Extension of Alodia in the 10th century, probably slightly exaggerated.
|Historical era||Middle Ages|
Alodia, also referred to as Alwa or Aloa, was a Medieval Nubian kingdom in what is now Sudan. Its capital was Soba, located near the confluence of the Blue and White Nile. Compared to its two Nubian cousins in the north, Nobatia and Makuria, Alodia is still rather badly understood. This is mostly due to the scarcity of written sources as well as the limited amount of fieldwork undertaken in its territory, with the only noteworthy exception being the capital itself.
Long before the kingdom of Alodia becomes tangible several similar-sounding variations of its name appear in various sources. The earliest reference to Alodia might be a Kushitic stela from the reign of Nastasen, which mentions a region called Alut. It is however not yet possible to connect named Alut with any specific region or town. A reference made by Pliny the Elder is more interesting: He not only includes Alwa on his list of towns in Meroitic Kush, but also places it south of Meroe as well. Sadly, Pliny does not give us any concrete details about its location. Therefore, we can only guess that his Alwa is related to the later kingdom, but we lack certainty. The last ancient source which should be noted is the most important one. We are dealing with a Ge'ez inscription of the Aksumite king Ezana, who lived in the mid 4th century AD. This inscription mentions a brick-made city named Alwa. It is however assumed that this Alwa has to be located near the confluence of the Nile and the Atbara. If we accept this localization this information is not of much of use for us, but Ezanas inscription actually offers much more interesting information: Named Alwa was mentioned in a wider context, in particular in an apparently punitive Aksumite expedition against the warlike Noba (Historical term for Nubians), which even threatened the fringes of the Aksumite Kingdom north of Tekeze River (The Ethiopian part of the Atbara river). The inscription describes how the Aksumite expedition defeated the Tekeze Nubians and pushed westwards until they reached the confluence of the Nile and Atbara, where they plundered several Kushite towns (One of them being Alwa). Not all towns were in the hands of Kushites though. Instead, the account makes it clear that in fact, the very heartland of the Kingdom of Kush was partially occupied by the Nubians. In conclusion, Ezanas inscription proves how the Nubians controlled significant parts of modern Sudan by the mid 4th century, indicating that the Kingdom of Kush was already in an advanced state of decay.
Since the archaeological evidence suggests that the Kingdom of Kush ceased to exist around the mid of the 4th century, the Aksumite expeditions are thought to be directly responsible for its fall, although this is still not 100% proven. Be it as it may, it doesn't seem as if Aksums presence in the Middle Nile Valley was overly long-lasting. With the destruction of a centralized state controlling the entire Middle Nile Valley, the Nubians managed to seize power entirely, eventually founding their own, yet pagan, chief- and kingdoms out of the ashes of Kush. This era of transformation is known as the "Post-Meroitic" period (Ca. 350-550). While the formation of Nobatia (Early 5th century) and Makuria (Ca. 500) are both fairly well studied and understood, same can't be said for Alodia. What seems clear is that several aspects of Meroitic culture were largely dismissed during that period, like pyramids and mastabas (Which were replaced by tumuli), wheel-made pottery and faiences. When Alodia came into existence is unknown, just as much as when and why Soba became the capital. Archaeology suggests that Soba was already settled during the Meroitic period, but it was not until the "later post-Meroitic period, perhaps during the 6th century" that it became a major urban center. This dating coincides with the first mention of Alodia and its conversion to Christianity.
Christianization and peak
With John of Ephesus' fairly detailed report of the baptizement of the kingdoms of Nobatia and Alodia, the latter finally steps into the light of history as a fully developed, central Sudanese kingdom. As the southernmost of the three Nubian kingdoms, Alodia was the last to be converted to Christianity. If we can believe John, the Alodian king was very aware of the baptisms of Nobadia in 543 (Miaphysite branch) and Makuria in around 568/569 (Melkite branch). He describes how the Alodian king sent a delegation to the king of Nobadia, requesting a bishop to be sent to him to "instruct his people and baptize them". The request was granted in 580, leading to the baptism of the king, his family and the local nobility. This event marked the end of the post-Meroitic period and the dawn of the "Medieval" or "Christian" period of central Sudan. How fast and how deep Christianity spread among the Alodians is still very hard to say. It is possible that after conversion, several temples were converted into churches, like those in Musawwarat es-Sufra and Meroe. The immediate organization of dioceses has also to be assumed. Nevertheless, it must be expected that especially in Alodia, the Christianization of the rural population would have proceeded rather slow, if it occurred at all.
