Saï Island: Influences from Pharaonic Egypt, Christianity, and Islam in Nubia

Church pillars on Sai Island (Source: Atlas Obscura)

Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Sudan whose country is going through unrest again. This unrest is part of the New Scramble for Africa, and to a greater extent the great global war between the West and the East which as always plays on other continents.

Today, we will continue our exploration of Saï Island, an island in Sudan which contains ruins spanning thousands of years and several empires. It is the largest island on the Nile river, about 12 km long and 5.5 km wide. Although Sudan is today an Islamic country, Saï was once occupied by Egyptians during the New Kingdom, and later was the site of the ancient medieval Christian Nubian Empire known as Makuria which flourished in Sudan between the 7th and 14th centuries. Later, during the 16th century, the Ottomans founded a fortress on the island. Saï Island has always been Nubian, and over the centuries has seen different cultures, religions, and much more.

Ruins on Sai Island (Source: Lendi Travel)

Many Empires have prevailed on the island. The presence of the Egyptian town and temple which dates back to 1500 BC is a good example of the strong imprint of the Pharaonic Egypt, with among many other things a spolia bearing the  cartouche of Amenhotep IV, amongst other 18th Dynasty rulers: the fort was founded by Pharaoh Ahmose and then overbuilt by Amenhotep I and his successors. Saï Island was also an important royal site during the Meroitic period as testified by the discovery of pillars/columns with the names of the Queen Amanitore and King Natakamani of Nubia. It is clear today that Saï Island was the seat of a Nubian Bishop as indicated by the remains of a Medieval Christian cruciform church, identified as a cathedral, the largest in Nubia; while the Ottoman presence is noted by the remains of a fort built in the 2nd half of the 16th century AD. The place is full of pottery dating several centuries, if not millenia. However, part of the island, the northern part, was flooded when Lake Nasser was created in 1971 (most monuments that were destroyed were on the Nubian/Sudan side of the dam, while a lot on the Egyptian side were recovered and moved to higher ground – don’t get me wrong, Abu Simbel is amazing and worthy to have been saved, but wasn’t the fortress at Buhen just as important?).

Chert pebble with ochre residue from Sai Island, Sudan. (Source: Illustration by Van Peer, et al.

Saï Island is an exceptional testimony to early human occupation in this part of Africa, notably the Homo-erectus and the Homo-Sapiens. It provided early attested evidence for the use of color in the world with rare finds of ochre and ways to manipulate it (Saï Island in Sudan – Earliest Site with Evidence of Ochre Use by Modern humans). It is one of the key sites in Sudan (which was not flooded) which shows the prime influence of Egyptian culture in Nubia during the 2nd millennium BC, and the evolution and fusion of both cultures with mutual influences from Nubia and Pharaonic Egypt across centuries. All these attributes qualify Saï Island as unique with an outstanding Universal Value.

To learn more about the findings of this cathedral and more on Saï Island, check out these articles on the Smithsonian Magazine, UNESCO World Heritage, the Art Newspaper, Sudan National Museum‘s website, Tomb26 on Saï Island, and much more.

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