At the International Medieval Congress 2016 at Leeds

We have just returned to Norway from England where we participated in the 23rd International Medieval Congress at Leeds. According to wikipedia, the Congress is the largest annual conference in any subject in the UK, and the second largest annual gathering in the field after the International Congress of Medieval Studies of Kalamazoo, USA.

Although focusing on the European Middle Ages, this year the organizing committee made room for sessions dealing with areas outside the main focus. Thanks to the energy of Adam Simmons, PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster, with a special interest in the image of the Nubians in Occidental Sources, and the assistance of Alexandros Tsakos, eight sessions on topics relating to Nubia, Ethiopia, the Nile Valley and the Red Sea were organized under the thematic circles “The Medieval Nile and Red Sea as a Passage of Transmission” and “Cross Cultural Transmission in Nubian Culture”. Each circle was further defined by a research topic, namely: “The Coming Of Islam“, “Pilgrimage“, “Monks and Monasteries“, “The Later Shifting Frontiers“, “The Influence of Christianity“, “The Ceramic Contribution“, “Art and Architecture“, and “Identity“.

First of all, these eight sessions offered a unique opportunity to bring together for the first time in the context of an international conference people working on medieval Sudan and Ethiopia. This is a pair of area studies that has long awaited such exchange of knowledge and methods, in order to investigate what kept these cultures apart or what was bringing them close to each other. Although it seems that there is agreement as to the necessity for more target-oriented archaeological fieldwork, there appeared also other fields with potential for insightful contributions. For example, the ceramic contribution from the world of Christian Nubia has already posed questions that need to find their counterpart in ceramic studies from the Ethiopian highlands. For instance in the papers by Aneta Cedro and Marie Evina: is pottery production in Makuria and Alwa only influenced by the Nile Valley? Or can we find imports, technological influences and economic dependencies from Axum? Furthermore, the immensely rich travel literature of the Late medieval and post-medieval centuries may contribute variably to the understanding of shared experiences between Nubia and Ethiopia. For instance: Were the waters of the Nile only a weapon in the hands of the Ethiopians to threat with thirst the downstream neighbors or did highlands and valley share the sacrality of living on the banks of the same river, as nicely discussed by Jessica Tearney-Pearce for the case of Egypt? Or, how can we tease out from the archaeology and ethnography of the Red Sea the common references of Nubians, Beja, and Ethiopians alike to this pivotal corridor of the medieval era, e.g. by studying the pilgrimage paths and patterns, as shown by Jacke Phillips; and how can we put the Medieval Nile back to the Sudanic belt, as attempted by Pieter Tesch?

Already here though, a problematic aspect of our meeting comes to the fore: all the participants from non-European/American countries invited could not make it to England and Leeds to contribute to the proceedings and offer an insider’s perspective to our talks… Was this a matter of diplomatic deficiancy from the part of the involved embassies? Or perhaps a result of the very different degree of financing-abilities offered by institutions in Africa versus institutions in Europe and the USA? Maybe it is rather an inherent problem of the field of Medieval Studies? For such a problem was not only felt in our sessions. On Monday, for example, an ambitious round-table on “Doing the Global Middle Ages” was organized, where our friend and colleague Vincent Van Gerven Oei named the elephant in the room: the panel was exclusively white (and rather Anglo-Saxon as someone else added)… And on Wednesday, another round-table opened the discussion of “Trespassing (Imagined) Borders: From a Peripheral to a Global Gaze in Medieval Studies”, with similar composition of panelists and audience and similar methodological challenges: how to trespass the limits that the discipline itself poses. If the issue is that medievalism needs input from other area studies, then these should first and foremost be served by “local” institutions and collaboratives, not by Westerners. Not only the persons involved should be – at least partially – originating from the “peripheries” behind the imagined borders, but also the models of research should be injected with the energy of their views upon what is history and how it can be written. And there the borders of our discipline are more real than we imagine… Finally, the discussion lead inevitably to the question: how can a student craving to learn about and do research on some “periphery” of the medieval world guarantee some sort of professional future in academia? No, we cannot. Not in the present model. Because this model of academic thinking has no space for an alternative politicization of higher education and research, since it never bites but only licks the hand that feeds it. Unless we all jump off the train of traditional universities, the only way viable for research without boundaries is not to give up in demanding a more just distribution of the wealth available, where the quality of knowledge produced and transmitted at the Universities, and especially in the Humanities, will not be measured in terms of “efficacy”, “relevance”, “impact” and the like. At the end of the day, it is not bad if instead of trading weapons, that a state rather supports academic institutions with job posts, research projects and the like.

