- 1 P.QI 3.30 = DBMNT 581. This article uses the bibliographical abbreviations established in the “Guid (...)
1In AD 1156, Moses George is the King of Dotawo, one of the medieval Nubian states, and issues a decree in Old Nubian. “Until he comes upon authorization from God, who is the Savior, no one is to speak in opposition and utter a denial against me, as all are under my care.” After a preliminary introduction, the king explains the central focus of his decree. The church of Saint Epimachos at Qasr Ibrim has been burdened with excessive obligations by the local bishop, particularly in regards to payments of wine. Now, Moses George writes to lift those burdens and proclaims that “if one speaks against and denies my statement, let [Saint] Epimachus stab him with his spear, [and] let him die through the King’s curse.”1
- 2 Nubia: W. Adams, 1977; D. Welsby, 2002; G. Ruffini, 2012a. Dotawo: G. Ruffini, 2013. Medieval Arab (...)
2For those unfamiliar with medieval Nubia, Moses George’s decree is only the tip of the iceberg. We are dealing with a kingdom—and, at times, several kingdoms—in the middle Nile valley, in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The Nubian state of Dotawo survived several Arab invasions, retained its full independence into the early 1300s, and survived in reduced state at least as late as the 1480s. This kingdom, most often ruled from the royal city of Dongola, united the late antique states of Nobadia in the north, Makouria in the center, and, at times, Alwa in the south. While well-known literary sources—particularly medieval Arab historians and geographers—describe Nubia in this period, our knowledge of Nubia did not really grow until excavations in the 1960s and 1970s.2
- 3 W. Adams, 1996 and W. Adams, 2010.
- 4 G. Ruffini, 2012.
- 5 P.QI 4 = G. Ruffini, 2014a. See also G. Ruffini, 2014b and G. Ruffini, 2014c.
3Ahead of the rising waters of Lake Nasser, dozens of sites in northern Nubia underwent emergency salvage excavations. One site in particular, Qasr Ibrim in southern Egypt, stood high enough above the waters on a hill—now an island—that excavations continued into this century. While other Nubian sites became famous for their church wall paintings or church inscriptions and graffiti, Qasr Ibrim is most notable for the richness of its textual evidence: hundreds of texts in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, and Old Nubian, the medieval indigenous language of the Nubian people.3 My earlier study, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History, analyzes the published documents in Old Nubian from Qasr Ibrim in synthesis with then unpublished material from the same site.4 My more recent work publishes editions and translations of those unpublished Old Nubian documents. Together, this material reveals much about the administrative and legal practices of this civilization of medieval Africa.5
- 6 See e.g. G. Browne, 1989, G. Browne, 1994a and G. Browne, 1994b.
- 7 See e.g. G. Ruffini, 2012b.
- 8 Consult the sample of translations in the online “Nubian source book” (see note 1 above) and the s (...)
4Many types of texts survive from medieval Nubia. Literary texts will not concern us here, but nonetheless provide evidence for Nubia’s connections with the wider Christian world, as they are primarily liturgical or hagiographical texts with foreign origins.6 Similarly, Nubia’s magical texts—Nubian apotropaic amulets (magical texts intended to protect against evil)—compare closely with parallels from Christian Egypt and Christian Ethiopia.7 The documentary evidence includes legal texts, correspondence, and financial accounts.8 The legal texts include royal decrees, land sales, land cessions, releases of slaves, and so forth. The correspondence is frequently between high-level officials at the regional level of Nubian government but is sometimes between high-ranking church officials, and sometimes between people of no known or apparent position. The financial accounts are also mixed: some are registers of church income, while others may be accounts from private landed estates, accounts of government income from private citizens, or even accounts of government income from government estates.
5This is a considerable range of literate output. Although literacy was presumably made possible through Nubia’s church and its educational structures, it was invariably harnessed to the ends of both the church and the Nubian state. Literacy helped to connect and centralize, to strengthen both church and state. To see how this works, let us take each of these documentary genres at a time: royal decrees, letters, land sales, and accounts. This survey will take us from the macro level to the micro. It will show that the same pattern holds at the state level as holds at the regional and local levels. At all steps of the way, documentary production reinforces existing political, religious, and economic power structures. In this way, medieval Nubia has much in common with other literate and semi-literate societies.
