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13.06.22, Ruffini, Medieval Nubia

13.06.22, Ruffini, Medieval Nubia

Intensive archaeological explorations in the Nile Valley to the south of the first cataract in Aswan in the past fifty years have rediscovered the civilization of late antique and medieval Nubia, which was of importance for African history as much as for the Byzantine world. The Nubian kingdom of Makuria, referred to in Old Nubian as Dotawo, emerged in the early 6th century and lasted through the end of the 15th century. The Byzantine character of the culture of the kingdom has become apparent through studies of the remains of church architecture as well as numerous surviving wall paintings from the cathedral church in Faras (Pachoras), the churches in Sonqi Tino and Abdallah Nirqi and the monastery in Dongola.

One of the most important discoveries related to Nubian culture was made in Qasr Ibrim in northern Nubia (Egypt). In the ruins of this town, which was among the leading centers of the kingdom, archaeologists from the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) excavated more than a thousand documents written on both parchment and paper, and made out in Greek, Coptic, Old Nubian, and Arabic. Most of the Old Nubian and Arabic texts can be dated to the 12th through 15th centuries. These were for the most part economic texts and letters. J.M. Plumley and M.G. Browne spearheaded the publication of these texts, but their demise effectively interrupted the project for many years and even the texts that had been published failed to undergo a serious analysis.

Filling this significant gap, which had handicapped all studies of social aspects of the kingdom of Makuria in the 12th–15th centuries, is a new publication by Giovanni R. Ruffini. His Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History is the first penetrating analysis of some of the texts from Qasr Ibrim, mainly those originating from archives discovered in house 177, but based also on the author's complete knowledge of the entire Qasr Ibrim collection of documents and his ongoing work on the publishing of many of these texts.

In his study Ruffini concentrated on the most important economic texts from the archives, that is, records of land sales in northern Makuria, mainly in the territory of the diocese of Qasr Ibrim. While this territorial specification does not appear in Ruffini's work, it follows indirectly from the outcome of his analysis. He assumed, correctly, that the texts from house 177 were not connected with the activities of the eparchs of Nobadia as suggested earlier by W.Y.Adams, but that they represented the private archives of one Mashshouda, choiak-ekshil, member of the local elite, closely connected with the bishops of Qasr Ibrim, who appear in all of the documents "in the protocols between various office-holders in power" and as witnesses to the described transactions.

The contract form and the legal structure draw heavily on the late antique tradition which appears to have been well known in Qasr Ibrim despite the absence of a well-organized administration apparatus. Official notaries are known from other texts, but the records from Qasr Ibrim were not drawn up in official notarial offices. They appear to have been written by scribes, who were associated mainly with the church or with the eparch's office. This could mean that legal practice was part of the common education of a broader class of educated people.

Analyzing land prices given in the documents either in gold or silver, Ruffini rejects the hitherto preferred theory of a barter economy in Makuria. The author determines the rate of gold to silver at 1 to 40, which reflects the rate between the dinar and the dirham in Dar el Arab. A reason for concern, however, is the absence of coins from the archaeological record: they have not been found either in Qasr Ibrim or on other settlement sites in the region.

The region's specificity, that is, a narrow river valley between high banks, necessitated field irrigation using the saqiya system. This naturally limited the size of land plots. Ruffini determines the size of individual plots mentioned in the documents as 2–3 feddans and this is confirmed also by the low price of Nubian land.

The author's analysis of local trading customs holds great interest. Contracts appear to have been concluded with a feast for the local community. Ruffini's inspired analysis of lists of witnesses and the richness of feasts determined by the quantities of consumed products given in the notarial records gives an excellent picture of social differences in the local population. It also helps to understand the mutual relations between members of the social elite, both secular and religious, in the region (diocese) of Qasr Ibrim.

A few of the documents analyzed by Ruffini, mostly in fragmentary condition, represent fiscal registers based on a type of cadastral land survey. Of exceptional significance is document no. 60 which is a list of the lands of the Jesus-Church of Touggli (Dongola) that were in Nobadia.

Ruffini's study also puts in order the entire collection of document archives from Qasr Ibrim, including unpublished texts, thus giving researchers the awareness necessary for a better and more penetrating evaluation of the current scholarly discussion of the archives uncovered by the EES Expedition to Qasr Ibrim.

Ruffini's pioneer work upsets hitherto held opinions concerning the economy and social structure of medieval Makuria. There can be no doubt now as to the inadequacy of some of the known records by Arab geographers and historians in describing the social and economic realities in Makuria. The documents from Qasr Ibrim analyzed by Ruffini give a picture of a local Nubian community set within a specific temporal frame and a specific phase of social development in this part of the kingdom.

The adoption of the vernacular Old Nubian, most probably in the middle of the 11th century, as the official language of notarial and administrative records, as well as in letter writing, must have been a conscious act on the part of the royal Makurian administration and it should be linked to the growing obsoleteness of Coptic, also in Egypt, and the simultaneous restriction of Greek to just a few specific categories of texts. Religious literature was also translated at the time into Old Nubian. Unlike Egypt, where Coptic literature in Christian communities was replaced by translations and new writing in Arabic, in Makuria Old Nubian was popularized in writing. The latest notarial documents in Old Nubian from Qasr Ibrim and Gebel Adda are dated to the second half of the 15th century.

Ruffini's work will weigh heavily on future studies of Makurian society. Even so, the available economic texts, both published and unpublished, originate from a very limited area of Nubia, limited principally to Qasr Ibrim and Gebel Adda, in the southern part of the eparchy of Nobadia. Owing to the evident territorial and administrative differentiation of the kingdom of Makuria, reflected by an administrative and customs barrier on the second cataract, which was emphasized strongly in external Arab sources, one should exercise caution in referring the results of the analysis of the documents from Qasr Ibrim to the territory of Makuria as a whole, especially the region between the third and fourth cataracts, for which not one notarial document has been found so far.

This suggested caution is dictated in part by the current state of research on Nubian culture in broad terms. There is an evident and significant differentiation, discernible in different periods, between the territory of the eparchy of Nobadia and the central part of the kingdom, which was the area between the third and fourth cataracts.

For the purpose of greater rigorousness in understanding the people living between the first and fifth cataracts on the Nile and the political and administrative conditions of this population, I would personally prefer to use the term "kingdom of Makuria" (Arab. Muqurra; Nub. Dotawo) instead of Nubia, which is vague in both the territorial and the administrative sense.