Ajjaji – a Nubian name for a Nubian king

This post is a collaboration between Alexandros Tsakos and Robin Seignobos that is hosted here because of the kindness of Robin and a coincidence with the case-studies that the two of us have been working upon. In detail:

The work with the Arabic sources relating with Nubia has brought to the attention of Robin a recording in various Mamluk chronicles of the arrival in Cairo, in the year 704 AH / 1304 CE, of a Nubian king, bringing with him a tribute consisting of slaves, living animals (cattle, camels, panthers…) and minerals (alum, emery…). He also asked for the Sultan’s military assistance against a rebel. His request was answered positively and the Sultan dipatched an army to escort the king back to Nubia. Nevertheless, it is not the event itself that will hold our attention here but the name of the Nubian ruler.

It is diversely spelled in the sources but the reading Amay or Amī has long been favoured in Nubian scholarship. However, it appears on closer examination that this form is only recorded in one late source, namely al Qalqashandī’s Ṣubḥ al-aʿshā (1412). This choice probably stems from Monneret de Villard’s preference for this reading in his Storia della Nubia christiana that was subsequently followed by the majority of scholars.


The version of the name Ayāy as appears in the manuscripts

The most common spelling in the sources is, in fact, Ayāy which is also attested in the earliest known version of this account, namely Baybars al-Manṣūri’s Zubdat al-Fikra (ca. 1324). Thus, it seems safe enough to assume that Ayāy is the most correct reading, and therefore the closest to the original Nubian name.

Normalized version of the name Ayyay as appears in printed editions

Normalized version of the name Ayāy as appears in printed editions

With this in mind, is it possible to connect the name Ayāy with a king mentioned in documents from Nubia?

Unfortunately there is no king with this name recorded in Nubian documents. There exists, however, a Nubian personal name strongly reminiscent of Ayāy, namely Ajjaji.

Old Nubian /j/ may have very well been transcribed in Arabic by a yāʾ since the Nubian phoneme probably sounded quite similar to a /y/ to Arabic-speakers.

As for the final /i/, the common juncture vowel in Old Nubian, Browne already noticed that it is often added at the end of proper names. However, it is equally well known that this vowel could be easily dropped out, which can explain the Arabicized form of the name.

There are seven instances in the manuscripts from Qasr Ibrim naming a person Ajjaji or Ajjeji – in one case even both orthographies can be found obviously referring to the same person. Here are the attestations:

ajjaji@qasr ibrim


Note: The fourth volume on the Old Nubian texts from Qasr Ibrim has been prepared by Giovanni Ruffini and is expected to appear in specialized bookshops by early autumn.


Now, Alexandros in the course of his studies noted also these occurrences because he studied two inscribed ceramic shards from the town of Serra East (for a description of the project see the latest Annual Report of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago HERE. The Annual Report for 2014 is in press). Both were incised after firing with words containing two /j/ following each other. My first hunch was that these should be remnants of a name, perhaps of the owner of the original complete pot.


OIM 19532

Most interestingly, the smaller fragment preserves the reading


and thus may very well be another instance of the name Ajjaji.


OIM 19566

On the other hand, the larger fragment reads


This does not seem to fit with any of the attested names including the double /j/. Working with the name lists available to us, I found the following instances:

jiji names

The word on the larger shard from Serra seems rather like a verb in the third person singular imperative, ending with -MH after a stem with the -A of the predicative. Then the question arose which verb could that be?

To answer this question, I gleaned the instances of Old Nubian words recorded by Browne that contain a double /j/, so as to examine the possible words that may be hidden in the text incised on the shard from Serra.

I came up with the following list:

o.n. words with jiji

Unfortunately, none of the above fits with the example from Serra, but then again, if the verb had an object marker in plural – /j/ -, then a regressive assimilation like /n/ + /j/ = /jj/ , /r/ + /j/ = /jj/, /t/ + /j/ = /jj/ etc. could be what lies behind the fragmentary inscription on the Serra pot. But this is a path impossible to follow further, given the very large number of alternatives, the fragmentary state of the inscription, and our incomplete knowledge of Old Nubian words.

Returning to the Ajjaji case study, though, one notices in the list above that the first verb may reveal the basic element in the etymology of the name (formed subsequently by a common in Old Nubian reduplication of the verb’s syllable – ONG – and a quite regular simplification of the geminate contiguous consonants – ONG 2.7).

In any case, it is highly unlikely that the king referred to as Ayāy in Mamluk chronicles was one of the individuals recorded in Nubian sources, even though one of them (P. QI 3, 44) bore the prestigious title of Nešš of Atwa (Gebel Adda). We can only hope that future discoveries or rediscoveries in documents from Nubia and inscriptions will confirm our hypothesis. In the meantime, it is probably safer to keep calling this king Ayāy or Ayyāy rather than Amāy or Ammy, as currently used by Nubiologists, bearing in mind that Ajjaji is the Nubian name of the Nubian king.


The authors would like to thank Bruce Williams and Giovanni Ruffini for permission to refer to unpublished material and for useful comments on details of the text.

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