Nubian Studies at the 22nd International Congress of Byzantine Studies

In the beginning of the previous entry, the return of Henriette to Bergen brought along the news discussed there.

In the week that passed, Alexandros had remained in the European South, more precisely in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he attended the 22nd International Congress on Byzantine Studies.

The plans for attending and contributing in this Congress had lasted long, since they involved the bringing forward to the Byzantinological milieus, in cooperation with Dobrochna Zielinska (the dear friend connected through long lasting cooperation), the latest discoveries from Nubia, an Outpost of Byzantine Cultural Influence, as was titled the revised paper of W.H.C. Frend (published in the 29th volume of Byzantino-Slavica 29, 1968: 319-326) based on a communication read to the XIII International Congress of Byzantine Studies at Oxford, September 1966. This was until recently one of the very few occasions when Nubia was remembered and presented in the frame of Byzantine Studies conferences.

Nevertheless, in Sofia, it was not only Alexandros and Dobrochna who contributed with Nubian topics (“A Contribution to Patristic Studies from the backstage of the Medieval Nubian world” and “Aspects of the Iconography of wall-paintings in Nubia as a New Perspective for Byzantine Studies”, respectively, as well as a poster presentation on “Five years of working on the Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia”).

It was also Magda Laptas from Warsaw who presented another interesting case study from Nubian iconography (“Mythological motifs in Nubian art”), while Eirini Panou, a Greek scholar based in England (University of Birmingham), used the famous St. Anna mural from the Faras Cathedral as the starting point to discuss the interesting topic of “The gesture of silence from ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe”.

The presence of these free communications among the incredibly long list of contributions to the Sofia Congress – which in fact hosted more than 1100 participants! – may be partly explained by the title given to the 22nd Byzantinological Congress: “Byzantium without Borders”. Under this scope, papers concerning regions like Ethiopia (“Byzantine Influence on Ethiopian monasticism – some reflections”, by Václav Jezek) or India (“Byzantium at the edges of the world: early Byzantine coins in India and beyond as indicators of political and economic influence and the construction of boundaries of perception”, by Rebecca Day) found a rightful place and discussed indeed Byzantium beyond the conventional geographical and conceptual frontiers of Byzantine Studies.

At the same time, however, regions like the Syro-Palestinian coast or Egypt were surely misrepresented. If we leave aside the particular case of Sinai, which was the topic of one plenary session and of a round-table session, as well as the focus of a couple of free communications), there were only five papers linked with Byzantine and/or Coptic Egypt: one by Szymon Maslak (an archaeologist with experience from Sudan too) on the “Topography of Pelusium in the Byzantine period (4th-7th century AD)”; one by Dr. Dorota Dzierzbicka on “Wine in Later Antique and Byzantine Egypt. Import and local production”; one by Michael Decker, “Wine Production and Trade in Byzantine Egypt” (never presented since he did not come to Sofia); one by Anton Voytenko, “The image of Constantine the Great and an Early Byzantine History Version in the Coptic Life of Eudoxia”; and one by Julien Auber de Lapierre, “La diffusion de l’iconographie chrétienne dans l’Égypte ottomane – le travail de Yuhanna al-Armani”, they remained a very little percentage, especially in comparison with the stress given to studies concerning the Balkan peninsula.

Perhaps this insistence can be explained by the wish to stress the Byzantine heritage in the modern Bulgarian national state, a wish that was exemplified by the reception given on the opening day of the Congress by the President of Bulgaria himself; but also by the large number of exhibitions displaying this familiarity between the Bulgarian past and Byzantium and the free access granted to all monuments in the Bulgarian capital for the participants of the Congress.

And it might also be a matter of a more general wish by the Slavic states to appropriate Byzantine Studies, at least as administered and serviced by the International Society. Therefore, it is with great interest that we await the next Congress in 2016, decided to take place in Beograd. Especially given the obvious enlargement of the scope of studies both among Byzantinologists and among Nubiologists that bring the two disciplines closer, there is a clear wish and hope that Nubian Studies will be granted the space and time of a round-table panel in Beograd, in equal balance to the other end of the Byzantine medieval world that is Scandinavia and the Viking world that was granted one in Sofia – along a couple of related free communications.

On the other end of the reality of the conference, however, there is the reality of Byzantium for the average Bulgarian citizen. How to estimate this during a week full of academic venues and private meetings with academics from all over the world?

If such an attempt wishes to achieve an image counter-balancing the “official” one projected by the organizers of the Conference, then our experience from Sofia offered the following two insights:

  1. Speaking with the owner of the hostel where we stayed, I asked him about the importance of Byzantium for Bulgarians. “It is part of the history”, he said, “since the historical sources of the Byzantine Empire wrote about us, and so we were for the first time recognized as a nation by the rest of the “civilized” world”. This sounded a very well-thought reply, in contrast with others I got from younger people: “What is Byzantium!?!”… So, my next question naturally was: “What if a young man or woman does not know what was Byzantium?”. “Young people do not know Byzantium, because they were rather taught in school about an Eastern Roman Empire”, there came the reply… So, we study the perception of Western civilization about the empire, not the historical reality itself, we may wonder along with Siliva Rochley who gave a paper in the first plenary session dedicated to The image and memory of Byzantium and their undiminished popularity, titled “Nostalgia for Byzantium: How and Why we continue ‘to sail’”?
  2. Exploring the city center, we were stricken by the almost total absence of visible vestiges of the past of the city, called in Roman times Serdica. And when right behind the eastern wall of the newly rebuilt after the Second World War bombings Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph some walls and stones could be seen the picture was tragic…

What sort of an impression would it give to the city if the Organizing Committee for the 22nd International Congress of Byzantine Studies invited the more than 1100 participants to a symbolic cleaning of the site and a petitioning for its protection and promotion?

Perhaps an excuse for not suggesting such an intervention would be the heavily loaded program of the Conference, but the structure of the panels was such that the organizers cancelled in a way the immense richness of the topics covered by the scholarly community present in Sofia last week. For like last year in the London Nubiological Conference, this year again, in the Sofia Byzantinological Congress, the papers presented were arranged according to the disciplines they are servicing. But this meant that a person interested, for example, in philology and presenting a related paper would have no chance to follow other papers than the ones in his panel because all (or the vast majority) of the papers on topics of philological interest were presented in the round tables and free communications of the same afternoon…

Can it be that such enormous scientific gatherings – and with no subsequent publication of all the presented papers – have lost their significance for research and are mainly venues for the promotion of specific agendas and the personal contact between the students, researchers and professors from around the world?

In any case, I am grateful for the fine moments and for the exchange of thoughts and ideas that I had with all the people that I had the chance to meet and they honored me with their time and attention!

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