An unexpected honor…

We tend to be quite alert to glean from the Internet things referring to Nubia and Sudan, Sai Island, our projects. But it seems that some things always escape our attention, even if the agents of the things we’d like to report about are friends and colleagues and could have informed us themselves. This is the case of a book edited by Alex de Voogt and Joachim Friedrich Quack that came out in Brill in 2012 and about which only now we got to know about thanks to Robin Seignobos…

The publication by Brill is titles “The Idea of Writing” and it is described by the publishers as:

an exploration of the versatility of writing systems. This volume, the second in a series, is specifically concerned with the problems and possibilities of adapting a writing system to another language. Writing is studied as it is used across linguistic and cultural borders from ancient Egyptian, Cuneiform and Korean writing to Japanese, Kharosthi and Near Eastern scripts. This collection of articles aims to highlight the complexity of writing systems rather than to provide a first introduction. The different academic traditions in which these writing systems have been studied use linguistic, socio-historical and philological approaches that give complementary insights of the complex phenomena.

The topic could have been of interest per se for Alexandros. But the interest becomes more profound for our blog when one looks closer to the contents of the edited volume: the second contribution after the introduction is an article by Alex de Voogt and Hans-Jörg Döhla titled: “Nubian Graffiti Messages and the History of Writing in the Sudanese Nile Basin“.

The case study of this paper is the result from fieldwork that Alex conducted on Sai in winter 2010 about the use of Arabic script to write the Nubian language on the island and in the surrounding areas. This custom concerns mainly popular expressions written on the pick-ups, which is the type of car the majority of the locals who can own a vehicle would have, as well as slogans against the dams, a sample of photos of which have also appeared in this blog.

De Voogt and Döhla show the advantages of using Arabic to express the threatened Nubian language, both on the linguistic and on the social level and illustrate their arguments with four colour photos, the last of which is the trilingual sign (in English, Arabic, and Nubian) the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission put up on the entrance of the archaeological site of the so-called Cathedral of Sai!

The purpose of course of putting up this sign using the Nubian language in both the Arabic and the Old Nubian scripts was to remind the two main alternatives that exist for the Nubians, before they forget completely their language or just decide to continue not writing it at all (the other two options proposed by De Voogt and Döhla). And when GNM decided to act so, we hoped that this would function as a reminder of a past from which one need not retain the religious appurtenance, but from which one can draw pride for the traditional life of the present as well as hopes for better conditions in the future – but conditions offered through humane development…

The authors decided not to talk more about our sign – or about the vivid discussions between Alex and Alexandros on Sai Island in 2010 that animated the afternoons at the dig house after lunches and dinners!

But he honored us with putting a drawing of the sign as the front cover of the book and we thank him for this!

the idea of writing

My first visit to Sudan was in 1994. Right before Christmas. Absolutely excited for coming to the capital of the two Niles, I was ready – in the degree that technology, budget and experience permitted – to shoot some of the most spectacular photos of my life until then. To be honest, it wouldn’t have been such a difficult task ;-) But in those days, even small analog cameras were not well-seen by the locals. In the middle of Jamhuriya street, me and my friends were approached by a man accusing us of being spies because we turned our cameras towards some top secret corner of the Sudanese capital… It was in vain that we tried to explain that no photo was shot and that he could burn the film if he wished. His accusations turned into loud cries and more and more people gathered around us. We moved back into the car and drove in escort to the nearest police station, only to be saved from … really what could have happened? Yes… In any case, we were saved by the Greek family hosting us who were experienced in the networks of bribe and paradoxes that ruled Sudan then…

Many years passed, the same people are in power, I had become a permanent resident of Sudan, I was running “Ergamenis”, the Greek Cultural Center in Khartoum, and Yannis Skoulas was in Khartoum preparing his exhibition “Ancient Landscapes” to be hosted in late May 2005 at Ergamenis’ premises. We spent quite some afternoons wandering in downtown Khartoum; walking, talking, and making photos. Eventually, some (secret?) policeman (?) stopped us and asked us what we are doing. I tried to explain kindly, he thought I was arrogant and called me names, so, I mentioned names that I could ring on the spot. The discussion ended with him asking what time is the official opening of Yannis’ exhibition…

Two years ago, I found myself in a spot in Khartoum with an excellent view on the post office of the town. I attempted some photos but then I realized that the guards around saw me and started waving, making phone calls and worrying. You see, the post office is next to the palace (of the Republic that is). Was worried for some minutes. Then I calmed down. Twenty years had passed since the first incident and the mentalities had changed. Almost every Sudanese owns a mobile that can make pictures; I know many Sudanese that have good cameras and use them well; the Sudanese know the power of photography in capturing beauty, attracting tourists, persuading investors…

In fact, the history of photography in Sudan is old. The traditions are strong. The art is thriving. And it only needed the vibrant spirit of someone like Frédérique Cifuentes Morgan to have the first Sudan International Photography Symposium organized in the Sudanese capital to present the history, exhibit the current tendencies, discuss the future.


