It’s been quite some time since we last made an entry to our blog, but things have not been stagnant at all, neither at our base in Bergen nor back in Sudan. So, apart from the various festivities for the Eid al-Adha ( ! كل سنة و انتو طيبين ! ) last week, two events related to our Medieval Sai project took place:

The first concerned the moving of some of our French colleagues on Sai, Vincent and Romain, to their excavations at Sedeinga, on the western bank of the Nile and close to ‘our’ island. Their research focuses on the Meroitic period, during which Sedeinga seems to have been the most important centre of the Abri-Delgo region, where Sai is included. At the end of this period and from the beginning of the Christian era it seems that Sai became the centre of this region.

We hope that their research will also shed further light on the issues of the transfer of the centre of authority in the Abri-Delgo Reach from Sedeinga to Sai, and we wish them the best for their autumn 2009 season. Furthermore, we want to thank Vincent for supporting in Khartoum our administrative efforts from Norway (!), and Romain for the sending of the following photo, reminding us in a most artistic way the pleasant hardships of archaeology on Sai in winter 2009…

The second instance concerned events that took place exactly one week ago, at the University of Bergen: Friday the 27th of November, the annual Christmas seminary of the Ph.D. students doing research on topics linked with Middle East and Africa, was again organized. During the presentation of Alexandros’ views on the Christianization of Nubia, the idea was contextualized that the various fortresses of the Middle Nile Valley (especially the ones recently relocated and studied in the Fourth Cataract region) not only belong to the period of Christianization (to which they are dated by the scholars who investigated them), but that they are also closely linked to the formation of a Christian Nubian society in this region as well.

Detail from the fortress at Dar el Arab in the Fourth Cataract region

This can be explained on the basis of the reference in the Annals of the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria to the King of Makuria, Merkurius, ruling during the turn from the Seventh to the Eighth centuries CE as the New Constantine. Many have suggested that this might indicate his zeal to Christianize the last pagan milieus in the territory ruled from Dongola. The Fourth Cataract region was difficult to access, and thus both pagan communities and pagan traditions probably persisted for a longer period. Therefore, the Dongolese authority might have needed military means, like precisely the aforementioned series of castles, to integrate this peripheral stretch of the Middle Nile into its territory.

How does this image apply to the region of Sai?

Well, the famous Qalat Sai in the Pharaonic town seems to have been built during the medieval period indeed. This is at least one of the opinions expressed by its earlier excavators, based on the fortress’ layout as it has come down to our times. However, it must be considered rather improbable that this fortress was constructed for the consolidation of a new Christian and Makuritan state formation. Firstly, because in the Christianization period the island seems to have rather belonged to the kingdom of Nobadia, which was Christianized through its perennial contacts with the Greco-Roman and Byzantine world and not through the activities of the kings of Old Dongola as it seems to be the case for the regions upstream from the Makuritan capital. And secondly, because there is no other fortress located on Sai, serving such a purpose of territorial control over its large surface, while on Mograt, the largest island of the Nile in the heart of the stretch of the castles of the Fourth and Fifth Cataracts, there are at least three fortresses of the Medieval period overseeing its most strategic points.

The fortress of Karmel on Mograt

However, this winter we visited at the village of Koueka on the eastern bank of the Nile, opposite the important Medieval site of Dibasha on Sai, a fortress that lies in ruins next to the old road leading from Khartoum to Abri and Wadi Halfa. Its construction fits with a Medieval or post-Medieval date, and its location may question the degree of control that the ruling authorities of Makuria had over this land during the period of its use.

Archaeological research can shed more light on the matter as well as help us to understand the diversity of peoples and cultures in this most dynamic landscape.

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