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Kingdom of Makuria

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Background Information

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Kingdom of Makuria


340 - 1276
1286 - 1312


Christian Nubia in the three states period. Makuria would later absorb Nobatia. Note that the border between Alodia and Makuria is unclear, but it was somewhere between the 5th and 6th Cataracts of the Nile
Capital Dongola
Languages Nubian
Religion Traditional African religion, Christianity (from the 6th century)
Islam (from the 14th century)
Government Monarchy
 -  1316-1317 Barschanbu
Historical era Middle Ages
 -  Established 4th century
 -  Makuria invaded and occupied by Mamluks 1312
 -  Disestablished 1312

The Kingdom of Makuria (Old Nubian: Ⲙⲁⲕⲟⲩⲣⲓⲁ, Makouria; Arabic: مقرة‎, al-Muqurra) was a kingdom located in what is today Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt. Makuria originally covered the area along the Nile River from the Third Cataract to somewhere between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts. It also had control over the trade routes, mines, and oases to the east and west. Its capital was Dongola (Arabic: Dunqulah), and the kingdom is sometimes known by the name of its capital.

By the end of the 6th century it had converted to Christianity, but in the 7th century Egypt was conquered by the Islamic armies, and Nubia was cut off from the rest of Christendom. In 651 an Arab army invaded, but it was repulsed and a treaty known as the baqt was signed creating a relative peace between the two sides that lasted until the 13th century. Makuria expanded, annexing its northern neighbour Nobatia either at the time of the Arab invasion or during the reign of King Merkurios. The period from roughly 750 to 1150 saw the kingdom stable and prosperous, in what has been called the " Golden Age". Increased aggression from Egypt, and internal discord led to the state's collapse in the 14th century.



The origins of Makuria are uncertain. Ptolemy mentions a Nubian people known as the Makkourae, who might be ancestors to the Makurians. The kingdom is believed to have formed in the 4th or 5th century. The first recorded mention of it is in a work by the 6th-century John of Ephesus, who decries its hostility to Monophysite missionaries traveling to Alodia. Soon after John of Biclarum wrote approvingly of the "Makurritae"'s adoption of the rival Melkite faith.

Makuria was one of the few states in the world to repulse Muslim invasions led by the Rashidun Caliphate when they defeated an Arab army at the First Battle of Dongola in 642. The Arabs had taken Egypt in 641, and the jihad soon turned south. Makuria repeated the feat in 652 at the Second Battle of Dongola. Arab writers noted the Makurians' skill as archers in both battles. One of the few major defeats suffered by an Arab army in the first century of Islamic expansion, it led to an unprecedented agreement: the bakt. This treaty guaranteed peaceful relations between the two sides. The Nubians agreed to give Arab traders more privileges of trade in addition to a share in their slave trading, while the Egyptians may have been obliged to send manufactured goods south.

Near East in 700 AD, showing Makuria and its neighbors

At some point Makuria merged with Nobatia to the north. The evidence for when this occurred is contradictory. The Arab accounts of the invasion of 652 only make reference to a single state based at Dongola. The bakt, negotiated by the Makurian king, applied to all of Nubia north of Alodia. This has led some scholars to propose that the two kingdoms were unified during this turbulent period. However, a book written in 690 makes clear that Makuria and Nobatia were still two separate and rather hostile kingdoms. Clear evidence for union is provided by an inscription from the reign of King Merkurios at Taifa that makes clear that Nobatia was under Makurian control by the middle of the 8th century. Every source after this date has Nobatia under Makurian control. This leads many scholars to infer that the unification occurred during the reign of Merkurios, who was described as the "New Constantine" by John the Deacon.

What this merged kingdom should be called is unclear in both contemporary sources and among modern historians. Makuria remained in use as a geographic term for the southern half of the kingdom, but it was also used to describe the kingdom in its entirety. Some writers refer to it simply as Nubia, ignoring that southern Nubia was still under the independent kingdom of Alodia. It is also sometimes called the Kingdom of Dongola, after the capital city. Another name, the Kingdom of Makuria and Nobatia, perhaps implies a dual monarchy. Dotawo could be another name, or it could refer to an entirely separate kingdom.


Makuria seems to have been stable and prosperous during the 8th and 9th centuries. During this period Egypt was weakened by frequent civil wars, and there was thus little threat of invasion from the north. Instead it was the Nubians who intervened in the affairs of their neighbour. Much of Upper Egypt was still Christian, and it looked to the Nubian kingdoms for protection. One report has a Nubian army sacking Cairo in the 8th century to defend the Christians, but this is probably apocryphal.

