Which Nubia and Which Byzantium?

Studying East of Byzantium II

Giovanni R. Ruffini
Fairfield University


The relationship between Nubia and Byzantium is a complicated question, in part because we are dealing with two different Nubias and two different Byzantiums. In the early Byzantine period, prior to the Islamic conquest of Egypt, Byzantium is an immediate neighbor of Nubia. But in this period, Nubia is itself in a state of flux, three independent kingdoms emerging from the collapse of ancient Meroe. In later periods, Nubia is a unified and centralized state, but Byzantium is now distant and receding. Prior to the Islamic conquests, Byzantine influence on Nubia was clearly considerable. But late antique Nubia is simply not the same political and cultural entity as medieval Nubia, and it is not clear how much continuity exists between the two. It is even less clear whether any Byzantine influence continues in later periods.

Behind these problems are more subtle questions of definition. What does it mean to assert that medieval Nubia is a Byzantine society? Does it make more sense to think of medieval Nubia as a Mediterranean society? To what degree are these questions essentially Eurocentric? To what degree do they distract us from the indigenous aspects of an African society?

Workshop readings will provide short overviews of late antique and medieval Nubian history, as well as snapshots of some of the major issues in the relationship between Nubia and Byzantium.

Giovanni R. Ruffini is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Fairfield University where he teaches courses on the Roman world in late antiquity and ancient African civilizations. His research interests include the Roman world in late antiquity and its contemporary Nubian and Ethiopian civilizations, the history of late antiquity, and network theory. Professor Ruffini’s recent publications include Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Bishop, The Eparch and The King: Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim IV (Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplement Series, Warsaw, 2014).


Nativity, Cathedral of Faras. The National Museum, Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: robertharding / Alamy
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