The historical land of Nubia lies in northeastern Africa, between the first and the sixth cataract on the river Nile. It is shared today between Egypt and Sudan (view location of Faras)
The people inhabiting this land from prehistoric times established successive civilizations and kingdoms over the course of a few millennia. Their power centers were located successively in Kerma, Napata and Meroe.
Nubia is the Biblical Kush, a land of gold, slaves and exotic goods that the Egyptians brought from the south along the traditional trade routes connecting black Africa with the Mediterranean coast. The Egyptians called the northern part of this land Ta-Seti, Land of the Bow, presumably because the gallant Nubians were widely known as masters of archery. At the heyday of the Kushite monarchy these peoples raided the territory of their northern neighbor. For 75 years they even had their own pharaohs on the Egyptian throne (25th Dynasty).
In the 4th century, the ancient kingdom of Meroe, which had ruled over the Middle Nile valley, finally collapsed. Nubian tribes, which had been infiltrating the Meroitic state for centuries, began to organize into new political entities.
Three Nubian kingdoms were founded at this time: Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia. In the 6th century, these kingdoms were successively converted to Christianity.
The Bible has it that the first Nubian to become a Christian was a courtier of the Queen Kandaka, whose conversion to Christianity is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-40). The first officially to adopt the new faith was Nobadia, a kingdom bordering with Egypt on the south. Its inhabitants first became aware of Christianity probably in the 3rd or 4th century through the Egyptian monks who settled the desert in the region of the First Cataract. In the middle of the 6th century, the missionary Julian came from Byzantium to the court of the kings of Nobadia, sent there with an apostolic mission by the Empress Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who unlike her husband fostered Monophysitism. His efforts were supported by Theodor, bishop of the Egyptian island of Philae, who remained in Nobadia after Julian left to wait for the arrival of a new envoy. This was the Alexandrian Longinus, the first bishop of the Nobades, who was ordained by the patriarch of Alexandria. He built the first churches in Nobadia and organized a liturgical cult. A network of bishoprics was established in Nubia with seats in the major urban centers, including Faras, which functioned under the name of Pachoras at the time. From the 7th century a bishop resided continuously in this important administrative center. The first cathedral was raised in this period. Longinus also converted to Christianity the southernmost kingdom of Alodia. Makuria, which lay between Nobadia and Alodia, was converted by missionaries coming from the emperor Justinian, representing the orthodox Dyophysite rite.
In the early 7th century Nobadia was incorporated into Makuria; for part of the time Alodia was included in this kingdom, otherwise remaining independent.
From the reign of king Merkurios (697–711) the Church in the whole kingdom was subordinated to the Monophysite patriarch in Alexandria, who ordained all the Nubian bishops. Christian Nubia maintained close contacts with Byzantium. Nubian Christians pilgrimaged to Jerusalem, which was under strong Byzantine influence as well.
The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the 7th century changed the geopolitical situation of Makuria. After the siege of Dongola by the Arab vizier Amr ibn al-As in 652, Nubia concluded a nonaggression pact with the Arabs, in which it agreed to pay a tribute. The baqt, as this treaty was called, ensured relative peace and fostered the economic development of the kingdom for more than 600 years. Growing internal struggles for the throne in the 13th century and a gradual Islamization of the population along with strong political and economic pressure from Muslim Egypt led in the next century to power being taken over by the followers of Islam.
The Christian kingdoms of Nubia quickly disappeared into oblivion and remained so until the 1960s when the Egyptian authorities began building the High Dam in Aswan. The waters of the Nile, amassed behind the dam, were to flood the region of northern Nubia between the First and Second Cataract. To save at least part of the ancient cultural heritage that was to be destroyed, UNESCO appealed to the international archeological community to mount a massive campaign of excavations of the ancient monuments of Nubia.
In response to this appeal, Polish archaeologists directed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski started in 1961 to explore ancient Pachoras, chosen because of an artificial mound on the bank of the Nile, thought to conceal a Pharaonic temple. It soon turned out to contain the remains of a complex of Christian churches, including the ruins of a cathedral with high-standing walls decorated with more than 150 paintings on religious themes. The murals from Faras, divided between Poland and Sudan, were sent to the national Museums in the respective capitals. Despite the fact that Faras itself is today underwater, priceless testimony of the rich culture of medieval Nubia was preserved for posterity, firing the imagination and research interests of several generations of researchers and art lovers.
Polish archaeologists continue to work in Sudan today, carrying out excavations at many sites, including Dongola, the old capital of the Christian Kingdom of Makuria, Banganarti, the Bayuda desert and most recently salvage excavations in the regions of the third and fourth Nile cataracts. Every year new discoveries contribute to our understanding of the history and culture of the forgotten kingdoms of Nubia.