Not a great deal is known about Makuria during this period. One important story is that of Zacharias III sending his son Georgios to Baghdad to negotiate a reduction of the bakt. Georgios as king also plays a prominent role in the story of Arab adventurer al-Umari. The best evidence from this time is archaeological. Excavations show that this era was one of stability and seeming prosperity. Nubian pottery, painting, and architecture all reached their heights during this era. It also seems to have been a long period of stability in the Nile floods, without the famine caused by small floods or the destruction caused by large ones.

Egypt and Makuria developed close and peaceful relations when Egypt was ruled by the Fatimids. The Shi'ite Fatimids had few allies in the Muslim world, and they turned to the southern Christians as allies. Fatimid power also depended upon the slaves provided by Makuria, who were used to man the Fatimid army. Trade between the two states flourished: Egypt sent wheat, wine, and linen south while Makuria exported ivory, cattle, ostrich feathers, and slaves. Relations with Egypt soured when the Ayyubids came to power in 1171. Early in the Ayyubid period the Nubians invaded Egypt, perhaps in support of their Fatimid allies. The Ayyubids repulsed their invasion and in response Salah-ed-din dispatched his brother Turan Shah to invade Nubia. He defeated the Nubians, and for several years occupied Qasr Ibrim before retreating north. The Ayyubids dispatched an emissary to Makuria to see if it was worth conquering, but he reported that the land was too poor. The Ayyubids seem to have thus largely ignored their southern neighbour for the next century.


There are no records from travelers to Makuria from 1171 to 1272, and the events of this period have long been a mystery, although modern discoveries have shed some light on this era. During this period Makuria seems to have entered a steep decline. The best source on this is Ibn Khaldun, writing several decades later, who blamed it on Bedouin invasions and Nubian intermarriage with Arabs.

The Ayyubids dealt very aggressively with the Bedouin tribes of the nearby deserts, forcing them south into conflict with the Nubians. Archaeology gives clear evidence of increasing instability in Makuria. Once unfortified cities gained city walls, the people retreated to better defended positions, such as the cliff tops at Qasr Ibrim. Houses throughout the region were built far sturdier, with secret hiding places for food and other valuables. Archaeology also shows increased signs of Arabization and Islamicization. Free trade between the kingdoms was part of the bakt, and over time Arab merchants became prominent in Dongola and other cities. Eventually the northern area, most of what was once Nobatia, had become largely Arabized and Islamicized. Largely independent of Dongola it was increasingly referred to as al-Maris.

While the desert tribes may have been the most important destructive force, the campaigns of the Egyptian Mamlukes are far better documented. An important component of the bakt was the promise that Makuria would secure Egypt's southern border against raids by desert nomads, like the Beja. The Makurian state could no longer do this, prompting interventions by Egyptian armies that further weakened it. In 1272 the Mamluk Sultan Baybars invaded, after King David I had attacked the Egyptian city of Aidhab, initiating several decades of intervention by the Mamlukes in Nubian affairs.

Internal difficulties seem to have also hurt the kingdom. King David's cousin Shekanda claimed the throne and traveled to Cairo to seek the support of the Mamelukes. They agreed and invaded Nubia in 1276, and placed Shekanda on the throne. The Christian Shekanda then signed an agreement making Makuria a vassal of Egypt, and a Mamluke garrison was stationed in Dongola.

After only a few years of occupation Shamamun, another member of the Makurian royal family, led a rebellion against Shekanda to restore Makurian independence. He eventually defeated the Mamluk garrison and took the throne in 1286. He offered the Egyptians an increase in the annual bakt payments in return for scrapping the obligations to which Shekanda had agreed. The Mamluke armies were occupied elsewhere, and the Sultan of Egypt agreed to this new arrangement.

After a period of peace King Karanbas defaulted on these payments, and the Mamluks again invaded and occupied the kingdom in 1312. This time a Muslim member of the Makurian dynasty was placed on the throne. Sayf al-Din Abdullah Barshambu began converting the nation to Islam and in 1317 the Dongola cathedral was turned into a mosque. This was not accepted by other Makurian leaders and the nation fell into civil war and anarchy that very year. The countryside came under the control of the raiding tribes from the desert, and the monarchy was left with effective control over little more than the capital. This effectively ended Makuria as a unified state. There is some evidence the Makurian dynasty survived until the end of the 14th century, including a Makurian call for aid in 1397. It has been suggested that the change of African trade routes and the Black Death did play a major role in the collapse.

In 1412, the Awlad Kenz took control of Nubia and part of Egypt above the Thebaid. The Awlad Kenz remained the de facto rulers of Nubia until 1517, when the area was conquered and amalgamated into Egypt by the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Selim.


