The Basic Languages of Christian Nubia:
Greek, Coptic, Old Nubian, and Arabic

Literacy is believed to have been particularly high in Christian Nubia. This is attested by the widespread graffiti found on building walls, rocks, and pottery.1 Moreover, written evidence indicates that multilingualism was very high among the Nubians. Documents written in Meroitic, Latin, Coptic, hieratic, Greek, Old Nubian, and Arabic are spread and in large numbers.


By the time the Nubian kingdoms converted to Christianity in the sixth century CE, Greek has already replaced Meroitic as the primary written language. Greek was evidently the legal language of Old Dongola; 2 administrative and church documents discovered in the town were largely Greek. Although Coptic and Arabic were used throughout the kingdoms, Greek was more dominant in Old Dongola and Alwa than in the area of Nobadia in northern Nubia. Also, it is worth mentioning that Greek was widespread among the Nubians centuries before the arrival of Christianity in the sixth century.

Archeological excavations indicate a widespread use of Greek and Coptic in Nubia since the fourth and fifth centuries, if not before.3 Large numbers of documents and text fragments concerning a wide range of subject matters including royal commemorations and diplomatic correspondences have been uncovered from pre-Christian sites.4 Of course the dominance of Hellenistic cultural features in the Christian Nubian kingdoms, including the adoption of Greek as a primary language, did not begin in the sixth century. Nonetheless, Christianity did play a major role in solidifying the base of the Roman (Byzantine) culture in Nubia and in establishing Greek as the primary language in the region.

Following the sixth century and the establishment of Greek as the official language of the kingdoms, writings in Greek became widespread in a number of native traditions. An example of such traditions is the nomina sacra, which was extensively used in Nubia. The tradition is essencially a Christian system for abbreviating reoccurring divine names and expressions such as cross, father, spirit, heaven, holly, and son.


Confronted by a common enemy (i.e., the Muslim Arabs), the Nubians and the Coptic community formed a strong bond. Although less common than Greek, Coptic was a common language in Nubia; evidence for teaching Coptic has been found in el-Ghazali, a Faras cathedral, as well as in other locations in Nubia.5

Coptic differs significantly from Old Nubian in many respects. Unlike Coptic, Old Nubian has no gender classes; grammatically the two languages are different. For example, in Nubian, the qualified follows the qualifier, and postpositions are used in place of prepositions; the case in Coptic is different.6

Sample of document written in Old Nubian.
Old Nubian
Old Nubian

Manuscripts written in Old Nubian can be found throughout North Sudan, as far south as Soba and as far west as Kordofan.7 Although the majority of Old Nubian documents discovered were religious in nature, many administrative documents, concerning a wide variety of legal matters such as land and slave ownership, were found.8 The elaborate writing of these documents indicates a highly sophisticated culture and proficiency in literacy.

The found Old Nubian documents reflect the linguistic, cultural, and social complexity of the Nubian Christian society. It is worth mentioning that the Old Nubian alphabet consisted of Greek letters, in addition to Coptic and Meroitic characters.

Like Greek, Old Nubian employed diacritical signs (i.e, dots used to mark vowels, consonants, numerals, as well as to separate between words, and to mark the end of sentences).9 Angled strokes and incurved lines were employed to indicate the end of a full text material. Asteriscs were used to mark word omissions.10 Also, Old Nubian was distinguished by a unique mark -oy placed at the end of proper names.11


Although Arabic became the primary language in Nubia sometime around the fourteenth century, Old Nubian continued to be used until the late fifteenth century, or later. Today, Arabic is the first language in Sudan and was used in Nubia long before the fall of the Christian kingdoms in the fourteenth century. Archeology shows that Arabic was commonly used in Christian burials. Not only that, but the Muslim calendar of el-Hijra was regularly used in dating Christian documents.

  • 1 D. A. Welsby, The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims on the Middle Nile (British Museum P, 2002) 238.
  • 2 A. Lajtar, "Greek Funerary Inscriptions from Old Dongola: General Note", Oriens Christianus 81, (1997):107-26.
  • 3 See: P. Lenoble, "The Pre-Christian Empire And Kingdoms", Sudan Ancient Treasures: An Exhibition Of Recent Discoveries From The Sudan National Museum, ed. D. A. Welsby, and J. R. Anderson (British Museum P, 2004) 186-92.
  • 4 T. Eide, T. Hägg, R. H. Pierce, and L. Török, eds., Fontes Historiae Nubiorum: Textual Sources for the History of the Middle Nile Region between the Eighth Century BC and the Sixth Century AD (Bergen, 1998).
  • 5 K. Michalowski. Faras. Fouilles Polanaises 1961-1962 (Warszawa, 1965), See: S. Jakobielski, Faras III. A History of the Bishopric of Pachoras (Warszawa, 1972), and secondary source: Welsby, note 1 above at 238-9.
  • 6. H. S. Atzinger, "Some Peculiarities Of Greek And Coptic Epigraphy From Nubia," Satzinger 7 (2004): 535-41.
  • 7 E. J. Ilevbare, Potential Contact Between The Central Valley Of The Nile And The River Niger Area In Ancient Libya In The First Seven Centuries A.D. , Nov. 1983, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Dec. 2008 <http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0005/000572/057218eb.pdf>.
  • 8 For slave ownership see: J. D. Fage, and R. A. Oliver, The Cambridge History of Africa: From C.500 BC to AD1050 (Cambridge University P, 1979) 574, and for land ownership see: G. M. Browne, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim II (London, 1989), Gerald M. Browne, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim III (London, 1991), and G. M. Browne, "Old Nubian Studies: Past, Present and Future," Egypt and Africa. Nubia from Prehistory to Islam, ed. W. V. Davies (London, 1991): 286-293.
  • 9 Catalogue of the Greek Inscriptions in the Sudan National Museum at Khartoum (I. Khartoum Greek), (Peeters Publishers, 2003) xix.
  • 10 Catalogue of the Greek Inscriptions, note 10 above at xviii-xix.
  • 11Catalogue of the Greek Inscriptions, note 10 above at 15, and G. M. Browne, Old Nubian Grammar, (München, Lincom, 2002).
Authored: 2005.
Edited: Dec. 2008.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.