New look with a new book

It gives us a great pleasure to post the first entry in the new layout of our blog, which we hope that you will find improved in many levels – first and foremost to what concerns the access to the topics one wishes to find.

But more than a pleasure, it is a feeling of honour to introduce this new layout with an entry about a publication that we have awaited for a long time and which can change profoundly our understanding of the social history of Nubia.

This is the book by Dr. Mohammed Jalal Hashim, Ṣāy Island  — the Story of Civilization: the Issues of Development and Marginalization in Nubia, written in Arabic and published in Omdurman, Sudan in March 2015.

book launch poster

Its 670 pages are the fruit of 25 years of work on the social history of Nubia, taking Sai Island as a case study.

Dr. Hashim began collecting oral traditions and ethnographic data in 1989. In 1992, he gave a lecture about Sai island at the Sai club in al Shajarah, a suburb in southern Khartoum, at an event held for the commemoration of the renowned Sudanese national activist, vocal musician and poet Khaliil Farah.

Khalil Farah Effendi

In 2004, while staying in Oxford, Dr. Jalal finished the first draft of the book. In 2006, the book was accepted for publication by the Abdelkarim Mirghani Centre in Omdurman and has been revised by the author many times since then.

It is a touching coincidence that the most important publication on Sai Island to date was supported by the Centre founded by the most important supporter of Medieval Sai Project, the late philanthropist Mahmoud Salih.

Mahmoud Salih

It was also in 2006 that M. Jalal Hashim got his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the School of Languages and Area Studies, at the University of Portsmouth, in the UK.

The title of the dissertation was: Contribution of Nubian Language Speakers to the Development of their Writing System. Insights arising from Nubian Literacy Classrooms.

It is noteworthy that his examiner was none other than the late Professor Edmund Bosworth, senior editor of the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

Therefore, with a background in collection of oral histories and in linguistics, Dr. Jalal is basing a lot of his analysis on discerning identities through language forms and language use. As he explained himself in email exchanges we had recently:

«The basic hypothesis that the book wanted to discuss is that

the Nubians of today may be going through a process of cultural suicide

upon which their identity and languages be lost for ever

if certain awareness is not achieved.»

This is a statement quite in line with a fear that many would share. The identity of the Nubians passes from awareness linked with language. But for Dr. Jalal this awareness should not be linked with an idealization of the past, a romantic view upon an imagined excellence in times ancient. In his own words again:

«Consequently, the more they raise the volume of how great they were/are,

the more they are actually getting away

from the very civilization they claim to have enjoyed.

This is why also the more you go back in history,

the more glorious the Nubians seem to be.»

It is against this background that Sai Island is taken as a case study. It becomes the pivotal point around which are examined other neighbouring Nubian regions too, such as the kingdom of Mahas at Kukkee (Delgo reach) and its sisterly kingdom of Argo at Imaani (Dungula reach). This is why the book becomes more of social history than pure historiography.

Detail of a map by Caillaud from BNF/Gallica

Detail of a map by Caillaud from BNF/Gallica

In most chapters of the book, the information presented is gathered from oral traditions, in particular when dealing with the period of converting from Christianity to Islam, as well as the cases of Christian survivals, that first among families and later among specific individuals is reported as existing on the island up to the mid-20th century.

In any case, in Hashim’s book about Sai, the last Christian family is traced to the present- or more accurately to the mid- 20th century. They are called Yaaskii. The author proposes that it was not a family per se but rather a group of families clinging to their faith. And he admits:

«I further boldly postulated that the etymology could be the name of Yeisus,

such as that of the Bishop of Sai cathedral in the 11th century.

The derivation being as follows: Yeisus-kii, i.e. “those of Yeisus”.

What made me go this way was the fact that people,

in tracing their genealogies and pedigrees,

usually finish them with the fomulaic of “‘Iisaa, Muusa, ‘Iisaa, Muusa … etc”

in an indication that the missing names are all of Christian times.

