and may have been temporarily abandoned. The church was, however, rebuilt and return to use. The main alterations to the church’s structure was the addition of the side chapel (14) to the church’s north side and the construction of the small room at the northeast corner of the church (20). Side chapels are found in many churches, and it has been suggested that it ws built to accommodate an increasing number of female worshippers when the north aisle became too small. The door between the north sacristy and the vestibule was also bricked up and plastered over. The wooden screen in front of the sanctuary was replaced, whilie those on the north and south sides were replaced by sandstone slabs. The screen between the vestibule and the north aisle was removed so that it became part of the north aisle. At the same time the door on the north side of the church that led into the vestibule was blocked. The wall replacing the door between the north sacristy and the former vestibule was only a single course of brickwork thick. It thus formed a niche in the sacristy’s west wall. Stuck into its floor was a piece of broken tile, forming a drain. The drain’s precise function is not known, but it may well have been used by the priests for ritual ablutions.

A buttress was built on to the south wall to balance the opposing buttress on the north wall. This had originally been built to support the screen between the vestibule and north aisle. Tiers of bricks were also added to the southeast corner of the north room and the northeast corner of the south room, which gave them the appearance of crosses. These buttresses may have been added to support changes to the roof, such as the construction of a dome. The floor level inside the church was also raised and a new socket for the door to the north chamber was inserted, this time within the room itself (11). Another door was cut linking the north room with the side chapel. TWo walls, 50 and 80 cm high respectively, were also built across the apse. It is possible that these were built to support the tribunes that were a feature of Classic period Nubian churches. This may have had wooden seats. The walls were placed to allow the doors to the sacristies to remain open, like other tribunes in Qustul, Debeira and the churches in the Faras desert. The Coptic funeral stela found in the inner part of the apse was dated 921, and this is probably the date when the church was rebuilt. The plan of the church during this phase of its development is shown below.

Arminna Church 2b.jpeg.jpeg

Phase 3

The church was rebuilt for a third time, during which the wooden altar screens were replaced with those of heavy brick, stone and rubble. There was an opening 1/2 a metre in width in the centre of each screen. The front screen’s outer corners were recessed and a red sandstone block was found on the north side. This probably formed part of an Arch of Triumph. On the surface sand of the sanctuary was found a carved capital with an intricate scroll motif, again of red sandstone. This had probably been set into the wall.

The plan below shows the church’s layout during this period of its history.

Arminna Church 3a.jpeg

This was the last time it was rebuilt. Some time later it ceased being used for worship. Occupation debris, the remains of a large fire in the north aisle and blockings placed above the former floor level, probably for new door sills as the occcupation debris was in places 75 cm thick, suggest that the church at this time was inhabited by squatters.

A reconstruction of what the church may have looked like is shown below.

Arminna Church Reconstruction 1

Source

Bruce G. Trigger, The Late Nubian Settlement at Arminna West (New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University/ The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 1967).

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