Now, the experience from working with people in places like Sudan or Ethiopia provides those who had the chance to work in these places with a potentially different paradigm, not only because one sees the state of affairs in the states we do our academic affairs, and tries to avoid what sometimes seems as the inevitable, but because we have already (attempted to) step(ped) outside the paradigm of speaking about the others as if to prove that we speak in the correct way about ourselves. This challenging mindset has not necessarily been the characteristic feature of every talk and every contributor in our sessions; and we cannot claim that it was lacking to a larger degree in more “mainstream” sessions. One’s positioning to these challenges is more a personal choice. A choice of how we learn from the achievements of the colleagues, admire their innovative contributions instead of trying to cut their wings, make the most sincere and passionate effort to crack the codes of data and concepts ourselves too. And although not ubiquitous, all these elements were present in the sessions organized by Adam and Alexandros. Not because we used a magic wand that transformed things and persons; but perhaps precisely because when, for example, dealing with Nubia, one cannot ignore that the Nubians have a voice that can be heard if one is attentive to the material culture remains of the past, the words that link the text of the medieval sources from Makuria with the narratives of the present-day Nubians of the Nile, and thus their future too.

So, to close this report from the IMC 2016, some words on things we gleaned from some of the presentations about Nubia and the Nubians, most of which were chaired by Giovanni Ruffini who made all the way from the States to England so as to be with friends and colleagues in this important venue:

1. First of all, the talks by Marcus Jaeger and Petra Weschenfelder that were a sort of an answer to the deficiencies of the afore-menioned round-tables, opening new windows of contemplating the understanding that the locals (i.e. the Nubians) have of their past and their land.

Marcus Jaeger

Marcus’ talk showed how research should be conducted on the ground when the Nubians are to be involved, reminding us of projects of community-engagement in archaeology, like those developed by Cornelia Kleinitz and Stefania Merlo, where the researcher is first of all a listener to what the locals want to share and of how they want to share it.

Petra Weschenfelder

And Petra explicitly showed how the Jayleen interact with desert tribes in a quest for land, markets and family links in the region around the ancient city of Meroë.

2. Vincent van Gerven Oei provided a most insightful lesson on how to treat the translations of biblical texts from Greek to Old Nubian, substituting the models of classical philology proposed by Browne a generation ago with the bipole of obligatory and optional explicitation.

Vincent van Gerven Oei

Alexandros Tsakos weaved a paleographic model explaining the development of the Nubian majuscules script contextualized against the background of the shared world of Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia in the early medieval era, followed after the Makuritan annexation of Nobadia by a world hoping for a Christian ressurrection along the entire Nile Valley thanks to an expected (apocalyptic) victory of the Makuritans against Islam.

Alexandros Tsakos

3. The limits of how Islam infiltrated Nubia at the Batn el Hajar, leaving space for the development of local, small-scale powers, exhausting themselves in feuds and blood revenges, were magisterially analyzed by Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos in her proposal of the model of Refuge Area Warrior Society to understand developments in this region in the period between 1200 and 1800 CE.

Henriette Hafsaas Tsakos

Earlier, the limits of a Christianized landscape around the monastery of Deir Anba Hadra were eloquently and with rich visual material presented by Sebastian Olschok (representing also his colleague Lena Krastel who could not come to Leeds).

