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The Roots of Nubian Christianity

The Roots of Nubian Christianity Run Deep and Early

by Joel Elowsky

Salim Faraji. The Roots of Nubian Christianity Uncovered: The Triumph of the Last Pharaoh. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2012.

Salim Faraji begins his exploration of the roots of Nubian Christianity with a quote from Vol. 1 of Michael Botwinick’s, Africa in Antiquity:
“How can we fail to be moved by the dramatic course of this [Nubian] civilization? It is ironic that it is barely a pinprick on contemporary consciousness. We speak, after all, not of a civilization that had a brief moment. Nubia flourishes more than five hundred years before the building of the great pyramids of Egypt and continues on after the Columbus’ voyages to the New World. Nubia is a five-thousand-year-heritage. If such a culture rose up today, it would be the year 7400 before it ran its course. And we think of the twenty-first century as the distant future. What are we to think of the seventy-fourth century? (p. 9)
This quote provides a context for Faraji’s study as a whole. The roots of Nubia itself run deep, deeper than most realize. Ancient Nubia was situated between what is today southern Egypt and northern Sudan, reaching roughly from Aswan to Khartoum (p. 3). Two insights that have emerged in Faraji’s study of ancient Nubia, he notes, are that “First, ancient Nubia functioned both geographically and culturally as a pivotal trajectory for the study of African history and the global histories of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds. . . . Second, the history of Nubia demonstrates extreme longevity and consequently long after the collapse of other classical civilizations of antiquity ancient Nubia persisted into the medieval and early modern periods according to Western historical chronologies” (p.4). The significance of these two discoveries, he asserts, is that ancient Nubia may actually provide more insight into the social, cultural and political history of the ancient Mediterranean world than Egypt. This is not to diminish Egyptian studies, he notes, which remain extremely valuable; but it does highlight that scholars neglect that history of Nubia to their own peril. And this is no more the case than in the study of Nubian Christianity.
His study on Nubian Christianity begins with an introductory chapter in which he formulates an African transdisciplinary theory of history through a case study of Nubia, the Nile Valley and Sudanic Africa. He highlights the fact that Eurocentric scholars continue to dismiss any kind of “indigenous African presence during the periods of Greek, Roman and Byzantine occupation. In the realm of early Christian studies this means that Egyptian, North African, Ethiopian and Nubian Christianity is not actually a part of African civilizations—and by extension influential historical figures such as Origen and Athanasius and Tertullian and Augustine are represented not as African theologians and philosophers, but as Latin-speaking and Greek-speaking Western intellectuals” (p. 52). As the CEAC has often noted as well, the fact that these intellectual and spiritual giants spoke Greek or Latin need not nullify the fact that they were also African, just as our modern counterparts in Africa who speak English or French does not mean that they are no longer Nigerian or Liberian.
After setting the stage for the study, the first chapter is devoted to a focus on when ancient Nubia was converted to Christianity. He provides a very helpful comparative study between the fourth century Roman emperor Constantine and the fifth century Nubian King Silko, including a discussion of the similar processes of “Christianization” that occurred in the Roman empire and the fifth century Nubian kingdom which were both “sovereign religions,” i.e. religions sanctioned by the sovereign, rather than “religions of the oppressed” which would be the status of Christianity, at least, in the pre-Constantinian era.
The second chapter, entitled “’Pagan,’ Christian, or both? Unearthing the Roots of the Nubian King Silko” deals with what is known as the “Silko inscription.” The inscription is a “historically significant text for understanding both late antique Nubian history and the emergence of Christianity in the Middle Nile Valley during the fourth to the sixth centuries CE” (85). The primary purpose of the Silko inscription was to present the military conquest, led by King Silko of the Noubades, in their victory over the Blemmyes. The inscription is in Greek which, for a number of reasons, not least of which is philological, this has caused previous scholars to posit that the inscription referred to the Byzantine mission to Nubia in the 6th century. This would place the conversion of Nubia, then, in the sixth century as a product of the Greek missionary movement. Faraji, however, believes Christianity was already present in Nubia before the Greek missionaries arrived. In analyzing the inscription he identifies pagan characteristics, placing it firmly within the iconographical tradition of the pagan god Amun, but there are also Christian characteristics in the inscription as he demonstrates in the next chapter. And yet, Faraji would not characterize the inscription as either pagan or Christian, as they are often pitted against one another in the history of interpretation of the inscription, but rather as a hybrid syncretistic blending of both Christian and pagan elements, akin to how African conversion takes place in the contemporary context.