After John of Ephesus, the historians remain silent about Alodia for several centuries. 60 years after the baptizement of the Alodian nobility, in 640-641, the Arabs conquered Egypt from the Byzantine Empire, effectively cutting of Christian Nubia from its "spiritual big brother" in Constantinople. Two Muslim attacks into Makuria, which at this time may have been unified with Nobatia already, followed immediately (642 & 652), but could both be repelled. In the aftermath, both Makuria and the Arabs agreed to sign the Baqt, a peace treaty that also included a yearly exchange of gifts as well as other socio-economic regulations between Arabs and Nubians. Alodia was explicitly excluded from this treaty. Meanwhile, Arabs also started to settle on the Red Sea coast of modern Sudan, founding the ports of Aydhab in 632-634, Badi in 637 and Suakin some time afterwards (First mention in the 10th century). In these early years, relations between those Arabs and Alodia would have been predominately peaceful and mercantile.
These mercantile relations might have intensified from the 9th century onwards, when several gold and emerald mines were discovered in the east Sudanese desert. It is in that time that the Arab historian al-Yaqubi would describe Alodia for the first time. He confirms that it is a large kingdom ("About two months journey") with Soba as its capital. He also says that its power is above Makurias.
P.L. Shinnie mentions that the name of a king David, who died in 1015, was learned from a recently recovered tombstone. At some points in time it seems as though Alodia and Makuria merged into one state, perhaps as a result of the close dynastic links between the two. If the two states did merge at certain times, Alodia regained its independence. Ibn Hawqal is the most important external source on the country, being one of the only detailed first hand accounts of a traveller to the country. He describes Alodia as being larger, wealthier, and more powerful than Makuria, with the country covering a large region stretching from Ethiopia to the Kordofan.
Decline and fall
Alodia was the farthest of the Nubian states from the influences of Egypt and thus the last of the Nubian states to be converted to Islam. Archaeological evidence seems to show that the kingdom was in decline as early as the thirteenth century. Near the end of this century al-Harrani reports that the capital had been moved to Waylula. Later Mamluk emissaries reported that the region was divided among nine rulers.
The conventional date for the final destruction of Alodia is the Funj conquest of the region in the early sixteenth century.
Alodia seems to have preserved its identity after the Funj conquest and its incorporation into the Kingdom of Sennar. The Alodians, who became known as the Abdallab, revolted under Ajib the Great and formed the semi-autonomous Kingdom of Dongola that persisted for several centuries.
Geography and government
The written sources attest that in its peak (c. 900-1200), Alodia was one the largest kingdoms south of the Sahara. Its kings ruled over climatic diverse provinces and regions, unlike the Makurian ones, whose domains were mostly limited to the Nile and a few Wadis. The northern-most Alodian province was called Al-Abwab by the Arabs, which can be translated as "The Gates". Its northern top is generally thought to be Abu Hamed near Mograt Island, although others also suggested places further south. The southern-most extension of that province is unknown. A logical natural barrier might have been the confluence of the Nile and the Atbara, but it is recorded that the Sudanese used the term "Al-Abwab" well into the 20th century, where it was applied to the area around what was once Meroe. East of Meroe was the Butana, a semi-arid steppe suited predominantly for pastoralism. Ibn Hawqals account suggests that the Alodian king had influence even over the south-eastern Butana and the Gash basin. Maqrizi, who lived in the 14th century but relied on older sources, remarks that the desert along the Red Sea is part of Alodia as well. To the southeast, the western slopes of the Ethiopian highlands would have marked a logical border of Alodian influence.
