British Museum blog

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

People are often surprised to discover that two of the largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were in Sudan in northeast Africa. Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, an Arab traveller, visited Sudan in the 10th century AD and described the region north of Old Dongola, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria, situated roughly 750 kilometres upstream of Aswan Egypt, as an area of ‘about thirty villages, with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’.

Further to the south, Soba East, capital of the medieval kingdom of Alwa, located near modern-day Khartoum, was said to have ‘fine buildings and large monasteries, churches rich with gold and gardens’. This conjures up quite a romantic picture of medieval Sudan and provides us with an insight into the world in which the Sudanese female mummy, now in the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, had lived. Was medieval Sudan as idyllic as it sounds?

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © Trustees of the British Museum).

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © The Trustees of the British Museum).

I am captivated by the medieval wall-paintings of saints, apostles, bishops, royalty, biblical stories and archangels, particularly those unearthed by the Polish archaeological mission in the Cathedral at Faras, Sudan, a site situated near the modern Sudan/Egypt border and now beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser. The paintings were discovered and rescued during the 1960s UNESCO salvage campaign to save the monuments of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia threatened by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir, and it is their singular beauty that inspired me as a student to focus on Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. To this day, I remain entranced by the richness of Nubian culture. The portrait in the Sudan National Museum of a Nubian queen or noblewoman, held within the protective embrace of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is particularly striking. Splendidly attired, the queen bears a small cross on her forehead demonstrating her Christian faith to the viewer whom she gazes directly at. The age at which she was depicted is perhaps close to that of the Sudanese mummy, who would have been between 20 and 35 years old at time of her death.

The Sudanese mummy was very likely not a queen, but in death rich and poor alike received similar burials. The conversion to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought about one of the most profound changes ever experienced in the Middle Nile Valley. Churches and cathedrals herald the arrival of Christianity as they replaced the earlier temples to pagan gods. The traditional system of rites and beliefs was swept away and, in its place, totally different attitudes towards death and the afterlife were introduced. Unlike earlier burials, those of the Christian period were not provided with sumptuous grave goods or food offerings. They were sparsely endowed, if at all. Death was a great social equaliser.

Christian graves were simple tombs with small, flat-topped rectangular superstructures of brick or stones that covered a narrow grave shaft. The deceased was wrapped in a shroud, and the head was often protected by a brick or stone. Bodies were placed on their backs in an extended rather than crouched or contracted position. More elaborate tomb superstructures were plastered white; they might be cruciform in shape or have rounded tops. Graves were orientated east–west, though in some places this was done according to the orientation of the Nile rather than true north. The west end of the tomb, the end which corresponded to the location of the head of the deceased, was sometimes equipped with a lamp-box, a small niche which provided protection from the wind for a lit lamp.

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

One such lamp (EA51771) was excavated from Faras Cemetery 4 early in the 20th century by the University of Oxford Expedition led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and is now in the British Museum’s collection. The disc on the top of the lamp is decorated with a rosette, and a retrograde Greek inscription reading ‘Great is the name of God’ adorns the shoulder.

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Artistic expression was not restricted to wall-paintings or ceramics (though traces of wall-paintings have so far been found in over 50 medieval churches), but also encompassed many minor arts such as basketry, leather and metal-work and textiles. Architectural elements were often embellished with Christian motifs. Such powerful religious symbolism is evident in a 7th-century decorative sandstone frieze (EA 606) from the First Cathedral at Faras. It depicts an eagle or dove surmounted by a cross, standing between columns and altars with its wings spread. This piece, originally part of a sequence of 24 birds, may have adorned the cathedral’s apse. Its yellow background with the relief features highlighted in black would have created an eye-catching, yet pious band of decoration which alluded to the resurrection of Christ, and it may have been something upon which our Sudanese mummy or her contemporaries gazed during their lives while contemplating salvation and paradise.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is on at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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Can you guess the artist behind this work? 
All will be revealed at our special exhibition announcement tomorrow! #metalpoint Tower Bridge opened #onthisday in 1894. Here’s an early print of the iconic landmark.
#history #London #TowerBridge The mummy case of this temple doorkeeper called Padiamenet is covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions and religious images. The inscriptions on this brilliantly painted cartonnage tell us that he was the Chief Doorkeeper of the Domain of Ra, the Chief Attendant of Ra, and also Chief Barber of the Domain of Ra and of the temple of Amun. This largest scene shows Padiamenet, dressed in a long fringed robe, adoring the god Osiris, who is grasping the royal crook and flail. Behind him stands his sister, the goddess Isis.
Gain a unique insight into the lives of eight people over a remarkable 4,000 years in our #8mummies exhibition, closing 12 July #MummyMonday
#history #mummies #BritishMuseum Peter Paul Rubens was born #onthisday in 1577.
This is a magnificent drawing in both scale and style. It is drawn in black and yellow chalk, though Rubens also used a grey wash and some white heightening in order to bring the animal to life on paper.
The lioness is drawn from behind. Her front paw is raised and her mouth open, the fangs clearly visible. White heightening brings out the lighted area around the tail and the joints of the back legs. Both short and longer chalk strokes are used to suggest the different textures of the fur and mane.
Rubens used this drawing for a lioness in his painting of 'Daniel in the Lions' Den' (1613/15; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). The vividness of the drawing is even more remarkable given that Rubens probably based his drawing on a bronze statue of a lion and not a living animal. The strong contour line in black chalk around the animal suggests that he was studying a model. However, Rubens had the gift and genius to invest an unmoving object with both life and movement, even if the highlights give the impression of a metallic sheen.
#art #artist #Rubens #history This striking photo taken by @charlesimperialpendragon shows the colossal limestone bust of Amenhotep III in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). #regram #repost

Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum A #ThrowbackThursday from our #archives!
It is early morning in 1875 in the Main Entrance Hall of The British Museum, and staff are preparing for the public. Until 1878 the Museum was open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and until midday on Saturdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for students. The visiting hours varied with the seasons and during the summer months the Museum stayed open until 8 o'clock in the evening.
Staff stop work as the photographer Frederick York sets up his camera. Two men sit comfortably on a bench at the foot of the stairs. Another two, noticing the photographer, stop halfway down the stairs. As the long exposure needed for this early photograph has already started, their images appear faint and ghost-like. In the foreground is the Piranesi Vase which is now displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery.
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