During the last week, the third visit to Bergen from members of the University of Paris I/Sorbonne took place in the frame of the mobility programme Aurora and under the title “The African Archive: its content, context, and connections”.
While the areas of specialization of the two collaborating institutions are not the same – the French side is interested in West Africa and the Horn of Africa, while in Bergen research focuses on Sudan, the Swahili coast and North Africa – the spectrum of the topics covered may be characterized as complementary and are based on the priority given to the written sources, i.e. the manuscripts in the archives on and in Africa.
Another common denominator for the cooperations taking place under the auspices of Aurora is the interest in the sources written in Arabic, a language uniting the medieval and post-medieval societies of sub-Saharan Africa that have developed Islamic traditions in religion and literacy. Bergen is a privileged place in this regard, since in our premises there have found home thousands of copies of manuscripts in Arabic, mainly from Sudan, but also from other areas of Africa, including those of interest for the French researchers.
Against this background, the last visit was of multiple importance:
1. Dr. Amélie Chekroun, historian of medieval Africa, specializing in Islam in the Horn of Africa, visited Bergen in order to examine the Somali sources that can be found here. Indeed, she discovered some rare editions and had the opportunity to discuss important aspects of her work in two occasions: first, with Sean O’Fahey who is an inexorable source of wisdom in all things regarding Islam in Africa – one needs only remember that he is the editor together with Hunswick of the Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA); and second, at the seminar of Thursday, where she presented the results of her research about the manuscript tradition of the important work Futuh al-Ḥabaša. We quote from the abstract to her article, «Manuscrits, éditions et traductions du Futūḥ al-Ḥabaša : état des lieux», Annales Islamologiques, n°46 (2012):
The Futuh al-Ḥabaša is the narrative into Arabic of the ǧihād led by the imām Aḥmad against the Ethiopian Christian kingdom during the first half of the sixteenth century. This is one of the most important sources for the understanding of this period in the history of Ethiopia, but it has so far been relatively little studied compared to sources issued from the Christian territories of this same region. In order to consider a thorough study of this text, this article lists all of its witnesses – manuscripts conserved and currently cataloged in the libraries of Europe, Ethiopia, the United States and the Arab world as well as sources mentioning copies now disappeared. Finally, this article comments on the various editions and translations of Futūḥ al Ḥabaša which were conducted as well in French and English as in Arabic, Amharic, Harari and Somali.
Since 2012, when Amélie’s study was published, she discovered a couple more manuscripts of this work. It is an honor for us that she wished to present through our blog the first version of the updated list of attestations of the Futuh al-Ḥabaša:
- 2 in Ethiopia:
- A photocopy of an unidentified manuscript in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (Addis Abeba)
- Fragments of a manuscript in the Muslim kingdom of Gomma
- 2 in Saudi Arabia (Library of the university of Riyad):
- One copied in 1812-1813
- Yet unidentified
- 2 in Algeria (National Library):
- - One from the 17th century, found in Harar in 1882;
- - One copied in Alger in 1883
- 3 in France (National Library):
- - One from the 18th century found in Sawa in 19th century
- - One copied in 1779
- - One copied in 1892, collected in Sawa in 19th century
- 1 in England (British Library): 19th century, found in Harar in 1881
- 1 in USA (Beinecke Library, Yale): 19th century, found before 1900
2. Robin Seignobos – known to the readers of our blog from HERE – is the leading scholar in studies about the Arabic sources on medieval Nubia. His achievements have already before the completion of his thesis guaranteed for him a place of pride in the history of Nubian Studies, since in the coming 13th International Conference of Nubian Studies at Neuchâtel he will be delivering one of the papers of the plenary session becoming thus the youngest person to undertake such an honorable and challenging task.
In the seminar of Thursday, Robin presented a case study from the topic he will be treating in Neuchâtel, namely “The Contribution of Mamluk sources to the historical geography of Medieval Nubia. The list of sultan Baybars’ conquests according to Ibn Šaddād (d. 1285)”. The importance of this work for Bergen and Nubian Studies is twofold:
a. The corpus of “Oriental Sources concerning Nubia” compiled in 1975 by the late Fr. Giovanni Vantini remains until today the main reference for any work about Christian Nubia using material from external sources. Robin has showed in various occasions how much our knowledge is impeded by the lack of at least an updated version of Vantini’s work, if not a completely new edition. On Thursday’s seminar he illustrated the point most eloquently, since he presented a list of Mamluk historical sources (chronicles, annals etc.), where only 13 out of 45 were used by Vantini! Of course one should take into account the fact that these sources were unknown or unpublished at the time that Vantini prepared the Oriental Sources. But the point remains that one should proceed to a new corpus of external sources about Christian Nubia and undoubtedly the Arabic writers will constitute the majority of the works used for such a corpus.
So, after I started working with the archive of Sean O’Fahey, I realized the potential that exists in a place like Bergen and in the course of several personal communications, Robin and myself started sharing the dream of compiling the continuation of the Fontes Historiae Nubiorum as it was edited in Bergen by Eide, Hägg, Pierce and Török. Actually, Richard Holton Pierce was present at our seminar on Thursday and informed us that Vantini was invited by their group to republish the Oriental Sources as a continuation of the Fontes volumes, but unfortunately death found him while the discussions were ongoing. Perhaps the time is more ripe now?
b. We are already testing with Robin the dynamics of a future collaboration with the concrete task of editing one of the future thematic volumes of the journal Dotawo, about which we wrote in the previous entry. The theme of the volume we will edit is “Nubian place names” and I will conclude the present entry with the call for papers as it was distributed among the participants of the seminar whom I thank for very interesting discussions.
May we see indeed in a couple of years back to this meeting as the aurora of a new era in Nubian and Sudan Studies at the University of Bergen!