Neuchâtel – day 1

After a long trip, we are now settled at the nice flat we rent at Neuchâtel, overlooking the beautiful lake. The purpose of this visit is no other than our participation in the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies. The first day was dedicated to the registration of the participants and we received our badges, information about the town and its university, and the booklet with the abstracts of the presentations that will fill the week with the most interesting latest discoveries in the field of Nubian Studies. Matthieu Honegger, the organizer of the conference was at the reception of the registration tables and welcomed surely all participants with an equally warm smile like the one he offered to us. Thanking him for all he did up to this day, he rightly pointed out that now it was our turn to contribute to the success of the conference and we are certain that this is how thinks each one of the Nubiologists that made the effort to be here, and that we are all ready for as perfect academic performances as possible! We will be reporting from those hopefully daily, perhaps also with photos. For today, only three shots from the beautiful old city of Neuchâtel and around the Collegiate church of the castle that gave its name to the city (Neuchâtel = the New Castle).

View over the old city and the lake from the Castle

View over the old city and the lake from the Castle

The Collegiate Church

Greek inscription

Not only is the name of the city attested in Greek sources of the late Middle Ages, but also an inscription in Greek (a Christogram with the alpha-omega symbol) underlined the feeling of being welcome at Neuchâtel!

This week in Bergen was full of interesting academic activities for those interested in Sudan, both the place and its archaeology.

Already on Tuesday there were two events that attracted our attention:

Mahmoud invitation

At mid-day, Mahmoud Suleiman, the Antiquities Inspector of N.C.A.M. who is finishing his PhD thesis under the supervision of Randi Haaland, gave a talk on The Region of Berber as a Meroitic Trade Centre: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives. The talk first presented the many impressive finds from the Meroitic cemetery that Mahmoud has been directing the salvage excavations of at Berber. The site was found accidentally during construction work. On the basis of the rich finds, Mahmoud argued that the trade routes through the Eastern Desert – both northwards to Egypt and eastwards to the Red Sea – were controlled from the region of Berber! 

And today he screened the famous film “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia” where he plays an important role himself! We can offer the entire video from here, but we cannot share the pleasure of the interesting discussions that followed the screening.


Another screening took place on Tuesday, at 20:00, at UiB Global. Those attending saw the opening of the documentary series “Kampen om Nilen” (trans: Fight over the Nile) from the national broadcast of Norway (NRK. For those in Norway HERE you can see the first episode).

Interestingly, Henriette had also written a paper with that same title earlier than Tvedt’s documentary was produced. You can read this article (in Norwegian) HERE.


In the beginning of this week an official visit from Sudan took place in the frame of the Sudan TV digitalization project. Social activities and technicalities filled the program, but the feeling was one of seeing things moving ahead in one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in Sudan cultural heritage.


Finally, during this week, the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies hosted the last visitor from Paris in the frame of the Aurora program. Ph.D. candidate Clélia Coret had a lot of fruitful discussions with Anne Bang, the head of the Centre and with other researchers of similar interests and participants of the Aurora program, before offering a most interesting talk yesterday afternoon on the Swahili Sultanate of Witu followed by a very lively and constructive discussion that surely benefited both Clélia and us all.

Clélia had the kindness to share with us her article on Witu, that you can find here:


In the autumn semester, the Bergen group will be visiting Paris, Alexandros meeting Robin there in December to continue their coopération aurorienne!

But much sooner, in fact in three days, we will meet at Neuchâtel for the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies. More from there…

In a month from now, the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies will have become history. Approaching its opening date on the 1st of September at Neuchatel, Switzerland, various signs tell us that all the Nubiological world is getting ready for the big quadrennial venue. Without going into the details of how each one prepares for one’s own presentation, the eagerness or the stress this causes, the questions about the content and the context, the feelings for meeting friends and colleagues, let us refer today to a couple of things that have happened in the internet world and that are related in one form or the other with the Nubian conference:

1. First, the International Society for Nubian Studies (ISNS) has moved since February its web page to a wordpress platform and the new internet space has been used for announcements regarding practicalities ahead of the venue. We hope to read the views of the ISNS about the proceedings themselves during and after the conference. In the same page one will be finding presentations of interesting Nubiological projects, like the Mahas Survey project or the Italian archaeological expedition to Eastern Sudan:


