350 - 1275/1323 A.D.





I Royal Images

II The Sun

III The Crescent


1 Square Cross

2 Latin Cross

3 Hexagram


A.The Two-headed Eagle

B.The Eagle and the Cross

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(Faras and Dongola) 

700 ca - 1323






Three Nubian kingdoms arose on the ruins of Meroitic power and are first known to history from the accounts of sixth century missionary activity given by the Syrian writer John of Ephesus. In the north, from the First to the Third Cataracts, was the kingdom of Nobatia, with its capital at Faras; south of it and stretching as far as the place known to Arab writers as El Abwab, ‘the doors’, thought to be near the modern village of Kabushia, was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and further south again, the kingdom of Alwah (or Alodia), whose capital, Soba, is close to Khartoum.


During all this time (after the christianization of Nobatia in the 5th century) these remote kingdoms on the Middle Nile were cut off from the rest of the Christian world by the Muslim occupation of Egypt (640-'42). Yet they were strong enough to resist Muslim encroachment and even to threaten Muslim positions in Egypt, making a treaty with the Caliph of Baghdad and occupying southern Egypt in 962. Not until 1173 did there come the first big Muslim raid by Saracen cavalry from the north. A startling panorama of the wealth and distinction of their religious life was revealed in 1961-‘64 by Polish excavations at Faras under the leadership of Kazimierz Michalowski [1].






Thanks to the excavations of Faras we are informed about some of the heraldic symbols used by the christian rulers of Nobatia.Together with data from other sources it is possible to make up a fairly complete picture of the heraldic structure of Christian Nubia. It turns out that the symbols of Empire and State are of a common design reaching back to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian times. The symbols of  authority are of the kind common in the early Christian empires. As we know these symbols were hallmarked in the time of Constantine the Great  (307-337).



Basic Symbols




I. Royal Images




On the walls of the Faras cathedrals are some more or less well preserved frescoes of saints, angels and biblical figures. The more interesting frescoes for us however, show kings and queens and other Nobatian dignitaries, amongst them some eparchs or chief executives.

The frescoes show considerable differences in style and fashion and seem to have been painted over a period of several centuries.


Even when some of the frescoes are dated by Michalowski in the ninth century, taking the relation of the texts and the images for granted, we may doubt if they are very much older than the beginning of the twelfth century.

The main reason for this opinion is the analysis of the patterns on the clothing of the kings, together with the analysis of the crowns they wear.

One of the oldest paintings seems to be the painting of a dignitary,  dressed in a tunica of a pattern we find almost exactly identical on a mosaic of  the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I (r. 1143-’80) in the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo. Also, the crown he is wearing is of the 12th century model worn by Byzantine kings, consisting of a cilindrical diadem with four pearls set on the upper rim.





A second group of dignitaries is dressed in clothes with a pattern which was the fashion in the second half of the 12th century. This cloth was strewn with medallions of concentric rings and little points arranged in circles. It can be seen on the purple tunica of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on a fresco in the SS. Quattro Coronati in Rome. His wife Beatrice is also dressed in a robe strewn with medallions on a mosaic in the apse of the S. Maria de Trastevere in Rome. Brocades and silks strewn with medallions were anyhow the fashion around the turn of the 13th century.  The king in Faras who is wearing such a robe is wearing a crown of a more evoluated style, consisting of  a cilindrical diadem with one hoop with a crux quadrata on top, between two horn-like ornaments resembling a mitre. In his right hand he holds a sceptre with another crux quadrata.

Another dignitary, belonging to this group, wears a robe with multicoloroured medallions. He has a socalled bukranion in his left hand, consisting of a diadem with a ram’s head mounted on the front and a disc with a pair of horns above it. Much likely this fresco, much damaged, depicts an eparch. The crown is a much evoluated version of the ancient crown of Kush.




