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

Dating the Church

It is possible to date the church and suggest when the alterations to it were made by comparing it to other, similar Nubian churches which also underwent similar architectural changes, such as the Buhen Church near Wady Halfa, and the Church on the Mastaba’ and the Cathedral, both at Faras.

The Buhen Church

The Buhen church had experienced extensive reconstruction during the floor had been raised by 60 cm and its piers and walls had been reinforced by further brick walls. New piers composed of rough stone work had also been built in the nave, where they helped to take the weight supported by the existing pillars, the corner of the southwest chamber, the north side of the sanctuary and the area between the north wall and the northwest pillar. This had been done to balance a similar pattern of walls that had earlier been constructed on the south side of the church.

There were also differences between the Buhen Church and that at Arminna West. The nave of the church at Arminna West had included the presbyterium, part of the sanctuary. In the church at Buhen, however, the sanctuary was extended to include part of the nave. It is possible that the Buhen Church may have been built as early as the sixth century or so, as a small painting on wood was found in the fill of the church’s tribune. This was very similar in style to Byzantine art of that century. It is not known, however, when the church was rebuilt.

The Church of the Mastaba, Faras

This church appears to have been constructed in two phases. It originally had square pillars and wide arches. The width of these arches were later reduced and the building made more solid. The pillars on the west side of the church were enlarged on their east and west sides. The east and facing sides of the two pillars in front of the sanctuary were also added to so that they formed a heavy altar screen like that at Arminna West in the final phases of its development. Unlike the church at Arminna West, the altar was moved further east into the apse when the sanctuary expanded into the nave.

Faras Cathedral

The church at Arminna West is closest in its construction and development to the Cathedral at Faras, which underwent two phases of rebuilding according to the Polish archaeologists, who worked on it. It was probably originally built some time around the beginning of the eighth century. It then possessed monolithic granite columns which supported a wooden roof. These were replaced in the tenth century by large brick piers and a vaulted roof. Some time after this, probably in the twelfth century, mud brick walls or screens, on a foundation of debris from older, demolished stone structures, were built between the pillars separating the aisles from the nave. On the north side of the sanctuary the screen were two metres high. They were much higher on the south side, however, to block the greater amount of light that came in from that side. The archaeologists excavating the church believed that the church had been rebuilt due to decay or damage inflicted during raids.

The changes to the fabric of Faras Cathedral may also have been due to general changes in church architecture. In Egypt Ibn Sebba issued a decree commanding all flat roofs to be replaced by vaulted roofs. This change to the structure of the roof also required that the supporting piers should be strengthened. This decree also affected the churches in Nubia. If the other churches were also rebuilt at the same time as Faras Cathedral, then the two phases of rebuilding in the church at Arminna West would also date to the tenth and twelfth centuries. The Coptic stela with its date of 920 suggests that this was also the date of the first phase of the church’s reconstruction.

Comparison with General Nubian Church Types

The church at Arminna West is also similar to a type of Early Nubian church described as Meinarti Type 1c. William Y. Adams, who developed this typology of Nubian churches, considered that the inclusion of part of the nave as well as the apse in the sanctuary indcated that the church had been built in some time in the eighth century. It was unlike the other churches of Meinarti Type 1c in that these had relatively long apses in which the sanctuary was confined. The church at Arminna West, however, had doorways connecting the sanctuary directly with the two sacristies, which did not exist in the other churches of that type. Churches of Meinarti Type 1c also had vaulted roofs. No direct evidence for the type of roof had survived in the church of Arminna West. The brick pillars, on the other hand, suggest that the roof was also composed of brick. If the church was constructed at the date suggest by Adams, then it would have been contemporary with the Early Christian village there and probably the Christian cemetery.

Adams considered that after the church at Arminna West was rebuilt, it was broadly similar to churches of Faras Type 2a construction, though there were also striking differences. The reinforcement of the piers, replacement of the wooden altar screen by one of mudbrick, and the rebuilding of the roof so that it was vaulted rather than flat were all typical of Type 2a churches. Where the church at Arminna West differed from the other churches of this type was in the removal of the door between the north sacristy and the aisle. In the other churches of Type 2a the doors removed were those from the apse to the sacristies. Adams believed that there was a connection between the blocking of the door between the aisle and the north sacristy, and the construction of the room at the north end of the church.

The styhle of church architecture described as Type 2a by Adams lasted from 700 to 1150 AD. Early Nubian churches were decorated with stone carvings, while Classic Christian churches were only decorated with wall paintings. The traces of wall paintings discovered at Arminna West were either in the side chapel or belonged to the later phases of the church’s construction. Bruce Trigger, who excavated the church at Arminna West, believed that the original triumphal arch was replaced by one in red sandstone before the last phase of the church’s rebuilding. He considered that this could have taken place as part of the alterations in the tenth century. It may also have occurred somewhat earlier or later. Trigger was strongly influenced in his dating of the church at Arminna West by Adam’s observations, which he concluded were basically in agreement with his own. He thus believed the church had been constructed in three phases as follows.

Conclusion: The History of the Church at Arminna West

Phase 1.

This was when the church was first built, probably in the eighth century. The church was probably built at the same time the Early Christian settlement at Arminna West it served, was founded.

Phase 2.

This was when the church was rebuilt in the classic Christian style, possibly in the tenth century. By this time the town of Arminna West had become a nucleated settlement – that is, a distinct town, rather than a collection of isolated farms and homesteads – south of the church. There was a cemetery between the church and the river, that was still in use. The church may have been maintained as part of the cemetery and its functions. The altar screens were modified in two phases. It is the church as it was in this phase of its history that it shown in the reconstruction I included in my last blog post. This reconstruction does not show the windows, nor the room built at the western end of the church.

Phase 3:

This was the last phase of the church’s existence. Over a metre of debris was found in the church, probably deposited during the late twelfth century. The church was either used for crude religious purposes, or had been completely abandoned to secular occupation. The Classic Christian village at Arminna West had been abandoned and there were few other indications that the wider area was settled. It is therefore believed that the area was largely deserted. It’s a sad end to a formerly prosperous community and its church.

Source

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

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