Contemplating Nubia from Ethiopia

Today we are proud to host a short report from an official visit to Sai Island and other Medieval Nubian sites by a delegation of French researchers studying Ethiopia and wishing to enlarge the scope of their research to Sudan too. With our declared interest for such approaches and an already established contact with the scientific consultant and guide of this visiting group, Ph.D. candidate Robin Seignobos, we are glad that this entry was made possible and we thank Éloi Ficquet, director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) and Claude Rilly, director of the French Unit for Sudan Archaeology (SFDAS) that permitted its publication in the Internet space of the Medieval Sai Project.

In February, the Sai Island received a small team of French researchers coming from Ethiopia and Paris to visit Christian archaelogical sites in the Sudan. The mission was organised as a collaboration between two French institutions: the well known « French Unit » (SFDAS) based in Khartoum National Museum, and the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) of Addis Ababa. This expedition was conceived as a first attempt by the interested French researchers to cross the intellectual and institutional boundaries between the Nubian and Ethiopian worlds. 

The team was composed of historians and art-historians: Claire Bosc-Tiesse, Marie-Laure Derat, and Emmanuel Fritsch from the CFEE, Ewa Balicka-Witakowska from Uppsala University and myself. We arrived on Sai in the evening of February 14. Florence Doyen welcomed us in the lofty dig house of the Archaeological Mission of Sai from the University Charles de Gaulles, Lille 3, where we could enjoy some rest.

Sai appeared to us as a small paradise and a wonderful place to stay, notwithstanding the evil nimitis that appeared from early morning the next day… Florence guided us nevertheless through the remains of the Pharaonic town and in the nearby Meroitic necropolis excavated by Vincent Francigny whose team had left only a few days earlier.

The following day, and after contemplating the impressive tumuli of the Kerma necropolis, we profited from the 2009 Survey made by Alexandros Tsakos and Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos to reach some of the most interesting Medieval sites discovered by the GNM on the island. We particularly enjoyed spending some time at Dibasha, exploring the site of « Saint Catherine », with its intriguing structures and the promising mounds which indicate the presence of medieval kilns.

The highlight of the visit was of course the « Cathedral » and its impressive granite columns still standing at the surface – awaiting the continuation of the archaeological investigations started by the Tsakos couple last year.

We also noticed traces of tires on the ground and understood that the protective measures at the entrances to the site did not manage yet to stop all cars from driving across the mounds…

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as long as we wanted to.  A rich program was waiting for us during the next days, so we had to leave Sai on the morning of February 16, not without some regrets… We were not able to examine closer other important sites such as the medieval port and its graffiti… We hope to see it next time or, at least, to read more about it in the next reports of the GNM.

We reached on Sai the northernmost point planned for our trip. From there we came back south along the East bank for a while in order to cross the Nile and then reach Sedeinga through the Mahas. Despite the richness of the area, famous for its numerous medieval and post-medieval sites, we didn’t have much time to stop because we had to reach the French Archaeological Mission of Sedeinga before the night… Nevertheless, just before arriving at Sedeinga, at sunset, we stopped for a moment to observe the small church of Nilwa with its characteristic reemployed pillars taken from a Pharaonic temple.


Of course, this is not the space to relate in detail the rest of our journey, which included visits to some of the most exciting Christian sites of the Sudan, like Old Dongola, Banganarti and El-Ghazali.

It is perhaps too early to know whether such an « Ethiopian » perspective as introduced by our visiting team could help understanding Medieval Nubia in general and Medieval Sai in particular, or vice versa, but we all agreed at the end of our Sudanese adventure, that mutual interest in the Nubian and the Ethiopian fields would be beneficial to all on both sides of the borders. Comprehensive studies integrating both countries are still rare, due in part to the increasing specialisation of our respective fields. But we hope this trip was only the first step towards a better recognition of the links, the mutual influences, and the parallel evolutions in both Nubian and Ethiopian cultures. 

GNM would fully agree with the concluding wish of Robin, and will be looking forward to continuing work in this direction both from here and on the field.

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