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John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History, Part 3 -- Excursus



AS the names and districts mentioned in the foregoing narrative of the conversion of Nubia will probably be unknown to many of my readers, I have collected such traces of them as are to be found in Hitter's Erdkunde, Afrika, vol. i.; Quatremère's Memoires sur l'Égypte, and recent books of travels: and must also mention my obligations to Dr. Land, who has put many of these particulars into a clear and connected form.

While the countries to the north and south were early brought under the influence of Christianity, Nubia remained, owing to its physical conformation, a sealed land until the sixth century. From Alexandria, which claimed St. Mark as its first patriarch, the faith had quickly spread throughout Egypt, and as its deserts formed the refuge of the persecuted and oppressed, as well as of those who hoped to find in the monastic life closer communion with God, there was no portion of it which was not more or less completely occupied by Christians at a very early period To the south, Abyssinia also venerated one of Apostolic times as the introducer there of Christianity, and in A D. 330 we have satisfactory historical evidence to prove that the piety and activity of Frumentius had carried the knowledge of the Gospel into every district of that land: but century after century elapsed before the name of Christ was heard in the intermediate region, except by the report of occasional merchants, or the hearsay of the ambassadors, who were yearly sent by the Nobades and Blemyes to Philae to swear there not to plunder the Roman lands, and |339 receive in return their annual subsidy. The reason of this seclusion of Nubia from the zeal of Christian missionaries is to be found, as I have mentioned, in the physical formation of the country South of Syene, from the first to the second cataract, extends a narrow valley, hemmed in on both sides by wastes of sand, capable of being traversed only by camels but up the Nile travelling is still comparatively easy until the second cataract is reached There not only is the channel of the river obstructed by a multitude of rocks, which render navigation impossible, but on each bank extends a district of steep and rugged precipices, which scarcely can be crossed with the consent of the natives , and, should they offer any resistance, a few men can oppose with success the pi ogress of a numerous army This region the Arabs call Batn-al-Hagar, 'the bosom of rocks,' and its vast extent, both to the east and west, and the rugged nature of the surface, no longer practicable for camels like the previous wastes of sand, renders it one of the most impenetrable mountain fastnesses upon the face of the globe At this rocky barrier commenced the country of the Nobades, from whom the whole region is now called Nubia, but whose dominions did not reach far beyond the third cataract, in the neighbourhood of which alone they possessed a district of somewhat level and fertile ground As the Nile, a little below Syene, forms a deep bay, flowing first of all for several days' journey in a westerly direction, and then southward, until it has passed Dongola, where it turns sharply round, and for many scores of leagues doubles back towards the northeast, until finally half-way between the fourth and fifth cataract it resumes its original course, this rocky district is generally avoided by modern travellers, who take the direct route by land across the deserts between the Nile and the Eed Sea The narrow valley, which I have described above as lying between Syene and the second cataract, about seven days' journey in length, originally belonged to the Romans, but Diocletian withdrew their garrisons, and invited the Nobades to occupy it, upon condition of their protecting Egypt from the incursions of the Blemyes, as a further inducement to which, they were to receive a yearly subsidy, and still more to secure the fair fields of Egypt from |340 these marauders, he offered the Blemyes themselves a similar payment, upon condition of their abstaining from their ravages: and finally, at a subsequent period, the ambassadors of the two tribes went every year to Philae, where they swore to observe the terms of the contract in the temple of Isis, and received the covenanted sum. The result was such as might have been expected; for, secure in their fastnesses, the barbarians were constantly tempted by the prospect of immediate plunder to violate the Roman territories, and Diocletian was himself obliged to fortify the island of Philae, and place a garrison there, and build also extensive works on each bank of the river. Upon the wall round Philae one of the inscriptions is found commemorating bishop Theodore. In the sixth century it will appear that the Blemyes possessed the narrow Nile valley south of Syene, and that the Nobades had been driven back to their mountain fortress.