For the purposes of Faraji’s argument in the third chapter, the inscription’s key phrase is the fact that the king says, “God has given me the victory,” in Greek: ο θεος εδωκεν μοι το νικημα. And yet, as Faraji notes, “Silko’s Meroitic predecessors and contemporaries all acknowledged and venerated the deity Amun as the god of kingship. The Silko inscription emerged within the tradition of Amun—this is attested iconographically, yet this king introduced and sanctioned a new divinity, the Christian god. It seems then that if Silko was proclaiming the names of the traditional gods of the Nubian state he would have announced that Αμυν or Μανδυλις had given him the victory and not the general Greek term θεος, which by the fifth century had come to refer exclusively to Christianity” (p. 170). The point Faraji is making in this chapter is that the Silko inscription and the Noubadian monarchy from which he hailed both belonged to the cultural legacy of classical Nile Valley kingship, but that we see this monarchy nonetheless sanctioning the presence of Christianity in an ancient Nubia in the voice of King Silko, who thanks ο θεος for giving him the victory, not the traditional gods of the Nubian state. Silko is the last of the Pharaohs of the Noubadian kingdom who followed Amun. Thus, the chapter carefully analyzes the inscription from the perspective of ancient Egyptian and Nubian divine kingship traditions in order to properly situate the inscription as a reflection of these ancient traditions, but found in this inscription in “a late antique guise,” which is why the inscription is often dated later than what Faraji proposes.
The fourth chapter explores the historical development of the Greco-Africana relations, demonstrating the Hellenistic influences evident in the inscription—most obviously evident in the fact that the inscription was written in Greek and not one of the local indigenous languages or dialects. As he notes, however, this would not be uncommon since Greek served as the lingua franca of the Nubian world for over 1500 years, “spoken from the Meroitic period to the decline of medieval Nubia in the fifteenth century CE” (179). The language was not so much a result of conquest but of necessity in dealing with other parts of the world commercially. The fifth chapter rounds out the picture of cultural interaction and influence reflected in the inscription by exploring the “Kushite-Roman encounter” that first occurred in the first century BCE. By effectively demonstrating the cross-cultural and intercultural contiguity that occurred in Nubia before the date of the inscription, Faraji demonstrates that “King Silko and the Noubadian state represented an amalgam of the cultural and religious traditions of both Greco-Roman antiquity and classical Nile Valley cultures” (211). Thus, rather than taking the traditional view that Christianity was introduced to Nubia largely through the Greek influence of the Byzantines, Faraji presents a much more complicated and diverse culture where not only Greek but also Roman influences were well known even before the kingdom’s conversion to Christianity.
Thus, the final chapter of the book presents the central argument of the book: “The classical Nile Valley tradition of divine kingship and the historical construction of the Aithiopian king in Greek literature converged in the Silko inscription and reflected the beginnings of religious transformation in ancient Nubia. . . . Thus King Silko and the Noubadian monarchy marked the beginning of religious change in Nubia, commencing in the fifth century CE” (237). This would obviously imply that Christianity had already been introduced into Nubia a century earlier than the commonly held understanding that it entered into Nubia with the Byzantine missionaries in the sixth century. Faraji argues that the Byzantine mission was, then, not the introduction of Christianity, but “the culmination of a process that began with Nubian initiative nearly one hundred years before the arrival of the first Melkite and Monophysite missionaries” (ibid.). Christianity had been incorporated as one of the key elements of the Noubadian monarchy and was a “sovereign religion” which meant that whatever religion the monarch followed that was the religion the people followed. Archaeological evidence would also seem to confirm Faraji’s assertion of an earlier presence of Christianity, as he demonstrates in the latter part of the book. This Christian presence was most likely introduced, not by Greeks, but by Coptic monks from the north whose rites and traditions more closely mirrored those of the Nubians.
What difference does this make to our understanding of early African Christianity? The answer lies in the fact that in this study we have yet another example of the indigeneity of early African Christianity, a Christianity that developed on the continent of Africa, by Africans, for Africans. African Christianity is not an import from “Western” or “Eastern” Christianity. The roots of Nubian Christianity are not Byzantine or Roman, but African, with the full understanding that Africa itself was multi-cultural, with influences from Greece and Rome, but not to the exclusion in the present instance of African/Nubian culture and tradition. In other words, African Christians have yet another example of the long history that Christianity has had on the continent—below the Sahara, as well as above it. Christianity in the early period was not only the religion of North Africa; it was also the religion of early Nubia. This study by Faraji demonstrates a continuity between North African and Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than a discontinuity and bifurcation that is favored by many within and outside of Africa. It provides further evidence for the contention that Christianity spread south into Africa much earlier than is normally supposed. It also supplies further evidence for the “Africaneity” (my term) of Christianity on the continent.
While parts of this text may be more difficult to grasp for some readers unless they are familiar with comparative culture and ethnicity studies, the argument is worth grappling with. I would encourage readers to perhaps begin with the epilogue at the back of the book where they can gain a greater sense of the significance of the argument. The book also provides very helpful detailed maps of Nubia in the front of the book and a number of illustrations and pictures that provide a pictorial context for this cultural/historical study, including actual pictures of the Silko inscription. One small quibble I would have with the text was that the Greek used throughout did not provide the final sigma’s one would normally expect in a scholarly work. But this should in no way detract from this reviewer’s appreciation of Dr. Faraji’s work. This is a text that can serve as a resource for anyone interested in Nubian Christianity and its indigeneity, as well as those who continue to study Christianity’s early reach into the African continent south of the Sahara.

Reviewed by Joel C Elowsky

Posted in Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia

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