Poster SIPS

As I write these lines, the opening party of the six-days’ event must be well advanced. The program is rich already from tomorrow. You can see it complete here: SIPS_Catalogue

And we are looking forward to hosting some comments from organizers and participants – insha Allah…

The title of today’s entry describes quite accurately the purpose of my visit to Berlin during this week. I would be having meetings with Claudia Näser, the supervisor of my thesis at the Institute for the study of the Archaeology and Cultural History of Northeast Africa (AKNOA). The institute has left its old premises at Hausvogteiplatz and has just moved into the western wing of the central building of Humboldt University. While the employees are still unpacking their stuff and getting settled in the new offices, some replicas of ancient monuments have found their place on the walls and are welcoming impressively the visitor.

new aknoa old meroë

I also visited the old premises of AKNOA, though, since Claudia is running from there her projects in the frame of the Qatar Sudan Archaeological Project at Musawwarat es Sufra and Mograt Island. She is also active with the study and preparation for publication of the results from the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition in the frame of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project, during which a team from Berlin discovered the magnificent cachet of 140 manuscript fragments on parchment and leather in a room behind the apse of the church on the island of Sur in the Fourth Cataract region. The excavations took place in 2007 under the direction of Daniella Billig who is working on her thesis at Humboldt University and who unearthed this important collection of manuscripts adding substantially to our knowledge of literacy in Christian Nubia. For my thesis I studied the Greek manuscripts on parchment, but since then I was also given the honorable responsibility of studying and publishing the manuscripts on leather that were written in Old Nubian. A first combined presentation of the results of my thesis and the first tackling of the Old Nubian manuscripts was my contribution to the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies that took place in the beginning of the month in Neuchâtel. Now, the time had come to travel to Berlin and discuss with Claudia the future actions to be taken for this study to be accelerated and arrive in due time to the printers’ house.

My main task therefore was to inspect from closer the manuscripts on leather kept at the Conservation department for Papyrus and Parchment of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The head conservator there, Myriam Krutzsch, has been a key person for my understanding of the materiality of these manuscripts and it was at her lab that I spent most of my time. The object that attracted a lot of our attention this time was the leather manuscript coded SR022.A/388, which for codicological reasons may give evidence for the latest phases of Nubian literacy. The object has been conserved by Sophie Geiseler in 2010, but now it was Myriam who set it free from its box so as to be studied closer.

myriam in action

The next step involved its photographing, because it proves constantly that well-taken photographs manipulated professionally with photoshop, offer optimal potential for reading, transcribing, and understanding of a given text. This task was undertaken by Andreas Paasch (working mainly with the photographic documentation of finds from Elephantine) who kindly spent some hours working on all the leather manuscripts from Sur that were worth his efforts.

andreas in action

The outcome of Andreas’ excellent work left me staring at the letters that almost magically appeared on the screen after the raw format image file had been transformed into a black and white tiff file without the noise of the colours that shadowed the surface and did not allow me before to read but a couple of letters.

My reading will be presented in due time together with the rest of the new finds.

But at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, one does not only go to study new finds.

The collection hides unexpected treasures, and one of them was discovered by Myriam Krutzsch. Prof. Dr. Verena Lepper, Curator for Egyptian and Oriental Papyri at the museum, was kind enough to receive me and accept my request to study from closer some unknown manuscripts from Nubia. Although Myriam and I still try to find out more about the provenance of the most intriguing object – since we only know that it was purchased in the early 20th century from Egyptian Nubia – we decided it’s worth having it photographed by Andreas so as to be ready to decipher it when some pieces of the puzzle of the Berlin collection have fallen in place…

an unknown manuscript from nubia

I think this picture is a fine way to conclude this entry leaving open the door for a return to Berlin and the excellent atmosphere of collaboration I found there.