To the south, a district of swamp and morass still more completely isolated Nubia from Abyssinia. In these dreary marshes the Bahr-al-Aswad, or Black Nile, takes its rise, and forms the eastern boundary of the people called by John of Ephesus the Alodseans. On their western limit flowed the Bahr-al-Asrek, or Blue Nile; and as the southern marshes completely separate them from Abyssinia, their territory is constantly described as an island, and by the Greeks was called Meroe. Their capital, Sobah, cironeously styled Souiah by Quatremère, (i. e. [Syriac] for [Syriac] cf. Burckhardt, p. 530 ) was situated near the confluence of the third great branch of the Nile, the Bahr-al-Abiud, or white river, with the Bahr-al-Azrek This region still bears the name of Alouah, and its king, according to the Arabic authorities of Quatremère, is more powerful, and has larger armies, and more horses than the king of Makorrah, and his territory is more extensive and of greater fertility. The people are Jacobite Christians, and their bishops pay allegiance to Alexandria. Their religious books are in Greek, which the priests translate into the language of the natives. Alonah is a vast tract of level land, and of extreme fertility.

Between the Alodseans and the Nobades dwelt the Makoritae, occupying the bay of the Nile from the third to the fifth cataract, |341 with Dongola as their centre: while the deserts as far as the Red Sea were held by the predatory tribes of the Blemyes. The vast number of allusions to them in ancient times collected by Quatremère, t. ii. 128-132, suffice to shew the extremely harrassing nature of their inroads, and the vast tract of country over which they wandered. In Arabic times they still retained their marauding habits, and appear under the name of Bedjah as the worst enemies of Egypt. One of the most interesting traces of them occurs in Evagrius, who gives an account of the heretic Nestorius falling into their hands in one of their incursions into Egypt.

The same inaccessibility of the land which had long closed it against Christianity, served for its protection in the rapid progress soon afterwards of the Moslem arms. It is true that the Arabs entered the country in the 20th or 21st year of the Hejira A. D. 641, but the flight of the Christians thither from Egypt for refuge, more than served as a counterpoise to the injuries inflicted upon them by the invaders. We find therefore the whole country overspread with Christian bishoprics, lists of which are still preserved, (conf. Wansleb, Histoire de l'église d'Alex), and among them the names of the chief districts into which Nubia Christiana is divided are Noubadia, Aloodia, Makouria, and Niexemetes, i. e. Axumitis, the ancient name of Abyssinia, so called from its capital Axum.


In modern times the whole of this region has been carefully examined, and the inscriptions on its buildings and rocks copied both by the members of the commission sent out by the French government, and also by individual travellers; and the results, as far as regards our subject, have been ably summed up by M. Letronne, in three essays contained in his Materiaux pour l'histoire du Christianisme en Egypt, en Nuhie, et en Abyssinie, 4to. Paris, 1832. I find in it no less than four inscriptions commemorating Theodore, bishop of Philae, whose name appears so often in our historian's narrative.

Three of these inscriptions are found on a wall in the temple of Isis, the pronaos of which was turned in Theodore's time into |342 a Christian church. The naos, with its numerous small apartments, was unfitted for the publicity of Christian worship, and therefore the roomy pronaos was chosen in its stead. That this conversion took place subsequently to Justinian's time appears from the fact that that emperor renewed Diocletian's compact with the Nobades and Blemyes, and exacted from them an oath in this very temple of Isis. The bishop's alterations were not exactly such as would have pleased the aesthetic tendencies of an architectural society; for having taken a pillar of red Egyptian granite covered with bas reliefs for the altar, he had both it and the whole pronaos covered over with a coating of plaster, which not only protected his flock from having their minds occupied during the hours of Christian service with the familiar emblems of idol worship, but has also admirably served to protect these sculptures from injury, and keep them unharmed to the present day. Upon the interior of the entrance leading from the naos into the pronaos two of the inscriptions commemorating the alterations are found, one on each side, as follows:—



'This work was done in the time of our father, abbot (ana for abba) Theodore, the bishop.'