The main economic activity in Makuria was agriculture, with farmers growing several crops a year of barley, millet, and dates. The methods used were generally the same that had been used for millennia. Small plots of well irrigated land were lined along the banks of the Nile, which would be fertilized by the river's annual flooding. One important technological advance was the saqiya, an oxen-powered water wheel, that was introduced in the Roman period and helped increase yields and population density. Settlement patterns indicate that land was divided into individual plots rather than as in a manorial system. The peasants lived in small villages composed of clustered houses of sun-dried brick.

Important industries included the production of pottery, based at Faras, and weaving based at Dongola. Smaller local industries include leatherworking, metalworking, and the widespread production of baskets, mats, and sandals from palm fibre. Also important was the gold mined in the Red Sea Hills to the east of Makuria.

Makurian trade was largely by barter as the state never adopted a currency. In the north, however, Egyptian coins were common. Makurian trade with Egypt was of great import. From Egypt a wide array of luxury and manufactured goods were imported. The main Makurian export was slaves. The slaves sent north were not from Makuria itself, but rather from further south and west in Africa. Little is known about Makurian trade and relations with other parts of Africa. There is some archaeological evidence of contacts and trade with the areas to the west such as Darfur and Kanem-Bornu, but few details. There seem to have been important political relations between Makuria and Christian Ethiopia to the south-east. For instance, in the 10th century, Georgios II successfully intervened on behalf of the unnamed ruler at that time, and persuaded Patriarch Philotheos of Alexandria to at last ordain an abuna, or metropolitan, for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, there is little evidence of much other interaction between the two Christian states.


Makuria was a monarchy ruled by a king based in Dongola. The king was also considered a priest and could perform mass. How succession was decided is not clear. Early writers indicate it was from father to son. After the 11th century, however, it seems clear that Makuria was using the uncle-to-sister's-son system favoured for millennia in Kush. Shinnie speculates that the later form may have actually been used throughout, and that the early Arab writers merely misunderstood the situation and incorrectly described Makurian succession as similar to what they were used to.

Little is known about government below the king. A wide array of officials, generally using Byzantine titles, are mentioned, but their roles are never explained. One figure who is well-known, thanks to the documents found at Qasr Ibrim, is the Eparch of Nobatia, who seems to have been the viceroy in that region after it was annexed to Makuria. The Eparch's records make clear that he was also responsible for trade and diplomacy with the Egyptians. Early records make it seem like the Eparch was appointed by the king, but later ones indicate that the position had become hereditary. This office would eventually become that of the "Lord of the Horses" ruling the autonomous and then Egyptian-controlled al-Maris.

The bishops might have played a role in the governance of the state. Ibn Selim el-Aswani noted that before the king responded to his mission he met with a council of bishops. El-Aswani described a highly centralized state, but other writers state that Makuria was a federation of thirteen kingdoms presided over by the great king at Dongola. It is unclear what the reality was, but the Kingdom of Dotawo, prominently mentioned in the Qasr Ibrim documents, might be one of these sub-kingdoms.


A painting from the Faras Cathedral depicting the birth of Jesus

One of the most debated issues among scholars is over the religion of Makuria. Up to the 5th century the old faith of Meroe seems to have remained strong, even while ancient Egyptian religion, its counterpart in Egypt, disappeared. In the 5th century the Nubians went so far as to launch an invasion of Egypt when the Christians there tried to turn some of the main temples into churches. Archaeological evidence in this period finds a number of Christian ornaments in Nubia, and some scholars feel that this implies that conversion from below was already taking place. Others argue that it is more likely that these reflected the faith of the manufacturers in Egypt rather than the buyers in Nubia.

Certain conversion came with a series of 6th-century missions. The Byzantine Empire dispatched an official party to try to convert the kingdoms to Chalcedonian Christianity, but Empress Theodora reportedly conspired to delay the party to allow a group of Miaphysites to arrive first. John of Ephesus reports that the Monophysites successfully converted the kingdoms of Nobatia and Alodia, but that Makuria remained hostile. John of Biclarum states that Makuria then embraced the rival Byzantine Christianity. Archaeological evidence seems to point to a rapid conversion brought about by an official adoption of the new faith. Millennia-old traditions such as the building of elaborate tombs, and the burying of expensive grave goods with the dead were abandoned, and temples throughout the region seem to have been converted to churches. Churches eventually were built in virtually every town and village.

After this point the exact course of Makurian Christianity is much disputed. It is clear that by ca. 710 Makuria had become officially Coptic and loyal to the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria; the king of Makuria became the defender of the patriarch of Alexandria, occasionally intervening militarily to protect him, as Kyriakos did in 722. This same period saw Melkite Makuria absorb the Coptic Nobatia, and historians have long wondered why the conquering state adopted the religion of its rival. It is fairly clear that Egyptian Coptic influence was far stronger in the region, and that Byzantine power was fading, and this might have played a role. Historians are also divided on whether this was the end of the Melkite/Coptic split as there is some evidence that a Melkite minority persisted until the end of the kingdom.

