Sunday, January 25, 2015


Artur Obłuski, The Rise of Nobadia: Social Changes in Northern Nubia in Late Antiquity. Journal of Juristic Papyrology supplements, 20. Warsaw: Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 2014. Pp. xviii, 240. ISBN 9788392591993. $92.00.

Reviewed by Giovanni R. Ruffini, Fairfield University (

Version at BMCR home site

Meroe, the great African state south of Egypt, collapsed without easy explanation in the fourth century AD. Classical sources on the period are sketchy. Full light does not return until the sixth century, and then, only for brief periods. Where Meroe once ruled, we meet three kingdoms, Nobadia, Makuria and Alwa, in northern, central and southern Nubia respectively. The origins of these kingdoms remain unknown.

This book, originally a dissertation at the University of Warsaw, focuses on Nobadia in the north. Obłuski explores the "emergence of Nobadian statehood and the settlement system of the state" (4). He argues that focus on religion as a cultural marker creates a false gap between the Meroitic period, ending in the fourth century, and Nubia's Christian period, beginning in the sixth century. This gap has resulted in the scholarly creation of artificial periods, e.g. the X-Group and the Post-Meroitic periods. Obłuski wants to remove that gap, and show Nubia's late antique period to be one of continuity. In short, "there is no political gap between Meroe and the three new kingdoms" (8).

In Chapter One, Obłuski critiques previous periodizations of the transition from the Meroitic to the Christian period; reliance on religion as a cultural marker; and over-emphasis on the archaeology of cemeteries at the expense of settlement sites. Chapter Two explores the fall of the Meroitic state, summarizing modern scholarship's most common models. The important division here is between the migrationist model on the one hand and the evolutionary model of "transformations in the valley of the Nile within the frame of the same population" (19) on the other hand.

Chapter Three discusses the Dodekaschoinos, the 120 kilometers of Nile Valley south of Elephantine. The Blemmyes, nomadic tribes of the Eastern Desert, inhabited and administered this territory early in the fifth century before its absorption into the rising kingdom of Nobadia. Obłuski argues that the region's material culture in this period should not be attributed to the Blemmyes, but "should rather be considered as a manifestation of the autochthonous population inhabiting the valley before the desert tribes took over" (24).

Continuity of religious centers and of material culture in the majority of the region's cemeteries contradicts the impression Olympiodorus might give, that the Nile Valley became ethnically Blemmyan in this period. The real change does not come until the middle of the fifth century, when Egyptian sources first mention the Nobades, "a new, politically significant element on the social map of the Nile Valley," a people who "gradually pressed down the Nile from territories to the north of the Second Cataract" (35).

Chapter Four analyzes changes in material culture during and after the final period of Meroitic control. Tombs with entry passages become less common, and the passages themselves shorter when present. Obłuski argues that this suggests "a gradual departure from the existing custom of a procession bearing funerary offerings to the tomb" (45). The number of mixed pagan and Christian cemeteries provides "evidence for cultural continuity of the larger part of the population in the Nile Valley" (47). The rest of the chapter focuses on architecture, noting a continuity in domestic architectural forms from the Meroitic to the early Nobadian period.

Chapter Five, on Nobadian settlement systems, is the heart of the book, and over twice as long as the next longest chapter. Obłuski analyzes Nobadia's settlement system through application of the rank-size or Zipf-Auerbach rule. Dispensing with the formulae involved, we can measure settlement systems under the rank-size rule in relation to the system's first-rank or largest city. A "normal" settlement system under the rank-size rule has a second-rank city one half the size of the first-rank city, a third-rank city one third the size of the first-rank city, and so on. Concave distributions – with one disproportionately large first-rank city and many much smaller ones – typically indicate an overly centralized state monopolized by a dominant city. Convex distributions – with more large cities, or a smaller than expected first-rank city – typically indicate a decentralized system with weakly integrated political structures.

Lacking population figures for medieval Nubia, Obłuski uses settlement area instead. This is reasonable, but not trouble- free: the surveys and excavations that provide the settlement areas spanned a century, used inconsistent standards, and had different objectives at different times. More importantly, as Obłuski admits, "population density was not ideally the same all over the settlement and clearly not the same on all sites involved" (78). His survey starts with a large sample-size, 398 settlements in Lower Nubia, which ultimately shrinks to 30 by eliminating non-urban, non-published and non-late antique sites.

The results are striking. Nobadia's rank-size distribution is clearly convex, "an effect of weak integration of the settlement system or an indicator that it has just started" (92). Large developed sites survive from the Meroitic period, distorting the region's settlement curve. No single site has yet emerged as the center of a new state. But the visual presentation of the results is not always easy to follow: the axes for Chart 1 (87) have no labels and the text describing Chart 2 refers to an interquartile range shown in red, while the chart itself is in grey-scale. We have a similar problem later in the book, with Chart 6, the labels of which do not match the explanation of the chart given in the accompanying discussion.

Obłuski must address the strange results that come from using settlement area as his primary metric. What can it mean for Qasr Ibrim to be only ninth in size among Nobadian settlement sites, especially given that it was "the richest town in this period" (98) and presumably the royal residence for at least some part of the period? Qasr Ibrim's outsized prominence in Nubian historiography demands a solution to this problem, and Obłuski struggles to provide one. He promotes Qasr Ibrim to the second tier, immediately after Faras, because of its fortifications; demotes Arminna to the third tier because of its lack of fortifications; and demotes Sabagura even further, to the fourth tier, because "its development outside the walls cannot be dated precisely" (101). Each of these decisions seems reasonable on its own, but together they create the impression that Obłuski needs ad hoc analyses to explain the order of his rank-size curve.

