Posts Tagged ‘Faras’

A Face from Medieval Nubia

June 28, 2013

As I’ve already mentioned on previous posts on medieval Nubia, the churches of the Classic Christian period, including that at Arminna West, were decorated with wall paintings. Faras Cathedral was richly decorated with murals. It had been dedicated to the Virgin in 630, so many of the wall paintings were of her. One of these was of Our lady standing amongst the stars in heaven, holding the infant Christ and with two angels, one standing either side of her. The fesco had the inscription ‘The Holy Mary, Virgin Mother of Christ’. To the right was another inscription, reading ‘Jesus Christ, the Saviour’. There was another wall-painting showing the Virgin and the birth of Christ with the three kings and the shepherds. The two shepherds depicted had the names Arnias and Lekotes. There were other murals of the three kings, the Apostle Peter, and those saints that were particularlyrevered in the Monophysite church, such as St. John Chrysostom, and Ignatius, the archbishop of Antioch. There was also a vast mural of the three holy children, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace as described in the Book of Daniel. The military saints were also depicted as was the the archangel Michael, the patron and protector of the Nubian kingdom of Macuria, whose capital Faras was. The murals also showed the Queen Mother, Martha, under the special protection of the Virgin and God crowning king Mercurius on the church’s foundation stone. The mural’s inscription described the king as ‘Christ-loving’. The tenth century mural of King Georgios II showed him under the protection of both the Virgin and Child.

The murals also showed the bishops, and their staff of archpriest, priests and deacons. These were shown in their vestments, including the stoles and chasubles. These were richly decorated, some covered with jewels. Their vestments were modelled on those of the Byzantine church, but are not very different from the modern vestments of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican church. As a diocese, Faras had the status of Metropolitan, a high status held only by the most important dioceses of the Byzantine Empire. The town itself was under the Eparch, a high official directly subordinate to the king himself in Old Dongola. The Eparch was styled ‘illustris’, a term used only of the highest rank of civil servants Byzantium. One of the churchmen depicted on the murals is of Marianos, who was bishop of Faras from 1005 until his death in 1036. With his broad face and beard, he has been described as resembling King Henry VIII of England. I’ve attempted to depict the mural of him in the drawing below.

Nubian Face Drawing

Clearly Nubia had a rich artistic as well as literary and religious heritage.

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

June 28, 2013

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).

Medieval Nubian Churches and Monasteries: Arminna West

June 26, 2013

Despite its great age, the ground plan of the church at Arminna West had survived almost completely intact except for the south sacristy when it was examined by archaeologists in the three years from 1961 to 1963. The surviving walls were mostly under a meter in height. Nevertheless, the excavators were able to reconstruct much of its original structure and history. A diagram of of the church as it was found by the archaeologists is shown below. South is in the top right hand corner.

Arminna Basic Church 1

The church was originally 11.25 meters long, but the east and west side were both of different widths. The east side was 8.1 meters while the west end was 8.4 meters. The walls were composed of mudbrick. The church had an altar (1), which may have had a wooden top, such as those at Ar-Rammal, the northern church near Adindan and Church on the Mastaba at Faras. In front of this were two mud brick pillars (2). Running between them was the stone base for an altar screen. The sill for another altar screen was found on the north side of the altar. The groove for a third screen ran from the north pillar to the north wall, separating the vestibule from the north aisle. It also had an apse, consisting of two curving brick walls on the east side of the church (3). Flanking this were the south and north sacristies (5 and 6 respectively). The south sacristy was probably a baptistry. It held a sandstone font in its south-east corner. This was rectangular, but with an uneven base. Near its front end it had a stone spout and a hole in the bottom, which was lined with lead. This probably held the pipe that drained the font. The font was originally covered with pink plaster. West of the north sacristy was the vestibule. South of this was the ambo or pulpit (8). There were two chambers either side of the nave (10 and 12), with the socket for a door at the entrance to the northwest chamber (11). The room held steps or a low bench (9). It also held a platform of brick and stone to take a stairway. This would either have led to the roof to a second storey, though this unlikely given the church’s small size. Two small pieces of parchment with the remains of a text in Coptic were found in this room, suggesting that it had been a scriptorium. There was a side chapel on the north side of the church (14). This room had had a barrel-vaulted roof, which, along with its walls, had been covered in paintings. Running along the church’s south and east sides was a low mastaba (15 and 16). This had been cut through for a passage to the south entrance with a stone sill (13). The building also had an annex containing a low bench on its northeast side (17). Only one other room like this to have been found is at the church at Ukma. The low bench suggests it is an extension of the north sacristy, though it is not really known what it was used for. Built on to the church’s west end was another room (18). Like room 17, it is not known what this room was used for, although it is believed that it was used for some purpose associated with the church. Although the walls were cleared, the room itself was not excavated.

