Museum stories
Historical city travel guide: Kulubnarti, Sudan, late 12th century

Location

Located among the rugged beauty of the ‘Belly of Rocks’ (Batn el-Hajar), upstream of the rapids of the Second Nile Cataract, this small, quiet city sits on a seasonal island roughly 300 kilometres (185 miles) south of Syene or Swenett (ed. modern-day Aswan, Egypt). It attracts the most adventurous and intrepid visitors. A brilliant green ribbon of cultivation runs along the river’s edge, while the settlement’s one and two-storey mudbrick and stone houses sit perched haphazardly on the uneven rocky hillside on a desert terrace overlooking the Nile. No two buildings are alike and some are fortified.

Two photographs of the ruins of houses made from mud brick and stone. The photograph on the right shows a one-story house, the left shows a two-storey house.
One and two-storey houses of mudbrick and stone, with barrel-vaulted roofing (c. 12th–13th century) are dotted across the hillside. © D A Welsby

Kulubnarti is in Makuria, a powerful medieval Nubian kingdom ruling the middle Nile valley. It was converted to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine empire, bringing a tremendous cultural change to the area. Churches, monasteries and cathedrals replaced earlier temples and rituals to pagan gods and the dead were no longer accompanied by goods for the afterlife. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, this was an area ruled by the Kushite pharaohs. At its height, their empire encompassed Egypt and extended from the Mediterranean to upstream of the Sixth Nile Cataract, but now their traditions and beliefs, and those of their successors, have been swept away.

The Nubians held back the Arab armies that entered North Africa in the 7th century AD, negotiating a peace accord called the ‘Baqt’. Nubian forces are skilled archers, and called ‘pupil-smiters’ by their enemies for their great accuracy in hitting the centre of the eye. Ouch! Now, helped by 500 years of relative peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbours to the north (Fatimid Egypt), the Nubian economy, crafts, and arts are booming. Makuria is a kingdom ‘with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’ – Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, Egyptian diplomat, 10th century AD.

Photograph of a herd of camels grazing in a field. Some of the camels have egrets perched on their backs.
Camel herd grazing in the fields with egrets perched on their backs. © Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project
When to visit

Kulubnarti is a place of climatic extremes and very little rainfall, and the best time to visit is early or late in the winter. Strong chill winds, alternating with calm periods filled with swarms of small biting flies, can make the mid-winter months rather unpleasant. Annually, between June and September, the river rises, flooding the lands beside the banks with fertile silt. The inundation sometimes makes travel through the river’s rapids easier, but the scorching heat at the height of summer can be unbearable.

Getting there

Most visitors arrive at the city by following the Nile in boats and overland. The river is a conduit for people, trade and ideas, and flows south to north connecting central Africa and the Mediterranean. If you arrive at Kulubnarti from the south going downstream, you will have to traverse several cataracts of rocks and rough water, but this route enables you to visit the fortified urban metropolis of the Makurian capital Tungul (Old Dongola) with its many churches and monasteries. We’d encourage you to sample the wine there, and perhaps purchase a set of pottery bowls for your table from their famous kilns – you’ll find plates and cups decorated with fish, doves, crosses, palm fronds, or even gazelles.

Photograph of a large, sand-coloured building in Tungul: the throne-hall of the Makurian kings.
Throne-hall of the Makurian kings in the capital Tungul (Old Dongola). The building was converted to a mosque in 1317. © D A Welsby

If you are coming from the north, upstream towards Kulubnarti, the river moves swiftly through rocks and boulders. The rapids in the Second Nile Cataract can be impassable and dangerous, so you’ll have to unload your boat and go overland. You will pass several isolated walled monastic communities in the Batn el-Hajar, and no doubt, see crocodiles on the riverbanks enjoying the sun, or waiting just below the water surface. Don’t stray too far away from the river into the desert though, dying of thirst is a very real possibility.

If, after visiting Kulubnarti, you plan to continue onward south to Tungul, beware. The Makurian kingdom has a trade monopoly and maintains a rigid control of traders. From the Egyptian border you can move freely to the area of Kulubnarti, but permission from the Makurian King is needed if you wish to venture further upstream, and you will likely be searched. If you refuse, the punishment can be death. Smuggling is not tolerated.

Photograph of a crocodile entering the river.
Nile crocodile on the river bank, northern Sudan. © N Spencer
Photograph of the landscape of Northeast Kulubnarti, including the river and a large rock formation.
Northeast area of Kulubnarti. © D A Welsby
Food and drink

Despite there being only a small amount of cultivated land in Kulubnarti, there is an abundance of fresh, locally grown produce including dates, figs, bananas, pulses, onions and cucumbers. The many saqia waterwheels along the river’s edge, turned by a patiently plodding bull or pair of bulls, ensure the agricultural fields remain well watered.

Be sure to try the local sorghum (dhurra) flat bread made on hot ceramic plates, and the thick, fermented sorghum porridge. Nile fish are a staple food, and meats and milk are available. It’s highly recommended you try one of the hearty local stews. Camel meat, either sun-dried or fresh, boiled in milk is a delicacy. Green beans (lūbiyā) and bread soaked in meat broth, with meat chunks, roots and leaves added to complete the dish, is another. Accompanied by some sorghum or millet beer, they’re delicious meals for a weary traveller. If you drink too much you may end up joining in a singalong, with some of the residents, a favoured entertainment!

Where to stay

When it’s hot, most people sleep outside under the stars on palm mats or on wooden beds with palm ropes lashed to the frame for support. If it’s cold, it might be possible to rent a room for the night or if you’re lucky, a friendly resident or one of the local worthies will welcome you into their home.  The mudbrick house walls radiate heat at night and will help protect you from the elements. You may want to sleep with an oil lamp for company, because the rooms are dark and have small windows. The nights are tranquil interrupted only by braying donkeys, barking dogs and bellowing camels.