- 9 J. Goody, 1986.
- 10 M.T. Clanchy, 2012.
6Historians and anthropologists have explored the relationship between power and literacy in other societies around the world, particularly in Europe and Africa. Jack Goody’s seminal work—particularly The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society—shows the power of literacy.9 It can organize religion, transforming it into a bureaucratic church. It can encourage long-distance trade and facilitate the emergence of property rights. It can support the centralization of the state. M.T. Clanchy’s study of medieval England presents a case contemporary with that of medieval Nubia.10 In England, the creation and retention of written records facilitated the spread of a literate mindset. New rules for doing business and new legal standards for property rights emerge with the spread of the written word. We can re-imagine medieval Nubia in light of these parallels. Never a fully literate society in this period, it is just on a cusp, hovering at a moment of transition, developing literate habits that bureaucratize its church, strengthen its state, and alter its attitudes towards property and law.
- 11 For more on these collections, see J. Hagen forthcoming.
7Royal decrees create the presence of the king and allow him to be where he is not. This is the ultimate point of the decree of King Moses George, with which this article began. Moses George is not really legislating, in our modern sense of the term. When he orders that the Epimachos church be freed from some of the collections imposed on it by the local bishop, we might see it as an act of patronage.11 Lower-level local officials, “the Tot of Michaêlko(l) and [?] Motiko(l) in Ibrim approached [him] through [his] chiefs and besought [him]” on behalf of the Epimachos Church, presumably hoping to use royal authority as leverage against a bishop who stood higher than them in local power and prestige. Patronage is most effective when the patron is present. Here, the king provides the next best thing, a text with his own words, which the local officials can wield against the bishop as a sign of the king’s presence and an indication of their own connection to central power.
- 12 P.QI 4.66 = DBMNT 642.
- 13 A suggestion I owe to one of this chapter’s anonymous reviewers.
8Another royal decree found at Qasr Ibrim seems trivial in content, but this very fact suggests that royal decrees are an important part of central control. In this decree, King Siti, who ruled in the 1330s, appears to assert his ownership over a specific parcel of royal land in northern Nubia and authorizes its sharing or dispersal.12 The larger context of this decree is not clear, and its language is poorly understood. One interesting feature of the text is the fact that the body of the decree itself takes up only the final five lines out of the text’s 16 total. The remainder of the text is simply the legal protocol naming current office-holders. Perhaps the accumulation of names of current office-holders is itself a deliberate strategy through which that manifestation of scribal knowledge enhances the prestige of the royal decree.13
- 14 “If King Siti is paying this level of attention to matters in distant Ibrim, we can only imagine t (...)
9In another context, I argued that this low level of content suggests that the king used such decrees to assert his will often.14 Put another way, a short decree suggests that the genre is not rare. It must have been a common practice if the central government was willing to spill so much ink in the protocol over such a small matter in the text. Qasr Ibrim was far to the north of the central capital at Dongola, below several of the Nile cataracts, the rapids which posed significant barriers to travel and trade. If kings wrote decrees to Ibrim over minor issues, these decrees must have been a crucial part of royal plans to control the periphery. Following Goody, these two royal decrees show the Nubian kings at the very least attempting to centralize their state. Absence of subsequent documentation prevents us from judging the success of these attempts.
- 15 For Old Nubian letters, see G. Ruffini, 2014, p. 12-27 and G. Ruffini, 2014c. See M. Gravel for ne (...)
- 16 “type of text” = “letter” at http://www.dbmnt.uw.edu.pl, accessed on 20 January 2016.
- 17 See e.g. P.QI 3.46 (DBMNT 1030), 3.48 (DBMNT 1032) and 4.98 (DBMNT 2841).