2. The Honorary Secretary of the ISNS is Julie Anderson who works as curator in the British Museum (BM). Julie offered us the first post on Medieval Nubia in the BM blog after a couple of posts on Kushite topics (mainly from the Amara East project) and a couple more on Christian Egypt (in my opinion, there stands out the post about Wine and Monks). Earlier of course, there had appeared in various news feeds the spectacular discovery by conservators of the BM of a tattoo on the still soft skin of the inner thigh of a mummy of a woman from the Fourth Cataract region with a very fine monogram of the name Michael, surely referring to the Archangel, one of the most venerated figures of the Christian religion for the faithful Nubians during the medieval era. The new post by Julie Anderson is somehow inspired by this discovery and its display in the latest exhibition at the British Museum, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries. And it is at the same time informative for the non-initiated in medieval Nubian studies.

3. It was from Julie Anderson that all the participants of the London Conference for Nubian Studies of 2010 received the information that the Proceedings were published by Peeters and that soon the offprints will be sent and there will be possibility to order the complete volume. We are therefore glad to be able to share with you today a PDF of our contribution on Sai Island from the London conference:

A Note on the Medieval Period of Sai Island

This year there will be no presentation about medieval Sai, since very little was done on the island by us, but surely others will speak about the antiquities of the island, and lots of interesting things will be worth reporting. Unless something exceptional comes up, see you at and from Neuchâtel!

This post is a collaboration between Alexandros Tsakos and Robin Seignobos that is hosted here because of the kindness of Robin and a coincidence with the case-studies that the two of us have been working upon. In detail:

The work with the Arabic sources relating with Nubia has brought to the attention of Robin a recording in various Mamluk chronicles of the arrival in Cairo, in the year 704 AH / 1304 CE, of a Nubian king, bringing with him a tribute consisting of slaves, living animals (cattle, camels, panthers…) and minerals (alum, emery…). He also asked for the Sultan’s military assistance against a rebel. His request was answered positively and the Sultan dipatched an army to escort the king back to Nubia. Nevertheless, it is not the event itself that will hold our attention here but the name of the Nubian ruler.

It is diversely spelled in the sources but the reading Amay or Amī has long been favoured in Nubian scholarship. However, it appears on closer examination that this form is only recorded in one late source, namely al Qalqashandī’s Ṣubḥ al-aʿshā (1412). This choice probably stems from Monneret de Villard’s preference for this reading in his Storia della Nubia christiana that was subsequently followed by the majority of scholars.


The version of the name Ayāy as appears in the manuscripts

The most common spelling in the sources is, in fact, Ayāy which is also attested in the earliest known version of this account, namely Baybars al-Manṣūri’s Zubdat al-Fikra (ca. 1324). Thus, it seems safe enough to assume that Ayāy is the most correct reading, and therefore the closest to the original Nubian name.

Normalized version of the name Ayyay as appears in printed editions

Normalized version of the name Ayāy as appears in printed editions

With this in mind, is it possible to connect the name Ayāy with a king mentioned in documents from Nubia?

Unfortunately there is no king with this name recorded in Nubian documents. There exists, however, a Nubian personal name strongly reminiscent of Ayāy, namely Ajjaji.

Old Nubian /j/ may have very well been transcribed in Arabic by a yāʾ since the Nubian phoneme probably sounded quite similar to a /y/ to Arabic-speakers.

As for the final /i/, the common juncture vowel in Old Nubian, Browne already noticed that it is often added at the end of proper names. However, it is equally well known that this vowel could be easily dropped out, which can explain the Arabicized form of the name.

There are seven instances in the manuscripts from Qasr Ibrim naming a person Ajjaji or Ajjeji – in one case even both orthographies can be found obviously referring to the same person. Here are the attestations:

ajjaji@qasr ibrim


Note: The fourth volume on the Old Nubian texts from Qasr Ibrim has been prepared by Giovanni Ruffini and is expected to appear in specialized bookshops by early autumn.


Now, Alexandros in the course of his studies noted also these occurrences because he studied two inscribed ceramic shards from the town of Serra East (for a description of the project see the latest Annual Report of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago HERE. The Annual Report for 2014 is in press). Both were incised after firing with words containing two /j/ following each other. My first hunch was that these should be remnants of a name, perhaps of the owner of the original complete pot.


