Some Nubiological pointers from a trip to the USA

Last week a very interesting academic meeting on Christian Africa took place at Harvard University, co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Committee on Medieval Studies, the Center for African Studies, the Department of African and African American Studies, the Center for the Study of World Religions, and the Harvard University Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities.

The conference aimed to continue the study of the medieval era in Africa, after a first venue two years ago on The Trans-Saharan World, 500-1700. There was a lot of enthusiasm by the organizers for what seemed to be for them a momentum to bring together all forces interested in promoting medieval African studies at Harvard. The conference focused on four countries, namely Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, representing four different case studies of Christianity in Africa during the Middle Ages.

Coptic Egypt is undoubtedly one of the cradles of Christianity, and it was Stephen Davis, professor at Yale, who works on Coptic monasteries in the Natrun, that was given the honorable duty to open the two-days conference with a talk that would attempt to contextualize what is meant by the terms “Christian Africa” and “Medieval Africa”.

He used as pivotal points for his presentation the figure of Moses the Black and the monastic presence of “Ethiopians” in Egypt. Leaving open the questions of the identification of African-ness among Christians of Egypt, or of the self-identity of African Christians more generally, the keynote speaker opened the appetite of those present, who all seemed very keen on profiting from the research results of those invited at Harvard to discuss their views upon Christian Africa during the medieval era.

Indeed, the talks during the next day satisfied both participants and the conference’s audience. The program was divided in four panels, the first discussing Ethiopia, the second Egypt and Nubia, the third Congo, and the fourth consisting of some reflections by Christopher Ehret and Helen Evans, followed by a long and fruitful open discussion.

The entire conference was video-recorded and soon the material will be available through some new platform that the organizers have begun discussing of how it should be set up. Stay tuned for the links!

In the meantime, the readers of this blog might be interested in knowing that Nubian studies were represented by Giovanni Ruffini and Alexandros Tsakos (and I cannot thank enough the organizers, and primarily Sean Gilsdorf for the invitation). Our talks took two opposing standpoints: Giovanni argued that Nubia was a Christianity without Church or Theology, based on a careful selection of written sources that offer insights into the magico-protective character of Christian Nubian faith and cult; as for myself, I chose to support on the basis of the study of the Creeds found in Nubia and the Christianization of the Nubian kingdoms, the idea that Christian Nubia can be seen as an Afro-Byzantine theocracy. Despite the seemingly contradictory positioning of these two talks, our approaches are in fact rather complementary, since they describe Christianity on both the personal and the official level of life in medieval Nubia.


Having crossed the Atlantic, I did not want to loose the opportunity to visit some more places on the East Coast, and so I decided to drive with Giovanni from Harvard to New York where he lives. The first part of this road journey was rather short, since we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We were joined by Marie-Laure Dérat who had also been invited to Harvard and she gave a very informative talk about the relations of the Zagwe Dynasty in Christian Ethiopia with the Coptic Patriarchate and monastic world in Egypt.

However, at the MFA there was nothing to see from either Christian Nubia or Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the magnificent finds of Reisner’s excavations are no longer exhibited, apart from half a dozen objects, dispersed for the most among New Kingdom exhibits, despite the fact that the galleries are still marked as Nubian, while, although two reliefs from Meroitic pyramid chapels are exhibited, there is nothing that explains what is the difference between Meroë and Napata or New Kingdom Egypt… At least we got to know from a short meeting the day before at the conference with Rita Freed – the curator of the department of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at MFA – that there are plans to re-exhibit properly some of the Nubian antiquities; while in the meantime one can check out most of the related finds at the MFA’s database.

Moreover, we were stricken both positively and negatively by two terracotta figurines of the Cyclopes in a gallery exhibiting Homeric and dionysiac iconography from the Greco-Roman world.

The positive reaction concerned the figure on the right-hand side, which is the first time I saw a Cyclope represented in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian God Bes! And the negative reaction concerns the way the African-like face of the Cyclope on the left is described in the museum’s legend: “Polyphemus has all the physical traits of a grotesque monster – a bold head, gigantic ocular eye, bulbous nose, puffed-up lips, protruding ears, pot belly, and flaccid penis…” Coming from a conference where African-ness has been the most heated topic – but in such a positive manner – it was hard to grasp the intention of this unlucky description.

Unfortunately, things did not look that much better for ancient and medieval Africa (outside Egypt) at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. There was again nothing from Ethiopia, while we only encountered one exhibit from Nubia: this was, however, the entire temple of Hathor from Dendur, built by Augustus and moved in the frame of the Aswan High Dam Campaigns, as several other monuments of Lower Nubia, doomed to remain under the waters of Lakes Nasser (Egyptian part) and Nubia (Sudanese part).

The gallery is of course very impressive, full of light and rightfully attracts the attention of many visitors. My attention though focused on two details:

– First, on the walls of the anti-chamber of the temple, two epigraphic events executed with (mainly) Greek letters.

The upper one in the photo is a Late Antique or medieval graffito, executed by a Christian visitor, perhaps by a Nubian; and the two a bit lower are from 19th century visitors with Greek family names – note that the delta of the name of the one on the right is written as a Latin di!

– Second, beside the temple a column capital from the Isis temple at Philae has found its way to New York.

As can be seen on the photo, a cross has been carved on one of its sides, bearing witness of the much discussed history of the transformation of the temple into a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary – a change of dedication that was of course discussed during the Harvard conference too.

Such small details speak more often than not “loud and clear” to those with special interests in the past of humanity. We search for these details, because they tell us stories we like hearing; and because they may elucidate case studies that occupy our minds.

Closing this entry about my trip to the USA, I’d like to share three more such details:

– The first comes again from the MET. It is the torso of a Venus cut in black stone.

Its posture and color made me think of the famous Venuses of Meroë…

…and to wonder whether such a statue would have inspired the artists responsible for some  of these most hellenistic creations among Meroitic art.

– I encountered the second one at the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Elephtherios at Manhattan that I visited with my cousin, Achilleas, who lives there. On the wall over the entrance to the church, the names of the members of the Greek community who held an office are listed.

Please note on the right side of the exit sign, the family names of the ladies that were running the council for the support of the poor. Although in “standard” Greek these names would have been in genitive, nine out of the fourteen ladies keep their name in nominative, as they would have most probably been indeed doing, if they wrote their name in English. To what degree are we able to discern such variants in the use of Greek in the multilingual environments of places like the Greek diaspora today or the medieval Nubian society where Greek – along with Coptic and Old Nubian – were used?

– The final picture comes from a short visit to Princeton University, where I accompanied my friend and colleague Christian Bull, who is there in the frame of his post-doctoral scholarship. Waiting for a reading seminar to begin, I had time to visit the famous Firestone library, where I saw this beautiful globe.

Naturally, I focused on Africa and the Nile Valley, and spotted the name covering the region:

“Dangali” was the name for “Nubia”, deriving from the name of the Makuritan Capital: Old Dongola.

I knew I had the end photo from my trip to the US, not only because the day after I’d be flying back home, but also because the next time I’ll write here will be after a trip to Warsaw to attend “Makuria day” and hear about the new book that Adam Lajtar and Jacques van der Vliet just published on the renowned inscriptions from the funerary crypt of Archbishop Georgios from Dongola…

This entry was posted in Nubia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Some Nubiological pointers from a trip to the USA

  1. ustadhbob says:

    Wish I was here :-) I did not know Marie-Laure would be there too !

  2. ounoginiri says:

    I really enjoyed your venue! Thank you E

  3. ustadhbob says:

    Just a remark though : Dangali (or Dancali etc.) in Ancient European maps does not refer to Dongola but rather to the Danakil (plur. of Dankali) depression in Northern Ethiopia, dwelling of the Afar people. The name appears in Leo Africanus’ description of Africa which was one of the main source of information concerning inner Africa for the European cartographers of the Early modern era.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.