The Cathedral of Faras, a city in ancient Nubia and once the capital of the Kingdom of Faras (aka Nobatia), was built and rebuilt from the 8th to 11th century CE. Its interior was decorated with hundreds of frescoes which are amongst the finest examples of early Christian art seen anywhere. With the site now deep below Lake Nasser, all that remains of this once great city are the art and artefacts which were rescued for posterity prior to 1964 CE.
Faras (aka Pechoras) was a town located on the Nile River (just before the second cataract), near the border of modern Egypt and Sudan in what was known in antiquity as Nubia. Possessing a long history, the city was founded between 2040 and 1750 BCE and became an important trade and religious centre in first the Egyptian Empire and then the Kingdom of Kush (c. 1600 BCE) until the mid-4th century CE. Around 350 CE, Faras became capital of the new kingdom of that name, also known as the Kingdom of Nobatia or Nobadia.
Faras adopted Christianity around 543 CE following a mission originally sent by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) which travelled down from then Christian Egypt. However, there had already been Christian missionaries in the kingdom before this, and the precise date of the religion’s official adoption is not known. Tombs have also indicated that some pre-Christian practices still continued well into the Christian-era of Nubia. Around a century later, the kingdom adopted the Monophysite doctrine of Christianity following influence from the Christian kingdom of Axum (in modern Ethiopia, 3rd-6th century CE). Faras was the seat of a bishop who, having a seat on the council which advised the king, would have had some influence on government.
The ancient Nubian kingdom of Dongola (aka Makuria or Makurra, flourished 6th-14th century CE), absorbed the smaller neighbouring Christian kingdoms of Faras, located to the north, and perhaps, too, Alodia in the south, forming a unified state in the late 7th century CE. The unification was likely a response to the increased threat from Muslim North African states, especially Egypt. A long period of relative peace and prosperity had, though, followed the signing of a non-aggression pact between Dongola and Egypt c. 652 CE. The peace finally came to an end when the Mamluks of Egypt (1250-1517 CE) attacked the kingdom in 1276 CE. In 1315 CE, a Muslim puppet ruler was installed at Old Dongola by the Mamluks. The Nubians were then attacked by the nomadic Juhayna Arabs who swept into Sudan from northern Egypt at some time in the 14th century CE.
After several centuries in the historical doldrums, Faras once more gained international attention thanks to the archaeological excavation of parts of the city in the early 1960s CE. Alas, just when it seemed Faras would contribute enormously to our knowledge of ancient Nubia, the city’s greatest tragedy occurred. In 1964 CE, Faras and the surrounding area was deliberately flooded by the rise of Lake Nasser following the Egyptian government’s management of the Nile River. Fortunately, all was not lost.
Cathedral of Faras - Architecture
The cathedral of Faras was excavated from the sands of the Nubian desert over four seasons from 1961 to 1964 CE by a Polish archaeological team who managed to get in with their trowels and spades just before the whole area was flooded. What at first appeared to be a fortress turned out to be a large Christian cathedral with two side chapels. The structure, which had many similarities with the standard Byzantine basilica, was built in 707 CE on top of the ruins of a palace which was itself built on top of a 4th-century CE Christian church. These layers of history were confirmed by inscriptions on two foundation stones, one written in Coptic and the other in Greek. The cathedral was credited to Faras’ fifth bishop, Paulos, and to King Merkuiros of Dongola (r. from 697 CE), he who had unified the three Christian kingdoms in Nubia. The new structure was built using a combination of stone, baked brick, and timber beam supports. The roof was flat and made of wood.
Then, around 900 CE, the cathedral was replastered and, c. 1000 CE, it was rebuilt, perhaps after a fire had destroyed the roof. While the cathedral was being repaired, a new church was used close by. The new version of the cathedral used much more fired mud brick than previously, which was a more versatile material to work with. Consequently, the granite columns were replaced with brick piers which now supported a much more complex roof which had a large central dome and smaller domes over the four aisles as well as many vaulted ceilings. The cathedral had a floor plan of a large central cross within a square. The design could have been a little too ambitious, for in 1169 CE the barrel vaulting of the nave collapsed, although it may have been deliberately attacked. Curiously, the damage was never repaired and the nave was simply sealed off while the rest of the cathedral remained in use. When the cathedral was excavated most of the roof had collapsed.
The interiors of many buildings and especially churches in the Christian kingdoms of Nubia were painted with large frescoes, but it is those which were added to the inside of Faras Cathedral that are amongst the finest. Besides large frescoes covering entire walls, the cathedral also boasted 120 smaller painted panels.
The paintings were all made using the fresco secco technique and so were painted on top of several layers of already dried plaster. They are multicoloured, with shades of violet predominating in the earlier works. Those frescoes surviving from the first version of the cathedral have certain shared characteristics, similar to Coptic paintings seen in contemporary Alexandria, like figures with very large eyes, squarish heads and thick lines used in the faces. Those paintings made in the 9th century CE predominately use white, while orange-red is the most common colouring in the 10th-century CE frescoes.
The frescoes show scenes from the Old and New Testament and portraits of local dignitaries. Many bishops of Faras are depicted, and these often helpfully have their names indicated which, by comparing with other records such as tombstones, can date the frescoes. Even more useful to historians was the discovery of a complete list of 27 bishops with names and reign dates painted in the southeast corner of the cathedral. The chapels had wall paintings of the Archangel Michael and Holy Mary, there are depictions of saints - notably three important to Antioch, and two sumptuously crowned figures representing the Virgin Mary and the mother of a late-11th-century CE king of Faras called Martha the Queen Mother. Mary holds the infant Jesus and has her hand protectively on Martha’s shoulder.
All Nubians are portrayed as dark-skinned while figures like the Virgin Mary have pale skin. Clothing receives especially detailed treatment in many of the scenes. All the frescoes display a strong Byzantine-Coptic influence not only in artistic style but also the very clothes the people are wearing, which are richly embroidered and set with beads and jewels just as seen so often in Byzantine art.
One entire wall carries a 10-11th-century CE scene of the nativity with Mary in a long dark robe reclining on what appears to be a chaise longue. The artistic significance of this most striking of the Faras frescoes and also the largest known Nubian wall painting, is described in detail by the art historian P. Garlake:
The Great Nativity in the Cathedral of Faras marks the highest level of accomplishment in Christian Nubian art. It was the model for many other madonnas. The colours, especially of the vestments, are audacious. The various subjects are painted as distinct elements in a free composition. The altar-like manger has been said to derive from paintings in Jerusalem. This is one of the few instances in Christian art where the shepherds are named (Arnias and Lekotes); and the magi prefer horses to the conventional camel and thus echo the millennia-long love affair of Nubia with its horses. (69)
Finally, in addition to the artworks and a strong reminder that the cathedral was an integral part of the daily life of the community, the walls have also revealed many examples of ancient graffiti. These odd lines, most often prayers or an appeal to God to help a named person, are written in the three languages used in the kingdom: Coptic, Greek, and Old Nubian.
Once exposed from the Nubian sand, a team of conservation specialists from the National Museum of Warsaw was given the tasks of rescuing and preserving these masterpieces of early Christian art. The frescoes were removed from the walls wherever possible and meticulously cleaned of dirt and the fragile paintwork restored with adhesives. Attached to a new backing, the frescoes could then be displayed vertically once more. These windows into East Africa's Christian past can now be seen in various museums, but chiefly in the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum and the Faras Gallery of the Polish National Museum in Warsaw.