10Letters similarly allow lesser officials to be where they are not.15 The Database of Medieval Nubian Texts currently records 78 published and unpublished letters from medieval Nubia.16 Most of the letters written in Old Nubian start with one of two generic greetings: “I bow before you,” or “I greet you.” Although 31 of the letters from medieval Nubia are letters from an eparch of some kind or another, only rarely do these letters deviate from the generic greetings and begin instead with the specific notice that they are statements from the eparch.17 Most letters from the eparch do not distinguish themselves in this way. Those that do so must have particular significance, although we cannot tell precisely what: perhaps these documents are delivered only by or to specific people, or address only specific issues. Consider text P.QI 3.48 (DBMNT 1032), with an announcement that “It is the eparch’s statement.” What follows is a subtle indication of displeasure over business that remains obscure to us: “Come, in order that I may show you affection. What is it? The King has ordered you. Why are you reluctant to approach the task? Your man is reluctant to act for you,” and finally: “Henceforth the reckoning of the grain is through me.”
- 18 G. Ruffini, 2014b, p. 221.
11These aspects of the text show it as an assertion of authority, of the recipient’s authority over his subordinate, of the eparch’s authority over the recipient, and of the king’s authority over everyone. The beginning announcement that “It is the eparch’s statement” creates the eparch’s presence and conjures the authority of his office and, implicitly, that of more distant officials, the king in particular. Indeed, the questioning and almost conversational nature of these texts sound as if the sender and recipient are in the same room, as if the recipient is hearing oral communication. We know little about the relationship between orality and documentary production in medieval Nubia, although the idioms of Nubian correspondence suggest that letters bring us close to medieval spoken Nubian.18 Through this sense of immediacy, Nubian letters destroy the distance between the powerful sender and the subordinate recipient.
- 19 Slightly altering for clarity the translation published in the ed. princ.
12The surviving correspondence discovered through excavations in Nubia must be only a fraction of the original, which suggests the existence of a wide-reaching network of letters connecting officials throughout all of Nubia. One remarkable dossier from Qasr Ibrim, a dozen letters to Dauti, whose title perhaps suggests that he was a tax-collector, shows what might have been typical. Soukousapa the Great Eparch wrote him as many as eight letters, laden with specific instructions: “Go to the ship,” for example, and “Send 5 of Ouekijimi’s things.” This order comes in a letter, P.QI 4.122 (DBMNT 2868), which refers to another letter from the queen-mother to a lesser official: “Send for that one, the Queen-Mother making him see the letter, the message to Ane the tot.”19
13These letters are thus evidence for parallel lines of communication and power. Regional governors give instruction to tax-collectors and at the same time reinforce the will of the central government by drawing attention to the instructions of the queen-mother. This is a multi-stage chain from the central court at Dongola to the regional governor of Nobadia and then down to local officials. Similarly, letters contain instructions to write other letters. In P.QI 4.104 (DBMNT 2845), an official known as a choiak-eikshil—a member of the local elite—instructs someone, presumably a subordinate, to write a letter to the eparch, the regional governor. This is another multi-stage chain, connecting an unknown lower functionary to a regional big man to the highest regional official. Considering how fragmentary our documentary finds are and how many Nubian sites remain to be excavated, these chains are a small portion of the original network. We can imagine that medieval Nubian governance included a constant circulation of these letters, from the center to the periphery, from the higher levels of social status to the lower, and back again. Many of these texts deal with the shipment, payment, and receipt of goods: here, again following Goody, literacy can help facilitate long-distance trade.
- 20 For an in-depth discussion of Old Nubian land sales, see G. Ruffini, 2012, p. 22-31.
- 21 See M. Nowak, B. Wojchiechowski, 2012 for the latest discussion of Old Nubian legal practice. The (...)
14I have so far argued that both royal decrees and letters allow for government officials to act at a distance, to exert their will in places they cannot be. Put another way, their function is greater than their content: above and beyond the often trivial, tangible instructions they convey, the materiality and tangibility of the documents create and reinforce webs of power. The same is true of land sales, over a dozen of which come from Qasr Ibrim, dating to the 12th through the 15th centuries AD.20 These legal texts show a remarkable continuity in form over the centuries, a continuity grounded in a much older tradition, that of the Greco-Roman land sale in Egypt, which survived in Coptic into the early Islamic period.21 Our Old Nubian land sales follow the Greco-Roman structure of an introductory protocol and dating formulae; a first-person description of the sale from the point of view of the seller; and a list of the witnesses to the sale.
- 22 For further discussion of witness lists, see G. Ruffini, 2012a, p. 125-139.
