The title of the present entry has a heroic aura, for quite often the ancestral past is crowned in the consciousness of the future generations with the glory of a sacrifice offered in order that the land or the nation (or something of that sort) retains its traditional character, its independence, its autonomy.
The only manner in which such a sense of today’s title is meaningful for the Medieval Sai Project relates to the way the Nubians of the 21st century understand the resettlement of their ancestors due to the construction of the Aswan dams, especially the great Exodus of the 1960s in the frame of the building of the Aswan High Dam. But was this sacrifice done voluntarily or was it forced upon the ‘victims’? Although this is a rhetorical question, it is still worth exploring, like it seems to have happened in the case of a recent venue in Egypt that was advertised as a “Nubian culture exhibition bringing ancient heritage to life“.
And the reason is none other than the fact that the Nubians are asked to sacrifice again their lands, homesteads, traditions, history, memory, mentality, psychology, and physical health, for the sake of an authority for which we doubt that they would ever choose themselves freely to sacrifice anything for…
The point here is that the meaning of the sacrifice has to do more with the agent rather than with the recipient. If the agent is not venerating the recipient, if the act is not performed wholeheartedly, if this act is not ritualistically significant for the performer, then it cannot be called a sacrifice. What is a sacrifice, on the contrary, is the dedication of the Nubians to the cause of the protection of Nubia against the eminent threat of new dam buildings.
A logical sacrifice, both because it makes full sense and because it is first expressed with words of resistance.
Later on, even such a sacrifice may assume the form of action. And then, it will become greater and it can function as a paradigm for the future generations. In this scope, the ancestors who sacrifice their life in such a manner are either winners or losers. The difference is manifest in the locality where they are venerated. The winners are honored with a sanctuary in the ancestral territory; the losers at the locality where the diaspora found refuge.
That’s how we believe that the Nubians have always been winners. Because the ancestors venerated in huge prehistoric funerary monuments, the ones whose names were carved upon the rocks of important localities or on stelae made of stone of venerable purpose like the journey to the life after death, and those lying under the qubbas that flower at all spots in the Nubian Valley, they are all part of the same continuum in history and culture.
These thoughts were inspired on the one hand from the burning topics concerning Nubia and the dams that so much have preoccupied us in the last months, and on the other hand from further reading in the precious Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion edited by Timothy Insoll.
A very interesting section of that Handbook is the paragraph relating the process of Islamization in West Africa with the gradual loosening of ancestral ties (Insoll: “West African Islam and the Ancestors” in “Ancestor Cults”, pp. 1052-1053). There, it is reported that in the Gao region of eastern Mali, the urban populations and the pastoralists were those who were Islamized, while the sedentary agriculturists resisted longer since the nature of their life was more tightly knitted with indigenous traditional religion linked with ancestral cults too. Archaeology records this picture of religious traditionalism and although Insoll advices in his Conclusions (p. 1055) to avoid investing “singular ancestral interpretations” with a “universal applicability”, we believe that archaeological research in the Middle Nile Valley would produce a similar picture like that in the Gao region of Mali.
Here suffice it to say that the traces of the ancestors of the Nubians on Sai Island, sedentary agriculturalists in their vast majority, can be recognized today on the landscape mainly through the qubbas of the sheikhs still venerated in the region. Among those a primal position is held by Idriss Mahjoub at Kweka, whose qubba dates from 1252 AH (1836 CE).
In fact, none of the qubbas inspected on Sai Island during the 2009 GNM field season were reported to be older than the 18th-19th centuries. However, it is certain that at the main “urban” settlement of the island, that is around the fortress, Islamic influence was exercised since at least the Ottoman conquest of the 16th century; and that on the mainland, the main agents of Islamization were the Arabic pastoralists moving into the territories of the collapsing Makuritan kingdom, especially from the 14th century onwards.
Would that mean that the “real” ancestors of the Nubians were the “heroes” of the Christian era? It must have been the case in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 CE), but, more generally, we would rather suggest that in Nubia (like elsewhere) the ancestors are really the important figures of the region’s past assuming in the consciousness of the local community at any given time a higher status and gradually being privileged with the shifting of the character of their places of commemoration to localities of religious veneration. It should be evident that in order that this “normal” sequence continues, the relation of the communities with their natural environment should remain uninterrupted.
No doubt, if this is the case, the ancestors of the Nubians would not need to ask for more sacrifices… Just the daily one, the toil on the soil: for the Nubians maintain a cultural landscape of neat fields of beans, wheat, clover, vegetables, and, in the summer, sorghum, as well as groves of date palms. This landscape of green next to the river would disappear if the Nubians were to disappear – the green being reclaimed by the desert sand…and Nubia itself by the reservoir of more dams…
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