Southwest of the Butana was the fertile Gezira, accompanied by the White and Blue Nile. How far south the kings influence stretched is hard to say. The southern-most church was discovered in Saqadi, roughly 300 km south of Soba and located near Sennar. The southern Gezira was probably inhabitated by Nilotes like the Dinka, who, according to oral traditions, used to live there as "brothers" and "neighbours" of the Nubians, suggesting that this area was in the periphery of Alodian influence. Linguistic affinities between Dinka and modern Nobiin make this theory even more plausible. The Dinka, Shilluk and other Nilotes also might be identical to Masud's Takna, or Bukna, whom he calls allies of Alodia. They were said to live where the (White) Nile branched into several arms, so therefore very close to the borders of modern South Sudan To the west of the Gezira, and the Nile in general, Ibn Hawqal differed between Al-Ahdin and Al-Jeblien. The first was part of the Makurian kingdom, while the latter was part of Alodia. Since "Al-Ahdin" was said to be west of the White Nile it must be associated with the Nuba Mountains and southern Kordofan, while "Al-Jeblien" is thought to be northern Kordofan. That northern Kordofan was in the Makurian sphere of influence is also attested by a Nubian graffito found roughly 200 km southwest of Dongola, mentioning the 14th century Makurian king Siti.
If Darfur was part of Alodia or Makuria is not possible to say. That Darfur has been part of the Medieval Nubian civilization nevertheless is suggested by ethnographical research conducted in the 19th and 20th century, a linguistic affinity between Nobiin and Daju (The founders of the first attested kingdom in Darfur) as well as the frequent reports of Arab historians that the western neighbours of the Nubians were the Zaghawa, which live west of Darfur, in the border region between modern Sudan and Chad. On a final note, it should be mentioned that in pre-modern times, the sphere of influence of kingdoms was not so much coupled to land but to the people who swore allegiance, which in the case of Alodia especially counts for the nomadic people living in the Butana and the deserts. That means that the "borders" used to be very flexible. Except of that, it would also be logical to assume a constant gain and loss of territory throughout the history of Alodia, even before its ultimate decline after the 12th century. This would also include the Alodian-Makurian border regions of Al-Abwab and Kordofan.
Alodias size and the fact that it survived for over 900 years suggests a rather sophisticated political organization, even though the sources are especially sparse on this matter. The head of the state was obviously the king. Just like in Makuria the succession was matrilineal, which means that not the kings son, but the son of the kings sister became the new king. This custom was already practiced in Meroitic times and is a testament of the political influence of women in the historical Sudan, even though in Medieval times we don't hear anything about reigning queens anymore. The fact that the kings had a fixed capital at Soba, where they would reign as, according to Al-Aswani, "absolute" monarchs, is an indicator of a fairly centralized form of government. Nevertheless, Al-Aswanis "absolute" should not be identified with an absolute monarchy à la early modern France. There would not only have been the queenmother, but perhaps also some type of institution to keep the king in check, like for example a council of elders how it is attested for Alodias successor, the Sultanate of Sennar.
Below the king one might differ between governors and puppet kings, who both represented royal authority over, as according to Abu-Salih, "wide districts". While the puppet kings were probably appointed (Or just vasals, depending on the translation) over the nomadic parts of the kingdom, as Ibn Hawqals report suggests, the districts containing the settled population might have been governed by eparchs similar to those in Makuria. By a lucky coincidence, an Arabic source from the 13th century gives us an idea about the territorial organization of the kingdom. It names nine governors who received a messenger from the Mameluke prince Alim-Al-Din Singer.
- The Sahib of Al-Abwab (The northern-most province, at this time already independent)
- The Ashab of Al-Anag (Thought to be Fazughli by Zarroug)
- The Ashab of Ari (Based on Ibn Hawqal, Zarroug suggests that its identical to the Bazin in modern Eritrea, but he ignores Hawqals explicit mention that the Bazin are "subject to no authority")
- The Ashab of Barah (Unspecified)
- The Ashab of Befal (Unspecified)
- The Ashab of Danfou (Unspecified)
- The Ashab of Kedru (Thought to be identical with modern Kadero, a village north of Khartoum)
- The Ashab of Kersa (The Gezira)
- The Ashab of Taka (Probably identical to modern al-Takah in the Gash basin)
In total, this makes only two districts which can be specified without any doubt, while others have only suggestive identifications or could not be identified at all
Zarroug highlights the mention of Al-Aswani that Alodia had plenty of horses. Like in any pre-Industrial society, horses were the quickest method to deliver messages and to project military power and therefore would have been of major importance in a large, steppe dominated kingdom like Alodia, just like they were in the other Medieval Sudanese kingdoms. Aside of horses and considering the numerous navigable rivers, boats must have played a considerable role in Alodian infrastructure as well.