- 23 P.QI 3.34 (DBMNT 582), with unknown indigenous titles untranslated and in italics.
15But land sales do not simply show the land sale itself. Land sales show the accumulation of power and prestige. We see this first in the witness lists themselves.22 Consider Mouna’s 12th-century land sale to Iongoka and Mena, to which the scribe appends the note: “the witnesses of this are, firstly: Papo Mena, Bishop of Ibrim; Darme, Priest, ouataphil; Ornourta, Priest; Darme, timakkis; Ajola, Deacon; Iesousinkouda, Priest; Parin-Ogja, Deacon,” with some twenty more names following these first and more prestigious witnesses.23 These witness lists range widely in length, suggesting that there is no legal significance to the number of witnesses. Rather, the participants cared about their social standing, as they took care to record the titles and offices of all witnesses. These included local officials at the town and village level, but they also included much more prestigious figures: the bishop of Qasr Ibrim we see in Mouna’s witness list, at times even the higher-ranking bishop of nearby Faras, or the governor of northern Nubia, the eparch himself. Evidence suggests that the land sellers themselves recruited the witnesses. This presumably means that they would deliberately recruit high-prestige witnesses to lend legitimacy to their legal acts. Many scholars of medieval Nubia come to the field through an initial background in the study of Greco-Roman and Coptic Egypt. In that theoretical framework, scholars might imagine an external, codified “law” as the legitimizing force behind a land sale. It seems more likely that in medieval Nubia, legal transactions have legitimacy through the witnesses and social events surrounding them.
- 24 See G. Ruffini, 2012a, p. 90-104.
- 25 P.QI 3.34 (DBMNT 582).
16We also see the importance of power and prestige in one aspect of the Old Nubian land sale that does not have roots in the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the record of the witness feast.24 This feature, found in most, but not all, Old Nubian land sales, records how much food and drink was given to the witnesses. Turning again to Mouna’s land sale, we read in its text: “What they (the witnesses) ate and drank within the writing office [?] is: 29 loaves, 4 anati, 1 jar of gide, 4 bushels of grain, which we gave to him, 1 anapiti, 4 loaves, 1 palal of gide, for the letter writer 2 anapiti, 10 loaves, 1 palal of gide.”25 Our knowledge of Old Nubian vocabulary is incomplete, and we are not always able to understand the commodities recorded in these sections. The items we do understand include loaves of bread and units of wine. Both the amounts and the commodities vary, which suggests that no fixed amount was expected in payment to the witnesses. Rather, the fact of giving food and drink to the witnesses—and the fact of recording those gifts—suggests that the witness feasts were again intended to heighten the prestige of the seller and increase the legitimacy of the sale in the eyes of the community. Thus the creation of an Old Nubian land sale is not simply the creation of legal legitimacy, as we might expect in a Greco-Roman or Coptic legal framework, but the creation of social legitimacy as well.
- 26 Eparchs as participants: P.QI 3.40, 4.64, 65, 67, 69 (DBMNT 588, 641, 640, 637, 638). Others: P.QI (...)
- 27 P.QI 4.64 (DBMNT 641) and 4.65 (DBMNT 640).
17A survey of the buyers and sellers in our Nubian land sales reveals a disproportionately high number of participants holding the position of eparch or governor of Nobadia or northern Nubia. The fifteen published land sales from Qasr Ibrim include five with buyers or sellers holding this position.26 This may be an accident of survival, or a feature stemming from Qasr Ibrim’s political importance in northern Nubia, as a center of the eparch’s activity. Nonetheless, the fact that so many of these land sales involve eparchs suggests that economic power was intimately tied to political power. Particularly revealing in this regard are the two land sales to Gourresi in the 1280s.27 Both land sales name a man named Gourresi as the purchaser and include explicit reference in their introductory protocols to a Gourresi who is the eparch of Nobadia. In both cases, the two men are almost certainly identical. Indeed, the fact that we are dealing with a governor as the purchaser in the sale may explain why local bishops are present as witnesses of each land sale.
- 28 an-Nuwayri and al-Maqrizi: G. Vantini, 1975, p. 467-493 and 585-723 and available online (see foot (...)