A third group is made up of a king wearing an apron with a pattern of large squares and seven-petalled marguerite-like flowers, his tunica chequy, in each square a little disc. He is wearing a cross-sack, a piece of cloth worn from the right shoulder and draped over his left lower arm. He is wearing a veiled crown of three triangular plates and a collar with a crux quadrata.

A counterpart, not found in Faras but in Abd el-Qadir (somewhat north of Khartoum), shows a man dressed in an apron strewn with medallions with two-headed eagles, his tunica with a diamond pattern. He wears also a cross-sack. On his head he has a particular horned helmet with a six-pointed star on the front and a crescent as a crest which seems to be a residual form of the ancient crown of Kush.

A third item probably belonging to this group is the socalled Black Virgin of Puy-en-Velay. This statuette is said to be brought to France by King Louis X the Saint (1226-’70) when he returned from his seventh crusade in 1254. As known he ransomed himself in Cairo in April 1250 and was set free in May of the same year.

The statuette is of a sitting queen with a crown on her head of Komnenan Byzantine fashion, consisting of a cilindrical diadem with three hoops. Pending from the diadem is a short veil instead of pendilia.  On her lap is a child dressed in purple, strewn with white medallions each encircling a square cross, and crowned with a crown of more European fashion.

The robe of the queen has green sleeves and is of a pattern of large diamonds of red, green and blue, in each diamond an ornament. In the middle and on the lower edge of the robe is a broad band of brocade. [2]


If these three figures belong to the same group and are of about the same period, they can be dated in the age of the Latin Empire (1204-‘61). As a consequence of the fall of Constantinople in 1204 there sprang up some two-headed eagles in the provinces formerly under the authority or winthin the sphere of influence of orthodox Byzantium. There are examples from Nicaea, Trabzon, Konya and Russia (Galicia). In the broader context of the former Roman Empire the two headed eagle of the Western Roman Emperor was adopted by Emperor Otto IV. Some of these eagles were maintained even when in 1261 the Byzantine Empire, now reduced to its core around Constantinople, was restored by Michael VIII Paleologos. The dark age of the christian empire of Kush (1171-1275) overlaps the age of the Latin Empire. The resurrection of this Empire is illustrated by a next cycle of royal images.



Trusting the inscriptions accompanying these images, they are dated in the reign of the kings Georgios I (856-920) and Georgios II (969-1002). This opinion is contradicted by the clothes and regalia of the persons depicted.

The clothes of all three images have a  pattern of triple horizontal stripes in common. The king and the queen are wearing almost identical crowns.

We may be sure that the clothes of the king and queen as shown here, are heavily influenced by European fashion of the 13th century. There, we know, royal persons (and other dignitaries) were dressed in a long sleeved tunica and a large cloak, most of the time closed with a fibula on the right shoulder like in the example on the left shown here.

As we can see the crowns the king and queen are wearing are an extension of the crowns of the Komnenians by enlarging the hoops. We may also notice that the crown of the king is crested with a six-pointed star or monogram of David and the one of the queen with a square cross. On the crown of the king there are also latin crosses which are replaced by square crosses on the queen’s crown.

Taking into consideration that hooped crowns were only common for Byzantine Emperors after the reign of Alexius I (1081-1118) it is only natural to suppose that the crowns of the Kushite kings of Faras are of a later time. For this reason it is opted here for the last period of the Christian empire which lasted from 1275 until its fall in 1323.

The third image on the other hand, seems to continue ancient dressing codes as he is not wearing a cloak but a sleeved tunica and an apron, together with a byzantine-style shawl or loros. On his head is a helmet with a crescent as crest. This crescent is the symbol of state and symbolizes the executive power. This defines the man depicted as an eparch.


II. The Sun


The Egyptian sun as the emblem of empire was frequently used in ancient times. The emblem also appeared on the crowns of all rulers in Nubia who considered themselves as the successors of the Egyptian farao’s. In Faras the Egyptian sun appears on the bukranion in the hands of a dignitary, possibly the commander in chief. Also the sun is in the center of the hexagram on top of the crown of  a Nubian king supposed to be King Georgios I.