The Makurian church was divided into seven bishoprics: Kalabsha, Qupta, Qasr Ibrim, Faras, Sai, Dongola, and Suenkur. Unlike Ethiopia, it appears that no national church was established and all seven bishops reported directly to the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. The bishops were appointed by the Patriarch, not the king, though they seem to have largely been local Nubians rather than Egyptians.

Unlike in Egypt, there is not much evidence for monasticism in Makuria. According to Adams there are only three archaeological sites that are certainly monastic. All three are fairly small and quite Coptic, leading to the possibility that they were set up by Egyptian refugees rather than indigenous Makurians.

The end of Christianity in Makuria is unclear. Shinnie interprets the evidence from two different graveyards, in the Wadi Halfa area and at Meinarti, to conclude that Islam was present in Makuria by the early 10th century, "and it appears that Christians and Muslims must have been living in amity for some centuries." However, there is a suggestion that the Christian community was waning: the excavation of the tomb of a bishop at Qasr Ibrim recovered two rolls dated to 1372 recording his consecration in Cairo and authorizing his enthronement. Shinnie concludes this "makes it quite clear that Christianity was still of significance" although "perhaps the combining of the two under one bishop is a reflection of the dwindling of the number of Christians in the area."

We are offered a glimpse of the problems the local church faced at the end from the account of the traveler Francisco Álvares. While at the court of Emperor Lebna Dengel in the 1520s, he witnessed an embassy from the Nubian Christians, who came to the Emperor asking for priests, bishops, and other personnel desperately needed to keep Christianity alive in their land. Lebna Dengel declined to help, stating that he received his bishop from the Patriarch of Alexandria, and that they too should go to him for help.


A wall painting from a Nubian church on display at the Khartoum Museum. It depicts the story from Daniel 3 of the three youths thrown into the furnace.

Christian Nubia was long considered something of a backwater, mainly because its graves were small and lacking the grave goods of previous eras. Modern scholars realize that this was due to cultural reasons, and that the Makurians actually had a rich and vibrant art and culture.


One of the most important discoveries of the rushed work prior to the flooding of Lower Nubia was the Cathedral of Faras. This large building had been completely filled with sand preserving a series of magnificent paintings. Similar, but less well preserved, paintings have been found at several other sites in Makuria, including palaces and private homes, giving an overall impression of Makurian art. The style and content was heavily influenced by Byzantine art, and also showed influence from Egyptian Coptic art and from Palestine. Mainly religious in nature, it depicts many of the standard Christian scenes. Also illustrated are a number of Makurian kings and bishops, with noticeably darker skin than the Biblical figures.


Nubian pottery in this period is also notable. Shinnie refers to it as the "richest indigenous pottery tradition on the African continent." Scholars divide the pottery into three eras. The early period, from 550 to 650 according to Adams, or to 750 according to Shinnie, saw fairly simple pottery similar to that of the late Roman Empire. It also saw much of Nubian pottery imported from Egypt rather than produced domestically. Adams feels this trade ended with the invasion of 652; Shinnie links it to the collapse of Umayyad rule in 750. After this domestic production increased, with a major production facility at Faras. In this middle era, which lasted until around 1100, the pottery was painted with floral and zoomorphic scenes and showed distinct Umayyad and even Sassanian influences. The late period during Makuria's decline saw domestic production again fall in favour of imports from Egypt. Pottery produced in Makuria became less ornate, but better control of firing temperatures allowed different colours of clay.


There were a number of different languages in use in Makuria. In early centuries, when Byzantine influence was still strong, Greek was the primary written language and perhaps also the language used by the royal court. Greek continued to be used in later centuries for ceremonial purposes, such as on many gravestones, but these later inscriptions are marked by frequent spelling and grammar errors implying reduced knowledge of the language. Eventually Old Nubian, which was the language used by most of the population, became the main written language; Old Nubian translations of the bible and many other religious documents were used widely. One Arab traveler to the region stated that Nobatia and Makuria spoke different languages; almost all our documents are from what was Nobatia and this language seems ancestral to the modern Nobiin language still spoken in the region. Adams notes that the ancient border between Makuria and Nobatia today is close to the border between the Nobiin and Dongolawi languages. Another important language in Makuria was Coptic. Links with Egyptian Christians were strong and Makuria seems to have made wide use of Coptic religious literature. Makuria also saw regular influxes of Coptic-speaking Christian refugees from Egypt. In the later years of the kingdom's existence, Arabic became an increasingly important tongue. Arab traders were important throughout the area and Arabic seems to have become the language of commerce. As these traders settled, each major community gained an Arab quarter.

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