Architecture

Early churches ran on an east-west axis, with a narthex at the west end, probably used for penitents, which was discontinued after the seventh century. They had flat wooden roofs, replaced in later architecture with vaulted brick roof, often with a central cupola. The baptistery is invariably located in the south-east room in churches where there are three chambers at the east end. In larger churches it usually occupies the room to the south of the sanctuary. Alternative locations for a baptistery are an external structure or another internal chamber. The depth of fonts in early churches suggests that they allowed for the total immersion of adults.

A main feature of Nubian church architecture is its block-like character, the rectangular shape belying the internal arrangement of space. The classic Nubian plan is divided into nine sections. At the east end are sacristies flanking the main sanctuary; both the central area and the west end are also tripartite. Some of the earliest churches were accommodated within pharaonic temples, of which preserved examples date to between the sixth and eleventh centuries. Of purpose-built church architecture, the basilica was the most commonly used plan in the early period, invariably with three aisles. Cut stone was the most common material used, brick being rare in early churches except in the more southern areas (Upper Nubia). Generally speaking, the largest churches are the earliest ones, church architecture having been reduced in size proportionally to the decline of institutionalized Christianity by the fifteenth century. The largest church in Nobadia is the basilica at Oasr Ibrim, datable to the late seventh century. It and its relatives have been described as most likely to have served as the cathedrals of the region. Its plan (Figure 19.10), including the internal apse, is of a common early Christian type which would have been adopted via Egypt, although built of local materials, stone and brick. In the case of Oasr Ibrim, the building is dressed with reused stone blocks from the Kushite period. The nave is flanked by two side aisles, with the narthex to west. It has carved stone lintels, cornices, capitals and grilles.

During the 'classic' period of Nubian architecture from the eighth century to c.1200 an indigenous feature is the passageway linking the central apse chamber to the side chapels on either side. This was partly necessitated by the introduction of the curving seats in the main apse ('tribune' or synthronon), with the elevated bishop's seat at the top. This called for the extension of the main sanctuary (haikal) into the nave and the replacement of the altar to the west. A screen (hijab) cut off the nave from this extended sanctuary area (presbyterium). While some synthronons were of cut stone, most were of whitewashed mud brick. The narthex at the west end had been replaced by a tripartite set of rooms, the central one of which was the only one to give access to the nave, an arrangement that was used consistently up to the fifteenth century. This had already, in the early Nubian period, been a feature of churches within 20 km north and south of Faras, giving a 'cross-in-rectangle' type of plan with cupolae, more likely from Near Eastern, Byzantine, architecture than Coptic, with galleries, perhaps for the use of female worshippers. This structure, based on the central nave with pillars and a central cupola, evolving more generally from the eleventh century, saw the development of the central nave section of the church, with the main entry points through doors on the north and south sides. Architectural decoration is far less frequent in the interior of buildings than in the earlier ones.

Rescue archaeology since the Aswan dam rescue project uncovered several more churches in Makouria and Alwa which do not conform to the typology of Lower Nubia as established by W. Y. Adams. Indeed it has been noted that the reverse seems to occur in Makouria, where the early predominance of the centrally planned structure evolved into the use of the basilica supported on granite columns. The large sixth-century church known as Building X at Old Dongola was built of brick on a cross-in-rectangle plan, with a centrally planned naos. It was replaced in the early seventh century by the church, suggested to have been the cathedral, known as the Church of the Stone Pavement. After the destruction caused by Arab raids is the early seventh century this church was rebuilt as a domed basilica, drawing on Byzantine and Syrian inspiration. Among other major churches in Makouria is the Church of the Granite Columns at Old Dongola, probably of the later seventh century, rebuilt on the site of the Old Church. Here a local plan is employed, with a cruciform central section enclosed within a five-aisled basilica, its side aisles divided by grey granite columns, with a narthex to the west, and pastophoria (sacristies) at the east end linked with a corridor behind the apse. A cruciform baptismal font occupied a side chapel on the south side and there was a synthronon in the eastern apse, and an altar screen. Its plan, combining the five aisles with a cruciform central section, makes it a likely candidate as the model for the cathedral at Faras. Churches excavated at Alwa indicate that prior to the ninth century they were mostly basilical, with three or five aisles, made of red brick, and without synthronons.

From the thirteenth century churches were built of fired or mud brick, and simplified to a square hall shape on the four-pillar system, reducing the division between the clergy and the congregation. An example of the reduced, domed basilica is that in the small village church of 'Abd el-Oadir in Nobada, which was decorated with wall-

paintings and was probably built in the mid-thirteenth century. With the size of the congregation drastically reduced, liturgy underwent changes and churches dispensed with many of the liturgical furnishings formerly used, including the synthronon. Although the cathedral churches of the early and classic periods in the major centres of Oasr Ibrim, Faras, as well as the churches in Old Dongola continued to be used, they suffered as a result of the Mamluk invasions of the later thirteenth century.

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