Remembering the Greeks of Sudan (2)

The appearance of the second part of the very informative “Greeks of Sudan” in the Australian newspaper of the Greek diaspora Neos Kosmos invites us to post one more entry on the Greeks of Sudan from a Medieval Sai Project perspective. Starting precisely with the content of the article by Dean Kalimniou, we were surprised by two points in its second part:

First, although we were expecting more on the modern period of the history of contacts between the Greeks and the Sudan, given the structure of the first part, the author dedicated most of the article in a quite informed description of the use of the Greek language in Christian Nubia. In our opinion, this is one of the most knowledgeable descriptions of this phenomenon written by a Greek on the Net – and outside our blog that is ;-) However, one could easily suggest improvements in both the content and the style: the few Greek texts found at Qasr Ibrim make sense only in contrast with the much more numerous Coptic and Old Nubian finds from the same site, and especially in a more general comparison between the number of Coptic finds from Lower Nubia and the Greek finds from Upper Nubia. Perhaps it is difficult for the non-specialized to be already updated on the finds from Sur Island upon which Alexandros wrote his doctoral thesis, but the statistical analyses presented in Terracotta Funerary Stelae from Christian Nubia are easily accessible both in the publication of the proceedings of the 2006 Warsaw Conference on Nubian Studies and in academia.edu. Unfortunately, Kalymniou’s article suffers from lack of references in general and one never really finds out where did he hear/read/learn about the Polish discoveries in Old Dongola and Banganarti (remains unnamed in the text…) upon which the author based most of his narrative. Last but not least, it is the perspective of this narrative that makes us most uncomfortable in this text: why should the use of the Greek language be an object of national pride for the modern Greeks!?!

If indeed the Greek state took care of the Greek diaspora in Sudan; if the Greeks were concerned about the historical links of the Middle Nile Valley with the Mediterranean world and supported archaeological projects, historical studies, cultural exchanges and so on; if the Greek cultural center of Khartoum was kept alive and the Greek schools were not left to their own fate (gloomier even than the situation in the Greek economy); if such things were the case, then, let’s say that the Greeks could be proud over a continuity of involvement that was still alive… But we are afraid that such pride is not the aim of Kalymniou’s contribution. The pride expressed in the article is rather forced.

Luckily, however, it does not go to the extremes of a publication that we recently saw that made its way to a publishing house… We are referring to the book by Chloe Triantafyllou (herself born and raised in Wad Medani and Khartoum) Christian Churches in Ancient Nubia (Χλόη Τριανταφύλλου, Χριστιανικές εκκλησίες στην αρχαία Νουβία, Κυριακίδης 2011). To the exception of the clever idea of setting most of the historical/archaeological narrative in the form of dialogues between locals who discover the past of their land, the rest of the book offers nothing to someone knowing facts, figures, and localities, while it misleads anyone who would choose Triantafyllou’s book to begin one’s initiation in the mysteries and beauties of Christian Nubia. Nevertheless, the small book (less than 70 pages altogether) offers indeed one of the very few contributions to the meagre literature on the medieval era of the Middle Nile Valley existing in the Greek language. So, in the end, one could applaud madame Chloe for seeing to its completion and apparition in the bookstores.

But let’s go back to Kalymniou’s contribution and the second surprising point. His concluding remarks regarding Christian Nubia introduce to his readers the term “Greco-Nubians” for the inhabitants of the Christian kingdoms of medieval Nubia. This term cannot even be applied to the Nubian elites that would be the main users of the Greek language. The Nubian population that adhered to the Christian faith cannot be called Greeks no more than the inhabitants of the Christian states of medieval Europe can be called Romans! Hellenophiles; Byzantine-like; Roman nostalgics; perhaps…  But it is a long way to identify them with Greeks. As long as the long shot to claim a continuity between Christian Nubia and the “Christian” South Sudan! Even the argument that the Nubian languages dominate there is false! The truth is that most people speak Nilo-Saharan languages, a language group to which Nubian also belongs. It is like saying that Greek is the dominant language in Europe because the dominant linguistic family is Indo-European…

We are afraid that such argumentation serves another purpose, though. Kalymniou exclaims that a man called George Ghines (a fine gentleman surely, that we only know through the Internet) is “the only pure-blooded Juba-born descendant of the original Greek settlers who still lives permanently in the city”, an expression turning into “the only pure-blooded Juba-Greek” some paragraphs later! It is undoubtedly true that the role of the Greeks of the late 19th and early 20th century was pivotal in the foundation of the town that would become the capital of South Sudan (both before and after the independence of the country on 9 July 2011). It is, however, at least strange to call the descendants of these “first settlers” (I think I’ve heard this expression before…) as “a South Sudanese tribe” in equal terms with the Dinka or the Acholi!!! Sure, all the citizens of a state should have equal rights, but these cannot and should not be based on notions of blood purity, especially if one promotes democratic ideals, as a “pure Greek” would proudly claim to be doing since the Classic era of the Western civilization…

Ghines should be indeed proud that he returned to his birthplace and started his life along with his co-citizens contributing in the development of the newest state in the world. And we are sure that he knows better than any of us how the reality of this co-existence and brotherhood feels, among other occasions in a day like today, when he sees the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Stylianos empty and not celebrating the Catholic Easter although representatives from the Greek Orthodox community of Khartoum sold it to the Catholic Church during the difficult hours of refugee that was tormenting the land during the Civil War… perhaps some priest from another Greek Orthodox see would come and perform the Easter service on the 5th of May? In the meantime, may Ghines’ efforts to establish again a Greek house in Juba become real as soon as possible!

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6 Responses to Remembering the Greeks of Sudan (2)

  1. dianabuja says:

    Quite interesting. Over the weekend I was reading some materials on 18th and 19th century travels in the area of n.e. Africa, and came across a piece on the role of the greek community (18th century) in Ethiopia. Also, James Bruce in his travel memoirs mentions the community – and travelled with a greek, himself. If you want references, let me know.

    Then, this am, the following on archaeology in Sudan appeared in the NY times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/world/africa/in-sudan-archaeologists-unearth-ancient-kingdoms.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

    • ergamenis says:

      Thank you for the comment and link! Both very interesting! What would be even more interesting, though, perhaps because it is completely unknown to me/us, would be to reveal a bit more on the Greeks of Burundi.
      Thanks again!

  2. Chrysa says:

    Your work is way out of my league and I wouldn’t want to be seen as prejudiced, but my feeling is that sometimes, these kind of articles (kalymniou ) tend to have a more “nationalistic” approach. I think it exaggerates the importance of the greek element in the area.

    • ergamenis says:

      Thank you for the comment, Chrysa, and the kind words about our work!
      The article by Kalymniou surely exaggerates the points that we discussed in more detail in the last entry.
      However, “the importance of the Greek element in the area” has been indeed crucial in certain periods. But then again, not only of the persons with Greek origin – as the nationalistic approaches would have it – but also of pivotal aspects of Greek culture, first and foremost the Greek language.
      We will surely return in the future to the topic with further comments or independent entries.

  3. Dean Kalimniou says:

    Thank you for your comments on my article. You correctly point out that the motivation of my article, which is addressed mainly to a Greek audience, is to show the penetration or contacts between Greek culture and Nubia. I take on board your point about the danger of using the term “Greco-Nubians.” Above all thank you for taking the time out to write such a thoughtful and respectful critique.
    Dean Kalimniou

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