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6th century–c. 1500
The approximate extension of Alodia in the 10th century. White beams and question marks symbolize uncertain ownership.
The approximate extension of Alodia in the 10th century. White beams and question marks symbolize uncertain ownership.
Capital Soba
Common languages Nubian · Greek
Religion Coptic Orthodox Christianity
Government Monarchy
Historical era Middle Ages
• First mentioned
6th century
• Destroyed
c. 1500
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Kush
Funj Sultanate
Kingdom of Fazughli
Today part of  Sudan

Alodia, also referred to as Alwa or Aloa, was a medieval Nubian kingdom in what is now central and southern Sudan. Its capital was the city of Soba located near modern day Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile.

The earliest texts that refer to Alodia as a kingdom date to around 569 although its founding is likely to have been earlier, possibly dating back to the fall of the ancient kingdom of Kush. It converted to Coptic Christianity around 580, the last of the three Nubian kingdoms to convert, the other two being Nobadia and Makuria. Based on analysis of scant written records and archaeological excavations at Soba (the only Alodian site systematically excavated)[1], the kingdom likely reached its peak during the 9th–12th centuries when it controlled swaths of the Gezira (a fertile region bounded by the White and Blue Nile), the Nuba mountains, the Butana and even parts of the desert bordering the Red Sea. It was described as being larger and mightier than its northern neighbor, Makuria, with which Alodia maintained close dynastic ties.

By the 13th century, the kingdom had entered a severe decline possibly caused by invasions from the south, droughts and a shift of trade routes. The 14th century also saw the arrival of both the plague and bedouin tribes migrating into the upper Nile valley. By around 1500, Soba had fallen to either Arabs or the Funj, likely marking the end of Alodia, although some Sudanese oral traditions claimed that Alodia survived in the form of the kingdom of Fazughli within the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands. After the destruction of Soba, the Funj established the sultanate of Sennar ushering in a period of Islamization and Arabization ultimately resulting in the modern day Sudanese Arab identity.



Variants of the name Alodia appeared in various sources prior to its founding; a Kushitic stela dating from the reign of king Nastasen (late 4th century BC) mentions a region called Alut, albeit without further localization.[2] Several centuries later, Pliny the Elder included Alwa on his list of towns in Meroitic Kush, placing it somewhere south of Meroe, but no exact location was proffered, making its relation with the later kingdom merely guesswork.[3]

Kushitic figurine depicting a captive Nubian king (1st century BC).

One other ancient source is a Ge'ez inscription by the Aksumite king Ezana, who lived in the mid 4th century AD. It mentions a brick city named Alwa, assumed to be located near the confluence of the Nile and the Atbara.[4] Further mention is made of Alwa in reference to a punitive Aksumite expedition against the warlike Noba (Nubians), who threatened the borders of the Aksumite kingdown north of Tekeze River (the Ethiopian stretch of the Atbara river).[5] The inscription describes the defeat of the Tekeze Nubians by the Aksumite forces, which 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 clearly states that most what constituted the Kingdom of Kush was occupied by the Nubians,[4] while Kush was limited to northern reaches of Butana.[6] The Nubians, who originally lived west of the Nile but were forced eastwards due to changes in the climate, had been in conflict with Kush since at least the 1st century BC.[7]

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Kingdom of Kush ceased to exist around the middle of the 4th century. Whether the Aksumite expeditions played a direct role in the fall of the kingdom remains unknown, but Aksumite presence in the Middle Nile Valley was likely short lived.[8] With the fall of Kush came the rise of the Nubian kingdoms of Nobatia in the early 5th century,[9] Makuria c. 500,[10] and Alodia. The emergence of the former two kingdoms, both located north of Alodia, is well understood compared to that of Alodia[11] It is known that with the rise of the Nubian kingdoms, aspects of Meroitic culture became supplanted, such as pyramids and mastabas, both of which were replaced by tumuli, or became disused, as was the case for Egyptian faiences.[12] Meroe, the former capital of Kush, was largely abandoned with little evidence of any continued occupation occurred.[13] Instead, the seat of power shifted farther south; in El-Hobagi, a few dozen kilometers south of Meroe, several upper class burials dating to the late 4th century were discovered.[14] The individuals buried at this site were accompanied by an assortment of weaponry in imitation of Kushite royal funerary rituals,[15] but it is unclear whether they were of the ruling class themselves, perhaps kings in their own right, or merely ruled on behalf of a higher authority.[16]

Archaeologist Derek Welsby writes that, from the 6th century, Soba served as the capital of the kingdom.[14] Excavations at the city, located south of the confluence of the Blue and White Nile, provides corroboration that the city was a major urban center until the "later post-Meroitic period, perhaps during the 6th century".[17] It was in the middle of this century, around 569, Alodia was first described as a kingdom on the cusp of Christianization.[11]

Christianization and peak[edit]

Graffiti at a church in Musawwarat es-Sufra, formerly a pagan temple. It shows a horsemen, perhaps a warrior saint, wielding a spear and a round shield.