Packing up for Berlin…

The last days we had collected a couple of interesting links to share from here and the last addition to our list was a fine coincidence since it concerns two links from the webpage of the State Library in Berlin, where Alexandros will be traveling tomorrow.

The first couple of links regarded papers by colleagues working on the Meroitic period on Sai Island, but on topics that could very well be useful for the medieval centuries too:

1. “The textiles from the Meoritic necropoleis on Sai” (In French) by Elsa Yvanez.

2. “Intra- and inter-individual variation in δ 13 C and δ 1N in human dental calculus and comparison to bone collagen and apatite isotopes” by Vincent Francigny, Alex de Voogt, Jelmer Eerkens, Tosha Dupras, Samuel Rose, and Eric Bartelink.

Especially the latter discusses “the suitability of dental calculus for paleodietary reconstruction using stable isotope analysis” (quote from Abstract of the paper) and opens the path for similar research for later periods too.

Alex de Voogt’s work on game-boards has recently been hosted in Antiquity. While for fieldwork in Sudan, he investigated “Mancala at the pyramids of Meroe“, and not only he managed to add the game dimension to the most visited archaeological site of Sudan, but he also pinpointed the specific group of individuals who introduced this board-game on the landscape of the ancient stonework of the Meroitic capital. An academic paper that even makes fine reading! Thanks Alex!

And then, there came the news from Robin Seignobos about two Old Nubian manuscripts having become available online through the Berlin Staatsbibliothek: the Stavros Text and the so-called Griffith’s Lectionary! These are just two of the Nubian treasures in Berlin. Some more published will surely come online in due time, and as for the unpublished … well, more in the next entry…



The 13th Conference for Nubian Studies has come to an end, but activities related to Nubian and Sudan Studies are still taking place and will attract our attention either through the Internet or in real life.

To start with, already tomorrow the Annual Symposium and AGM of the Sudan Studies Association of the United Kingdom will take place in London.

SSSUK Annual Symposium 2014

From the program we glean the talk by Gerasimos Makris and the film by Frédérique Cifuentes Morgan.


The work of Frédérique has already been presented here and will be again hosted at our blog very soon, while it is Alexandros’ wish that the Greek professor of Social Anthropology will visit Bergen for some seminar in the near future.

For the time being, another Greek professor is visiting us at the University of Bergen, in the frame of a collaboration with Eivind Seland who is leading the NERON (Networks in the Roman East) project, namely Vassilios Christides, President of the Institute for Greco-Oriental and African Studies (IGOAS) and editor of the journal Graeco-Arabica where important Nubiological contributions have been published in the past. In the frame of this visit, Eivind has organized a seminar titled Networks and Interaction in the Red Sea.

At least two presentations will be directly concerned with the Sudanese Red Sea or Nile cultures linked with the littoral:

1. Randi Haaland’s paper on the Meroitic Empire’s cultural influences and trade in an Indian Ocean perspective.

2. Alexandros’ talk on the relations between Christian Nubia and the Red Sea.

This will be the last activity in Bergen before the next trip abroad, this time to Berlin for the study of the leather manuscripts and book binding material from Sur. Some posts from that trip will surely come out so stay tuned!

On the return it would have been nice if one could stop in London on the 29th of September and follow the AGM of SARS and the Kirwan Memorial Lecture, this year delivered by Janice Yellin on Offerings for Eternity: Decoding the Language of Religious Art from the Royal Pyramids at Meroe and Elite Burials in Meroitic Nubia. However, this is impossible due to the duties at our base.

In compensation for not being able to report on Elite Meroitic Burials, at least we can offer hereby a link to an online paper by Michael Brass on Meroitic burials from Jebel Moya ( http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10437-014-9164-5 ) with some very interesting theoretical perspectives.

Different sort of perspectives on Nubia and Sudan were seen by our dear friend Dobrochna Zielinska in her trip from Switzerland to Italy. She wished to share them in our blog and we thank her for her new contribution! An excellent way to conclude this entry and wish you all a great weekend!