The red sun is also on a medallion pending from a collar around the neck of the Nubian eagle.

In a European source the red sun on a white field, alias the Egyptian sun, is confirmed by the Wijnbergen Roll of Arms. This Roll, dating from the middle of the 13th century, shows a coat of arms with a red ball on a white field with the legend le Roi de bougis.[3]  With this bougis the Bugia region is meant which was situated on the Red Sea coast between the Tropic of Cancer and 20° N.L.. [4]  Here all pilgrimage roads from Egypt ended in Aydab and from Middle Africa in Port Sudan. This region, which was a part of Nubia, should have been very well known.


The coat of arms of  “The King of Bougis” as in the Wijnbergen Roll of Arms and the location of this “Bougis” on the map of  Northeast Africa.


III. The crescent


As we know, the crescent was of Mesopotamian origin. It was introduced in the time of Alexander the Great in the Hellenistic world and we meet a crescent on the crowns of Nubian kings.

In the time of the Christian kingdoms in Nubia, a crescent is on top of the headdress of the eparch.

The use of the crescent qualifies the bearer as the most important official of government as the crescent is always the symbol of  the state.

In the Nubian kingdoms this was exactly what the eparchs were as they were the highest police- and judicial officials and responsable for law and order in the kingdom. Also the eparchs were the highest provincial officials or governors of the king. [5]


Symbols of Authority


1. The Crux Quadrata


The square cross is the symbol of Christian administrative authority. As such it is worn by the king himself but also by the queen and high officials. Generally it is also attached to buildings which had an administrative function.

In the case of Nubia we have examples of square crosses in the sceptres of the kings, on the crown of the queen and as a jewel on the breast of the eparchs.

When a king was deposed his crown as wel as his cross were taken away from him. This is mentioned when King Šemamun (1286-’93) was defeated by Sultan Al Mansur Qalaun (1279-’90) of Egypt in 1290. He was then “abandoned by his officers and by the bishop and the priests who took away from him his crown and the silver cross which he wore”. [6]


2. The Latin Cross


The latin cross is the symbol of Christian religous authority. Latin crosses are on the royal crown and inply that the king was head of the (Nubian) church as well.The united administrative and religious authorities are symbolized by the united square and latin crosses. This occurrred in Byzantium in the time of Emperor Justin II (565-578). The version called “patriarchal cross” was introduced by Emperor Justinian II (705-711).

As we can conclude from the portrait of “Georgios I” administrative and religious authority were combined in the 13th century or even at the end of the Christian era in Nubia. It is also documented by the Libro de Conoscimiento, probably copied from the work of Ibn Battuta.



1355 ca The Libro de Conoscimiento writes: “Thence I went to another Kingdom called Dongola marching with the deserts of Egipto, and the river Nilus. [...] The King of Dongola has for his device a white flag with a cross like this. (White, a black patriarchal cross / white a black patriarchal cross an a red bordure) ".[7]


3. The Hexagram


The hexagram or Magen David is the symbol of armed authority. It has its counterpart in the Christogram which consists of the first greek letters of the name of Christ “XP” and has the same symbolic meaning. The “ΔΔ” monogram is mainly found in the Byzantine Empire and its dependencies and successors.

The portrait of “Georgios I” suggests that the administrative, the religious and the armed authorities were united in the time of the last Christian kings of Nubia. This means that the king had the last say in the administration, the church and the army.


Symbols of Military Rank


A. The Double Eagle


The only source available showing the use of a double eagle in Nubia, is on the fresco in Abd el-Qadir, depicting a Nubian eparch. [8] This double eagle is certainly the badge of the highest military officer  in Nubia, in any case in the southernmost part of it. It would mean that an eparch of Nubia was comparable with many other high officials within the former Roman Empire like the Roman Emperor of the West, the Emperor of Byzantium, the King of the Rus, the Sultan of Ikonion and many others who, at one time or another, used the title of basileus for themselves, often combined with the double-eagle emblem.