Chapter Six explores Nobadia's economy. Obłuski's belief that there is "no proof so far of a monetary economy" (151) is conventional. His insistence that later medieval Nubian kings had a "royal right… of a higher order" to the ownership of all Nubian land (157) is also conventional. It relies on acceptance of the testimony of al-Masudi, which has been given too much credence by previous generations of Nubian archaeologists. I have argued against both positions — in favor of a monetized Nubian economy with private property rights, at least in later periods1 — but Obłuski's embrace of the historiographical ancien régime suggests that the jury is still out.

Chapter Seven deals with social change in Nobadia. Obłuski's approach to analyzing the ethnic terms used by the ancient sources to describe Nobadia is both simple and effective. A chronological reading of the sources shows that "Ethiopians" disappear as Blemmyes appear; that Blemmyes overlap with Nobades and Ethiopians; and that from the middle of the fifth century on, Nobades appear in the sources alone. Thus, the "appearance of the Nobades as a new political entity in Lower Nubia was gradual" (166).

The chapter's discussion of religious change is puzzling. Obłuski claims that scholars study Nubian Christianization "usually from a fairly simplified Nubian perspective" despite the Roman origin of the sources, and also claims that "Seldom has a different perspective than Nubian been taken into account" (169). This gets the historiography almost precisely backwards. The stories of Nubian royal conversion to Christianity found in Procopius and John of Ephesus are so well known that they dominated the modern narrative for generations, despite how little genuine Nubian perspective they give us.

Obłuski's decision to rehearse this already familiar Roman narrative ties directly into his vision of the emergent Nobadian state. He sees Nubia's conversion to Christianity as fundamentally a top-down affair. "Initiative in this political process belonged to the Nubian rulers" (175). Embrace of Christianity's political philosophy "allowed the Nubian kings to consolidate their society and to legitimate their position in it" (176). Thus, the eventual construction of local churches was a matter "of persuading society to a new religion" (181).

But this is unconvincing, and ignores the view from below. Nubians were exposed to Christianity through their Egyptian neighbors for centuries prior to the first Christian kings. Obłuski knows that some scholars argue for gradual Christian inroads into Nubia prior to Nubia's royal conversion, but finds the material evidence for these inroads inadequate (174). If Obłuski sees continuity from the Meroitic period to Nobadia, then his vision of Nubian Christianization does not fully embrace the logic of his own claims. A bottom-up model of gradual gains for Christianity throughout Nubia's population would create greater continuity and less rupture, turning Nubia's Christian kings into an effect of the Christianization process, rather than its primordial cause.

Chapter Eight summarizes earlier conclusions and looks ahead at the Muslim invasion of Nubia in the 650s and Nobadia's eventual merger with the kingdom of Makouria to the south. Not uncontroversially, Obłuski argues that the Arabs never reached the capital of Makouria at Dongola; that they fought against Nobadia alone; and that the merger of Nobadia and Makouria happened not prior to the Muslim invasions but considerably after (200). The book ends with a bibliography and an index of toponyms and ethnonyms. Elsewhere in the book we find maps of various settlement sites; two fold-out maps of Lower Nubia's cemeteries; and an appendix to Chapter Five listing all of those cemeteries and all Nobadian settlement sites in his data set.

This is a hard book, and Obłuski makes it harder by leaving some of his terms unexplained. In his concluding paragraph, he states that his "objective was to combine two... approaches to archaeology: the Atlantic and the European" (209). While he provides a reference for the terms, he does not explain them, and so I have no way to tell whether he has succeeded or failed. Earlier, Obłuski writes that his "approach was not warmly welcomed by some scholars at first," having "applied research methods not in line with the European school but rather… an innovative approach and methods used, for example, in geography" (xiii). Reading between the lines, we may guess that Obłuski met academic resistance in his attempt to employ the rank-size rule on Nobadian settlements systems. This is unfortunate. Nubian studies suffers from a lack of evidence compared to classical studies, and its students cannot afford to ignore interdisciplinary methodologies.

Obłuski's book is an English translation of a Polish original, and it suffers from the quality of the translation. In some cases, the results are only a minor distraction, where the translation does not produce standard English forms. In other cases, the results are more serious, producing obscure phrases and mangled word order. With this problem in mind, we must wonder whether apparent contradictions are due to the author or the translator. When he writes, as we have noted, that "there is no political gap between Meroe and the three new kingdoms," what can he mean when he writes that "the new state entities in Lower Nubia did not develop until the sixth century" (59)? Is he drawing a distinction between political and state entities? We are left with either a fuzzy feeling of imprecision, or a sense that we have simply misunderstood.

Still, Obłuski is on firm ground. The main claim at the heart of Chapter Five seems sound. The rank-size curve of Nobadian settlement sizes suggests incomplete levels of state integration. Obłuski thus succeeds in giving us a glimpse of state formation in motion. As importantly, Obłuski's broader claim about the essential continuity of Nubian late antiquity is convincing. It is in keeping with more general trends in Nubian studies, which have in the last generation seen Nubian studies less as an ongoing cycle of external influence and disruption and more as the continuous history of a single population. Obłuski's work on late antique Nubia is a welcome addition to this corpus.

Table of Contents

List of maps, figures, tables, and charts ix
Preface xiii
Abbreviations xv
Chapter One. Introduction: Studying the late antiquity of the middle Nile valley 3
Chapter Two. The fall of the Meroitic state 17
Chapter Three. Dodekaschoinos 23
Chapter Four. Changes in the material culture of Nobadia 39
Chapter Five. Settlement system 61
Chapter Six. Economic transformation in Nobadia 149
Chapter Seven. Social change in Nobadia 163
Chapter Eight. Conclusion: The balance of social change in lower Nubia in the fourth-seventh century 195
Bibliography 211
Index 235


1.   Ruffini, Giovanni. (2012) Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History. Oxford.

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