The events around the Christianization of Alodia have been described by John of Ephesus in considerable detail. As the southernmost of the three Nubian kingdoms, Alodia was the last to be converted to Christianity. According to John, the Alodian king was aware of the baptism of Nobadia in 543 and eventually asked him to send him a bishop that would baptize his people aswell.[18] The request was granted in 580, leading to the baptism of the king, his family and the local nobility.[19] Thus Alodia became a part of the Christian world under the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria.[20] The extent and speed with which Christianity spread among the Alodian populace is, however, uncertain. After conversion, several pagan temples were probably converted into churches, like for example the temple in Musawwarat es-Sufra.[20] Despite the conversion of the nobility, it is likely that Christianization of the rural population would have been proceeded slowly, or not at all.[21]

After John of Ephesus, little is recorded by contemporary historians about Alodia for several centuries. Sixty years after the baptizing of the Alodian nobility, around 640–641, the Arabs conquered Egypt from the Byzantine Empire effectively cutting Christian Nubia off from Mediterranean Christendom. Two Muslim incursions into Makuria, which by this time may have been unified with Nobatia,[22] followed, one in 642 and another in 652, but were both 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.[23] Meanwhile, the Arabs had begun settling along the western coast of the Red Sea, founding the ports of Aydhab in 632–634, Badi in 637 and Suakin some time afterwards (Suakin was first mentioned in the 10th century).[24]

According to both written and archaeological sources, Soba enjoyed a Golden Age between the 9th to 12th centuries.[25] In the 9th century, the Arab historian al-Yaqubi described Alodia and its capital for the first time. While his account is short, he confirmed that 300 years after it was first mentioned, Alodia was a large kingdom with Soba as its capital. He also stated that Alodia's power exceeded that of Makuria.[26] A later description was by Ibn Hawqal, a traveller and historian of the late 10th century. He likely travelled through Alodia himself, gathering information firsthand,[27] allowing him to describe aspects of the kingdom, such as its territorial extent, landscape, economy, inhabitants and government, in comparatively great detail.[28] He wrote that: "The most prosperous part of the country (Nubia) is the territory of 'Alwa, which has an uninterrupted chain of villages and a continuous strip of cultivated lands".[29] According to him, the king at the time was named Asabiyus (probably an Arabic distortion of Eusebius), who inherited the throne from his uncle Astabanus (Stephanos) through matrilineal succession.[30][31] Contemporary to Ibn Hawqal was Ibn Sulaym al-Aswani, a Fatimid ambassador sent to Makuria, who would go on to travel to Alodia. While his original work has been lost, he was quoted by later historians such as Al-Maqrizi.[32] As with Hawqals account, it is quite detailed, focusing again on the geography, economy and inhabitants, but neglecting political history. In his account, which complemented what Hawqal gathered , he wrote that Alodia was more extensive and powerful than Makuria, and had a larger army.[33] It is also made clear that, during his time, Soba was a prospering town with "fine buildings, and extensive dwellings and churches full of gold and gardens".[34] After Al-Aswani, there is a gap of several centuries. Two Alodian kings, Basil and Paul, appear in 12th century Arabic letters from Qasr Ibrim.[31] The last historian to refer to Alodia in some detail was the Armenian Abu Salih, who lived in around 1200. He confirmed that Alodia was still a large kingdom, housing around 400 churches, and that the inhabitants of Soba remained Christian.[35]

Decline and fall[edit]

Causes of decline[edit]

Alodia's decline had already begun in the 12th century[36] and would have been well advanced by c. 1300.[37] At Soba, basically no pottery or glassware, neither native nor imported, dating beyond the 13th century could be identified.[38] Two churches were apparently destroyed during the 13th century, although they were later rebuilt.[36] It had been suggested that Alodia was under attack of a people called Damadim, an African, possibly Nilotic[39] people that originated from the border region of modern Sudan and South Sudan, along the Bahr al Ghazal. Soba may have been conquered at this time, suffering occupation and destruction.[40] According to al-Maghrebi, the Damadim attacks on Nubia and Abyssinia, occurred in 1220 hence their alternative name, "Tartars of the Black", alluding to the Mongols who invaded Persia around the same time.[41] External pressure may have encouraged the Alodian kings to relocate their capital.[42] In the late 13th century, Al-Harrani wrote that the capital was a "very large town" called Waylula and not Soba.[43] However, al-Dimashqi, a geographer who lived around the same time as al-Harrani, wrote that the capital was named Kusa,[44] which Crawford identifies with Zankor in western Kordofan.[45] In the late 13th century, another invasion by an unspecified people from the south occurred.[46] According to oral traditions, the Dinka began to migrate from the central Gezira into modern South Sudan during this period of Alodian decline.[47]

Bronze incense burner, bearing a damaged Nubian inscription. Allegedly discovered in Soba.

