Egypt: Qasr Ibrim in ancient Nubia

Qasr Ibrim in ancient Nubia

by Jimmy Dunn

The 7th century Christian Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary, converted from the Temple of Taharqo

Prior to the construction of the High Dam south of Aswan, Qasr Ibrim stood on the highest of three headlands on the east bank of the Nile some 70 meters above the River. Today, it is usually an island, though at times the lake as revealed a land bridge joining the island to the shore. Today, this complex is the last on Lake Nasser prior to Abu Simbel, but visitors may only gaze upon it from the comforts of a Lake Nasser Cruise boat, as it is no longer accessible by tourists. However, the Egypt Exploration Society does continue work on the site, as they have since 1959.

Qasr is Arabic for "fort" so in English its name means Fort of Ibrim. Its name is ultimately derived from its ancient Meroitic name, Pedeme. In classical texts it was called Primis and in Coptic, Phrim, which was corrupted to Ibrim in Arabic.

We really do not know the exact origin of the site, though it may have originally been built up during the Middle Kingdom when the 12th Dynasty kings were establishing control of the trade route along the Nile. However, the earliest archaeological evidence for the site dates to about 1000 BC, considerably after the end of the the Middle Kingdom. Obviously, its site so high above the Nile was recognized for its strategic importance early on and in fact there were fights for its possession throughout the centuries and even into modern times.

The site of Qasr Ibrim

The site of Qasr Ibrim

After the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire and there was about that time a Roman garrison established at Aswan. It was attacked by the Nubians, perhaps under a queen by the name of Amanirenas, who captured and briefly held Aswan, Elephantine and Philae. However, the Nubians were soon driven south where the Romans occupied Qasr Ibrim. During the reign of the Roman Emperor, Augustus when his local prefect was Gaius Petronius, the Romans hoped to fix their southern boarder at this location, but the Nubians again attacked, after which a peace treaty was drawn up and the Romans withdrew. Others came and left, so that the site was not completely abandoned until 1811.

Pottery found at Qasr Ibrim

The earliest inscriptional evidence found at the site is a stela from the reign of Amenhotep I dedicated early in the New Kingdom. This stela dates to the eighth year of the kings reign and is now in the British Museum in London. It was actually discovered in a Christian cathedral at the site where it had been reused in one of the crypts.

Though certainly of strategic importance, the site was clearly also important religiously, both during and after the Pharaonic period. Cut low down into the cliffs and facing the ancient capital of the district known as Miam (modern Aniba), or four shrines dating from the New Kingdom. Built by local high officials, they were dedicated to local forms of Horus as well as to the deities of the First Cataract and to the goddess Hathor, who was here a protectress of expeditions. However, because of the possibility of destruction by the rising waters of Lake Nasser, these shrines were relocated. The shrine built by Usersatet who was a viceroy of Kush during the reign of Amenhotep II was removed and re-erected in the New Nubian Museum in Aswan. The others have not been reconstructed as of this date, but may in the future be situated at new Sabua. Also, a Stela of Seti I has already been moved to new Kalabsha where it has been re-erected to the south of the main Ptolemaic temple at that location. Regrettably, to either side of the high ground at Qasr Ibrim were ancient cemeteries now lost to us beneath the waters of Lake Nasser.

Stela of Seti I with Amenemopet, Viceroy of Kush

The earliest religious building remaining on the site was a temple constructed during the reign of King Taharqo. Qasr Ibrim prospered in the years following the Nubian raids when the temple built by King Tahraqo was repaired and several new temples were built. These temples gained a reputation as healing centers and were often visited by those seeking cures.

Exterior of the Byzantine Chruch

Qasr Ibrim has a history of holding out against new, encroaching religions and so here, the traditional Egyptian gods continued to be worshipped long after Christianity had taken root and become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Even after the old Egyptian temples elsewhere were closed following the dictates of Theodosius I in 390 AD, those at Qasr Ibrim continued to flourish. However, the temple of King Taharqo was eventually converted into a Christian church, while the Temple of Isis located at the site was destroyed. In the seventh century, a cathedral church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built here using blocks from the old temples. The site became a great center of pilgrimage and later, a bishopric. Interestingly, many of the pilgrims left carved depiction of feet at the site to record their journey.

Stela of the Christian Bishop, Georgios, discovered at Qasr Ibrim

The intact grave of Bishop Timotheos, who had been buried here late in the fourteenth century, was found in the north crypt of the cathedral. The burial also included his letters of appointment from the Patriarch of Alexandria, which were dated to 1372 AD. Christian burials were very simple affairs during this period, bodies of the deceased were usually wrapped in a shroud and laid in a pit covered with stones or a brick canopy. Grave goods were no longer provided for the burial of ordinary people. However, those of clerics were rather more splendid. The Body of Bishop Timotheos was buried in his bishop's robes with his benedictional iron cross and other belongings. These are now in the British Museum in London, together with a page from the Book of Revelation written in the Old Nubian language using the Coptic alphabet. This artifact was also discovered at Qasr Ibrim.

Again, the Christian community held out for many centuries after the invasion of Egypt by the Muslims. It was not until the sixteenth century that Christianity was finally replaced by Islam, after Egypt had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks and a garrison of Bosnian mercenaries was installed.

Footprints carved into the rock by pilgrams to Qasr Ibrim

Footprints carved into the rock by pilgrams to Qasr Ibrim






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