Over the deserts beyond the Middle Nile and until the Red Sea…

The geomorphological characteristics of Sudan have made it so that the deserts west and east from the Nile separate the Valley from Central and Western Africa and the Red Sea coast. The immediate result of this natural landscape is that the cultures of the Middle Nile Valley have been mostly seen in connection with the idea of the Nile as the corridor linking the world of the Mediterranean Sea with Sub-Saharan Africa and the African heartlands. This idea has been exemplified in the 1977 book by W.Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa. However, the co-existence of mostly sedentary riverine populations with nomadic populations of the deserts moving across and along the wadis of these arid stretches of Sudan have challenged  the idea of a north-south corridor from early on in the research history. The proceedings of the international conferences on the central Bilad as-Sudan (for the third one, held in Khartoum in 1977, see HERE) were early efforts to answer to this challenge from the perspective of historical studies, mostly pursued by individual works focusing on links between Darfur and Nilotic Sudan. The book by R. S. O’Fahey and J. L. Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan exemplified these most recent trends, but historical research is in want for new studies related to the topic.

Archaeology and linguistics have, however, often crossed over these boundaries. The work of the Cologne based ACACIA team has illuminated the role of the Wadi Howar from the earliest prehistory to Late Antiquity as a west-east corridor linking Central Africa with the Nile Valley. On the other hand (alias, on the other bank of the Nile River), the book by K. Krzywinski and R.H. Pierce titled Deserting the Desert, is very informative about the “Threatened Cultural Landscape between the Nile and the Sea”. A combination of botanical, archaeological, philological, and ethnographic studies that is the latest fruit of the involvement of the University of Bergen (UiB) with Sudan, its history, its heritage, its people, and its landscape.

Professor emeritus at UiB, Richard Holton Pierce has already made very important contributions to our knowledge of the past of the Red Sea cultures by the edition of the main body of ancient texts that give us an insight into the society of the Blemmyes, the renown people of the area between the Nile and the Red Sea during Antiquity and Medieval times. The reference concerns “The Blemmyan documents from Gebelen”, a “corpus of thirteen documents, some written exclusively in Greek and others partly in Greek and partly in Coptic” that Pierce published in the third volume of Fontes Historiae Nubiorum in pages 1196-1216. These texts seem to have been the product of scribes of Byzantine Egypt that were putting down in Greek and/or Coptic notarial acts that were most probably conducted orally in the Blemmyan language itself.

More recently, late professor G.M. Browne, ubiquitous figure of Old Nubian studies, made a breakthrough suggestion regarding the identification of the only known text that probably preserves an effort to write the Blemmyan language! His Textus Blemmyicus (written in Latin in 2003!) has subsequently been discussed in comparison with the modern Beja language that is considered the descendant of the ancient Blemmyan language. Interestingly, in the circles of Cushiticists, that is the specialist of the Cushitic subgroup of the Afroasiatic linguistic family to which the Beja language seems to belong, the work by Browne has received respect and approval (see for example the paper by Klaus Wedekind from 2010).

In this context, it is worth noting, that a new publication came to our attention a couple of weeks ago: the 49th volume of the Folia Orientalia dedicated to the Polish professor of Afroasiatic Linguistics at the University of Krakow, Andrzej Zaborski. With some dozen of titles on Beja languages under his belt, along with his famous “Marginal Notes on Medieval Nubia”, among 211 titles in total (!) listed in this Festschrift, professor Zaborski is surely one of the figures that have contributed most to our knowledge of the Afroasiatic part of Sudan (in linguistic terms).

Bringing this entry to a close, we wish to refer to another Polish researcher, the archaeologist/ceramologist Krzystof Pluskota who made a camel trip from the town of ed-Damer at the Atbara junction to the Red Sea on camel-back! His discoveries were presented in 2006 in Sudan & Nubia as the Kirwan Memorial Lecture of the year before. And this publication was what initiated an Internet contact with Mariacristina, an Italian amateur of archaeology who is resident in the Red Sea region of Sudan and shares her time between working with sea-tourism in her cruise-ship Sherazade and discovering Eastern Sudan on foot, on camels, on trucks, but always with the help and friendly guidance of Beja locals. And then, she shares her adventures with the world wide web through a very interesting blog that we surely suggest as a valuable reading for Sudan. Another Sudan then than the one we regularly speak and write about, but of equivalent interest and beauty. More on that Sudan, in the near future…

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2 Responses to Over the deserts beyond the Middle Nile and until the Red Sea…

  1. dianabuja says:

    Thank you for a most interesting blog – and also for the references. I’ve done a bit of work on history of the Blemmys – unfortunately, my refs. are all on another computer that for the moment is not working! But when up, I’ll send them to you if you’d like.

  2. ergamenis says:

    Thank you for the comment and the offer of your refs in such an important topic! We could surely prepare another entry here with further notes from the world of the Blemmyes! Most welcome :-)

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