In the north, militant Mamluks seized power in Egypt from the Ayyubids in 1250 and quickly became active on their southern frontier. Makuria became the target of numerous incursions during the 13th and 14th century.[48] Apart from these organised attacks, there was also an expedition into East Sudan in 1316–17, a pursuit of Arab brigandines along the Atbara river all the way to Jebel Kassala in Taka. On the return journey, the Mamluks plundered Al-Abwab for food.[49] This was the former northernmost Alodian province, recorded as a splinter kingdom independent from Alodia since 1276; it remained so well into the second half of the 14th century.[50][51] The precise circumstances of its secession and relations with Alodia thereafter remain unknown.[52] In 1286, a Mamluke prince sent messengers to several rulers in central Sudan. It is not entirely clear if they were still subject to the king in Soba, as Mohi Zarroug suggests,[53] or if they were independent, implying a fragmentation of Alodia into multiple petty states by the late 13th century.[37]

In addition to their activities in Nubian territory, the Mamluks also turned their attention inwards, placing pressure on Christians within their borders.[54] The patriarch of Alexandria was forced to cancel the dispatch of priests to Alodia due to their dependence on Egyptian bishops, a dependence that was shared by the other Coptic nations in Africa.[55] The resulting deterioration of the Christian faith is attested to by Portuguese sources from the early 16th century. A traveller, and companion, of Francisco Álvares, who visited Nubia around 1500, stated that the Nubians considered themselves Christian but were so lacking in Christian instruction that they had no actual knowledge of the faith.[56] In 1520, Nubian ambassadors reached Ethiopia and petitioned the emperor for priests, claiming that no more priests could reach Nubia because of the wars between Muslims leading to a decline of Christianity in their land.[57]

Economic factors also played a part in the downfall of Alodia. From the 10th to 12th century, the East African coast saw the rise of new trading states, such as Mogadishu and the Sultanate of Kilwa. These states not only traded similar goods to Nubia but could transport them more rapidly and more cost effectively via maritime routes, unlike Alodia which was dependent on caravans for the distribution of its goods throughout the Arabic world (see "Foreign trade").[58] A period of severe droughts occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa between 1150 and 1500 affected the Nubian economy as well.[59] Soba, the Alodian capital, possibly suffered from overgrazing and overcultivation.[60]

An event of major significance for Nubia is described by the often-quoted 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun, who records a large-scaled migration of Arab tribes known as the Juhayna into the Sudan:

Map depicting the migration routes employed by the bedouin tribes to push into Sudan

Although not specifically mentioned, many of the migrant Arabs would have originated in upper Egypt, fleeing Mamluke oppression and entering Sudan during the 14th century, after the disintegration of Makuria, and continuing to do so into the 16th century.[63] The earliest recorded migration of Arab tribes from Mamluke Egypt into Nubia dates to 1324.[64] Apart from Juhayna Arabs, many other tribes also arrived, such as the Rabi'a, Rufa'a[65] or Ja'alin.[66] It has been suggested that the nomads greatly profited from the plague which, during the mid 14th century, may have infected and killed many sedentary Nubians, but not the Bedouins.[67] The Arabs would have then intermixed with the remaining local population, gradually taking control over land and people,[68] greatly benefiting from their large population in spreading their culture.[69] The primary objective of the migrations were the pasture lands of the Butana and Gezira, the heartland of Alodia.[70] It was recorded that nomads reached the Blue Nile valley in the 14th century,[65] while the White Nile valley is said to have been wrested from Alodia during the 15th century.[71][72] The southernmost point reached by Arab settlers was Aba Island.[72] In 1474, the Arabs founded the town of Arbaji on the Blue Nile.[73] It would quickly develop into an important center of commerce and Islamic learning.[74] Despite the growing Arab encroachment into its territory, Alodia was still able to enforce authority over some of the newly arrived Arab groups, forcing them to pay tribute.[75] By the second half of the 15th century, the Arabs had settled in the entire central Sudanese Nile valley except for the area around Soba itself.[68] At the same time, the Nubians were described as being in a state of total political fragmentation, with 150 lordships residing on both sides of the Nile.[37]

Fall of Alodia[edit]

Graphic showing a member of the Abdallab tribe with the tribe-specific scarification. The Abdallab trace their origin to Abdallah "Jamma" ("Gatherer"), the alleged destroyer of Alodia.

