Muslim Nubia


Nubia in the 15th Century

After the Ottoman Conquest


Back to Sudan




The  Mameluk Sultan of Egypt, Al-Zahir Baybars I (1260-1277) conquered Nobatia in 1275. After a period of peace King Kudanbes (1312) defaulted to pay tribute, and the Egyptians again invaded. This time a Muslim member of the Makurian dynasty was placed on the throne. Sayf al-Din Abdullah Barshambu began converting the nation to Islam and in 1317 the Dongola cathedral was turned into a mosque. This was not accepted by other Makurian leaders and the nation fell into civil war and anarchy that very year. The countryside came under the control of the raiding tribes, amongst others the Awlad Kenz, from the desert, and the monarchy was left with effective control over little more than the capital. This effectively ended Nubia as a unified state. The Makurian dynasty survived until the end of the 14th century, as is demonstrated by Makurian call for aid in 1397.  In 1403 however Upper Egypt was in a state of desolation and Aswan ceased to belong to the Sultan of  Egypt. It has been suggested that the change of African trade routes and the Black Death did play a major role in the collapse

In 1412, the Awlad Kenz took control of Nubia and part of Egypt above the Thebaid. The Awlad Kenz remained the de facto rulers of Nubia until 1517, when the area was conquered and amalgamated into Egypt by the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Selim.




Muslim Nubia

1323 - 1403


After the installation of king Say al-Din Abdullah in 1312 and the conversion to islam of the Nubians  in 1317 and after, the christian symbols of authority disappeared. We have no images of Nubian kings younger than 1323 from Nubian sources as the muslim rule that no living beings might be represented was strictly maintained in that time. Instead we have to rely on European sources to become an idea how they presented themselves. [1] These are provided by the portolans that were made by 14th and 15th century Catalan carthographers. Nubian kings are represented as seated rulers, dressed in sober burnouses and with turbans on their heads. The last king, represented on the portolan of Gabriel Vallseca of 1439, has a broadsword upright in his hand. This could mean that he was classified as a military governor or wali, in this case of the city of Dongola to which the effective control of the rulers from the House of Makuria was restricted in the end. This portolan, we may underline, was made in the time after 1412 when Nubia was controlled by the Awlad Kenz

The use of the crescent, the universal symbol of the state which, as we have seen was introduced in the time of the Ptolemees, was continued but all other symbols of authority of Christian design were abandoned. The portolans are documenting a blue flag with a white crescent, probably the flag of Dongola, and a yellow flag with a white crescent, probably the royal ensign. Also, a red shield with three yellow crescents, and a yellow shield with a white crescent are documented in the hands of Nubian rulers. 



Blue ensign of Nubia / Dongola

documented by Angelino Dulcerta on his portolan from 1339

on which such a flag is depicted with the legend nvbia sarracenum (&c)



The same flag is documented by the Catalan Atlas of 1375, of which there is a copy in the Maritime Museum in Barcelona and in the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris. [2] On this portolan there is also a portrait of the ruler of Nubia, dressed in green (or blue) with a white turban on his head and a sceptre in his right hand. In his left hand he keeps a shield with three golden crescents on a red field.

The three crescents classify him as a sovereign muslim sultan.

Nubia in the 15th Century



Very little is known about the rulers in Nubia in the 15th century. Nevertheless the 15th century portolans seem to follow the political developments quite closely. After king Nasr ad din had fled to Cairo in 1397 to beg assistance against his cousin, the King of Nubia is depicted with a yellow flag  with a white crescent but also with a yellow shield with a white crescent. At the same time the yellow crescented flag waves over all the Mameluk Empire.  The flag of the Sultan of Egypt is yellow with three white crescents.  From this we may conclude that any autonomy of the Nubian king was over at the time.



Yellow Ensign of Egypt


Arms of the King of Nubia


Ruler of Nubia on the map of Mecia de Viladestes, 1413.  [3] 

Flag and arms: Or, a crescent Argent. Legend: rex dnvbie. on his right hand:  .........ciutat denubia.



After the loss of Aswan in 1403 and the rise of the Awlad Kenz after 1412 however,  the design of the shield is more individual again as it shows four (unidentifiable) golden charges on on blue field.



Ruler of Nubia on the map of Gabriel Vallseca, 1439

The ensign of Nubia is blue again and the ruler is depicted with a red turban on his head, a broadsword in his right hand and a blue shield in his left. Legend: REX DE NVBIA. Above his head the Egyptian ensign.


After the Ottoman Conquest


At the end of the 17th century Ducange mentions a ruler of Meroe (then called Alwa) bearing an axe Argent on a field Gules but this is the one and only report of a princely symbol of that time. [4]

The quote of Ducange reads:


Le Roy de Rubit, (al. de Merie,) de gueules à une coignée d’argent. Fortè leg de Nubie. Nubia verò Ægypti provincia notissima.


This reminds us in the first place of the axe as a symbol of the Roman lictores or police officers who bore a fasces when accompanying high magistrates.

The servants of the13th century Assassine chief in Iran also bore an axe. Joinville writes about them:


“Whenever the Old Man of the Mountain went out riding, a crier would go before him bearing a Danish axe with a long shaft encased in silver, to which many knives were affixed. As he went the man would continually cry out: “Turn out of the way of him who bears in his hands the death of kings.” [5]


It reminds us also of the portrait of a king, armed with an axe, on the map of  Gabriel Vallseca (1439) [6]. This may be a king of the empire of Bornu which existed in the region of today’s Nigeria, Niger, Camerun and Tchad.


Even when we do not know where Ducange had his information from, be it Joinville, Vallseca or Ottoman sources, it is possible that he meant by Merie the sultanate of Sennar which comprised large parts of Sudan from 1504 until its fall in 1821. As such the remark of Ducange could be a faint echo from real existing symbols of power in 17th century northern Sudan, identifying the sultan of Sennar as a high magistrate in the Roman or Byzantine tradition (!).

It may be noticed that Sennar was on the southern border of the Ottoman Eyalet Misir. The Ottomans however, crossed the Third Cataract only in 1820-‘22.

From the sultanate a list of rulers is known. A portrait is known from the last sultan Badi ibn Tabal (1791-1821).



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© Hubert de Vries 2009-11-10

[1] ) See: Muslim Iconoclasm.

[2] ) The Paris copy signed  BNF, ESP 30. The Barcelona copy exhibited in the Museu Maritim in Barcelona.

[3] ) Portulan de Mecia de Viladestes, 1413. 1 feuille vélin ms enluminée, 850 x 1150 mm. Paris, BnF, Cartes et Plans, Rés. GeAA 566.

[4]) Ducange, Car. Du Fresne: Historia Byzantina.  dupl. comment. illustrata prior: familias ac stemmata Imperat. Constantinop. &c. Paris, 1680. P. 361. Coignée: large axe particularly used for felling trees.

[5] ) Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades. London, 1963. Ch. 12, p. 280

[6] )  Today in the Museu Maritim de Barcelona