The church was basilican in form, but had been gradually modified and altered during the centuries it was in use. The archaeologists excavating the church believed that it had been built in three phases, which will be examined in the next post.

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)

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: Part 1 – Introduction

June 21, 2013

I’ve blogged a bit before on the great Christian civilisation of medieval Nubia in what is now the Sudan. This civilisation consisted of the three kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa. Nobatia was situated in the area between the Nile’s first and second cataracts, with its capital at Faras or Pachoras. Makuria stretched from the third cataract to the Butana. Its capital was Old Dongola. It was amalgamated with Nobatia in the seventh century. Alwa was centred on its capital of soba far to the south. Alwa is its Arabic name. The Greeks called it alodia. The remains of extremely small churches and a limited number of burials suggest that there may have been a settled Christian presence in Nobatia in the early sixth century before the possible conversion of the pagan temple of Dendur into a church by the king Eirpanome in 550 AD. The Nobatian church was monophysite, like the modern Egyptian Coptic Church, which believes that Christ only had a single, divine nature. The Makurian church, however, was dyophysite. Like the modern Greek and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and European Protestant churches, it believed that Christ had two natures. He was both human and divine. Nubia boasted numerous churches. Little is known about Alwa, but the Armenian traveller Abu Salih described it as possessing 400 churches. Archaeological excavations in Soba have uncovered very few buildings that may have been churches, and it is possible that Abu Salih had overestimated their number. One of the very earliest churches in Nubia was in Qasr Ibrim, which was created by the local Christian community in the fifth century through the conversion of the Meroetic temple of King Taharqa, dating from the seventh century B.C.

European and International Exploration and Archaeological Investigation

After its conquest by Islam in the 16th century, medieval Nubia was largely unknown in the West until a series of European explorers and archaeologists visited the area from the early 19th century onwards. One of the first was the great Swiss explorer Jacob Burckhardt, who made two expeditions to Nubia and travelled as far as the third cataract from 1813 to 1815. Burckhardt was the first to describe the Nubians’ way of life, and their faded memories of their ancient Christian past. Two tribes even then still claimed to be descended from the ancient Christian inhabitants. He saqw the remains of two public buildings, which were probably churches at Qasr Ibrim, and came across the remains of a chapel in one of the islands of the Batn el Hajar, lying between the second and third cataract. Later explorers included Count Vidua, Richard Lepsius, the archaeologist, Somers Clarke, and many others. Most of what is known about medieval Nubia comes from the great rescue operations to investigate its archaeology during the construction of the Aswan dam. The first of these was 1899,led by Clarke, and the second, much greater series of excavations in the ‘Save Nubia’ UNESCO campaign from 1960s onwards, caused by the construction of the High Dam and formation of Lake Nasser. These were done by teams of British, American, Polish and Dutch archaeologists.