OIM 19532

Most interestingly, the smaller fragment preserves the reading


and thus may very well be another instance of the name Ajjaji.


OIM 19566

On the other hand, the larger fragment reads


This does not seem to fit with any of the attested names including the double /j/. Working with the name lists available to us, I found the following instances:

jiji names

The word on the larger shard from Serra seems rather like a verb in the third person singular imperative, ending with -MH after a stem with the -A of the predicative. Then the question arose which verb could that be?

To answer this question, I gleaned the instances of Old Nubian words recorded by Browne that contain a double /j/, so as to examine the possible words that may be hidden in the text incised on the shard from Serra.

I came up with the following list:

o.n. words with jiji

Unfortunately, none of the above fits with the example from Serra, but then again, if the verb had an object marker in plural – /j/ -, then a regressive assimilation like /n/ + /j/ = /jj/ , /r/ + /j/ = /jj/, /t/ + /j/ = /jj/ etc. could be what lies behind the fragmentary inscription on the Serra pot. But this is a path impossible to follow further, given the very large number of alternatives, the fragmentary state of the inscription, and our incomplete knowledge of Old Nubian words.

Returning to the Ajjaji case study, though, one notices in the list above that the first verb may reveal the basic element in the etymology of the name (formed subsequently by a common in Old Nubian reduplication of the verb’s syllable – ONG – and a quite regular simplification of the geminate contiguous consonants – ONG 2.7).

In any case, it is highly unlikely that the king referred to as Ayāy in Mamluk chronicles was one of the individuals recorded in Nubian sources, even though one of them (P. QI 3, 44) bore the prestigious title of Nešš of Atwa (Gebel Adda). We can only hope that future discoveries or rediscoveries in documents from Nubia and inscriptions will confirm our hypothesis. In the meantime, it is probably safer to keep calling this king Ayāy or Ayyāy rather than Amāy or Ammy, as currently used by Nubiologists, bearing in mind that Ajjaji is the Nubian name of the Nubian king.


The authors would like to thank Bruce Williams and Giovanni Ruffini for permission to refer to unpublished material and for useful comments on details of the text.

Tonight ended in Johannesburg the 22nd Biennial Meeting of the Society for African Archaeologists, which was organized for the second time jointly with the 14th Congress of the Pan African Archaeological Association (see HERE for official web page).

Among more than 450 presentations, a dozen were related to Sudan Studies with the lion’s share going to the Meroitic period. Two of those presentations were by scholars coming from Bergen, namely by professor Randi Haaland and PhD candidate Maurice Mugabowagahunde. A couple more presentations relating with research in the Blombos cave and other similar sites of South Africa were prepared by groups where professor Henshilwood (UiB/AHKR) has a leading role.

In a very timely manner, the last days we have been reading parts of a new Oxford handbook, published last year and dedicated to African archaeology. Of interest to this blog, we retain three of the 70 chapters, the one by David Edwards on the Medieval and Post-Medieval States of the Nile Valley, the one by Intissar El Zein on The Archaeology of the Ottoman Empire in Northern and Northeastern Africa and the one by Derek Welsby on Kerma and Kush and their neighbors. The two first for obvious reasons, the latter because the second largest Kerma cemetery is on Sai Island.

Coincidentally, there appeared recently a post that also included the Kerma period on Sai in Julia Budka’s blog:

Little upstream from Sai the British Museum has been excavating the site of Amara since 2006 and today a book about Amara West, subtitled Living in Egyptian Nubia, was announced through Twitter that’s been sent to the printer: https://twitter.com/NealSpencer_BM/status/490144978832982016

As commented by Neal Spencer in that tweet, “Good start to weekend”!

Finally, looking towards things happening in the immediate future a venue undoubtedly stands out, a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with a Nubian focus, namely Gold and Gods; Jewels of Ancient Nubia. We will surely bring on more infos, but for the time being check the web announcement with the promise of a fine publication appearing in October:


Peace and forgiveness

Today’s entry will start again with a photo from the corner table at my office! This time a bit more populated, since on the left you see Richard Holton Pierce and on the right Inge Eliassen.