Since the Butana and especially the Gezira received higher rainfalls than Makuria (Currently around 140 mm rain per year around Khartoum, increasing southwards), agriculture was not confined to the stripes beside the Nile, although due to their extreme fertility they were still a prime zone for harvesting, especially in the north. To irrigate the stripes beside the Nile there were used two different tools: The shaduf (A simple, man-driven device) and the sakia (An ox-driven water wheel). The mainstay of Alodian food production would have been the rainland cultivation however, practiced predominantly in the Gezira. Indeed, speaking of the Gezira Al-Aswani notes that "the provisions of the country of Alwa and their king come from this district. They send their boats and these come back loaded." These boats would have been loaded with a large variety of cereals, fruits and vegetables. The most important cereal was sorghum, although barley and millet are attested in the archaeological record of Soba as well. Al-Aswani notes how sorghum was used to make beer, while also saying that vineyards were more rare in Alodia than in Makuria, which can be conveniently explained with the climate of the Gezira being not really suited for the growing of grapes, even though a considerable amount grapes could still be identified at Soba. Continuing with fruits and vegetables, al-Idrisi states that Alodians used to harvest onions, horseradish, cucumbers and watermelons, while also mentioning rape, although none of those could be attested at Soba. Fruits attested by archaeology are first and foremost figs, followed by grapes, acacia fruits, dom palm fruits, dates and others.
Except of the planting of crops, animal husbandry must have played an important role in Alodian agriculture and diet as well, just as it already did in Meroitic times. Al-Aswani states that cattle meat was plenty, which he ascribed to the vast grazing plains. A good bunch of the animals would have been bred by pastoralists who inhabited those plains, like for example the habitants of Taflien, who, according to Ibn Hawqal, bred camels and cattle. Perhaps it were these pastoralists who supplied the kingdom with the "tawny camels of Arabian pedrigee" mentioned by Al-Aswani. Concerning the camels it seems that at least the Nubians used them rather for transportation and warfare than consumption, since at Soba the remains of only three individuals could be specified, of whom none bore butcher marks. Aside of cattle, sheep and goats played a significant role in the Alodian diet as well. The proportion of sheep (87%) and goat (13%) remains from Soba suggest that sheep were bred mostly for their meat, while goats were bred for their milk. Pigs, which are attested in Makuria, are interestingly absent from the archaeological record.
Fishing would have played some role in feeding river communities, even though at Soba it appears to have been only of minor relevance.
Languages, scripts and literacy
As the language of the ruling ethnicity, some type of Nubian dialect would have been the most important language. Just like in Makuria, this language was written in a variant of the Coptic alphabet. However, while this topic is still understudied it seems that there were differences between the Old Nubian and Alodian alphabet. Erman, who studied several Alodian inscriptions, suggested that the Alodian script had five unique letters, while Monneret states that it had six. The latter also assumes that those derived from Meroitic letters. The fact that Alodia used its own dialect for writing and even developed new letters for it differs it from Makuria, where the spoken language, Old Dongolawi, was never put into writing. Except of Nubian, Greek played an important role as well. Just as it was for Alodias northern cousin, Greek was probably a very prestigious language, used predominantly for liturgy and other religious matters. Both is spectaculary proven by the tomb stone of king David, which was written in surprisingly accurate Greek. Due to the sparse sources it's not possible to say much definite about the niveau of the Greek language among the common people. Perhaps one can draw parallels to Makuria though: There the niveau decayed over the centuries, leading to a hybrid language with a mixture of Greek and Nubian words, structured into one sentence after Nubian grammar rules. Coptic, as a language of communication with Christian Egypt, was only of limited relevance due to geographic reasons, but nevertheless do sparse written remains exist.