The kingdom of Alodia was destroyed by either the Arabs or the Funj, an African group which originated from the south and eventually founded the Sultanate of Sennar.[76] The destruction of Alodia by the Funj is described in the "Funj chronicle", compiled in its current form around 1870. It claims that the Funj, under king Amara Dunqas, attacked and defeated Alodia in the 9th century after the Hijra (c. 1396–1494). Soba, which at this time was apparently the Alodian capital yet again, was occupied and proclaimed the Funj capital. The Funj were allied with a certain Abdallah Jamma who, after the coalition defeated the Nubians, took residence in Qerri north of the confluence of the Blue and White Nile and became a vassal of the Funj king. Subsequently, in 1504, Sennar was founded on the Blue Nile.[77] The "Tabaqat Dayfallah", a history of Sufism in Sudan (c. 1700), also briefly mentions that the Funj attacked and defeated Alodia in 1504.[73]

The fall of Alodia is remembered differently in the oral traditions of the Sudanese Abdallab tribe. According to them, it was not the Funj king Amara Dungas who was responsible but the aforementioned Abdallah Jamma, although he did receive provisions and fighters from the Funj,[78] and from whom the Adballab trace their origin.[79] Abdallah (d. 1554–1562) was a Rufa'a[80] sheikh who gathered the Arabic tribes to "rescue them from the harsh reign of the Anag (Nubian) kings."[78] This accusation of a tyrannic Alodian reign has been interpreted as a religious-economic motive, i.e. the Muslim Arabs no longer accepted the rule of, nor taxation by, a Christian ruler.[81] According to writings presented by the British colonial official A. E. D. Penn, the Arabs penetrated Alodian territory from south to north,[82] but there are also claims that Abdallah began his war against Alodia from north of the confluence of the White and Blue Nile,i.e a southward campaign.[83] Ultimately, Soba was destroyed and the Nubian king killed. The last recorded Nubian resistance was at the siege, and subsequent fall, of Qerri. Over the course of these conquests, Abdallah's men were said to have come into possession of the bejeweled crown of the Alodian kings, together with a "famous necklace of pearls and rubies".[84] This war would have happened in the late 15th century,[81] after which Abdallah and the Funj divided the conquered lands among themselves.[85]

The Sudanese author Fahal al Faki al Tahir presents a slightly different perspective on the conquest of Alodia by Abdallah Jamma, basing his narrative on old documents from the archive of Shendi. According to him, Abdallah was the second Arab leader to attack Alodia, being preceded by a certain Emir Humaydan in 1476.[86] His forces attacked and defeated Alodia, killing the Alodian king, Afaiq. Following the victory, the Arabs divided the conquered territories along the Blue Nile, the Ja'alin getting everything north of Karkoj, while the Juhayna got everything south of it. Over time, tensions between the Juhayna and Ja'alin rose, a situation which the Nubians would capitalize on to rebuild their strength. Emir Abdallah al-Qurayn, the aforementioned Abdallah Jamma, then made a pact with Amara Dunqas, leader of the Funj, promising his fealty for his help. The latter then founded Sennar and effectively established the sultanate of Sennar. Meanwhile, the Alodian patriarch is said to have assembled an army consisting of Nubians, Beja and Ethiopians, prepared to fight "for the sake of religion". In 1509, the forces clashed in the last battle over Soba. Under the leadership of Abdallah, aided by a Funj army, the Arabs managed to defeat the Christian army by encircling it and killing the patriarch. The Christian army was annihilated and Soba, with its remaining four churches, was plundered and razed.[87]

An 18th century record, collected by the Scottish traveller James Bruce, stated that the Abdallab already controlled the northern riverine Sudan before the arrival of the Funj. Prior to the foundation of the Sultanate of Sennar, the Funj attacked, and eventually defeated, the Abdallab near Arbaji.[88]

Scholars generally now agree that it was the Arabs under Abdallah Jamma who were responsible for the destruction of Alodia and not the Funj.[89][90] The Funj chronicle is regarded as state propaganda seeking to legitimize Funj rule by claiming direct succession from Alodia.[91] Another significant error was highlighted by Welsby and Daniels, who noted that the chronicle borrowed passages from al Aswani while describing Soba as a prosperous place before the Funj occupied it. However, Soba was most likely not made the Funj capital, as not only is there little archaeological evidence for a Funj presence, but it is known from the Jewish traveller David Reubeni, who travelled the region in 1523, that Soba lay in ruins, with the locals living in wooden dwellings.[36] The destruction of Soba is also remembered in Sudanese oral traditions as a symbol of total annihilation.[92] It remained inhabited until at least the early 17th century,[93] but during the early 19th century many of the remaining bricks in Soba were plundered for the construction of Khartoum, the new capital of the recently colonized Sudan.[94]


Manjil ("Kinglet") of Fazughli, as depicted by Frédéric Cailliaud. On his head he wears a taqiya umm qarnein.