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Neuchâtel – day 6

The last day of the conference was shorter than usual, but our departure for a break from academic duties and a bit of leisure with good friends at Reichenau did not permit us either to follow the entire morning session or to compose this last entry on the Neuchâtel conference before tonight. Nevertheless, what we heard on Saturday morning was very interesting because it consisted of two presentations discussing the topic of salvage archaeology in general and in Sudan more particularly. The first talk was by Jean-Paul Demoule, who leads the National (French) Institution for Research relating to Salvage Archaeology (free translation of the French title: Institut National de Recherches archéologiques préventives, better known as INRAP) and who had some very useful input to offer from his experience from France and from a more European perspective of dealing with salvage archaeology. The director general of NCAM, Dr. Abdelrahman Ali, had the more difficult task of describing the situation in Sudan in view of the plans of further dam constructions at Dal, at Kajbar, in the Fifth Cataract, at the Upper Atbara, at Roseires.

Abdelrahman Ali

And his task was difficult for several reasons among which we retain:

1. the presence of people from the local communities to be affected from the dams.

2. the fact that irrespectively of his academic opinion, his position would not allow him to criticize the sociopolitical dimensions of the dams.

3. the comparison with the other half of the archaeological present and future in Sudan, namely the Qatar Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP).

During the discussion following Abdelrahman’s presentation, our host at Neuchâtel, professor Matthieu Honegger, very correctly remarked that he sees a huge contrast between on the one hand the issue with the dams and the risk that they entail for both the Nubian cultural heritage and the future of Nubia itself; and on the other hand the prospects for the archaeology of Nubia offered by QSAP. And it is true that QSAP offers very big money for important issues in Sudan Archaeology, like the protection of the sites, their preparation for visitors, and their general promotion, for example by supporting the publication of some fine site guides – from which we managed to get hold only of the one about the site of the Royal City of Meroë.

Meroë Royal City guide

Another opinion expressed during the discussion that ensued Abdelrahman’s talk was that of Dietrich Wildung. He advised optimism for the future of archaeology in Sudan and Nubian Studies more generally, thanks to the new era opening with the QSAP, and despite the hidden or more obvious agendas that surely exist behind such gigantic investments. We’d surely vote for such optimism, refraining from further critic of the political dimension of QSAP until at least things prove differently than what everyone hopes for.

And we will be looking forward to hearing more in four years at the 14th International Conference for Nubian Studies to be held at Paris, where the host will be Vincent Rondot, at the end of his second period as President of the ISNS.

In the meantime, a big MERCI to Matthieu Honegger and his assistants who should be enjoying some rest after so much hard work to make the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies so successful.

the hosts at neuchatel

For this photo, we thank our dear friend Dobrochna Zielinska.

Neuchâtel – day 5

As I write these lines, friends and colleagues are enjoying their last evening in the frame of the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies, on a boat on Lake Neuchâtel. Traveling to a conference with small children has the disadvantage that evening venues are difficult to follow, but of course children offer the priceless luxury of cozy moments that facilitate tackling the hectic rhythms of a conference – or for everyday life if such a mention is at place here! On the other hand, having to be back at the family base in the evening offers extra time for completing other tasks and, in my case at least, for blogging. And every single day here at Neuchâtel offers more than enough material to write about.

Just think that this morning started with the presentation by Robin Seignobos Rereading the Oriental Sources: Mamluk sources and the History of Late Medieval Nubia that surely it will be remembered as one of the most important contributions during the Neuchâtel conference.


For Robin demonstrated in just half an hour and by using just a couple of passages from a couple of the sources from one period of Arabic historiography that he is examining the vast potential that the revisiting of the corpus of Arabic Sources concerning Nubia has. I feel extremely privileges to be in close collaboration with Robin and I cannot wait to visit him in Paris in December and investigate common topics of interest.

One of these might be linked with the famous story of the kingdom of Al Abwab, and the places where the Makuritan kings were seeking refugee upstream from Dongola. About the localization of the former Robin was asked after his talk by professor Godlewski. And a probable identification of the latter which was one of the hot spots of the second presentation of the day, the paper of Bogdan Zurawski on Nubian Fortifications in the Middle Ages read by Mariusz Drzewiecki, specialist of fortifications.


The overview of the related sites might not have been exhaustive (the medieval period of the fortress on Sai was not mentioned for example), and some of the sites included might not have been fortifications but rather enclosures (as rightly pointed out by Angelika Lohwasser of Münster University who works at the Wadi Abu Dom and had to tackle precisely such enclosed areas that were considered as fortifications but her team’s studies show that they were not), but it surely offered to the audience a most illuminating insight into functions and dates of these structures. The fortresses were set in their historical context, both that of the Late Antique world bringing in confrontation (?) the decaying Meroitic Empire and the rising star of the Christian Kingdom of Dongola; and that of Late Christian Nubia with the above mentioned suggestion that Al Abwab was in the island region of the Fifth Cataract, with the kings of Dongola fleeing to Mograt Island. Very good analysis indeed – but was the target of the fleeing king always the same?