Nubian eparch on a fresco in Abd el-Qadir. On his apron medaillons with double eagles.

On this drawing the reconstruction of Michalowski is based.


B. The Eagle and the Cross


The Christian kingdoms of Nubia continued the Byzantine-Christian traditions on the one hand and the Egyptian-Roman traditions on the other hand. As we have seen on the 4th century crown of Kush, for example, there appears a row of cobras-and-sun which were the ancient royal egyptian emblem. These are borrowed from the long egyptian friezes on which the cobra-sun motif is endlessly repeated.

In the oldest cathedral of Faras, from the beginning of the seventh century A.D. there appear instead friezes with repeated eagles with square crosses (crux quadrata) between their wings, the imperial sun in a medallion pending from a collar on their necks. Such eagles at the same time appear in Coptic Egypt. [9] They certainly belong to the hellenistic culture, introduced in Egypt in the time of the Ptolemies



Detail of the so-called dove-frieze in the ancient Faras-Cathedral, early 7th c. A.D.

Sandstone, 43 Î 254 cm.  British Museum inv. n° EA 606.

Piles of stylized trees between rising eagles respecting, above their heads a crux quadrata, on thier breasts  a medallion with the imperial emblem.


The meaning of these combination would have been: commander (turmarch, meriarch) of the Christian government (of the kingdom), the cross making the difference between a christian commander and any other commander.


On a frieze in the new cathedral, built in the time of  Georgios I (856/866-920), the same eagles appear  but the cross is now diferentiated into a eight-leafed rosette with four leaves red and four leaves yellow [10] In this version the sun-emblem is in the heart of the rosette.



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© Hubert de Vries 2009-11-11; Updated 2011.07.05; 2016.08.03




[1] K. Michalowski, Faras, Warsaw, 2 vols. 1962 and 1965 &c.

[2] Roger Briand, Daniel Brugès, Robert de Rosa, Jean Débordes: Les Mystères d’Auvergne. 2013 Ch. III. Pp. 201 ff

[3] Adam-Even, Paul & Léon Jéquier: Un Armorial français du XIIIe siècle, l'armorial Wijnbergen. In: Archives Heraldiques Suisses. 1951 pp. 49-62, pp. 101-110, 1952 pp. 28-36, 64-68, 103-111, 1953 pp. 55-77. N° 1291

[4] The name Buge and Desertum Buge is also on a map of Africa of  Blaeu of 1617. There is no modern settlement on this place.  I do not think that with this Bougis is meant Bougie in today’s Algeria

[5] Michalowski, K. : Faras, die Wandbilder in den Sammlungen des Nationalmuseums zu Warschau. Warschau 1974. P. 20.

[6] Wallis Budge, E.A.: The Egyptian Sudan: its History and Monuments. Part II, p. 195.

[7] Libro del Conoscimiento de todos los reynos y tierras y señorios que son por el mundo, y de las señales y armas que han cada tierra y señorio. / Book of the knowledge of all the kingdoms, lands, and lordships that are in the world. The Hakluyt Society. Second Series N° XXIX. Issued for 1912.  P. 32 fig. 66. Ibn Battuta visited Nubia two years after the fall of  king Kudanbes.

[8] Michalowski, op. cit. p. 50.

[9] Compare the shields of the egyptian auxiliarii from the beginning of the 5th c. AD illustrated in the  Notitia Dignatatum and on which were eagles: Ioviniani Sen.: Azure  an eagle gules within a bordure Gules, rimmed Or; Herculiani: Gules, an eagle rising Sable within a bordure Or, rimmed Argent; Thebei: A double bordure parted per pale Gules and Or, counterchanged.

[10] This freeze is known as the “Doves Freeze” but the birds depicted are certainly eagles. On a fresco in Bawit even the word  aetoz  (eagle) is written.  Lucchesi Palli, E. about: Kunst u. Geschichte Nubiens in christl. Zeit. In: Röm. Quartalschrift (1972, 10). On this  fresco the cross is missing.