One goal achieved

In the first entry for 2016, we listed some goals that would be worth pursuing in the New Year. Among those, reading a couple of new publications was named. And indeed, one of them, perhaps the most awaited, has already been read and noted. I am referring to Nubian Voices II: New Texts and Studies on Christian Nubian Culture, edited by Adam Łajtar, Grzegorz Ochała and Jacques van der Vliet, and published in the supplements series of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology (JJP).

Nubian Voices II cover

For anyone even slightly interested in the textual production of the Christian Nubians such a publication will offer much food for thought. For those with a special interest in medieval Nubia, the 27th supplement of the JJP is a treasure! It is divided in two parts: one on “New Texts” with eight contributions and one on “Studies” with seven. But let us see things from close and in detail.

  1. The first paper is by Renate Dekker, PhD student at Leiden University. Her project is about “Episcopal Activity in Late Antique Egypt: Theban Bishops at Work” and her contribution to Nubian Voices II is directly related to her topic of research. She got permission from Magdy Abdin, director of the Islamic and Christian monuments of Aswan (Supreme Council of Antiquities) to publish “The Memorial Stone of Bishop Joseph III of Aswan” (pp. 5-25) and she did a great job with this stela in Coptic both on the technical and the theoretical level. Perhaps one can keep in mind already one of her conclusions: all the four known examples of Bishops’ epitaphs from Egypt come from the areas of Aswan and Philae. Has she discovered the evidence of a very significant Nubian tradition?
  2. The truth is that Nubian epigraphy may largely be considered as a field of study of funerary texts. Many important collections have been published, but it seems that more are hidden and await the labors of the specialists in the field. The second paper in Nubian Voices II is an eloquent testimony of these facts. “Four North-Nubian Funerary Stelae from the Bankes Collection” (three in Greek and one in Coptic) have been identified by Jacques van der Vliet and Klaas A. Woorp, professors at Leiden University. They spotted them out at, and you can check numbers 1257703-6 to see their photos. For the editions you may consult the publication itself in pp. 27-43.
  3. In pp. 45-51, Jacques van der Vliet, one of the three editors of the volume, brings to Nubian Studies another guest star from Leiden University, namely Jan van Ginkel. Together they published one of the most fascinating new textual finds presented in Nubian Voices II, namely “A Syriac Alphabet from Qasr Ibrim”, proving the suggestions of some Arabic sources that Syriac was used in Nubia. Note that Jan van Ginkel has written the most updated monograph on John of Ephesus, the main written source for the Evangelization of Nubia.
  4. After three papers dealing with Coptic, Greek, and Syriac, it was high time for the volume to host its first paper on Old Nubian. The author is Giovanni Ruffini who attempts in pp. 53-71 a very difficult exercise of reconstruction and interpretation of a text long neglected: “Qasr Ibrim’s Old Nubian Burial-Shroud (QI Inv. 78.1.24/53 = NI 46)”. The object belongs to a small group of four such finds (one more from Qasr Ibrim in Coptic and two from Gebel Adda in Old Nubian. Ruffini manages to identify the type of text inscribed, and by setting this identification against the Nubian context he proposes specific high-ranked officers of the Makuritan state as the recipients of such prestigious objects.
  5. From Qasr Ibrim we move to Faras and to the paper by the two Polish editors of Nubian Voices II, Adam Łajtar and Grzegorz Ochała. Their collaboration marks the beginning of a revisiting of the epigraphic treasures discovered by the Polish mission that excavated the Nobadian capital in the 1960s. In pp. 73-102, they present “Two Wall Inscriptions from the Faras Cathedral with Lists of People and Goods”, a topic that Ochala had already touched upon during his contribution to the 2010 Nubiological Conference in London. Their careful survey opens new paths in the understanding of this very special category of epigraphic tradition in the Christian societies of the Middle Nile region.
  6. The next paper is the fruit of the collaboration of Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet. “An Inscribed Tomb Chamber in Ukma-West” (pp. 103-118) belongs to a group of five such monuments, four of which present many similarities and have been studied by the two scholars. The example of Ukma-West shows that the inspiration behind these inscribed burial chambers was not confined to the centers (Qasr Ibrim and Dongola), but also extended to the peripheries of the Makuritan world.
  7. Wall inscriptions is the second largest category of texts from Medieval Nubia and is the topic of the contribution by Agata Deptuła, a PhD student of the University of Warsaw. Deptula presents “Inscriptions from Saint Menas’ Church in Selib” (pp. 119-135), a fascinating site 20 kilometers south of Old Dongola. The merits of her paper go beyond the interest of the material itself, which adds to the cult of this important for the Nile Valley holy figure. The contribution will be referred to in the future as the first attempt to discuss the role of the deacons in the Nubian Church, an office that is much linked with the groups of specialists that were the scribes of medieval Nubia.
  8. The last paper in the first part of Nubian Voices II is the first of the two solo contributions by Adam Łajtar. In pp. 137-148, he publishes “Three Fragments of Terracotta Epitaphs from El-Koro and Karmel (Abu Hamed Reach”, that were found by the expedition ‘Fortresses of Sudan: Following O.G.S. Crawford’ led by Mariusz Drzewiecki. The pieces are a nice addition to my papers “Terracotta Funerary Stelae from Christian Nubia” and “Sepulchral Crosses from Nubia with the ΦΩΣ-ΖΩΗ acclamation“. The importance of the region from where come these inscriptions has according to Adam several implications and explanations, among which I wish to comment on the following: if as he suggests, “unlike the Dongola Reach, which is built of soft Nubian sandstone, the area between the Fifth and the Fourth Cataracts is characterized by crystalline rocks of the so-called Basement Complex hardly suitable, because of their hardness, for inscribing on their surfaces”, and therefore geology determined the material used for the local grave stelae, then it becomes quite plausible that this was the area from where originates the tradition of making terracotta funerary stelae, otherwise quite characteristic of several other areas of the Makuritan realm.