There are also many shrines of so-called “Fegiir ‘Iisaa”, i.e. Saint ‘Iisaa,

both during the Islamic and the Christian eras.»

Qubba Fagir Iisa on Sai

Qubba Fagir Iisa on Sai

In this context, it is interesting that during my last visit to Sai Island in 2012, I was accused of promoting Christianity among the locals and that I was using for that purpose a book that was written by Nubians in exile promoting such ideas. Although the book I was carrying was M. Khalil’s dictionary of the Nobiin language, the story proves that Christianity may remain an issue for some Nubians inside or outside the Nubian lands until today.

book cover

A copy of the book was sent to Robin Seignobos who together with Jalal Hashim and with useful interventions by Herman Bell prepared the following presentation.

First, the contents:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction, gratitude and dedication
  • Chapter 2: Methodological constituents: Reviewing and revisiting
  • Chapter 3: Sai through history: from Paleolithic to Christian era
  • Chapter 4: Sai through history: from the Funj to the Turco-Egyptian era: the time of Islamization and Arabization
  • Chapter 5: Sai in the 20th century: Pioneering modernization in the context of Islamization and Arabization
  • Chapter 6: Khaliil Farah: a man with a stature of a nation
  • Chapter 7: Sukree and Ambi: the one thousand years conflict
  • Chapter 8: The Hashim family: the harvest of nothing
  • Chapter 9: Sai and the hurricane: the social disintegration
  • Chapter 10: Culture and development: the renaissance project
  • Bibliography

In the second chapter, the author discusses the relationship between the Meroitic and Nubian languages, beginning with the problem of the classification of the former and  the question whether it belongs to the phylum of Afro-Asiatic or that of the Nilo-Saharan. In this regard, he reviewed the opinions of Claude Rilly vs. those of Christie Rowan.

He also revisited the theory of genetic relationships between languages, tracing it from its beginnings in the Bible up to Greenberg’s works. Rejecting the theorem of ‘proto-language’, he invents the theorem of ‘language merge’, according to which two completely different languages can merge into each other to the extent that their respective proto-languages are obliterated beyond definition.

In this same chapter, the book launches an offensive on what Jalal Hashim calls ‘ethnic writing’ which is the kind of arguments raised by writers to glorify the role of their respective ethnic groups by attributing everything glorious in ancient history.

This genre of writing appeared in Nubia first among the Nobiin speakers to spread later into speakers of other Nubian languages, whether on the Nile, in Kordofan, or in Darfur. Now it has become a phenomenon in its own right as it has spread to other ethnic groups outside the Nubian stock, such as the Fur, Beja, etc.

Chapter 4 is of special interest, since it discusses one of the least known periods in Nubian history, that is the period from 1400-1800.

Relying on historical documents and mostly on oral traditions, the author traces the tracks the Nubians followed in their journey from Christianity to Islam. In this context, he discusses the Monophysite and Melkite dogmas, which are identified with the faith of Nobatia and Makuria respectively. In the book’s narrative, Makuria shifted to the monophysite faith after annexing Nobadia. This fits with the idea that Makuria won the secular authority (political rule), while Nobatia won the religious authority (religious rule).

The extensive surveys, Jalal Hashim conducted in the regions of these two kingdoms not only find evidence that support this shift of faith and share of power but also made him forward the hypothesis that Makuria practised Christianity through biblical texts translated in Old Nubian.

Further, he claims on the basis of linguistic evidence that the cathedral of Dongola was under the authority of the cathedral of Sai, which was by its turn under the cathedral of Faras.

But the most interesting ideas in this chapter concern the so called ‘Kushshaaf’ rule, i.e. the Ottoman rule of Nubia. First of all, in the author’s opinion it was not Sultan Selim 1st who conquered Nubian, but Selim 2nd. Relying again on oral traditions as well as on documents collected in Nubia, Daar al Bideeriyya, Daar al Shaygiyya and Dar al Manaasiir, he suggests that the thrust of that conquest reached deep upstream to the land of al Manaasiir in the 4th cataract.

