Medieval Sudan

Sandstone frieze

Between AD 500 and AD 600, the rulers of three Nubian medieval kingdoms, Nobatia, Makuria and Alwa, governed the Nile valley from the first cataract to just south of modern Khartoum in Sudan. Missionaries from the Byzantine Empire, sent by Justinian I and his empress Theodora, converted these kingdoms to Christianity. This introduced a marked cultural change into the region.

Churches replaced temples and simple burials replaced the grand tombs of the earlier pagan rulers. This transformation is visible in numerous objects found in the British Museum collection including the iron cross of Bishop Timotheos and a carved wooden pectoral depicting an archangel.

After a brief period of conflict with their Arab neighbours in Egypt, the borders were secured, and the medieval kingdoms flourished for almost a thousand years. The introduction of the water wheel (saqia) allowed agriculture to expand. Villages, towns, monasteries and fortresses lined the banks of the river Nile. Artists attained new heights of achievement, particularly in the fields of mural art and pottery production, and there appears to be a dramatic increase in literacy in Greek, Coptic, Old Nubian and later Arabic.

Fine churches were built, decorated with wall paintings and carved stone elements, including the sandstone frieze and column capital from the Faras cathedral found in the Museum collection. Wide-ranging trade and diplomatic contacts were established with the Muslim world and Byzantine Empire.

From around AD 1200 onwards, dynastic strife, poor relations with the rulers of Egypt and the rise of the Funj kingdom in the south, brought about the collapse of the Nubian medieval kingdoms.

Image caption: Sandstone frieze
From Faras, Sudan. Early 7th century AD