'This good work was done when our most holy father, abbot |343 Theodore, was bishop. May God preserve him for a very long time.'

In this inscription Letronne gives OΘO; but plainly the reading should be OΘC, i. e. ho ths, contracted for ho theos, as the capital C differs from O only in not being a complete circle.

The third inscription was found just inside the outer entrance, near an image of St. Stephan, who had taken the place of the Egyptian Isis; and is as follows:—



'May abbot Theodore the bishop most beloved of God share in the loving kindness of our master Christ for having made this temple [Greek] into a place dedicated to S. Stephan. May a blessing rest upon it. It was accomplished by the aid of Christ when the most pious deacon Posias was provost.'

[Greek] evidently refers to the plastering and repairs necessary for converting the pronaos into a church. The long w in [Greek] is a mere mistake of the provincial sculptor. Posias, the provost of the college of deacons, has the honour of being mentioned, because the funds came through his hands, as it was usual for the [Greek] or manager of the ecclesiastical revenues to belong to that order.

Two crosses which occur in this inscription are remarkable for not being true crosses, but imitations of the Egyptian symbol, called the crux ansata, Christians noticed this symbol on Egyptian temples, and regarded it as a prophetic intimation of their future use, and therefore preserved it upon converting them into churches. Sozomen, vii. 15. 298, mentions the wonder with which Christians observed the repetition of this symbol upon the walls of the temple of Serapis at its destruction. |344 

The fourth inscription was found by M. Lenormant, carved on a wall of the quay on the south-east of the isle, forming part of the fortifications erected by Diocletian, but renewed and restored in Theodore's time. It is as follows :—



'By the providence of our Lord God, arid the fortune of our most pious lords, Flavius Justinus and Aelia Sophia, perpetual Augusti, and emperors, and of the God-defended Caesar Tiberius, the new Constantine, and by the kindness of Theodore the most praiseworthy decurion and duke and augustal of the Theban district, this wall was rebuilt in answer to the prayers of the holy martyrs, and of the most saintly abbot Theodore the bishop, by the care and goodness of Menas, the most illustrious chartulary of the ducal archives, on the 18th of the month Choeak, in the eleventh indiction. May a blessing rest upon it.

The date represents Dec. 14, A. D. 577, the year before Justin died. Augoustalou is an error for Augoustaliou, and until Justinian's time this epithet, which is equivalent to imperial, was confined to the prefect of all Egypt: it is now given to the duke of the Thebaid.

So also, in the days of Athanasius, the duke of Egypt was only lamprotatos, he is now paneuphemos, an epithet which often occurs at this period in S. Nilus, Hesychius, &c., while lamprotatos descends to the chartulary. The title decurion seems beneath the duke's rank, as we find it applied to inferior military officers, and even to the magistrates of municipal towns. But Letronne thinks |345 Egypt may then have had ten nomes. . . . poa is probably incorrectly copied, as it is difficult to suggest any word of which it can have formed a part. Lariou evidently is put for Chartoulariou, but whether the sculptor omitted one half by accident, or whether the title was shortened down in the vernacular of Philae, is uncertain. Possibly, however, the correct reading is lampro, and the copyist, instead of carefully decyphering what followed, CHARTOG, took it for granted that it was TATOG. He taxis at this time was equal to ta taktika, the public archives.

The solemnity of the inscription makes it evident that it commemorates the rebuilding of the entire wall: the necessity of which possibly was due to the hostility of the Blemyes, excited by the conversion of the temple of Isis to Christian uses Hence the piety of the inscription, the reference to the prayers of the martyrs, &c. Shortly afterwards this danger was removed by the Blemyes being expelled by the converted Nobades from the Nile valley, and the people of Philae had Christian neighbours.