Concerning the overall literacy, the sources allow us only a rough image. In total, only around 5% of all known written records of Christian Nubia come from the domains of Alodia. The thought of Ochala, that northern Nubia produced more sources mostly because of its proximity to Egypt should be rejected, not only because, as he also says, the north is way more studied than the south, but also because of the fact that Alodia housed the very heartland of the former Meroitic kingdom, a kingdom which was considerable literate. It seems plausible to suggest that like in other Medieval societies, the art of reading and writing was taught by the clerics to nobles and officials, but would the average population have had basic writing skills as well. In the case of Alodia, the latter can be attested by two types of sources: First, ostraca and other incised pottery as well as a few incised bricks predominantly coming from Soba and second, graffiti incised into former Meroitic monuments and sites. The graffiti from Meroitic sites have hitherto been largely ignored by scholars and therefore comprise only a fraction of all known written sources, but is a study in preparation now. Content-wise, all known inscriptions consist of personal names, names of saints (Often in the form of monograms) and short, predominantly religious, sentences. Except of graffiti, the Alodians also used to write books, which they did, according to the Fung Chronichle, in Greek, but commentated upon them in Nubian.
- Zarroug 1991, p. 7-8
- Zarroug 1991, p. 8
- Hatke 2013, §18.104.22.168.
- Hatke 2013, §22.214.171.124., see also §4.5. for the discussion of a Greek inscription with similar content
- Hatke 2013, §4.6.3
- Obluski 2014, p. 35
- Werner 2013, p. 43
- Edwards 2004, p. 189
- Welsby 1998, p.21
- Obluski 2014, p. 171
- Vantini 1975, p. 27 (See "Remarks")
- Vantini 1975, p. 17
- Vantini 1975, p. 20
- Werner 2013, p. 62
- For the names of these yet unspecified dioceses see Werner 2013, p. 228-229
- Edwards 2001, p. 95
- Werner 2013, p. 77
- Zarroug 1991, p. 16
- On the Muslim Red Sea ports in the first Millennium AD see Power 2008
- See Power 2008, §30-34
- Vantini 1975, p. 71
- P.L. Shinnie, Ancient Nubia (London: Kegan Paul International, 1996), p. 133.
- Vantini 1975, p. 447
- Zarroug 1991, p. 21-22
- MacMichael 1922, p. 183
- Zarroug 1991, p. 82
- Zarroug 1991, p. 98
- Vantini 1975, p. 630
- Werner 2013, p. 168
- Beswick 2004, p. 21 & 29
- Vantini 1975, p. 127
- Vantini 1975, p. 165-166
- 1998, p. 49
- See Ochala 2011
- Werner 2013, p. 182-183
- Beswick 2004, p. 21
- See for example Ishaq al-Husain in Vantini 1975, p. 123
- Vantini 1975, p. 163
- Zarroug 1991, p. 97
- O'Fahey, R.S. & Jay L. Spaulding 1974, p. 43
- Vantini 1975, p. 326
- Vantini 1975, p. 164 translated the relevant part with "vasal", Zarroug 1991, p. 18 says they get "appointed"
- Compare with Zarroug 1991, p. 98-100
- Compare with Zarroug 1991, p. 22
- Zarroug 1991, p. 85
- Zarroug 1991, p. 42
- See Zarroug p. 77-79
- Zarroug 1991, p. 21
- Welsby 1991, p. 265-267
- Vantini 1975, p. 613
- Vantini 1975, p. 613
- Welsby 1991, p. 271
- Vantini 1975, p. 274
- Welsby 1991, p. 273
- Welsby 1991, Table 16
- Zarroug 1991, p. 82
- Vantini 1975, p. 614
- See Zarroug 1991, p. 82
- Vantini 1975, p. 164
- Vantini 1975, p. 614
- The 13th century historian Al-Maghrebi notes that the Nubians used to conduct raids on their camels, see Vantini 1975, p. 412
- Welsby 1998, p 240
- Welsby 1998, p. 236
- It is recorded that the Ayyubid general Shams ad-Dawlah ordered to kill 700 pigs when he conquered the Nubian castle Qasr Ibrim in 1173, see Vantini 1975, p. 328
- Welsby 1998, p. 241
- Zarroug 1991, p. 29-30
- Werner 2013, p. 186 note 6
- Werner 2013, p. 188 note 23
- Werner 2013, p. 185
- Werner 2013, p. 189
- Welsby, Derek & C.M. Daniels 1991, p. 274-276
- On Greek in Medieval Nubia see Werner 2013, p. 188-193
- Ochala 2014, p. 37
- On the discussion of this graffito see Tsakos 2011
- Ochala 2014, table 4
- Ochala 2014, p. 22-23
- Werner 2013, p. 198-199
- Tsakos 2016
- Vantini 1975, p. 786
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