Nubian Courts and Kings Styled on Byzantine Empire

Archaeological finds and inscriptions, including evidence from churches, indicate that Nubia had strong connections with the Byzantine Empire. Often these were stronger than its relationship with the Egyptian Coptic church to the north. Inscriptions found by J.W. Crowfoot in the region of ancient Mekuria in 1927 indicates that the Nubians used Greek and followed the Byzantine liturgy in their worship. Documents discovered and published the following year by F.Ll. Griffiths showed that the Mekurian court was also modelled on that of the Byzantine Empire. There were courtiers and officials with the Byzantine titles of meizoteros (mayor of the palace?), proto-meizoteros (premier super-mayor), domesticus, primacerius and eparchos. A graffito in mangled Greek at St. Simeon’s monastery, dating from 7th April 1322, records that the last Christian king of that part of Nubia, Kudanbes, styled himself ‘president of the Caesars’.

Construction of Nubian Churches

Nubian churches were mostly built of mud brick, which does not survive very well in the archaeological record. Otherwise churches were composed of fired, red brick on stone foundations. These were either of sandstone, or granite from the marginal areas near the desert. The roof, which could be either flat or vaulted, were supported by granite pillars. These were painted or plastered, and occasionally were covered with frescoes. Stone capitals, doorjambs and lintels were carved with a wide variety of motifs and designs which reached their zenith in the eighth century. These included fish, crosses, vine and palm leaves. Granite capitals have been found in Upper Nubia, but they are rare, and were probably robbed out for reuse after the buildings were abandoned. William Adams identified four phases in the evolution of Nubian church architecture from his work in Lower Nubia. In the first, earliest phase churches probably consisted of the Byzantine basilica type. These were rectangular buildings comprising a nave flanked by two aisles. The Byzantine influence on these churches suggest that the dyophysite Christian communities in Nubia were earlier than indicated by the historical sources. The next phase, termed Early Nubian by Adams, lasted from about 650-800. This still roughly followed the form of the classical basilica, but with some slight differences. These may have been the result of changes in the Nubian liturgy, or the deliberate creation of a separate architectural style by the churches’ builders.

The zenith of Nubian church architecture was reached in the next phase, the Classical Nubian, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1150. This was defined through the addition of a passage running across the east side of the church, leading from the baptistry in the south to the vestry on the north side of the church. These were probably constructed to allow the clergy to pass from one side of the church to the other without going through the sanctuary or heikal. In some churches of this type there was a brick wall between the sanctuary and the nave. This indicates that the ceremonies in the sanctuary was becoming more secret and spiritual, and so concealed from the view of the laity.

According to the Polish archaeologist, Wlodiemiercz Godlewski, who excavated Old Dongola, the first three phases also saw changes in the construction of the baptistry. These were usually located south-east of the nave or narthex. These originally possessed large, circular tanks into which the candidates for baptism could walk. These were gradually replaced by square fonts, which were placed on a pedestal or base, similar to those in modern western churches from the eleventh centuries onwards. It appears that there was thus a move away from large, public baptisms towards a smaller, more intimate ceremony.

During the last phase of church construction from around 1150 to 1400, churches became smaller. The earlier large tanks for baptism were not generally built in churches of this period, and the emphasis was now on the sanctuary. This suggests that the church interior was exclusively reserved for the clergy, and that the congregation were deliberately kept outside. It also indicates that baptisms were being conducted in the Nile, rather than in a special space within the architecture of the church. This may well have been produced by changes in the liturgy, or as a result of the position of Christianity in Nubia becoming increasingly endangered from Muslim and desert raider incursions from the north. It is possible that the Nubian church became increasingly orientated towards Byzantium after Muslim raiding and conquest made contact with the Egyptian Coptic church increasingly difficult.

Among the churches that have been excavated are those of West Arminna and the cruciform and granite column churches of Old Dongola. The monasteries that have also been revealed and investigated by archaeologists include those of Ghazali and Qasr el Wizz. I will talk about these in parts two and three of this essay.

Sources

William H.C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1996)

Niall Finneran, The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 2002)