Pierce is a professor emeritus at the University of Bergen and is known for being one of the four authors of the Fontes Historiae Nubiorum. We were having our Wednesday meeting of reading Old Nubian and at its end Inge came by to discuss his contribution to the thematic issue of Dotawo on Nubian place names. Inge has just defended successfully his master thesis on Darfur (para-)militia and will be writing about place names from the western end of Sudan. Pierce is contemplating a contribution from his notes on the Beja country, the eastern end of the country. But about that in the future.

Today, a note from yesterday’s Old Nubian session: we observed a difference in the analysis of a word in the fourth line of the first page of Saint Minas’ miracle as edited by G.M. Browne (1983) and Vincent van Gerven Oei (2012). The word is:


According to Browne, the word means ‘peace’ and the explanation is based on his understanding of the passages in which the word is used and for which there are parallels in Greek and Coptic. For example:

1. John 16:33, where the word for ‘peace’ (ειρήνη in Greek) is in Old Nubian


(the ending -KA denoting the directive, the object of the verb)

2. Liber Institutionis Michaelis, IN I 11 ii 3, where the same word translates the Coptic loan-word from Greek


Browne’s etymological analysis proposes the unattested stem of the verb ΤΩΚ followed by a variant KN of the semantic morpheme KE and the abstract -substantive formant NAYE (Browne 1989, p. 10, § 3.3.2).

On the other hand Van Gerven Oei suggests an etymology from the attested verb stem TOKAP followed by NAYE, where the P is assimilated by the N (The Miracle of Saint Mina, p. 65). This explanation sounds more probable.

Nonetheless, Vincent does not seem to acknowledge (or at least this is how it appears to be in his analysis of the Minas’ text) that the Nubians used the same stem for both notions, namely forgiveness and peace, although they were using two different words for each one of them, and he translates with ‘forgiveness of God’. More precisely, the Nubian dictionary includes (OND p. 178):

forgiveness vs peace

However, this lexical custom of the Nubians is in fact an excellent insight offered into the way they understood peace, almost always linked with God, and completely absent from the documentary sources on Nubia published to date. It seems in other words that for the Christian Nubians ‘peace of God’ meant ‘forgiveness by God’. Future studies and discoveries will elucidate the matter further.

For the time being, one more comment regarding the significance of making this observation precisely yesterday, namely on the day of the third anniversary of South Sudan’s independence on the 9th of July 2011.

It is really doubtful how many people have been commemorating in festive manner the formation of the youngest state of our world since the country is in a mess: civil war, half its population fleeing from their homesteads, and famine looming… It is characteristic that South Sudan has been ranked as the most fragile state on the planet today, topping the list where Somalia has throned since 2008…

The causes of this situation are very complex but the perennial tribal clashes cannot be excused, but rather their catastrophic results must at some point and from both sides be forgiven… Therefore, I found it as an intriguing coincidence that I discussed with Pierce yesterday the meaning of the Old Nubian words for ‘peace’ and ‘forgiveness’…

the corner table

Today I am posting a photo from my office at the Institute of Archaeology, History, Cultural and Religious Studies (AHKR) at the University of Bergen.


It shows the corner where two chairs and a small table are placed so as to welcome visitors for a coffee or tea, for moments of a more relaxed reading activity, or in order to be able to temporary store things out of the way.

As it is obvious form the picture, for the time being many carton boxes have been placed there. And they have a story to tell. Because they belong to Christian Bull, a friend and colleague who just defended with excellent results his doctoral dissertation on Hermetism. Following this, he will be moving to Oslo to work with Hugo Lundhaug for the ERC-project New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt (NEWCONT) at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo. Bergen is losing one of its most brilliant and promising young scholars, and myself the best company both for reading Coptic – as we have been doing the last five years already! – and for going downtown afterwards for more ‘spirit’-ed discussions – oudjai Christian ;-)

So, it’s a honor to host Christian’s books until he finds a place to move them into at his new base.

Just as it is an honor to take up his duty the last years of teaching the introductory course in Coptic.

In order to move to more personal matters, allow me to post here the poster calling for this course, in case someone in Bergen sees it and joins from August the course to be taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 08:00 to 10:00.


This post will not be complete before I explain that the office will be mine for four years, because I was hired as a post-doctoral researcher at AHKR for a project titled “Religious Literacy in Christian Nubia” in the frame of which my first duty beside my own research will be precisely to teach Coptic.

About other interesting stuff that will be happening here and from that office in the future, well…stay tuned!


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