Irrespectively of the target, the base from where they fled was always the same: Old Dongola. The capital of the capitals in the Sudanese past and the oldest archaeological concession in the country, as the chairman, Derek Welsby, informed the audience introducing Wlodzimierz (Wlodek) Godlewski, the third speaker of the plenary session.


The professor of Warsaw University spoke about a topic that few people in the world can have such a complete overview of: The Makurian Church and its Sacral Architecture. If there are any faults in his reconstruction of the history of Makuria on the basis of his interpretations of the architectural marvels that are constantly unearthed at Old Dongola, these are very difficult to pinpoint at such gatherings and with the few moments available for reaction from the moment of the phrasing of an interpretation by the speaker until one can formulate a complete argument. So, those of us who expected to hear him suggesting the organization of a new venue to discuss more closely Christian Nubian topics – as he had promised on Wednesday during the talk with professor Ali Osman – will have to wait for the closing session tomorrow morning when the General Meeting of the ISNS makes it more appropriate to share such ideas or even plans. Nevertheless, there were several questions addressed to professor Godlewski from the audience and it is noteworthy that most concerned the continuity between the medieval and the post-medieval centuries, the Christian and the Islamic eras if you prefer. It seems that this is a topic occupying the mind of lots of our colleagues, surely many Sudanese, and as we’ve showed with various entries from here, also the Medieval Sai Project.

By the end of the discussion, everybody was well-prepared to hear Intissar Soghayroun el-Zein’s paper on Islam in the Sudan, between History & Archaeology, which was mainly an overview of the various types of sites, objects, problems and goals that concern Islamic Archaeology in Sudan.


Her call for more collaboration between specialists of the medieval and post-medieval cultures found me ready to propose to examine closer the possible continuities in traditions of decoration upon book covers/cases, as those that Intissar showed in her presentation and could be reminiscent of medieval specimens.

The afternoon sessions were shorter but some real jewels were still awaiting us today too.

In Session 6, dedicated to Cultural Heritage, Rachael Dann, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, offered an unprecedented to our knowledge presentation for Nubiological Conferences, titled Art, Archaeology and Sensory Knowledge at El Kurru: An Experiment. It is very difficult to describe the meeting of art and science in the experiments she is conducting in the frame of Geoff Emberling’s project at El Kurru, and the reason is not the simple fact that she has invited artists to the fieldwork site in order to comment with their art upon the object of archaeology (literally and metaphorically), but that her presentation itself was a combination of art and science, leaving her audience wondering whether they were called to ascribe to a paradigm-shift, like Yannis Hamilakis suggests in his new book Archaeology and the Senses. She confirmed that the point is not to change the methods of planning fieldwork or the technique of digging, but rather to introduce sensory aspects in our understanding of the objects of our research. Inviting artists then to comment upon the archaeologist’s work, why not. Using new technologies in photography and 3D reconstructions to test the various “angles of the experience” of the archaeological objects themselves, yes. Being ourselves ready to use our senses (and sentiments, then?) to enlarge our apprehension of our discipline, though. Bring it on! Time for debates outside the box!

Luckily, the person who took over the podium afterwards was Friederike Jesse. With her calmness and clarity she brought the audience back to the normal sphere of everyday work by presenting the African Archaeology Archive of Cologne. The link to the webpage is HERE and it is undoubtedly worth exploring for its contents, but also for its potential to serve archival as well as dissemination needs for all African Archaeologists. It is an excellent initiative to make available so much data online and the example should be applied in other disciplines too.

Imagine the work of Joanna Then-Obluska for example. She has been traveling around the world to collect her immense data base of beads from ancient and medieval Sudan and she could have been helped extensively if she could find at least good part of her material in such (an) online archive(s). The time spent for data collection would have been reduced and we would have profited of more of the insightful analyses that Joanna offers us when she speaks or writes about “her” beads!

The last presentation that we followed had a surprise for us, because Michael Zach’s Early Photography and the Ancient Monuments of the Sudan not only was a very informative paper about the earliest photographers (before 1880) reaching upstream from the First Cataract, but also included a couple of photos from a place very well known to us and our readers. And so, a most picturesque manner for closing tonight’s report from Neuchâtel…

Zach & Sai


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