18We know Gourresi from elsewhere, and thus we have a rare convergence of documentary and literary evidence. Al-Maqrizi’s and an-Nuwayri’s descriptions of the Egyptian invasion of Nubia in the 1280s discuss the Nubian “Lord of the Mountain” or local governor in the north, a man they name Jurays.28 We are clearly dealing with the same man in the Old Nubian land sales. In a complicated political dance, this Jurays first sides with the legitimate Nubian king in an evacuation of northern Nubia but then changes sides and joins a usurping king, for whom he leads an advance force to “reassure the [Nubian] population” and receive the submission of local nobles. The first cycle in this political drama takes place in 1286, the very year of one of Gourresi’s land purchases. We can easily imagine that the local nobles whose submission he receives later in the decade are the very people who witnessed his land purchases. These land sales are thus proof of Gourresi’s role in the economic fabric of the region, proof given by his peers that he belongs in that region, that he is part of that region, and perhaps that he is indeed worthy of the trust of the locals as one of them.
- 29 Economic benefits: for land as investment providing return, see G. Ruffini, 2012a, p. 198-206.
19The economic aspect of these land sales would have been just as important: Gourresi buys land, more than once, for the economic benefits that land will give him, and may have leaned heavily on those benefits during the crisis of the Egyptian invasion.29 The documents recording the land sales serve as physical proof that the land is his and that he is entitled to its benefits, regardless of who rules as king. Goody, Clanchy, and others have shown how the transition to literacy alters property law and property rights. Appeals to memory and the collective knowledge of the community are no longer sufficient, as they may have been in pre-literate Nubia. Now, the written word is necessary to assert a legal claim to property.
- 30 P.QI 3.61 (DBMNT 1045).
- 31 G. Ruffini, 2012, p. 188.
20We have considered royal decrees, letters and land sales. Finally, we should consider the accounts. When first published, some of these documents were merely labeled as lists by their modern editor. Given their Spartan nature, it is easy to see why. But some of them are clearly keeping track of income, payments in or out, as we see in these lines: “Firstly: Tapara’s: 1 [piece of] gold, 20 dirhems, wine. Darme’s (who is from Gettin Gappitti): 6 [pieces of] gold. Titta’s: 3 [pieces of] gold. Papasi’s and Isou-Aggikouda’s: 36 dirhems.”30 Ultimately, these accounts are not for accounting. Rather, they indicate networks of power and submission. Their format strongly suggests this. They are not arranged in columns, which would aid the addition of the sums included in the accounts, probably because such an addition “was not part of the purpose of these accounts.”31 But if the churches and governmental officials drafting these accounts did not care about how much they were collecting in cash and kind, what did they care about?
- 32 P.QI 4.78 (DBMNT 1729), adapting the translation for readability; consult the original text for cri (...)
21Here, we may return to the royal decree with which we began: Moses George decreasing the burden placed by the bishop on the Epimachos church of Ibrim. Helpfully, we have documentary evidence of the other side of the story. Joost Hagen has recognized that three accounts from Qasr Ibrim are church accounts listing income in kind—wine, most likely—from various churches in a wide range of regions in northern Nubia. Consider the introductory lines to one of these texts: “This is written in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The charge of the Apostle. Ibrim: From the church of Peter of the Enclosure: 1 komi; from the church of the Twenty-Four Elders: 1; from the Four Creatures of the Town: 1; Mary: 1… Ibrim West: Epimachos: 1.”32 A komi is a Nubian unit of liquid measure. What we have in this list and the others like it appears therefore to be the bishop of Ibrim’s own account of income in kind from the churches under his jurisdiction, including the Epimachos church mentioned in the decree of Moses George. Every entry with a church name followed by an alpha or beta is an indication that a church is paying one or two units of liquid, presumably wine.
22Again, we must note the physical format of these accounts: the entries run together on the paper, one after the other, without any attempt to align the numbers in columns. These texts are not designed to aid adding the numbers and, indeed, include no totals. If local officials turned to the king’s patronage to free the Epimachos church from high collection fees, the bishop probably saw these collection fees in the same context. The collections are less important for their amounts than for the expression of the subordination of the local churches to their ecclesiastical patron. The greater the number of contributors, the greater the bishop’s prestige. Nubian accounts record geographic networks of patronage: these payment lists are a visible reminder of the power of the receiving center over the paying periphery. Following Goody a final time, we can imagine these records as part of the bureaucratization of the Nubian church. The written word empowers the church to create regularized and formal systems of tribute too cumbersome for a pre-literate society.