Two photographs of utilitarian medieval Nubian tableware. On the left there is a photograph of a large communal bowl, on the left a serving ladle. They are a reddish-brown colour and made of dense mud.
Utilitarian medieval Nubian tableware: a large communal bowl and a serving ladle.
Photograph of a dark red saucer lamp made of dense mud. The lamp includes a central reservoir for oil, and three wick holes.
Saucer lamp with a central reservoir for the lamp oil and three wicks.
Things to do

Most people explore Kulubnarti on foot. It is easy to take in the sights this way, experience the peaceful rhythm of daily pastoral life, and enjoy the natural beauty of the countryside, where snowy, white egrets hunt prey in the flooded fields beside the city, and migrating flocks of stork wheel around the sky.

In the adjacent desert, large sand dunes cascade over dark boulders. Look for the ancient and more recent boat graffiti on the rocky outcrops.

Two photographs of the Kulubnarti countryside. On the left, a photograph of large sandy dunes. On the right, a rocky outcrop with boat graffiti visible on some of the rocks.
Sandy dunes in the Kulubnarti countryside and a rocky outcrop near the river with boat graffiti inscribed on it.
© D A Welsby

The river has been central to life here for hundreds of years, just as it is today. Wooden boats move back and forth along the Nile, some carrying goods for local trade – large baskets full of grain and dates – while from others fishermen toss their nets drawing up catches of Nile perch and bolti fish. While wandering around you may also see trade caravans coming and going, carrying slaves, exotic animals such as giraffes and monkeys, leopard skins, gold, frankincense and ebony northward to market, and transporting oil and wine amphorae, cloth bolts, wheat and barley similarly southward.

Visit the community church

Have a look inside the small mudbrick church on the low terrace next to the fields. Columns divide the interior into three parallel aisles for a small congregation. There is an apse at the east end of the central aisle, over which sits a dome. Beautiful wall paintings of saints, apostles, biblical stories, archangels, and the Nativity with Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds and angels, decorate the plastered walls in a rich array of colours. The Nubian artistic style, a mixture of Coptic, Syro-Palestinian, Byzantine and local Nubian influences, is unique and captivating.

Photograph of the Kulubnarti Church within the wider landscape. The church itself is a ruin surrounded by rocks. Beyond it the cultiviation and river are visible.
The Kulubnarti Church sits among the rocks beside the cultivation. © D A Welsby

Other visitors to the church have celebrated their visits here by leaving graffiti, writing their names and those of saints and angels, or short prayers in Greek, Coptic and Old Nubian, perhaps to commemorate part of a pilgrimage journey southward to the Monastery of Saint Anthony the Great at Tungul for healing, or northward through Egypt and beyond, to the distant holy city of Jerusalem. If you are fortunate enough to be here on 10 Tybi (10 January) you can enjoy the festival of Saint Anna, a well-known Makurian saint, revered for their piety, now buried in a crypt at Tungul.

Photograph of painting on the wall of the church. The painting shows the Nativity: Joseph is on the left and an angel is on the right.
Portion of the wall painting of the Nativity with Joseph on the left and an angel on the right. Now in the Sudan National Museum.
Entertainment

If you’re in the mood for something adventurous, take the opportunity to improve both your fitness and your prowess with a bow and arrow. Go trekking through the nearby desert with skilled Nubian archers stalking and hunting swift and elusive gazelle. The meat is tasty, and the neighbourhood monks will appreciate having the gazelle skins to make parchment.

For a relaxing break, spend a day on the river collecting Nile oysters – their shells make great spoons and pendants – or board a fishing boat and float gently along with the current, casting nets or hooks and lines into the river, hoping for a successful catch.

Shopping

Be prepared to barter with the merchants. Unlike further north, coinage is not accepted here and goods are purchased by exchange, so bring something like glass, silk or iron tools to trade.

Skilled artisans make wool clothing, saddle tack, baskets, tools and sandals, sturdy, practical products for everyday use. Don’t expect extravagant luxury goods as few end up here. Look for the upright looms, spindle whorls, weights and awls – spinning, weaving, basketry and leatherworking are important industries, and materials are sourced locally. If you’ve lost your comb, need to pin up your hair, or add a toggle pin to your clothes, this is also the place to pick one up.

Three photographs of products made by artisans. On the left is a spindle whorl – a tool from the local weaving trade made of wood – with cotton still attached to it. In the centre is an ebony comb with fine teeth on one side and coarser teeth on the other. On the right are two carved wooden hair toggle pins: pointed at one end with notches at the other end to form a head.
From left to right: A tool from the local weaving trade (spindle whorl), a highly polished ebony comb, two carefully carved wooden hair or toggle pins.

For added protection on your travels consider getting a leather or cloth amulet with a sacred magical text folded and sewn inside. They are said to protect the wearer from a wide variety of ills and creatures. They come in several styles and shapes from square, to cylindrical, round or rectangular and are often covered with stamped or inked decorations. You’ll notice many of Kulubnarti’s residents are wearing these, usually attached to leather necklaces, armlets and anklets, or sewn on to their clothes. Don’t buy a ready made amulet. To make sure you’re getting a genuine amulet and not a fake, have one made for you. Alternatively, you could purchase a lamp or bowl inscribed with the name, monogram or cryptogram of an archangel. Michael, the patron saint of Nubia, and Raphael are popular choices.

Photograph of a pot shard from a ceramic bowl. The shard is decorated with magical symbols and the monogram of the archangel Raphael (now very faded).
Pot shard from a bowl with magical symbols and the monogram of the archangel Raphael drawn on it in the centre.

We hope you had fun on your journey to 12th-century Sudan!

In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series: