Telling stories

There have appeared many reasons in the past weeks to return to blogging.

I could have announced new publications, like the latest paper that Henriette and myself published on the medieval Sai cathedral in the Festschrift for professor Godlewski, or the first Dotawo monograph on “The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri“. By now, those that would read this blog could as well find links to the available files through, or my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Or useful older publications that SFDAS have put online, like the 15 volumes of the Dal Survey by Vila, but this was announced just today in the social media, so I am not that late ;-)

I could also have invited to interesting academic events that I did not have the chance to attend, but would have loved to be there, like the workshop organized on November 18, in Cambridge, MA, by Giovanni Ruffini titled “Which Nubia and Which Byzantium?” in the framework of “East of Byzantium”,  a partnership between the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Chair of Armenian Art at Tufts University and the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA.

Or the conference in Warsaw last week by Magda Laptas on “Nubian Art in a Byzantine, Ethiopian and Coptic Context”.

uksw_nubian-art_3-1 uksw_nubian-art_4-1

But the semester has been very demanding and the blog had to be left aside.

Nevertheless, as the year is coming to a close, I wanted to write about the three trips that will conclude my academic activities in 2016.

So, the present post is inspired by my trip to Johannesburg last week and will invite to an event tomorrow in Athens from where I publish this. The next post will report from the venue in Athens and for a very special visit to Paris.

But let’s start from South Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg

I was invited by professor Benjamin Hendrickx and his wife Thekla Sansaridou-Hendrickx (professors emeriti of the University of Johannesburg)  to assist in a publication project on the Res Gestae of the Nubian kings and to discuss about the possibilities to build up a project on the Greek language in Nubia. Positive results came out from discussions concerning both projects, so stay tuned for further news!

But the trip also gave me the possibility to see a couple of very interesting things of a slightly different order.

The first was the launching of a theater festival in memory of the great South African actor Ramolao Makhene. A festival that wanted at the same time to honor the great figure of South African theater and cinema, but also the long-standing tradition of story telling that Makhene brought forward as key to the development of both the individual actor and the group performing on stage. For him, and his students and colleagues, telling stories was an exemplary form of social cohesion, one of the main goals of theater in general.

Artur Molepo sang in memory of Ramolao Makhene a medley of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” and a quotation of Kalil Gibran’s text on children (a big thanks for the photos from the festival to Raita Steyn)

The potential of story telling for playing theater and creating social cohesion needs not to be stressed. But what about the particular function of story telling and orality in African culture and tradition more generally?

Isn’t it noteworthy that traditional history in Africa is rather oral than written? And that this has lead to the erroneous (and often biased) opinion that Africans had no history before the “discovery” of their continent by Europeans and Arabs?

I wonder moreover if the innovations brought by these new-comers were the writing of chronicles and the drawing of accurate maps.

Despite the obvious oversimplification, I think there is something to this idea worth exploring further. At least to the degree that colonization means the formation of a legitimacy in space – through maps, i.e. territory delineation – and in time – through written chronicles, i.e. genealogical structuring of the past.

Of course much has happened since then and these tools are fully taken up by Africans today in their quest for knowledge of the past to guarantee a better future.

Interestingly, this approach to life shows that the humanities might have a lot to offer and gain from being more present in the African continent.

Thinking along these lines, I admired the collection of maps in the office of my hosts and got permission to share the images hereby.

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My hosts are historians and these maps complement their effort to map a shared past between indigenous and foreign.

There is a dynamic relationship between these two in almost all aspects of life.

I will be investigating  such a dynamic relationship in detail during my talk tomorrow at the Norwegian Institute, titled “The Coptic Manuscript BL80 in the frame of medieval Nubian literacy”. But not so theoretically.  I’ll rather base my presentation on the hard evidence that codicology, palaeography and hermeneutics can offer to the study of a manuscript in Sahidic Coptic created just before the end of the first millennium CE in this zone of mutual interaction between Upper Egypt and (at least Lower) Nubia. More details HERE:


The presentation will take place in the frame of a Coptic Studies Seminar that I am organizing at the Norwegian Institute of Athens and which initiates a Greek-Norwegian collaboration in the field of Coptic Studies. Focus of the seminar will be the manuscript BL 80 preserving the best witness of the work titled Book of Bartholomew. More of the outcome of all that in a week from now!

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