After the destruction of the
city of Meroe and its kingdom of Kush c. 360, its territory had been divided among three
successor states: Nobatia in Lower Nubia, Makouria in the Dongola Reach, and `Alwa in the
area from Meroe south towards Ethiopia. The conversion of these three kingdoms to
Christianity in the mid-sixth century A.D. marked a sharp break in Nubian cultural
history. Almost overnight the Pharaonic forms and ideas that had dominated the
culture of Kush since the second millennium B.C. disappeared and were replaced by artistic
forms and political institutions inspired by those of the Christian Roman Empire. In
this selection the sixth century A.D. church historian John of Ephesus describes the
rivalry between the Chalcedonian Roman Emperor Justinian I (527-565 C.E.) and his
Monophysite wife Theodora for the privilege of converting Nobatia and its southern
neighbors to Christianity. The author, John of Ephesus, is himself an ardent
Among the clergy in attendance upon Patriarch Theodosius (of Alexandria, 535-566), was a presbyter named Julian, an old man of great worth, who conceived an earnest spiritual desire to christianize the wandering people who dwell on the eastern borders of the Thebaid beyond Egypt, and who are not only not subject to the authority of the Roman empire, but even receive a subsidy on condition that they do not enter nor pillage Egypt. The blessed Julian, therefore, being full of anxiety for this people, went and spoke about them to the late queen Theodora, in the hope of awakening in her a similar desire for their conversion; and as the queen was fervent in zeal for God, she received the proposal with joy, and promised to do every thing in her power for the conversion of these tribes from the errors of idolatry. In her joy, therefore, she informed the victorious king Justinian of the proposed undertaking, and promised and anxiously desired to send the blessed Julian thither. But when the king heard that the person she intended to send was opposed to the Council of Chalcedon, he was not pleased, and determined to write to the bishops of his own side in the Thebaid, with orders for them to proceed thither and instruct them, and plant among them the name of the synod. And as he entered upon the matter with great zeal, he sent thither, without a moment's delay, ambassadors with gold and baptismal robes, and gifts of honor for the king of that people, and letters for the duke of the Thebaid, enjoining him to take every care of the embassy, and escort them to the territories of the Nobatai.
Theodora, however, learned of Justinian's plan and wrote to the Duke of the Thebaid, ordering him to delay the emperor's representatives in order that Julian might reach the Nobatai first.
The blessed Julian, meanwhile, and the ambassadors who accompanied him, had arrived at the confines of the Nobatai, whence they sent to the king and his princes, informing him of their coming. Upon which an armed escort set out, who received them joyfully, and brought them into their land unto the king. And he too received them with pleasure, and her majesty's letter was presented, and read to him, and the purport of it explained. They accepted also the magnificent honors sent them, and the numerous baptismal robes, and every thing else richly provided for their use. And immediately with joy they yielded themselves up, and utterly abjured the error of their forefathers, and confessed the God of the Christians, saying, "that He is the one true God, and there is no other beside."
Meanwhile Justinian's emissary arrived and was granted an audience by the king of the Nobatai.
And when he had obtained an audience, he also gave the king the letters and presents, and began to inform and tell him, according to his instructions, as follows: "The king of the Romans has sent us to you, that in case of your becoming Christians, you may cleave to the church and those who govern it, and not be led astray after those who have been expelled from it." And when the king of the Nobatai and his princes heard these things, they answered them, saying, "The honorable present which the king of the Romans has sent us we accept, and will also ourselves send him a present. But his faith we will not accept. For if we consent to become Christians, we shall walk after the example of Patriarch Theodosius, who because he was not willing to accept the wicked faith of the king, was driven away by him and expelled from his church. If, therefore, we abandon our heathenism and errors, we cannot consent to fall into the wicked faith professed by the king." In this manner then they sent the king's messengers away, with a written answer to the same effect.
As for the blessed Julian, he remained with them for two years, though suffering greatly from the extreme heat. For he used to say that from nine o'clock until four in the aftemoon he was obliged to take refuge in caverns, full of water, where he sat undressed and girt with a linen garment, such as the people of the country wear. And if he left the water his skin, he said, was blistered by the heat. Nevertheless, he endured it patiently, and taught them, and baptized both the king and nobles, and much people also.
Eighteen years later another Nubian people, the Alodaei, whose kingdom of `Alwa inhabited the island of Meroe and the regions to the south of it, sent two embassies to the Nobatai requesting that they arrange for a Christian missionary to be sent to them also.