We are informed of this in the most remarkable inscription as yet discovered in Nubia, and which has been copied both by M. Gau and Mr. Baillie, and commented upon by Niebuhr, Franz, Letronne, and others. It must have been engraved subsequently to Longinus' mission, but prior to the Moslem invasion in A. D. 641; and probably its date is shortly after the conversion of Nubia, if we may judge from the extraordinary ignorance it displays of Greek. It was discovered at Kalabsche, and the text, as given by Letronne, is as follows: |346 


'I, Silco, the powerful king of the Noubades, and of all the Aethiopians, went to Talmis and Taphis once, twice: I fought with the Blemyes, and God gave me the victory once and thrice besides. Again I conquered them, and took possession of their cities Along with my hosts I settled there at the first once for all. I conquered them, and they begged for mercy. I made peace with them, and they swore to me by their idols, and I believed their oath, because they are worthy men. I withdrew to my upper dominions. When I became a king, I did not walk at all behind other kings, (but altogether in front of them). For those who cope with me, I do not suffer them to dwell in their land, unless they ask my permission, and entreat me. For I in my lower dominions am a lion, and in my upper dominions a goat. I warred with the Blemyes from Primis unto Telmis yet once again. And the rest, beyond the Noubades, I ravaged their territories, because they tried to cope with me. The sovereigns of other lands who cope with me, I do not permit them to dwell at ease in the shade, unless they submit to me, nor can they drink water (from the cisterns) within their house. For those who disobey me, I carry off their wives and their children . . . .'

That Silco was a Christian king, is evident from his saying, 'God gave me the victory,' whereas a heathen, instead of speaking of God absolutely, would have mentioned the deity who was his peculiar patron. He also calls the gods of the Blemyes, idols, |347 a word taken from the Septuagint, and used in this sense exclusively by Christians. Moreover, throughout the inscription the words are chiefly taken from the Septuagint, or used in a sense peculiar to it; [...philological remarks...]. The towns mentioned, Talmis, Taphis, and Prirnis, are all in the narrow Nile valley, formerly ceded by Diocletian to the Noubades, but now evidently long occupied by the Blemyes; the first being the Kalabsche, where the inscription was found. [...philological remarks...] The simplicity of the half line—' but altogether in front of them,'—carved in small letters between lines 11 and 12, is most amusing: evidently it was an afterthought of king Silco, who was afraid lest posterity should put a wrong construction upon his claim to being unlike his ancestors. From line 12 the inscription is remarkable for the number of nominativi pendentes; and [...philological remarks...] all suggest that Silco's Greek had been learnt by the ear alone. By being a lion in his lower dominions, he probably signifies, not merely the bravery of his subjects, but that to the south his empire extended to the flat lands inhabited by that animal, while his mountain fastnesses were the abode of the wild goat; and the two symbolized his activity and strength. In line 15 begins the account of the second expedition against the Blemyes, referred to in line 2. The people beyond the Noubades are the Makoritae; in the account of whom, in line 17, occurs the most extraordinary slip, in [Greek] as Silco, in forming it, evidently considered that an augment added to a future tense changed it into an aorist. [...philological remarks...]. Neron is an |348 affected Byzantine word for 'water,' signifying, 'the moist.' In the last line, [Greek] is put for the accusative.

Niebuhr imagined that this inscription was possibly of the times of Diocletian, but his copy contained several mistakes, corrected by subsequent copyists, which led him to imagine that Silco was still a heathen. The more accurate text, and careful examination of Letronne, led him to assign to it its true date, about the end of the sixth century. With the narrative of John of Ephesus it so far coincides, that we find the Christian king, Orfiulo, promising to join his arms with the king of Nubia in a war upon the enemies of the latter: but whether the expedition ever took place, we have no means of determining. As however the invasion of the Arabs happened but a few years later, and rendered such conquests impossible, it is by no means impossible that the inscription records the success of the very expedition announced in John's pages, and that Silco was the first Christian king of Nubia.

[Note to the online text: I have not transcribed the lengthy Greek, nor all of the detailed comments upon it, since I don't know to whom this would be useful.  If anyone needs this, let me know.  But while Ancient Greek must be transcribed by hand a character at a time, it will always be very tedious to include.]

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2002.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
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