Travelling to Paris this December was a very loaded experience. The town is still under the state of emergency caused by the attacks of the 13th of November. The conditions were extra-tense due to World Climate Summit.
Although living downtown, the academic activities that brought me to the French capital in combination with the duties awaiting in the coming days before Christmas in Greece did not allow for a lot of leisure-walking.
Nevertheless, on Monday evening I had the chance to be invited to a concert by my cousin Achilles from New York, who was in Paris accompanying his son Paris (!), who is one of the two violinists of the children string quartet “This side up”. On a passing note none of them seemed as a child as soon as they touched their violins, cello or viola! The great musical experience offered me also the only contact with the Climate conference in Paris, since the quartet performed a piece written by the American composer Neil Rolnick with the eloquent title “Oceans Eat Cities“.
But the concert offered also a rare surprise: last time I met Achilles and Paris was in Athens this summer over a dinner at my parents’ house, when Robin and Ariane, my hosts in Paris, were also present! I meet Paris and Achilles once every other year and Robin and Ariane twice a year! What is that for a coincidence, hah?
Of course coming to Paris for work meant that I would meet other friends and colleagues too and especially since the first venue I attended was the defense of the doctoral dissertation by Rémi Dewière (known to the readers of this blog from previous entries about the French-Norwegian collaboration) titled: L’esclave, le savant et le sultan. Représentation du monde et diplomatie at sultanat du Borno (XVIe-XVIIe siècles). Félicitations dr. Dewière ;-)
One of the main sources of Remi’s thesis is the report of a French surgeon captive in Tripoli at the end of the 1660s, who composed a history of Borno in the 17th century on the basis of narrations by the nephew of the King of Borno who was also captive there. The history reports constant warfare between the Borno Muslims and the Christian emperor of Ethiopia, the legendary Prester John. Although the Christian faith and practice of such peoples is far from certain, the survival of elements from an earlier state of religious identity seems rather probable. Moreover, this survival seems to be linked with the arrival of Christian people in the region and it has been argued in an article by Richard Gray titled “Christian Traces and a Franciscan mission in the Central Sudan, 1700-1711”, and published in 1967 in the Journal of African History (vol. 8, no. 3), that those were Christians from Nubia! Although there is no certainty about this fascinating hypothesis, nor can we identify the exact moment in time that the Nubians would have left the Nile Valley, it is tempting to use this source as complementary evidence for the survival of Christianity in Christian Nubia until much later than the fall of the Makuritan and Alwan kingdoms and perhaps until the 17th-18th centuries that Rémi’s thesis reminded us of; perhaps as late as the 20th century as Dr. Jalal Hashim is suggesting in his book on Sai Island, a hard copy of which I saw for the first time in Robin’s home…
Robin was also the one who provided me with a copy of Gray’s article, as well as with a report (“Les inscriptions arabes, copies et guèzes de Lalibela”, Annales d’Ethiopie 25 (2010), pp. 43-53) on another fascinating discovery from Beta Maryam at Lalibela, in Ethiopia, that relates to the foundation inscription on the central pillar of the church: Some interesting epigraphic discovery from Lalibela was reported by Anaïs Wion (CNRS) to the team of specialists on Ethiopia collaborating with IMAF, namely Claire-Bosc-Tiessé, Marie-Laure Derat, Emmanuel Fritsch & Wadi Awad Abullif. They conducted more research and found more inscriptions, among others the one in question. This inscription was written in Arabic with a Coptic intercalation in the text! The text commemorated the person who “made” that church, although it remains quite uncertain what this expression really means. In any case, the use of Coptic is, in my opinion, revelatory of the intention: for it was used to compose the name of the “founder”, Abdelmessih, meaning the servant of the Christ in Arabic, in the following manner: The first component (Abd: servant) is in Arabic letters; the second (al Massih: the Christ) in Coptic and in a form respecting partly the convention of the relevant nominum sacrum, namely Χ(ΡΙΣΤΟ)Σ. The difference is that under the supra linear stroke forming the nominum sacrum, a variant of the masculine definite article in Coptic (Π instead of ΠΕ) has been included. So, in my opinion, the “founder” wanted to impress by using the Coptic script, based on the sacred Greek alphabet.
Robin helped with details and technicalities needed for the transcriptions of these inscriptions. It is sometimes incredible how helpful and sharing Robin is! And of course what a source of knowledge! He has given a most excellent proof in his latest article on the Bishoprics of Christian Nubia which will appear in the second volume of “Nubian Voices” that you can pre-order HERE.
Another moment in which Robin surprised me with all he knows was when we visited Le musée du Quai Branly. It was for me an amazing privilege to walk through the superb collection of African objects housed in that museum together with Robin and Amélie Chekroun. Let alone that it reminded me of the nice days we had in Bergen in June 2014, I learnt so much about both the objects and the museum itself.
As for the former, the time that we spent in the Ethiopian gallery shows that there were the objects in the Musée Branly that attracted most the attention of all three of us. Perhaps it can be an arena for a future collaboration? The instances of comparanda worth discussing further are many as these photos illustrate (albeit implicitly):
Now, the museum itself possesses absolutely marvellous objects, exhibited in a way that stresses their beauty and mystery for the non-indigenous onlooker. However, there is almost no care at all to discuss the objects in their context, be this historical, archaeological, anthropological, religious etc. The museum functions more like a gallery and especially when one sees the tag “New acquisition” next to some of the exhibits, one is tempted to look also for the price tag… But thankfully, this is not the case! The museum has furthermore received other forms of critic (including rights of possession against claims for return to indigenous owners), one of which is rather serious: the magazines are below the flood level of the Seine river, putting the objects at high risk in a case of flood. Of course the same situation will be the case at the Louvre, but the latter was not built in the 21st century… In any case a visit there is absolutely worth it, and in case you want to go prepared for the critical part of the story also, you may wish to read this report:
Finally, if you were wondering about objects from Sudan, the only pieces consist of a couple of shields from South Sudan:
As this map illustrates the colonial activities of the French never reached this part of Africa…
Anyway, the main reason for the visit to Paris was the meeting of the French-Norwegian collaboration (for past meetings see HERE). So, all the Norwegians colleagues were present in Paris already from Saturday, Anne Bang, Knut Vikør, Elena Vezzadini.
Since this autumn, however, Elena has moved permanently to Paris, and already a book of hers on Revolution, Memory and Anti-Colonial Resistance in Sudan, has appeared:
We hope that the French-Norwegian collaboration will also see soon our exchanges being printed in a nice publication, but before that we have to plan for a final conference on textual production, producers and material products of literacy in Africa.
Hope you are looking forward to reading more on that, like we are looking forward to bringing the project to fulfillment!