Meanwhile the king of the Alodaei (i.e., of `Alwa) had ... sent a second embassy to the king of the Nobatai, requesting that the bishop Longinus might be sent to teach and baptize both him and his people. And it was plainly visible that the conversion of that kingdom was the good purpose of the grace of God. The Lord therefore stirred up the spirit of Longinus to go to them; and though the Nubians were grieved at being separated from him, they nevertheless sent with him nobles and princes and men well acquainted with the desert.
Upon the journey, however, he became ill, as also did his companions. And so great were their privations, and the intensity of the heat that, as he mentions in a letter, he lost in the desert no less than seventeen camels out of the baggage animals which accompanied him. Nor was this their only or chief danger; for between the Nobatai and the Alodaei is a country inhabited by another people, called the Makoriai (who had already converted to Chalcedonian Christianity); and when their king heard that Longinus had started on his journey, Satan in his envy stirred him up to set watchers in all the passes of his kingdom on all the roads, both in the mountains and in the plains, as far as the sea of weeds (the Red Sea), in hopes of arresting Longinus, and so hindering the salvation of the powerful people of the Alodaei. But God preserved him, and blinded the eyes of those who wanted to seize him; and he passed through them, and went on his way, and they saw him not.
And on his arrival at the borders of the kingdom to which he was traveling, the king, as he tells us in his letters, on hearing of it, sent one of his nobles to meet him, named Aitekia, who received him honorably, and made him pass over into their land with great pomp. And on approaching nearer, the king went out in person to meet him, and received him with great joy. And immediately upon his arrival, he spoke unto the king and to all his nobles the word of God, and they opened their understanding, and listened with joy to what he said; and after a few days' instruction, both the king himself was baptized and all his nobles; and, subsequently, in process of time, his people also. And so the king, being glad and joyful, wrote a letter of thanks to the king of Nobatai, as follows:
Letter of the King of Alwah to the King of the Nubians.
"Your love is remembered by us, my lord, our brother Orfiulo, because you have now shown yourself my true kinsman, and that not only in the body, but also in the spirit, in having sent to me here our common spiritual father, who has shown me the way of truth, and of the true light of Christ our God, and has baptized me and my nobles, and all my family. And in every thing the work of Christ is multiplied, and I have hope in the holy God, and am desirous moreover of doing your pleasure and driving your enemies from your land. For he is not your enemy alone, but also mine; for your land is my land, and your people my people. Let not your courage therefore fail, but be manful and take courage; for it is impossible for me to be careless of you and your land, especially now that I have become a Christian, by the help of my father, the holy father Longinus.
As we have need, however, of church furniture, get some ready for us; for I feel certain that you will send me these things with carefulness, and I will make you answer. But on the day on which I was keeping festival, I did not wish to write, lest my letters should fail. Don't be anxious, therefore, but encourage yourself, and play the man; for Christ is with us." Such then was the letter which this new confessor, the king of the Alodaei, wrote to the king of the Nobatai. And next we will also give a short extract from a letter of the blessed Longinus, which he wrote from that land (`Alwa), and sent to the king of the Nobatai, with a request that he would forward it to Alexandria; which also he did; and it is as follows:
". . . Not then to trouble you with our problems, and make the letter tedious. I have omitted all such matters, and will tell you, secondly, that which will rejoice all who are real Christians, and strict members of the orthodox communion; and I do rejoice with you all, and will rejoice, and you in like manner must rejoice with me. And, moreover, rejoice with me in this, that He Who wills that every man should be saved, and desires not the death of a sinner, such as I am, but forgets all my sins, has remembered His mercy and grace towards me, and opened for me the door of his Mercy, and delivered me from those who were hunting after my life, and led me safely through them, and blinded their eyes that they did not see me. Nor were we unvisited by his loving kindness in chastening us, in that all of us, with my unworthy self, fell ill, from the greatest even to the least; and I was the first to suffer. For it was but right that I should be chastened first, because I am guilty of many sins, and many are the offenses into which I have fallen. And not only did we become ill ourselves, and despaired of our safety, but also the animals that were with us died, not being able to bear the heat, and the thirst in the mountains, (i.e., the Eastern Desert, between the Nile and the Red Sea) and the unwholesomeness of the water, so that we lost no less than seventeen camels. And when the king of the Alodaei heard that I had determined to come to him, he sent one of his princes, named Itika, who led me with great pomp into their land.
