At the capital of medieval Nubian studies

This entry is about two books, both of which are related to my trip last weekend to Warsaw. I spent three days in the Polish capital, visiting just two places:

Katarzyna, Artur and Alexandros photographed by Dobrochna on the first day of the workshop

Katarzyna, Artur and Alexandros photographed by Dobrochna on the first day of the workshop

The residence of Artur Obluski, where together with Dobrochna Zielinska and Katarzyna Danys-Lasek, we had the second workshop preparing for the publication of the Lower Nubian monastery at Qasr el Wizz.

As always, the discussions were intense, inspiring, and very productive. During some free moments I would read a couple of pages from a book that I picked up recently from the new-acquisitions’ stand at the library of humanities at the University of Bergen.

book cover - from desert to paradise

It is the last product of the pen of Aage Hauken, Dr. of Theology and Dominican priest, born in Bergen, assistent professor in Oslo, world citizen, and musician! One would not turn to the book for its original set of data, but it is a joy reading it, because it reveals, as if in a nicely told story of initiation in Coptic monasticism, Hauken’s understanding of this paradise of spirituality that was (and at some places still is) the desert beyond the Nile Valley in Egypt and Nubia – to paraphrase the title of the book: From Desert to Paradise. Old Monasteries in Egypt. In his book, Hauken travels in space and in time, through his memories from the meetings he had in Oxford in 1972 with Archimandrite Kallistos (Timothy Ware), Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies in the Blackfriars seminary. So, the book functions as an initation narrative, and because I feel it wishes to give room for the mental contemplation of the topics touched upon, I can understand somehow its striking lack of images.

Moreover, for myself this lack was even welcome, because during the workshop on Qasr el Wizz we went through all the documentation assembled at the Oriental Institute of Chicago – repository of the Qasr el Wizz excavations’ archive – containing hundreds of photos from both Seele’s and Scanlon’s expeditions, and my mind needed some freedom to wander in between the narrow corridors of a monastery on a jebel overlooking the Nile, like it’s the case with Qasr el Wizz; as if I were invisible and overhearing the monks talking, chanting, praying…

cover of guidebook

…and then, that book made a fine counterbalance to the other one that I was presented with after visiting the National Museum in Warsaw for some research purpose: the Guidebook to the renewed display of the Faras Gallery at that museum.

This elegant publication assembles in its 304 pages not only photographs of the entire display, as it was renewed under the auspices of the Polish businessman Wojciech Pawlowski, but also some treasures from the archives of the Polish missions working at Faras, cherished black & white shots of the digs under the direction of the late professor Kazimierz Michalowski; as well as rich textual metadata, and an introduction of 40 pages for the visitor to the museum who may be at the same time an avid reader. Despite the very accurate synthesizing of the available data by the main author of the catalogue (Bozena Mierzejewska) and her two co-authors in two contributions (Aleksandra Sulikowska and Tomasz Górecki), the guidebook presents its greatest drawback exactly where it could (should?) be most efficient: updated bibliography. Very few references derive from research conducted during the last fifteen years, even less from the last ten, none from the last five… However, many things have advanced our knowledge on medieval Nubia the last two decades. First and foremost in studies of the wall paintings from Nubia, which is the focus of the new display of the Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw. In that field, Dobrochna Zielinska had a major discovery demonstrating that the key for understanding the iconographic programme used in the Nubian churches is the Nubian religious calendar: the placement of the iconographic themes inside a church follows the sequence of the represented scenes and holy figures as they appear in the religious calendar of the Nubian Church (the full structure of her argument can be found in her paper from the Proceedings of the 11th Conference of Nubian Studies). Nevertheless, the book is a precious possession and has attracted even the attention of our sons…

planing the next trip to warsaw

…who look forward to returning to Warsaw and spending time with the colleagues and the friends of their parents, irremediable fans of all things Nubian!

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