23One crucial difference between the several types of documentary evidence in medieval Nubia—and the chief difference in how these documents manifest power—is at the level of the document’s audience. When the bishop, or the bishop’s scribe, records the bishop’s influence in his account books, the document itself is not obviously part of the public performance of power. (However, in some cases, donation lists appear painted on church walls; in these cases, the accounts are clearly meant for public consumption, to impress the attending faithful and to honor the generosity of the donors before the community as a whole.)33 But letters between Nubian office-holders more clearly assert power and privilege over time and space. The letters provide no direct evidence that the recipients resist these assertions.
24But the legal texts show real evidence of such contests. In AD 1187, when Mena drafts a legal text releasing one of his servants, he includes the clause: “Whoever will deny this, together with my statement, utters a denial against the Holy Trinity.”34 When Kapopi similarly releases one of her servants, she adds: “Whoever will cause me to enslave him, may he become estranged from God, and may the seventh seal [?] come forth against him, and let him die through the King’s curse.”35 When Isake sells some land he owns in common with Mariami, his scribe warns: “Whoever of Mariami’s scribes will disparage me by saying that I am not the writer [?] of my document, may he become estranged from God, and may what is in the 7th seal [?] of the Apocalypse come forth against him.”36 Moses George’s own royal decree includes a curse against those who deny its contents.
- 37 See e.g. K. Little, 1979.
25We might dismiss these clauses as generalized cliché, but this is too easy an escape. The most obvious conclusion is that medieval Nubians expected people to deny the validity of their legal actions. (Western European diplomatic documents and monastic texts have similar invocations and maledictions, equally with real social contexts.)37 They expected people to deny that they had released their servants and expected people to force their servants’ re-enslavement. They expected people to “speak in opposition” to a statement or to claim that the author of a text was not the real author. They use their documents as a first line of defense against these denials and load their content with counter-attacks—the king’s curse, a stab from Saint Epimachos, the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse—to stave off the denials. Attaching these attacks to documents drafted in the presence of witnesses makes the witnesses themselves invested in the contest between the document and its deniers: the witnesses are implicit allies in the economic and legal claims embedded in the text.
- 38 For the thel() of Kaktine, see G. Ruffini, 2014, p. 216-218.
26This survey provides only a brief glimpse of the interconnections between documentary texts and power in medieval Nubia. A closer look at the prosopographical ties between the texts and analysis of forthcoming texts from future excavations will yield further results. As I have indicated, the land sales provide direct glimpses into the activity of the eparch of Nobadia, the region of northern Nubia’s highest political official, who was active in the region’s private land market. We have not explored the other office-holders—particularly the choiak-eikshil and the thel()38—whose activities in these texts shed light on the rise and fall of various factions in Nubian politics. Their personal correspondence hints at power struggles between Nubia’s center and its periphery. In short, the roughly 100 Old Nubian documents already published from Qasr Ibrim provide abundant evidence through which to explore this chapter’s central claim, that documentary production in medieval Nubia was neither economically nor politically neutral. Nubia’s elite needed its documentary evidence to construct its power.
27But this is a facile conclusion and leaves a number of distinct practices lumped together. Writing is a visual display of power, reminding the viewer of the presence of authority. When the eparch speaks as if in casual conversation, or other officials “bow” before their addressees, they make themselves present in the room with the people they command. Writing projects power across time: it stores for later memory today’s practices of patronage and submission. The accounts, in particular those recording church payments of wine to the local bishop, are checklists designed to remember yesterday’s acts of ecclesiastical obedience. Writing projects power across space: it is a tool for the central government to connect and centralize medieval Nubia. This is plainly what Nubia’s kings at Dongola do when they legislate on minor matters in northern Nubia. Writing created new ways for Nubians to order their society, through centralization, bureaucratization, and the transformation of law. Further, these examples show that writing created a wide range of ways for Nubians to remember, imagine, and visualize the power of church and state.