Historian Jay Spaulding suggests that Alodia may have outlived the fall of Soba. He believes that the kingdom of Soba (note: Soba itself was already in ruins) mentioned by David Reubeni in 1523 is a reference to Alodia and believes it to be located somewhere on the east bank of the Blue Nile.[95] This kingdom of Soba encompassed some kingdom of Al Ga'l, which was described as a subordinate of the Sultanate of Sennar.[96] Al Ga'l is probably a reference to the Jaalin tribe.[97] Using oral traditions, Spaulding continues to argue that the Alodians eventually abandoned the territory they still held in the lower Blue Nile valley and retreated to the mountainous region of Fazughli in the south, where they reestablished their kingdom.[95] The Funj Chronicle also mentions a Nubian exodus to Fazughli.[98] A site named Mahadid in Qwara, western Ethiopia, with monumental architecture and pottery similar to that found in Soba, has very recently been attributed to these Alodian refugees. Considering the archaeological evidence it has been suggested that they had already started arriving in the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands by the 14th century.[99] With the seat in Fazughli, the kingdom is said to have consolidated its strength, "having excellent horses and fine gold", according to a Portuguese source from 1607.[100] According to Spaulding, it maintained the Christian faith, at least among the ruling Alodian elite, who would in time become known as the Hamaj.[101] In 1615, the kingdom is said to have been conquered by the Ethiopian emperor Susenyos,[102] but was then annexed by Sennar in 1685.[103] It was likely the Ethiopians or Funj were responsible for the eventual destruction of Mahadid at some point during the 16th or early 17th century.[104] Integrated into the Sultanate of Sennar, the Hamaj would become one of its most dominant ethnicities. In 1761–62, they seized control of Sennar, ruling until the Turko-Egyptian invasion of 1821.[105]

While the Nubians are a distinct ethnicity in areas between Aswan and Al Dabbah (south of Dongola) to this day, the Nubians further upstream underwent Arabization.[106] Near the confluence of the Blue and White Nile, including Soba, the Alodians were absorbed into the Abdallab,[97] while north of the confluence, and as far downstream as Al Dabbah, the Nubians were subsumed into the Ja'alin tribe.[106] Among these self-identifying Ja'alin, the Nubian language survived until the 19th century.[97] Even into the mid 19th century, it was still spoken in some villages as far upstream as Shendi (birthplace of the current Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir).[107] However, it was during this period that Arabic finally replaced Nubian as the native tongue of central riverine Sudan,[108] including the southern provinces of the Funj sultanate.[109] Despite the extinction of the Nubian language, lexical traces can still be found in Sudanese Arabic, which contains many words of Nubian origin, mostly relating to agriculture, fauna and handicrafts.[110] Place names of Nubian origin can be found as far south as the Blue Nile state.[111] Under the Funj, the term "Nuba" became equivalent with the word for "slave".[112]

The fate of Christians after the fall of Alodia is unknown. According to Abdallab traditions the first Funj king, Amara Dunqas, was initially a Christian, but by 1523 he had almost certainly converted to Islam (after the destruction of Alodia, Islam was spread in the Gezira by Islamized Mahasi Nubian and Ja'alin settlers[113]).[114] A Sudanese prophecy, proclaimed in the 17th century, mentioned a church in the Nuba mountains.[115] As late as the early 1770s there was said to be a Christian princedom in the Ethiopian-Sudanese border area, called Shaira.[116] Certain apotropaic rituals stemming from Christian practices remained in use until well into the 20th century.[117] Such rituals, often including crosses and resembling christenings, have been recorded in the Gezira,[118][53] Fazughli,[53] Kordofan, the Nuba mountains and even Darfur.[119]

One other legacy of the Christian Nubia were crowns with features resembling bovine horns, called taqiya umm qarnein and worn by diverse Sudanese petty kings, perhaps even the Funj kings themselves. However, compared to their Christian predecessors, they were more stylized and made of textiles.[120] The tradition of shaving the head of a king upon his coronation likely stems from Christian traditions as well,[121] just as the Funj custom of raising princes separatedly from their mothers, under strict confinement does.[122]

Geography and government[edit]

Geographical extent[edit]