The second part of the volume opens with a contribution that could stand on its own as a supplement volume to the Journal of Juristic Papyrology.

  1. Robin Seignobos sent in a study of 78 pages (pp. 151-229) the only disadvantage of which is that it is written in French and inevitably its readers will not be as many as if he had composed the paper in English. Unfortunately the editors did not provide an English summary and it remains a desideratum to see a recapitulation of the discoveries of Seignobos in English. “Les évêchés nubiens: nouveaux témoignages. La source de la liste de Vansleb et deux autres textes méconnus” (“The Nubian Bishoprics: New Testimonies. The source of the list of Vansleb and two other unknown texts”) does nothing less than to replace one of the most referenced works in Nubian Studies: every time someone wanted to write about the bishoprics of Christian Nubia, the reference went back to a publication of 1677, when the History of the Church of Alexandria by Jean-Michel Vansleb was published. In it, we got a list of seven episcopal sees of Makuria. Robin’s exhaustive work in the Egyptian sources, his knowledge of Arabic and Coptic, his incredible memory, and his sharp understanding of geography and medieval Nubian culture created a masterpiece of historical insight that will provide inspiration for many different studies in the future.
  2. Already the second study of Nubian Voices, and the second solo contribution by Adam Łajtar, is a direct result of the discoveries of Robin Seignobos. It is undoubtedly the first time that Adam publishes a paper ending with an exclamation mark: “The Mystery of Timikleos Solved!” (pp. 231-243) is no small discovery either though. It proves that “Timikleos” is the Greek place name for the Makuritan capital of Old Dongola!
  3. After two exclamation marks, and two major discoveries for Nubian Studies in general, my own contribution in Nubian Voices II feels privileged to stand among such giants. “The Cryptogram ΜΧΓ as a Variant of the Cryptogram ΧΜΓ: On Text and Image in Christian Nubia” (pp. 245-262) revisits “a much-discussed epigraphic phenomenon, based on the identification of three new attestations of the trigram MXΓ discovered in Christian Nubia”. This trigram can now be deciphered according to “the identification of the ‘iconic’ value that at least some forms of writing had for the Christian Nubians”. Already a continuation of such analyses is under preparation.
  4. Just like in Nubian Voices I, my paper is followed by a study by Jacques van der Vliet. In pp. 263-277, the President-elect of the International Society for Coptic Studies, composes “Nubian Voices from Edfu: Egyptian Scribes and Nubian Patrons in Southern Egypt”. By revisiting the so-called Esna/Edfu collection of manuscripts, Van der Vliet identifies another testimony of the Nubian background of this lot (namely BL Or. 6784) and recognizes the important role of Edfu in the scriptural traditions spreading to Nubia, both among readers and scribes. I am personally thrilled by his paper, because I have expressed similar ideas in my thesis, as well as in the publication of the textual record from Serra East (both in preparation for publication in the course of the year), and therefore I have found an excellent reference to further corroborate my argumentation. The links between Nubia and Upper Egypt are becoming more and more concrete!
  5. The study that follows by Petra Weschenfelder is titled “The Soulou in Medieval Old Nubian Documents: A Mobile Ethnic or Professional Group?” (pp. 279-299) and discusses exhaustively this uncertain term. Although it does not reach a concrete answer to the question, it is a clear illustration of the difficulty to understand so many words in Old Nubian without a picture of their socio-cultural context, as well as of the variety of ethnies, territories, and dialects inside and around the Makuritan realm.
  6. Petra is the co-author of the next study on Old Nubian together with Kerstin Weber-Thum. “The Multifunctional -ⲁ: A Wild-Card in Old Nubian Grammar?” (pp. 301-312). In their paper, Kerstin and Petra revisit what has been written about the morpheme -ⲁ considering it as rather chaotic. They then set themselves along those who consider the predicate as a verbal complex and thus invite more comparative work to define the function of -ⲁ in its non-predicative roles, namely preceding ⲙϣ̄ϣⲁⲛ and ⲙⲁⲗⲗⲉ; marking the vocative; and marking direct discourse.
  7. Interestingly, the paper that closes this volume is “A Note on the Old Nubian Morpheme -ⲁ in Nominal and Verbal Predicates” (pp. 313-334) by Vincent van Gerven Oei. Vincent also revisits the literature, but rejects the Indo-European-centric philological tradition of considering predication as a solely verbal affair, and rather wishes to propose an overall analysis of all instances of the -ⲁ as it appears in the Old Nubian corpus. Thus, in the end, he produces a new taxonomy for the morpheme -ⲁ, as well as  a new chart of the Old Nubian verb – highlighting the symmetrical relations between the different types of verbal morphology.

The complementarity of the last two papers show the degree of contact and communication between the researchers of our generation who are willing to find their own respective fields of competence so as to produce results that can come in dialogue with the results of our colleagues – more often than not, friends in life too – and advance the achievements of a discipline that we all serve with passion and dedication.

With such an excellent panel of contributors and contributions, Nubian Voices II has only one challenge ahead of it, and that’s Nubian Voices III. We hope that in the meantime, the editors will have managed to guarantee to the authors the right to distribute freely the fruits of such thought-provoking academic labor. Until then, big thanks and congrats to Adam, Grzegorz, and Jacques, as well as to all those behind the scenes, who helped bringing this very important publication to fulfillment.

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