Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History

Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History

Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History

Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History


As one of the few surviving archaeological sites from the medieval Christian kingdom of Nubia, Qasr Ibrim is critically important in a number of ways. It is the only site in Lower Nubia that remained above water after the completion of the Aswan high dam. In addition, thanks to the aridity of the climate in the area, the site is marked by extraordinary preservation of organic material, especially textual material written on papyrus, leather, and paper. Particularly rich is the textual material from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, written in Old Nubian, the region's indigenous language. As a result, Qasr Ibrim is probably the best documented ancient and medieval site in Africa outside of Egypt and the Maghreb.

Medieval Nubiais the first book to make available this remarkable material, much of which is still unpublished. The evidence discovered reveals a more complicated picture of this community than originally thought. Previously, it was accepted that medieval Nubia had existed in relative isolation from the rest of the world, subsisting on a primitive economy. Legal documents, accounts, and letters, however, reveal a complex, monetized economy with exchange rates connected to those of the wider world. Furthermore, they reveal public festive practices, in which lavish feasting and food gifts reinforced the social prestige of the participants. These documents prove medieval Nubia to have been a society combining legal elements inherited from the Greco-Roman world with indigenous African social practices. In reconstructing the social and economic life of medieval Nubia based on the Old Nubian sources from the site, as well as other previously examined materials, Giovanni R. Ruffini corrects previous assumptions and provides a new picture of Nubia, one that links it to the wider Mediterranean economy and society of its time.


A Brief Introduction to Nubia

The place is Qasr Ibrim, a hilltop fortress settlement central to the administration and defense of Lower Nubia. In the medieval period, it was a regional capital of the independent Nubian kingdom of Dotawo, whose power extended as far south as central Sudan. Today the site is an island peeking through the waters of Lake Nasser in southern Egypt. It is the beginning of November in 1190 AD, when Moses George is king of Dotawo. The speaker is Kapopi, whose name means “pearl” in Old Nubian. Her voice survives in the text of an Old Nubian land sale written for her by scribes named Aera and Loukasi.

“I, Kapopi, daughter of Toungngesi, [am] competent in my eyes, in my hands and in my feet.” In short, she is of sound mind and body but is “barren in respect to daughter and son.” We do not know why she includes this personal detail in her land sale, but we can guess. She sells what appear

1. In this study, I use the terms medieval Nubia and Christian Nubia more or less interchangeably and despite the fact that neither term is completely satisfactory. I take both to refer roughly to the period from 500 to 1500 AD. The bulk of this study focuses on the twelfth century AD, the end of the Classic and the beginning of the Late Christian period. For the narrow chronological periods—for example, Early Christian 2 and Classic Christian (700 to 1172 AD) and Late Christian (1172 to 1400 AD)—I follow Adams 1996, 3. These dates in the context of Qasr Ibrim do not correspond to the dates generally used for these periods elsewhere in Nubia: see Adams 1996, 20, note 79. At the heart of Ibrim’s different periodization is Adams’s belief that the “one clear-cut indication of violent destruction” at Ibrim, the “mass of burned brick and other debris” (Adams 1996, 10) was the result of the sack of Ibrim by Shams ed-Dawla in 1172. This view represents interpretation rather than fact, and the decision to label postsack Ibrim “Late” and presack Ibrim “Classic” is, as Adams notes, “purely heuristic” (Adams 1996, 20).

2. P.QI 3.36. In this volume, I cite texts from P.QI volumes 1, 2 and 3 by providing their text number only, in bold face. Thus P.QI 3.36 will be cited as 36.

3. Unless otherwise indicated, translations of texts from P.QI provided in this volume are those of the Where I provide transliterations of the original Old Nubian, typesetting

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