Two comments on two wall inscriptions from the Faras Cathedral

I guess there is hardly any reader of this blog that is not acquainted with The Ancient World Online (AWOL) blog. If not, check out HERE. AWOL has an alphabetic list of Open Access Journals in Ancient Studies, which counted 1644 titles on the 1st of January 2018. Among those, we find the Polish periodical Études et Travaux, which was recently mentioned in AWOL thanks to having given open access to its current issue (volume XXX). The journal has hosted many times contribution of Nubiological interest, and in the 2017 issue, there is one of especial interest for texts and languages in Medieval Nubia: Adam Łajtar and Grzegorz Ochała published “Two Private Prayers in Wall Inscriptions in the Faras Cathedral“.

These two prayers are written in Greek and Old Nubian, the two languages mostly used in wall inscriptions from Christian Nubia. Coptic is much rarer, which is a phenomenon noticed by many scholars, but not yet thoroughly discussed. I hope that the collaboration in view of the publication of the wall inscriptions from Sonqi Tino will find space for the beginning of such discussions, since there at least two very interesting Coptic graffiti from that church.

Back to the two texts from the Faras Cathedral, perhaps the readers of this blog will remember that Adam and Grzegorz had already published two more of these textual treasures from that church in the second volume of Nubian Voices. These were two lists of people and goods in Old Nubian. In the new publication, they present two personal prayers. All this material are appetizers for a grand catalogue that the two Polish scholars are preparing.

The first of these prayers is a dipinto written in Greek and is modeled on the text of Psalm 85. The name of the scribe or the person who commissioned the text is an Old Nubian name and I believe that I have found another element that betrays that the scribe was a Nubian with a very interesting sense of how his language functions in a common universe with the Greek language; a universe orchestrated by sacred texts composed originally in Greek and then translated into Old Nubian, often altering syntactical and grammatical frameworks of the local language. This element is the dropping of the final N in the imperatives of second person singular aorist, which although is nicely explained by the two editors as a phenomenon frequently occurring in post-classical Greek, it also creates a very intriguing visual result: the ending -ⲥⲟⲛ becomes -ⲥⲟ and therefore reminds the imperative in Old Nubian itself! About the visual significance of writing for the Nubians, I have written elsewhere, and will write more in the near future both here and in other academic venues.

The second text is a graffito with a prayer in Old Nubian. It has a rather standard form, which is also reminiscent of the way in some Psalms (e.g. 36 or 109) God is asked to allow good things to happen to the one addressing the prayer and prevent evil and envy to harm him (or her). Here, it is the opening and the closing of the text that are in Greek, as quite often it happened with incipits and explicits also in Coptic Egypt. The text is very interesting from many points of view, perhaps mostly for some orthographic variants that it presents. But there is a variant that the editors explain as a haplography and I think that this is not right. The lexical form is attested as ⲕϣ̄ⲕϣ̄ⲕⲁⲧⲧ- and means “envious, jealous”. Obviously, this is one of the cases that the meaning of a word is strengthened by the duplication of the root-syllable, like Adam and Grzegorz correctly point out in a note in their article. In fact, the etymology for this word proposed by Browne is based on an Arabic loan-word kashara, is attested in Kenuzi as kešire, admitting that the lemma should rather have been ⲕϣ̄-. According to Vincent van Gerven Oei (whom I thank for discussing with me the comments published here), a more plausible etymology would be a pre-Nubian loan into Old Nubian, the proto-Nubian cognate of which is *kuus “bad,” Old Nubian ⲕⲟⲥ “evil,” cf. Nara koško and Tama kaši “bad,” which both preserve palatal sibilant present in kiš(kiš) (cf. Claude Rilly, Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique, Leuven: Peeters, 2010, p. 479, no. 112). These observations are not only of lexicographical significance, but may also allow for understanding the way such a prayer was composed: in my opinion the choice of words was very careful, and it might be of no surprise for those who have been discussing Old Nubian literary texts with me lately, if I’d say from here again that such a choice might be explained by reasons of rhythm. More on this topic soon, but for those who want to get a first taste of what is meant, they can see the analysis of a hymn to Michael from the publication “The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri” (pp. 19-20)

My comments are minor but they add to the picture of the linguistic situation in Christian Nubia. I hope to be able to continue providing such comments in the blog with a good rhythm, and of course I welcome similar contributions that can be hosted here after reviewing.

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