Arabic writers described Alodia as a polyethnic kingdom,[123] and of such extent that a three month journey was required to cross it.[26] The northern-most Alodian province was called Al-Abwab ("the gates"[124]). Its northern limit probably lay somewhere between the fourth and fifth Nile cataract,[14] perhaps at Abu Hamad, near Mograt Island.[125] Some scholars have suggested a more southern location, near the Atbara.[14] South of the confluence of the Nile and Atbara was the Butana, a semi-arid steppe suited to livestock.[126] Ibn Hawqal's account suggests that the influence of the Alodian king extended over the south-eastern Butana and the Gash basin,[127] while Al-Aswani's account claimed that the desert along the Red Sea also belonged to Alodia.[128] Southwest of the Butana was the fertile Gezira, bounded by the White and Blue Nile. The extent of the Alodian king's influence to the south is uncertain,[129] but it is not considered to be as far south as the Sudd.[130] The southern-most church was discovered in Saqadi, roughly 300 km south of Soba and near Sennar.[131] To the southeast, the western slopes of the Ethiopian highlands marked a logical border of Alodian influence.[132] Within this border region lay Fazughli,[133] where several new Christian sites have been discovered in recent years.[134] To the west of the White Nile, Ibn Hawqal differentiated between Al-Jeblien, which was controlled by Makuria, and Al-Ahdin, controlled by Alodia.[135] Al-Jeblien is thought to be northern Kordofan, while Al-Ahdin has been identified with the Nuba Mountains.[136] Al Ahdin possibly reached at least as far south as Jebel al Liri, near the modern border to South Sudan.[136] Zarroug suggests that Alodia might have stretched as far west as Darfur,[137] but supporting archaeological evidence is lacking.[138] Atleast since the 12th century Darfur is known to have been dominated by the Daju kingdom.[139]

Regions and people of Medieval Sudan (9th-10th century).png


Early 20th century copy of a mural from Faras, depicting the Eparch of Nobadia with a horned crown.

Information on the organization of Alodia is sparse,[133] but it is probable that its organization was similar to that of Makuria.[140] The head of state was the king who, according to Al-Aswani, reigned from the capital Soba as an absolute monarch.[133] Like Makuria, succession to the Alodian throne was matrilineal, that is, it was the son of the king's sister and not the king's son who succeeded to the throne.[140] The records of Ibn Hawqal and Al-Masudi suggest that the Alodian royal family maintained close ties to the Makurian royal family, perhaps even having a common monarch ruling both kingdoms at certain points; after the death of the reigning king, the throne may have passed from the Alodian to the Makurian king and vice versa.[141] It has been suggested that the bovine-horned crowns, helmets and diadems, which started to appear in 11th century murals depicting Makurian dignitaries, originally stemmed from Alodian traditions and were transferred to Makuria through intensified dynastic relations since the 10th century.[142][143]

The Alodian kings were probably the patrons of the church, making the latter economically dependent on the throne.[144] Coptic documents observed by Johann Michael Vansleb during the later 17th century list the following bishoprics in the Alodian kingdom: Arodias; Borra; Gargara;; Martin; Banazi; and Menkesa.[145] Arodias might have referred to the bishopric in Soba.[146]

The kingdom itself was divided into several provinces under the sovereignty of Soba,[147] which were described by Abu-Salih as "wide".[35] If the central Sudanese rulers, to whom the Mamlukes sent emissaries in 1286, were subordinate to the king of Alodia then this would provide an understanding of the territorial organization of the kingdom. The following regions are mentioned: Al-Abwab (the northern-most province, at this time independent;[52])[51] Al-Anag (possibly Fazughli); Ari; Barah; Befal; Danfou; Kedru (identified with Kadero, a village north of Khartoum); Kersa (the Gezira); and Taka (identified with modern al-Takah in the Gash basin).[148]

Alodia may have had a standing army,[148] in which cavalry played an important role in force projection and as a symbol of royal authority deep into the provinces.[149] Due to their speed, horses were also important for communications, providing a rapid courier service from the capital to the provinces.[149] Aside from horses, boats would have also played a central role in Alodian transport infrastructure.[150]



Although farming was intensive along the banks of the Nile, other regions within Alodia also received sufficient rainfall (approximately 140 mm near Khartoum and increasing to the south[151]) that it was not confined to the riverside and was an important activity as far south as Sennar.[152] Irrigation of the farms along the Nile was provided using simple man powered devices, like the shaduf, or the ox-driven water wheel known as the sakia.[153]

