A Nubian Frontier

We have often described Sai Island as a dominant feature of the landscape in the frontier zone of the downstream end of the Third Cataract region where it lies. Recently, this region was scrutinized archaeologically in a very important Sudanological publication titled “The Archaeology of a Nubian Frontier. Survey on the Nile Third Cataract, Sudan“, co-authored by Ali Osman from the University of Khartoum and by David Edwards from the University of Leicester – who was also responsible for the editing of the volume.

Nubian Frontier

We had promised a review of this book, but on the one hand time has not permitted this to happen, and on the other hand an article titled “On a Nubian frontier – landscapes of settlement on the Third Cataract of the Nile, Sudan”, prepared by the same group of contributors as in the main volume, appeared almost simultaneously in the journal Azania. Of course the bulk of the archaeological information provided in the volume, namely the Gazetteer of Sites (Chapter 8, pp. 211-427), is excluded from the paper, but the Azania article summarizes quite a lot of the general knowledge that one would expect to obtain from the main publication.

Generally speaking, the division of the paper is quite conventional, following the chronological sequence of the various periods of the cultural history of the peoples that have inhabited the Middle Nile Valley from Prehistory to post-Medieval times. In fact, the sequence of chapters in the book is followed very closely by the Azania paper and the comparison of the contents of the two will lead to some very interesting, in our opinion, conclusion regarding the aim of the latter paper:

1. “Survey in the Mahas Region” by D.N. Edwards and Ali Osman, pp. 1-36. It is summarized in the Introduction of the Azania paper, although many things are either not discussed or used as the material to build the concluding paragraphs of the article.

2. “The Later Prehistoric Archaeology” by D.N. Edwards and Azhari Sadig, pp. 37-58. An identical title is used in the article. However, the latter contains also the summary of the data from the first half of Chapter 3 in the book, concerning the Kerma period settlement (Bronze Age), pp. 59-66.

3. “The Third-Second Millennia BC. Kerma and New Kingdom Settlement”, written by D.N. Edwards, pp. 59-87. While the Third Millennium Kerma Settlement is described in The Later Prehistoric Archaeology chapter of the article, the New Kingdom Settlement of the Second Millennium is analyzed in the chapter of the Azania paper titled On a colonial frontier.

4. “Napatan and Meroitic Settlement” by D.N. Edwards, pp. 88-110 (with an Appendix on Human Remains from cemetery ARD013 on Arduan Island by Margaret Judd, pp. 111-124). It is paralleled by the Landscape in transition in the first millennium BC.

5. “Post-Meroitic Transitions” by D.N. Edwards, pp. 125-140. The almost identical title Post-Meroitic transitions – a new beginning?, though, includes also all information regarding the medieval era.

6. “Medieval Settlement” by D.N. Edwards, pp. 141-171. Incorporated in pages 467-473 of the Post-Meroitic Transitions chapter in the Azania paper.

6. “Post-Medieval Settlement” by David N. Edwards and Intisar Soghayroum el-Zein, pp. 173-196. In the article the related material is divided in two chapters: Ottoman Nubia and Qubbas and holymen – although the latter is reproducing extensive parts of the pages 197-201 of Chapter 7 in the book.

Despite the unimaginative distribution of the material in both book and article, it is a friendly-to-the-user choice for presenting the development of settlement patterns in the region under scrutiny. The main fault of the structure of the article in Azania (or was it an editorial-typographical lapsus?) is no other than the lack of a distinctive separation between the Post-Meroitic Transitions and Ottoman Nubia, which makes the medieval era disappear from the titles of the article!

However, it is in the Christian period of the Nubian past that a lot of present-day idiosyncrasies and characteristics of the populations inhabiting this Middle Nile frontier zone that are being formed. And this is so clearly an idea shared by the contributors to the volume themselves, that the Azania paper is restructured in a manner to show that the Qubbas and holymen still venerated by the Nubians today are the result of the transformation of the Medieval societies of the Christian kingdoms into Nubian communities of Islamic states.

On the same token, the group that has conducted The Mahas Survey proves that it is them who most brilliantly combine the rich ethnographic material still available in the Mahas communities with the equally rich archaeological record hidden under the soil or in between the mud-brick walls of the diffis and the other structures that still punctuate the everyday landscape of the Mahasis and the Sikood.

The diffi of site TJB005 from a different angle (photographed in 2008 by Henriette)
than the one used in the publication (see p. 229).

For us it is a great pleasure to be in a dialogue with this team through the geographical proximity of Sai Island with the Third Cataract region and the likeness of method-approaches and research-results; and it is furthermore an honorable coincidence that so many academic links exist between our world and theirs: as examples one can take the several periods of study and research in the University of Bergen by both Intissar Soghayroun el-Zein and Azhari Sadig, the several visits to UiB of Ali Osman and Herman Bell, the cooperation between the UiB and the University of Khartoum that started almost 50 years ago…

We will surely return to the results from this work and these cooperations in the future.

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