On Friday the 15th of December 2017 there took place at the University of Warsaw, the “Third Makuria Day” organized by professor Włodzimierz Godlewski and the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology. The previous events took place in the frame of the annual meeting “Poles on the Nile” organized by the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw and resuming latest activities and studies on the past of the Nile Valley by Polish scholars. These events were conducted until now almost exclusively in Polish.
This was the first time that a Makuria Day would take place independently of its standard framework and that also the English language would be used. The obvious reason was that professor Adam Łajtar from Warsaw and professor Jacques van der Vliet from Leiden and Radboud universities would be presenting their latest book, the long awaited 32nd supplement of The Journal of Juristic Papyrology, titled: “Empowering the Dead in Christian Nubia. The Texts from a Medieval Funerary Complex in Dongola”.
The organizers invited also professor Giovanni Ruffini from Fairfield University for a guest lecture on “Nubia’s Shield, religion and protection from Antiquity to Modernity”. The title of Ruffini’s lecture (which was delivered in a most eloquent and captivating manner covering all issues that it promised) goes in pair with the title of the book, since they both reveal a focus on aspects of religious practice discerned in Christian Nubia that some would characterize as “magical” or “apocryphal”, others as “ritually powerful” or “mystical”, some more as “prophylactic”, “apotropaic” and so on. It is not the first time that such dimensions of Late Antique and medieval Christianity along the Nile (both in Egypt and in Nubia) are being discussed in an academic venue. It is, however, rather seldom that the space, where such cultic practices are identified, is so close to both the secular and the religious authorities of an entire state: For the texts written on the plastered walls of the funerary crypt that Lajtar and Van der Vliet studied were placed there to create a phylactery for the afterlife of Georgios, the Archbishop of the royal city of the kingdom of Makuria. How can this combination of the ecclesiastic authority of a Bishop with the ritual power of texts be understood in the frame of Christian Nubian monarchy? Throwing light upon this tension was somehow the goal of the Third Makuria Day.
The host of the venue, professor Godlewski, opened the proceedings with a “Short History of the Makurian Church (6th-12th centuries)”. He must be one of the very few scholars that can provide a plausible scenario for the history of Christian Nubia, and as Ruffini said, who was chairing this first session: “The history of medieval Nubia written by Godlewski is the one that historians respond to when they try to build their own picture of that history”.
Behind good parts of the historical narrative that Godlewski has built up through 50 years of fieldwork and study, there lies an immense output of work by the archaeologists from Warsaw (from the University, from the National Museum and from the Polish Academy), as well as by the textual specialists gathered in the Department of Papyrology of the University of Warsaw. Two have already stood out as the leading Polish epigraphists dealing primarily with Nubia: Adam Łajtar and Grzegorz Ochała.
Grzegorz is definitely the most successful student of my generation at the Department of Papyrology in Warsaw – and not only. His major contribution is the most wonderful gift ever prepared by a papyrologist for his peers, namely the online and open access Database for Medieval Nubian Texts (DBMNT). On the basis of DBMNT, Ochała has produced some very insightful studies and is always finding new ways to combine the evidence and show the structures that unify the Nubian texts, despite the restrictions that defy generalizations. This time, Grzegorz attempted to discern the structure, hierarchy and functions of the lower clergy of the Makurian Church. The degree of his success will not be challenged by inaccuracies in his observations, but by uncertainties as to whether such an ecclesiastic structure permeates all titles in all the texts that these are attested.
As for Adam: his erudition cannot be showcased in any blog post. During the Third Makuria Day, he offered the audience two presentations; the first on one of the most interesting textual finds from Old Dongola commemorating a synod of Nubian prelates in a church of the royal capital most probably at some point in the early 9th century CE; and the second was a most insightful prosopographical study from everything that we know about Bishops in Nubia. Professor Łajtar had prepared a handout consisting of nine pages of a list of bishops with references and main infos, and of six pages of a comparative chart arranging the data in columns giving the name; the milieu and family connections; the main titles and elements of the career; and the age at appointment, length of episcopacy and age of death of all bishops for whom at least one such information has been preserved to us. The analysis behind this impressive list was more than 50 pages long and therefore those with special interest in texts from Christian Nubia met the next day in a most friendly spontaneous workshop that everybody present simply adored. More on that “overtime” of studies of Christian Nubia in the end of the post.
So, the concept and the contents of the Third Makuria Day were formed by the two main focal points of the publication by Łajtar and Van der Vliet: on the one hand, the prophylactic character of Nubian Christianity, exemplified in the texts covering the walls of the burial crypt of Archbishop of Dongola Georgios; and on the other hand, the role of the ecclesiastic hierarchy, primarily of Bishops, in (also) less spectacular aspects of Nubian church life, Christian belief and cult. In between these two ends of the Third Makuria Day stood the presentation by Jacques van der Vliet: “Magic and the Bishop”. The audience was reminded of the accusations of using magic against bishops in Late Antiquity, often in concoction with accusations of heresy. Had Georgios and the Nubians fallen prey to practices that the rest of Christianity would be condemning? The answer given by Van der Vliet’s presentation was negative: what can be observed in both Makuria and the rest of Christianity are changes in, among other things, the funerary customs that betray a shift towards what can be called a “somatomorphic perception of the soul”. The subtle nuances of that sort in Van der Vliet’ talk were the most promising introduction to the richness of the analyses that he and Łajtar have composed in JJP supplement XXXII. A review of this book will be one of the goals for this blog in 2018.
Another goal could perhaps be to be present at Makuria Day next year too! Which also implies that the international profile of the Third Makuria Day will be pursued in the future. May our hosts keep up the good work, share it with colleagues abroad and widen the scope of all “Makuria Days” making them the much-wanted point of reference for studies about medieval Nubia more generally. In any case, this venue needs not to continue in Polish for the sake of giving the opportunity to the local researchers and students to meet and exchange views and news from the progress of their work in their own language, for, as I have heard, some circles of specialists, like the Polish ceramologists of Warsaw, meet quite often with very satisfactory results for the participants. Poles also have meetings across the various disciplines, and beyond the “Poles on the Nile” events, gaining from the multi-disciplinary approaches of such venues.
This was also the case for those who stayed an extra day at the University of Warsaw to attend the unofficial workshop organized in the same premises as the Third Makuria Day.
So, Adam, Giovanni, Vincent van Gerven Oei and myself happily spent part of our Saturday, discussing with Adam his paper, listening to a short briefing from the most interesting PhD thesis of Agata Deptuła (another student of Warsaw and Adam) on the wall inscriptions from the Lower Church of Banganarti, and attempting a combination of studies of text and image, in view of a collaboration for the publication of the wall inscriptions from the church of Sonqi Tino. The key person here was Dobrochna Zielińska (my very good friend, kind host, and the person behind the images used in this post) whose studies on Nubian iconography, and our own collaboration in the frame of the project “Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia”, painted the contours for what we think can be the most productive way of preparing and publishing the wall inscriptions registered on the walls of the mostly flooded today Nubian churches. So, here is a third goal for 2018: update the blog after the meeting in Rome that will be the most decisive step towards the publication of the wall inscriptions from the church of Sonqi Tino.
With these things in mind, let me close with gratitude for the academic leader of this venture, professor Godlewski, who must be feeling safe for the future after his retirement since his efforts have found so good continuators, whom I thank for an excellent weekend in the capital of studies about Makuria.