Al Aswani wrote that the center of Alodian food production was the Gezira: "... the provisions of the country of Alwa and their king come from this district. They send their boats and these come back loaded."[154] Archaeological records have provided insight into the types of food grown and consumed in Alodia. In Soba, the primary cereal was sorghum, although barley and millet were also known to be consumed.[155] Al-Aswani noted that sorghum was used to make beer,[33] and also stated that vineyards were quite rare in Alodia compared to Makuria.[33] This has been explained by the climate of the Gezira being unsuited for the cultivation of grapes; however, sizable amounts of grapes have been found at Soba.[156] According to al-Idrisi, Alodian farmers also cultivated onions, horseradish, cucumbers, watermelons and rapeseed,[157] but none of them have been identified at Soba.[158] Instead, there were found figs, acacia fruits, dom palm fruits and dates.[159]

As well as horticulture, animal husbandry would have been crucial to the Alodian diet, much as it was during Meroitic times.[126] Al-Aswani wrote that beef was plentiful, which was attributed to the bountiful grazing land.[160] This is corroborated by evidence discovered at Soba.[161] The fecundity of the plains would have granted pastoralists the ability to raise a variety of animals.[126] Ibn Hawqal noted that the inhabitants of Taflien bred camels as well as cattle.[162] In addition to cattle, chickens[163], sheep and goats all had a place in the Alodian diet. 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.[164] Al Aswani mentioned how the king of Alodia possessed "tawny camels of Arabian pedigree",[160] but archaeology does not imply wide-ranging consumption as the remains of only three individuals could be determined at Soba none of which bore signs of butchery.[165] No remains of pigs have been identified,[163] and fish was determined only to be complementary to the overall diet of Soba.[161]

Foreign trade[edit]


Camel caravans played a critical role in maintaining the trade network that connected Alodia with Makuria, Egypt, the Red Sea ports and, as attested to by Benjamin of Tudela, Kordofan, Darfur and even Zuwila, an important trading town in Fezzan.[166] Archaeological evidence of South Arabian, Indian and Chinese goods has been discovered in Alodian territories,[167] probably entering Sudan from the Red Sea ports.[168] These trading contacts with the outside world were predominantly via Arab merchants.[169] Muslim merchants roamed Nubia, with some living in a district in Soba.[170] Imports from Makuria were not common.[171] The extent of the trading relations with Christian Ethiopia is uncertain. John of Ephesus wrote of Aksumites in Alodia, which may have referred to merchants,[172] while Cosmas Indicopleustes reported Aksumite trade expeditions into the Blue Nile Valley;[173] at Aksum, two shards of Soba Ware, a characteristic Alodian pottery, have been identified.[174] A later source, al-Idrisi, made mention of a trading town in the northern Butana, a place "where merchants from Nubia and Ethiopia gather together with those from Egypt".[173] There are some Ethiopian traditions that recall a people named "Soba Noba".[175] Historian Mordechai Abir suggests that merchants from the Zagwe kingdom travelled through Alodia to reach Egypt.[176] However, the few artefacts discovered so far suggest only very limited trading relations, and contact in general.[177]

Exports and imports[edit]

Exports from Alodia likely included raw materials such as gold, ivory, salt and other tropical products.[178] It is also commonly assumed that slaves were exported from Nubia. Archaeologist William Y. Adams believes that Alodia was a specialized slave-trading state that would have exploited the pagan populations to the west and south.[179] The African slave armies that were deployed in Egypt by the Tulunids, Ikhshidids and Fatimids are often quoted as evidence for a Nubian slave trade, but it is more likely that these slaves came from the Chad basin instead (in Fatimid sources they appear as Zuwayla, indicting an origin from Zawila, Fezzan).[180] However, there is little evidence of a regulated Medieval Nubian slave-trade.[181] It is only from the 16th century, after the decline of the Nubian kingdoms, that sources described a developing slave trade.[182]

At Soba, both silk and flax have been found, most probably imported from Egypt,[183] as well as beads made of faience and glass,[184] which seemed to be particular popular.[36]


Languages, scripts and literacy[edit]

Fragmentary marble stone from Soba with a yet undeciphered inscription written in a Nubian dialect.

As the language of the ruling ethnic group, some type of Nubian dialect would have been the dominant language,[185] which, as was the case in Makuria, was written in a variant of the Coptic alphabet. Despite a lack of in-depth study in this area, it is known that there were differences between the Old Nubian and Alodian alphabets. Erman, who studied several Alodian inscriptions, suggested that the Alodian script had five unique letters,[186] while Monneret stated that it had six.[187] The latter also assumes that those letters derived from Meroitic letters.[187] The fact that Alodia used its own dialect for writing and even developed new letters for it distinguishes it from Makuria, where the spoken language, Old Dongolawi, lacked a written form.[188] Apart from Nubian, Greek also played an important role. In Medieval Nubia, Greek was considered a prestigious language, as it was both a language of religious matters as well as the language of the Byzantine empire.[189] An example of the use of Greek in Alodia is the tombstone of King David, where it is written with surprisingly accurate grammar.[190] Coptic, as a language of communication with Christian Egypt, was only of limited relevance for geographic reasons but, nonetheless, sparse examples of the written form do exist.[191]

