More on links between Nubia and Ethiopia

One of the friends that reported on the state of the Cathedral site on Sai, after his visit to Sudan this winter, said to us that he used the map of the survey conducted by GNM and published in Beiträge zur Sudanforschung in 2009 as a guide through the island. It is indeed true that a good guide is half the success for a trip that is not a mere contemplation of the environment, but wants rather to understand the cultural background of the localities and peoples visited.

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The contemplative, mental trips that we undertake through the Medieval Sai Project Internet space concern lately the commonness of world experience between Sudan and Ethiopia as well as the ground realities of the archaeological past on Sai. Who could be a guide for such a trip?

After presenting The Ancient Churches of Ethiopia by Phillipson, we had to read again the ‘provocative’ paper by Bogdan Zurawski on some affinities between Nubia and Ethiopia in Christian times (in P.B. Henze, Aspects of Ethiopian Art, London 1993: 33-41). We consider it a fine starting point for related research, a fine guide on links between Ethiopia and Sudan as parts of a common African background, and as seen from Medieval Sai.

Two of the affinities that Bogdan presents will be referred to here:

The fist is the “practice of burial in earthenware containers. Bodies of newborns and children were put into jars and buried near the main entrance to the dwelling. It is characteristic that in both Nubia and Ethiopia it was a custom to bury newborns and children in monasteries, which reflects to some extent the ancient Near Eastern custom of burying newborn children in temple precincts.” (Zurawski 1993: 37).

The pot burials next to the Meroitic cemetery that we presented in the last entry might thus be linked not only with a memory of powerful ancestors buried in the most probably still visible pyramids that the team of Vincent Francigny is uncovering, but also with the presence of important contemporaneous activity in the neighboring fortress of Sai Island. Was the reason the proximity to dwellings or to a Christian temple, be this church or monastery?

The nature and role of Qalat Sai in Medieval times is hard to grasp yet, but all options are possible: there are sure traces of dwellings both inside the later Ottoman fortress, and outside over the old Pharaonic city excavated by the team of Florence Doyen; it is highly probable that there was an important ecclesiastic building where the mosque was later built inside the fortress, although the attribution of a monastic character to the space has no grounds yet. Perhaps the future will reveal more on this interesting topic.

Later on in his paper, Bogdan discusses briefly the prohibitions and contempt linked to specific occupations in Africa: “the taboo on blacksmiths and potters, so perceptible in Ethiopian folk culture, has existed in post-medieval and modern Sudan. Pottery-making in the Mahas region even today is almost exclusively in the hands of ‘stangers’, and the same is true of blacksmithing, which in the Nile Valley has usually been done by Haleb and other groups of ‘strangers’. (Zurawski ibid.: 38).

We referred to such prohibitions in one of our first entries, dealing with the Potter of Abri, who belongs to the second generation practicing the craft. Our cooperation with professor Randi Haaland could provide endless lists of examples and nuances on the topic, but we leave these for a future entry.

Here, we rather want to refer again to the amazing discovery of the ceramic production center at the site of the plateau at Dibasha, almost at the southern end of the island and surely far away from the centers of authority on Medieval Sai, around the fortress and the site with the granite columns.

Upon discovery, we considered it natural that the site was chosen because the prevailing north winds would not disturb the main habitations of the island. We also thought that the existence of useful material in the ground of the Dibasha plateau helped the practicality of providing raw material for the works conducted there. Can it be that this geographical alienation of the locality had also to do with a social discrimination of the workers at that place?

We are not in the position to reply definitely about any of these questions raised. But we hope that Sai Island will be given many more years of life, granted that the Sudanese government stops the dams planned in the region, as well as elsewhere along the Nile. Dam building is the last of the similarities that exist between Sudan and Ethiopia that we wish to have always to comment upon…

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