Athanassius Nubianus

The previous entry was concluded with an exclamation in Greek in honour of the three recently deceased figures of Sudan Studies. This exclamation was ΑΘΑΝΑΤΟΙ, reading “athanatoi”, and meaning “undying”, in the sense of “immortal” memory.

The word reminds of the Greek name ΑΘΑΝΑΣΙΟΣ (signifying the immortal spiritual creation by God, cfr. venerated in the Orthodox world in the memory of the Patriarch of Alexandria Athanassius, linked with the deeply formative Nicene and immediate post-Nicene periods.

It is today that the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the name day of Saint Athanassius along with that of Saint Cyril, another important patriarchal figure of the Alexandrian metropolis, both venerated in several areas of the Orthodox dogma.

A very interesting Syrian example can be found at:

However, neither the name Athanassius nor the name Cyril has been widely used in Nubia.

For the names used in Nubia, there appeared recently a very important list, accessible online at:

From that site we learn, that even in the richest and commonest source for names used in a given region and period of time, namely the funerary stelae, there are only nine attestations of these two names from Medieval Nubia.

Eight derive from the largest collection of funerary stelae from a single Nubian cemetery, namely Sakinya in Egyptian Nubia: there, the name Athanassius is attested five times (nos. 35, 88, 135, 153 & 178), the female equivalent Athanassia once (no. 108), while the name of Cyril appears twice (nos. 92 & 155).

Would the location of the cemetery in the far north of Nubia, in combination with the lack of other finds from further upstream in Sudanese Nubia, testify to the use of these names only in Egyptian Coptic context?

Note that among all the eight finds only one is in Greek, no. 35, and this combines Coptic elements in its formulation.

Perhaps the fact that the ninth attestation comes from the site of Qasr Ibrim, also in Egyptian Nubia and also in Coptic, strengthens the idea: it concerns another woman named Athanassia (stela no. 32, in the 2010 publication by van der Vliet and Łajtar – JJP supplement XIII).

We also learn about a sailor called Athanassius from an ostrakon found at the site of Abdel Gadir, published with thirteen other related finds by Giovanni Ruffini in the 2010 volume of the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (pp. 231-238 – the exact ostrakon is presented in p. 232 – for concluding discussion, see pp. 237-8). Athanassius was active carrying barley, possibly between the Islamic emirate of Egypt and the Makurian province of Nobadia. Was he also an Egyptian? Does the use of Greek in the short text of this ostrakon mean that he was not a member of the Coptic community?

For images of these ostraka, check:

There are actually three more attestations of the name Athanassius from Lower Nubia, but these for sure do not refer to locals. They all come from the very important site of Qasr Ibrim:

The name Athanassius is found – to our knowledge at least – three times in Qasr Ibrim:

a. In reference to a Bishop Athanassius of Qus from Upper Egypt who enthroned together with a Bishop Markos of Koptos, in Middle Egypt, Bishop Timotheos of Faras in the last quarter of the 14th century (cfr. Plumley J.M., The Scrolls of Bishop Timotheos, London 1975).

b. In the title of a liturgical manuscript identifying its content with an unknown anaphora of Saint Athanassius (cfr. Hammerstaedt J., Griechische Anaphorenfragmente aus Ägypten und Nubien, Opladen 1999, pp. 135-137).

c. And in reference to the 4th century Archbishop again, in a manuscript in Greek published by W.H.C. Frend in an article titled “Fragments of an Acta Martyrum from Qasr Ibrim”, from the Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum of 1986 (volume 29), and in pages 66-70. The martyrium concerns the very famous in both Egypt and Nubia Saint Mercurius and his slaying of the Apostate to the Christian faith Emperor Julian (361-3 CE). The text is unique in that it transposes the announcement of the saint’s apparition and heroic deed from the Cappadocian circle of Basil of Caesarea where it casually takes place, to Egypt and to the circle of Athanassius and Shenoute! Obviously these two figures were much more influential in the Nile Valley than the Cappadocians and therefore more effective into establishing firmly the cult of the saint, represented in art as a rider piercing with his lance a trodden figure.