Examining closely the Kushshaaf rule, three dynasties can be distinguished: the first had its seat of rule was at Dirr, i.e. the descendant of Hasan Guusi; the second is the ‘Kaaras’ whose seat of rule was at Kulb; and the third was the Kushshaaf rule of Hasan Wardi (not to be confused with the other ‘Hasan’ of Dirr).

The second dynasty was a kind of regency to the first one; they were promoted to fully fledged ‘kushshaaf’ by Ismaa’iil Pasha in 1821.

The third dynasty developed from Agha Wardi Muraad al Arnaa’uuti, who was in charge of Sai garrison in 1013 AH (1614 CE), according to a pedigree document. This Wardi stayed for four years on Sai. Before leaving he got married to a local woman who begot him a daughter named Huda.

A descendent of Hasan Guusi of Dirr called Mahmuud married this Huda who gave him a son whom they named ‘Wardi’ after his grandfather.

It is this Wardi who is the grandfather of all the ‘Wardiyaab‘ in Sai and all Sikkout. The demise of this dynasty was brought about probably by their protest to the promotion of the Kulb dynasty into full kushshaaf, and consequently their defiance of the new Turco-Egyptian rule.

The book traces the feuds that took place between the kushshaafs of Sai, i.e. the descendents of Wardi and their respective alliances with the local Nubians. In this time, the Nubians were reduced to the status of serfs as not only their lands were confiscated by the new comers – locally called ‘Turkumaan’ – but they were also compelled to work for free on their lands.

In chapter 7 we are introduced to the microgeography of Sai Island: The Sukree and Ambi are two hamlets within Saisab (the northern part of the island and the village closest to the so-called Cathedral site).

Map prepared by the father of Mohammed Jalal Hashim, Jalal Ahmad Hashim

Map prepared by the father of the author, Jalal Ahmad Hashim

The families in these hamlets engaged in long-time feuds. The book traces these feuds back to the Christian times and the conversion to Islam when the ‘Turkumaans’ did their best to make use of these feuds, which were incorporated in their own feuds to the extent that the former could be differentiated with difficulty. The Sukree were the first to convert, then followed the Ambi, but not before nursing deep grudges against the former, grudges that have survived up to the present.

The core of the Sukree camp are the Hashim, the author’s family. They were pioneers in seeking modern education, first at al Azhar in Egypt and later through modern formal education since the condominium. Thus, the Hashim family became the headspear of modernization, which was approached through the Arabization of its members and the moving away from the village to live in urban areas. This made the other party – understandably led by the camp of Ambi – to despise the Hashims. However, self-defeatedness is obvious, since the «Ambi party» had nothing but to follow the same path as the Hashims, that is modernization through Islamization and Arabization.

In chapter 9, the implosion of conflicts within the society of Sai is discussed. These conflicts reached a point where life was hardly bearable on Sai (Saisaab in particular) to the extent that the people began moving away from the island so as to save themselves from the trouble. At this point the topos of the wise stranger was ethnographically observed for the first time. This took place when no one in Saisaab could bring themselves to agree with the other- any other- to the extent strangers were accepted by all feuding parties, first as mediators and later as leaders in both religious and secular aspects of life.

The last chapter (10) tries to show tangibly that there is some light at the end of the tunnel if only development was approached through cultural dialogue, where language and identity are incorporated in the developmental discourse.


Nice ideas indeed to conclude Robin’s summary of some of the most important points in this significant contribution to the social history of Nubia, and we hope that we will soon have more insights to the subtleties of the argumentation.

In the meantime, we can already see under different light some issues we faced with the demarcation of the limits of the site, its protection and promotion, and these topics we’ll take up again either from here or on the field if circumstances permit.

This entry was posted in books, Nubia, Sai Island and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to New look with a new book

  1. Angelika Jakobi says:

    Thank you, Herman and Robin, for this summary of the main ideas of MJH’s book!

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