In total, only around 5% of all known written records of Christian Nubia come from Alodia, although this can be mostly attributed to the uneven distribution of excavations.[192] The art of reading and writing was probably taught by clerics to nobles and officials,[193] although the general population had rudimentary writing skills as well.[194]


Churches and residences[edit]

Al-Aswani stated that the churches in Soba were "rich with gold and gardens",[33] while Abu Salih wrote of a "very large and spacious church, skillfully planned and constructed, and larger than all the other churches in the country; it is called the church of Manbali".[35] According to him, Alodia as a whole was home to 400 churches,[35] of which seven have been identified so far, and given the simple names of "Church A", "Church B", "Church C", "Church E", the "mound C" church in Soba, the church in Saqadi, and the temple-church in Musawwarat as-Sufra.[195] Churches "A", "B" and "C", along with a residential Building "D", formed a standalone complex. It was a multi-storied mud brick building with at least two levels,[196] within which were found the remains of painted wall plaster fragments, probably dating to the 9th–12th century and bearing stylistic similarities with murals from Makuria.[197] The scale of the structure is suggestive of a palatial estate, possibly the residence of the bishop of Soba, or perhaps the king of Alodia.[198] Churches "A" and "B" were probably built in the mid 8th century.[199] The church of Musawwarat es-Sufra, called "Temple III A", was initially a pagan temple but was converted into a church, probably soon after the royal conversion in 580.[200] It was a small, rectangular building with four rooms.[201] The roof, of an indeterminate shape, was supported by wooden beams.[202] Despite originally being a Kushite temple it still bears similarities to purpose built churches, for example having an entrance on both the north and south side.[203] Overall, Alodian church architecture differed to that employed in Medieval Ethiopia, but instead bore certain similarities to churches in Armenia[204] Furthermore, Alodian churches utilized more wood than those in Makuria.[205]

Domestic architecture[edit]

At Soba, the remains of circular timber structures have been discovered, probably belonging to huts.[206] Such timber huts, both circular and rectangular in shape, were perhaps the most common type of domestic architecture in Alodia.[207] Other types of domiciles may have been similar to those used today, from simple huts of matting over walls constructed with rammed earth to rectangular, brick-walled houses with flat, rain-proof roofs made of palm and mud plastering.[208]


Not many fortresses are known and their chronology is often uncertain.[209] During the early Middle Ages, Meroitic fortresses were reoccupied and their walls restored.[210] Only a few fortresses were apparently built from scratch, two from the late Middle Ages are known: Jebel Irau and Fangool.[211]


In Medieval Nubia, pottery and its decoration was appreciated as an art form.[212] Until the 7th century the most common pottery type found at Soba was the so-called "Red Ware". These wheel-made hemispherical bowls were made of red or orange slip and were painted with separated motifs such as boxes with inner cross-hatchings, stylized floral motifs or crosses. The outlines were drawn in black while the fillings were white. In their design, they are a direct continuation of Meroitic styles, with possible influences from Aksumite Ethiopia. Due to their relative rarity it has been suggested that they were imported, although they bear similarities to the pottery type, known as "Soba Ware", that succeeded them.[213]

"Soba Ware" was a type of wheel-made pottery with a distinctive decoration very different from the rest of Nubia.[214][215] The shape of the pottery was diverse, as was the repertoire of painted decoration. One of the most distinctive features was the usage of faces as painted decoration. They were simplified, if not geometric in form and with big round eyes. This style is foreign to Makuria and Egypt, but bears a resemblance to paintings and manuscripts from Ethiopia.[216] It is possible that the potters copied these motifs from local church murals.[217] Also unique was the application of animal-shaped bosses (protomes).[218] Glazed vessels were also produced, copying Persian aquamaniles without reaching their quality.[219] Beginning in the 9th century, "Soba Ware" was increasingly replaced by fine ware imported from Makuria.[197]

King list[edit]

Name Date of rule Comment
Giorgios ? Recorded on an inscription from Soba.[31]
David ? Recorded on his tombstone from Soba. Initially it was thought that he ruled from 999–1015, but this interpretation is now doubted.[220]
Eusebios ca. 938–955 Mentioned by Ibn Hawqal.[31][30]
Stephanos ca. 955 Mentioned by Ibn Hawqal.[31][30]
?Basil 12th century Recorded on an Arabic letter from Qasr Ibrim.[31]
?Paul 12th century Recorded on an Arabic letter from Qasr Ibrim.[31]


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Coordinates: 15°31′26″N 32°40′51″E / 15.52389°N 32.68083°E / 15.52389; 32.68083