Sebastian Olschok

He also reminded us of the political interactions between Upper Egypt and Makuria during the reign of King Zacharias whose first year on the throne of Dongola has been used as reference point for one of the wall inscriptions from this very interesting site. The world around a Nubian monastery, namely Ghazali, was the topic of the paper by Tim Karberg and Jana Eger on the “Medieval presence in the Wadi Abu-Dom”. Unfortunately, they could not make it to Leeds, but they sent us their paper, which was read by Vincent Van Gerven Oei.

4. The political interactions between Islamic Egypt and Christian Nubia were also the topic of Joost Hagen‘s paper who shared with us one set of treasures from the amazing repository of written sources from medieval Nubia that has been Qasr Ibrim. Joost gave us a summary of the contents of new, unpublished sources for the history of Christian Nubia and Islamic and Coptic Egypt: four Coptic letters sent in the summer of 760 and excavated at Qasr Ibrim in Egyptian Nubia in 1972, together with an already published Arabic letter from the governor of Egypt to the Nubian king, from November 758. Here we should mention that Qasr Ibrim made an appearance in a paper from another session, namely by Anna Kelley who spoke about “Cotton Conversions: Tracing the adoption of a new textile throughout the Eastern Mediterranean”, giving a place of prominence to the Nubian world centered at Qasr Ibrim. In the same session, Arietta Papaconstantinou also referred to Nubia and the Blemmyes in sketching the narrative forms used to define the “Barbarians on the Fringe: Byzantium and the Desert Peoples”. We were happy to see Anna and Arietta following some of “our” sessions too!

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5. A different sort of interaction between Islam and Christianity was presented by Adam Simmons who added a more often than not forgotten parameter in the discussion, the Christians of the West during the Crusades. This time he focused on the appearance and evolution of Nubians in Crusader songs with an argument that the change is in relation to wider changes in Crusader mentality towards Nubians. His paper was a version of a book chapter to be published next year in: Benjamin Weber and Adam Simmons (eds.), Les Croisades en Afrique, Toulouse. Naturally, the topic launched debate around the identification of Nubians and Ethiopians in this source material, where Verena Krebs and Andrew Kurt were the primal discussants. Verena and Andrew added the Ethiopian perspective to our sessions. A minor percentage, but an important one, underlining the necessity to create more balanced sessions next year.

By the way, in case someone has already ideas for papers for next year, on sessions about Nubia, Ethiopia and Trans-Saharan/Indian Ocean-Mediterranean Sea Trade, do contact Adam Simmons (, who will then together with Verena and Alexandros distribute the proposed papers in the planned sessions for IMC 2017!

6. Finally, we would like to complete the presentation by turning our attention to two papers that were prepared by students of the University of Warsaw, the most renowned center of studies on Medieval Nubia: Macej Wyżgoł and Piotr Makowski. They had both completed their master theses on the topics they presented, two very important finds of the Polish school.

Macej Wyżgoł

Macej spoke about the famous bronze censer found at Old Dongola and identified the Byzantine origins of the vessel’s prototypes, although the riddle of the bilingual inscription appeared unresolved to him. Efforts by Vincent van Gerven Oei, Giovanni Ruffini, Petra Weschenfelder and myself to read and interpret the text must have helped Macej to think some plausible alternatives for the identification of the use of this object.  It seemed to us that the censer was a gift from a church dedicated to the Apostle Peter offered to the church of the Great God or the Great Church of the God, in either case the Cathedral where the censer was found.

As for Piotr, he supported a difficult theory, namely that the following drawing from a wall of the Faras Cathedral is a sketch representation of an architectural plan and that it is unrelated to any other inscription, carving or painting around.

Although the idea about the sketch of an architectural plan seems correct, it should not be taken apart from the accompanying inscription and the human figure, because they are very closely related, respect one the lines of the others, and are placed tightly close to each other, although the surrounding wall offers much empty space in case one wanted to separate image(s) and text. As for the interpretation of the group, the text – which Vincent Van Gerven Oei has identified as a prayer of a young woman to be relieved from the burden of marrying her maternal uncle – should be seen as the words pronounced by the human figure, who is at the same time “offering” the plan of a church to God pleading Him for her cause. A tentative but intriguing and meaningful interpretation, don’t you think?

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