But if Athanassius was so important in the Nile Valley, as it also seems to be the case for the Coptic church where he is still venerated on the 15th of May, why this lack of attestations from Upper Nubia and the heartlands of the Makurian kingdom?

The only attestation of the name from this stretch of the Middle Nile Valley is the very interesting identification of a possible town called after Bishop Athanassius as probably indicated by a graffito from Banganarti (for the reference, see Adam Łajtar, “Christian Sai in Written Records (Inscriptions and Manuscripts)”, JJP XXXVI (2006), p. 96 & note 21).

A characteristic indication of this paucity of indigenous Athanassian references can be considered the fact that until today there has been no published find with the actual text of either the Biblical Canon or the Creed of faith (both variably linked with Athanassius) in Old Nubian.

Nevertheless, there is one Coptic version found in the famous “Anchorite’s Grotto” at Faras, the capital of Nobadia (Griffith F.Ll., LAAA 12, 1928, pp. 84-86).

Also, there are two Greek versions of a Creed of the Christian faith, one from Jebel Adda in Nobadia, and the other from the Makurian capital at Old Dongola.

The former is under preparation by Adam Łajtar, and the other already published by him and Stefan Jakobielski (The Journal of Juristic Papyrology, vol. 27, 1997, pp. 7-26).

A fourth fragment of a “Nicene Canon”, this time in Old Nubian, was published almost a century ago (Griffith F.Ll., The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period, 1913, pp. 15-24), but the preserved text contains a very particular variant of an otherwise unknown set of canons.

Can it be that the Nicene Creed was a text that if translated into Old Nubian would not retain the authenticity and power of the original Greek version?

In any case, closing today’s entry we find it interesting to attempt another Old Nubian “exercise”

this time on the first phrase of the Nicene Creed combining the “original” version, and the two Greek ones from Nubia that contain large parts thereof:

For the completion of this entry the help of Grzegorz Ochała, Adam Łajtar, Giovanni Ruffini, and Costanza de Simone was very crucial! Thanks a lot :-)

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7 Responses to Athanassius Nubianus

  1. chirine nour says:

    exairetika ta ostraka!!! opos kai i eikona tou agiou athanasiou apo to monastiri mar musa tis syrias.

  2. ergamenis says:

    Και πώς σου φαίνεται η χρήση του ρήματος ΠΙΣΤΕΥΩ στα Παλαιά Νουβικά!;!

  3. Robin says:

    Perhaps another “Athanasius Nubianus” would be Athanasios of Clysma who lived in the 3rd century. V. Christides found in his Martyrium evidences for the possible introduction of Christianity in Nubia from the Red Sea.

    However, this text is far too elusive and has to be supported by other texts or archaeological material…

  4. ergamenis says:

    Excellent addition ( -:and thanks for the link:- ) !
    I bet there must be more, the list dressed here cannot be considered as exhaustive.
    But the references until now seem to strengthen the hypothesis of Greek overtones in Athanassius Nubianus’ character, right?

  5. Robin says:

    Absolutely !

  6. Grzegorz says:

    Late, as usual, but I finally fulfill my promise to place what I wrote you in an e-mail :)
    I have a few corrections/additions to the list of attestations of Athanasios in Nubia:
    Firstly, there are a few few more attestations of Athanasios in Nubia:
    a) for Athansios: Junker, Ermenne, no. 6; Tibiletti Bruno, no. 45 (Dakka?, in Greek);
    b) for Athansia – P. Lond. Copt. 448, Tibiletti Bruno, no. 41 (Kalabsha).
    They all seem to confirm Your hypothesis on the Lower Nubian use of both names, but I would be cautious in formulating such thoughts, as the amount of material from both Lower and Upper Nubia is incomparable, as You know :)
    The other issue concerns the Sakinya stelae; I think it would be better to refer to Mina’s edition of the material as more complete and competent, where nos. 35=135, 88=188, 108=208, 153=252, and 178=277. It is all the more important since You give references to two tombstones 108 (Athanasios) and 135 (Athanasia), which in fact, as was observed by Mina, are one and the same object (published under 208).

  7. ergamenis says:

    Thank You for the comments, additions, and corrections!
    Great that the Sai Internet space can give such opportunities for productive dialogue!
    Keep it up and better late than never ;-)

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