The second day of the Conference of Afro-Byzantine and Greco-African studies at the University of Johannesburg was full of contrasts. There were both positive and negative ones.
One of the positive ones was already announced in the program with the combination of a morning session on the Ancient Civilizations of Africa and an afternoon session on Greek and African Philosophy and Theology promising highly diverse and stimulating presentations.
An interesting contrast was the one between the papers by Louise Cilliers (Honorary research fellow at the University of the Fee State in Bloemfontein) and Mag Moodie (PhD candidate at Edinburgh). The first presented an overview of the Roman sites in North Africa with a lot of images from the archaeological sites but very little discussion about the role of the indigenous populations, Berber or otherwise. While the second was a well grounded discussion of the way archaeology can recreate a historical narrative and memory for precise these populations, taking as a case study the little known region of Numidia during the Hellenistic period.
There were also two papers with an Egyptological focus, the one opening the morning session and the other closing it. Elizabeth Mary Brophy (PhD at Oxford) made an excellent presentation of the main points of her doctoral thesis discussing Greek Kings as Egyptian Gods: Ptolemaic Cult Statues in Egyptian Temples, on the basis of historical sources, artistic works, and religious practices, and she contextualized her data in time and space, in regards to both the Pharaonic tradition in Egypt and the Ptolemaic dimensions of the Hellenistic era. On the other hand, the paper by Jock Matthew Agai (PhD candidate in History of Christianity – UKZN) on The journeys of the dead: a comparative study of ancient Egyptian and the Yoruba conceptualization of the human body suffered from weak argumentation on its most basic points, namely that there exist direct correlation between the Egyptian concepts of Ka, Khat, Akh/Khaibit, Sahu, Ba and the Yoruba concepts of Oka(n), Ara, Ojiji, Emi(n), Iye/Ori respectively.
Nevertheless, the speaker who opened the afternoon session felt quite happy with this type of approach. Although in some details Agai could improve his argumentation, Morakinyo Olusegun (Postdoctor in the department of Philosophy, UJ) believed that he is in the right path with his research. Himself, he would talk about African Philosophy and Greek Philosophy: Beyond the ‘Black Athena’ debate, where although he tried to bring a balance between Bernal’s theories and both earlier and later Afrocentric theories on the primacy of African philosophy against the Greek philosophy, he never managed to bring his talk further than the attack against the ‘racist’ perception of Africa by Western scholarship that supports the Greek model and works only inside of it.
It was very interesting that the next speaker, Christo Lombaard (professor of Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa, Pretoria), tried to challenge the “Greek cultural stream that we find ourselves in” by discussing Mysticism in/and the Old Testament: methodological orientation and textual examples, because the pre-Septuagint Old Testament may reveal mystical experiences that a researcher of spirituality like himself is looking for in order to apprehend “mystic possibilities”. The best answer to this problematization was perhaps expressed by the theologian Chris de Wet who considered the corporal dimension of ascetism as a means for attaining pre-Greek-world mystical experiences.
De Wet (Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, UNISA) spoke himself about his current research on John Chrysostom on the treatment of Household Slaves where despite the richness of the opinions brought forward based on reading of the immense Chrysostomian corpus, it was never made clear what was the role of this paper in an Afro-byzantine & Greco-African conference!
This was not the case with the brilliant work by Luca Di Campobianco (postdoctor at Department of Greek and Latin at UJ) who proposed us his experience from Gazing at the tabula ‘Banasitana’: an example of metaphorical code? He proposed to understand the bronze inscribed tablet as a powerful object reflecting the rays of the African sun and creating strong impressions to the local population. Impressions that helped reinforce in their consciousness and senses the authority of the local chief who was granted the Imperial gift of the tabula Banasitana.
The most interesting contrast would have been concluding the day, when a talk by Angelos Nikolaides (Professor at UNISA) on The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and of All Africa – a historical review would have been followed by a talk of His Grace Bishop Antonios Markos on The Impact of African Christianity on World Christianity. Nikolaides could not make it to the conference and the dialogue between the two lectures that was obviously intended by the organizers never materialized.
All in all a very rich day in academic experiences, but that was unfortunately crowned by a negative experience of non-academic order: during the morning coffee break, all participants went out of the room leaving our belongings in the venue and when we returned my camera, three mobiles and some money was missing. The local staff apologized deeply and promised to help get compensation for the things lost, but the result is twofold: on the one hand, no photos accompany today’s entry; on the other hand, it proves so difficult to trust a society with so strong contrasts and problems like the one of Johannesburg…