And on our arrival at the river's bank, we went on board a vessel; and the king, hearing of our coming, rejoiced, and came out in person to meet us, received us with great joy. And by the grace of God we taught him, and have baptized him and his nobles and all his family; and the work of God grows daily. But inasmuch as there are certain Abyssinians (Ethiopians), who have fallen into the malady of Julian, and say, that Christ suffered in a body not capable of pain, or of death, we have told them what is the correct behef, and have required them to anathematize this heresy in writing, and have received these persons upon their presenting their recantation ...." And again, after some things which we have omitted, he thus proceeds:
". . . And let all your rulers and people, on learning these things, offer up with spiritual joy their praises and thanksgivings to our merciful God, for all these His innumerable gifts; and let the fathers take care that there be sent here bishops, who will be able to labor and minister in this divine work, which is pleasing both to God and men, and in the reality of which they may feel confident, and that is going on prosperously. For there are a thousand thousand here who are hastening to salvation, to the glory of Him Who is the Savior of us all, even Christ. And believe what I say, that a short time ago a sort of purpose suggested by the weakness of human nature came to me, not to write to anyone; but when I considered the danger which those incur who are negligent in their use of spiritual gifts, I have addressed this short letter to your spiritual love. For I desire neither silver, nor gold, nor costly clothing, as God is my witness, Who tries the hearts of men, and Who knows all I do, and that I have not bread for my daily use, and am even glad to see with my eyes food of vegetables only. And thus far then let it suffice for me to have told you."
This then was written by the holy Longinus himself, being extracts from the letter he sent from the land of the Alodaei (`Alwa) to the king of the Nobatai, with a request that he would forward it to Alexandria, which he accordingly did, to Theodore, whom Longinus had himself appointed as patriarch. And at the same time the king himself sent him a letter to inform him of Longinus' arrival among them and his subsequent departure, and the trials and difficulties which stood in his way, and the gracious aid which God in His goodness gave him, and so forth, wrifing in admiration of him, to the following effect:
Letter of the king of the Nobatai to Theodore Patriarch of Alexandria:
"Before all things I especially desire your health in Christ, my blessed father; and next, my purpose is that you should know, that seven months ago the king of the powerful people of the Alodaei (`Alwa) in Aithiopia, sent here, to obtain from me, my holy father, the bishop Longinus, to baptize him. And it was done according to all that the holy king my father wrote unto me. For when I had mentioned the matter to my father, he at once readily and with good will agreed, and in his kindness promised to visit them. And every day he urged me on, saying, "We must not neglect this business, for it is of God." But because of the wicked devices of him who dwells between us, I mean the king of the Makoriai, I sent my saintly father to the king of the Blemmyes, that he might conduct him here by routes further inland. But the Makoritae heard also of this, and set people on the look out in all the passes of his kingdom, both in the mountains and in the plains, and as far as the sea of weeds, wishing to lay hands on my father, and put a stop to the good work of God, as my father has written here to tell me.
And great was the wearisomeness and the bitter trials of soul and body which he endured in the land of the Blemmyes, together with extreme privation and want. And yet even so the wicked devices of his enemy could not hinder the readiness of my saintly father in doing the work of God; and the Lord our God directed his ways and ordered his paths so that he traveled safely over long tracks of country, and escaped the strong garrisons set in his way, although he lost his retinue of camels and the other beasts of burden with him. But God helped him, and delivered him, and he arrived at the land, and was joyfully received by the king and all the people; and he taught and baptized them, as we leam from the letter which he has sent here. And this further you must know, how God the Lord of all has been with my father, and accompanied him, that you may wonder greatly at what he has done unto him. For when the king, my uncle, and his royal ancestors used to send an embassy to that kingdom of `Alwa, the ambassador generally took eight or ten years in going and returning. But when my holy father went there, within two hundred days he sent an embassy to us from the king, whereas many of my former ambassadors had never retumed here at all. And not to make my account too long, my father has sent a letter to me here which I was to forward to you; and see, I have sent them by his ambassador; and in them he has given us an account of all that has happened to him, and all that he has done. And the news which his messenger has brought us, you must make known; for it would not be right in your excellency to conceal and neglect all these matters. Rather your holiness ought to aid my saintly father by your pious prayers."
Now this portion of the letter of the king of the Nobatai we insert here in confirmation of our narrative, because he bears witness to the whole of this providential history; and he wrote two others to the same effect, which we have not been able to insert for fear of making our story too long. And inasmuch as the main purport of this divine transaction is made known to every one, and declared by means of these two letters of the bishop and the king, as we have determined not to lengthen the narrative by adding anything of our own, except to apply to these things, in token of our praise and admiration, the word of our Savior, which says, "Verily, I say unto you, that this good news of the kingdom shall be preached unto all the nations, and then shall the end be." And these things then, which are now recorded by us, were done by the help of God in the year 891 (calculated by the Seleucid era which began in 311 B.C., thus A.D. 580)