To Berlin for a “marble inscription from Soba” – a trip and a blog post by Vincent van Gerven Oei

Only a couple of days have passed, since I repeated an invitation to feel free to send for posting in this blog your texts with Nubiological interest, and already I have the honor to host a short report from a most productive trip to Berlin by Vincent van Gerven Oei. Thanks Vincent and, ontrakagoueke, enjoy!


On a chilly Friday morning I arrived at a non-descript commercial zone in the outskirts of Berlin, close to Schönefeld airport. I was supposed to meet Frank Marohn, a conservator from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, who would show me an object with archival number ÄM 2262.


Only a few months ago, through the intercession of Alexandros, did we discover that this object found in Soba and containing a Nubian (but definitely not Old Nubian) text, still existed in the archive. I was now going to meet it in real life.

Frank kindly allowed me all the space and time to inspect the object and the large depot, which, he said, was supposed to be temporary but will most probably be in use until 2023 – much longer than expected. The shelves go up several meters above the floor, making it impossible to take out any object above the second shelf. A moving company needs to be called in advance to take out anything higher – an annoying and unpractical situation for any conservator (and scholar!).

I was lucky that the object of my affection lied on the second shelf, so could take it out himself.

 The object, a “marble inscription from Soba,” was heretofore only know to me through a drawing by Lepsius, showing two separated pieces joined together, with writing on both the back and the front.


When Frank took the inscription out its confines in a wooden crate, which it shared with a Meroitic object, it however appeared that a third piece of the inscription, unknown to Lepsius, had been attached at a later point, extending the lower three lines of text.

A fourth piece, catalogued under another number, also had writing on both sides, but further inspection showed that the ductus was significantly different on one of the sides, and that perhaps the marble was from a different stone. We couldn’t find a way to fit the piece with the rest.

All pieces had sustained some degree of fire damage from the Second World War. According to Frank they had been stored to protect them from the effects of the war at the Sophienhof Castle north of Berlin. Unfortunately, the castle burned down in the last months of the war. The Soba inscription, got saved! 

Autoptic inspection revealed quite a few new details and solved a number of uncertainties left by the Lepsius drawing. About the nature of the language, however, we are still none the wiser. It is a Nubian language for sure, and several words and names are recognizable, but several of the characters, and most words and morphemes are heretofore unattested. This should also not surprise us. Soba, the capital of Alwa, was a long way up the Nile from the kingdoms of Makuria and Nobadia, so a different (Nubian-related) language seems logical.

I am planning to prepare an edition of this text, together with a few other “pre-” and “non-Nubian” Nubian inscriptions for the ISNS conference in Paris, hoping to connect a few more dots about the Medieval Nubian languages we haven’t really talked about yet.

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9 Responses to To Berlin for a “marble inscription from Soba” – a trip and a blog post by Vincent van Gerven Oei

  1. Nuboo says:

    Looking forward to learn more about the southern Nubian language(s). Weren’t some villages in the Butana and the Gezira speaking Nubian well into 19th century?

    • ergamenis says:

      Thanks for the comment Nuboo!

      We all await Vincent’s insights into this fascinating topic.

      I have not heard about Nubians that south that late before, but it sounds very interesting! What’s your source?

      • Nuboo says:

        In 1943, Ernesto Zyhlarz wrote in his paper “I reami della Nubia prima dell’Islam uno squadro storico Sudan antiqo e medioevale” the following:

        “Ma non più di un secolo fa s’incontravano da Tangassi in su fino a Scendi villaggi di lingua nubia.” (p.240)

        Rough translation: “Not even 100 years ago, there were Nubian-speaking villages between Tangassi and Shendi.”

        You can find the whole article on Jstor (Link=

        For Nubian speakers in the Gezira I am not that sure, hence the question mark. In “Sudans Blood Memory”, p. 21, Stephanie Beswick claims that the Gezira was inhabited by Nubian speakers until “the recent past”. She claims that this language was related closer to Nobiin than Dongolawi/Kenzi. Couldn’t see the source she relied on tho, since I only have acess to the limited Google Books version. I don’t know where exactly I’ve read it, but most likely either in O’Fahey & Spaulding’s “Kingdoms of the Sudan” or Spaulding’s “Heroic Age in Sinnar”, but it was noted that even Funj officials spoke non-Arabic languages well into the 18th century. Considering that I could imagine that some Nubian speaking villages might have survived in some remote Blue Nile villages as late as the 18th or 19th century as well.

  2. Vincent says:

    Hi Nuboo, that is fascinating. Like Alexandros I’d very much like to know where you found this info.

  3. ustadhbob says:

    Hi everyone, apparently S. Beswick based her claim on R. Thelwall’s lexicostastical study (published in Etudes Nubiennes, 1978). But whereas Thelwall claimed that the cognates between Dinka and Nobiin were caused by the influence of an ancestral proto-language, Beswick suggests that these cognates are rather the result of interactions between let’s say “proto-Dinka” and Nubian speakers from the kingdom of Alwa. I am no linguist so I am not qualified to tell if this interpretation makes sense or not… However, we do have (thin) evidence for a southward extension of the influence of Alwa, as far as the southern Gezira, at Djebel Guli for instance where, in a not so remote past, an ancestral deity known as “Haboba Soba” (“grand-ma Soba”) was still given offerings during wedding ceremonies… cf.

    • ergamenis says:

      Very interesting and welcome to the discussion ustadhbob!!
      Do we know anything about the way the medieval Nubian past got incorporated in the Funj post-medieval context, in the sense of linguistic evidence in texts or among recorded populations that were Nubian of some sort or another?

    • Nuboo says:

      “However, we do have (thin) evidence for a southward extension of the influence of Alwa, as far as the southern Gezira, at Djebel Guli for instance where, in a not so remote past, an ancestral deity known as “Haboba Soba” (“grand-ma Soba”) was still given offerings during wedding ceremonies”
      Not to mention the oral traditions and customs of Fazughli! Zarroug writes in his “Kingdom of Alwa”:

      “Al-Anag is identified in this work with the Roseires-Fazughli area in
      southern Gezira. It was one of the important districts of Alwa where,
      until recently, gold was obtained in nuggets. There are a number of
      reported sites of possible Alwan affinity in the Roseires district.
      Chataway, who reported these sites, pointed out that in this district, Soba
      is said to be fairly common as a place name. There is a Soba at Mazmum
      ‘and there are also two sites known as Soba near Roseires, where Anag
      pottery and beads can be found. They are reputed to be Anag village
      sites (Chataway, 1 930:248). Chataway also added that an oath which the
      Anag use and dare not break runs as follows: “I swear by Soba the home
      of my grandfathers and grandmothers which can make the stone float
      and the cotton ball sink.” Chataway stated that some trace, albeit faint,
      of Christian beliefs can be found among the Anag of the Roseires district.
      There is a “christening” ceremony at which the child has a cross marked
      on i ts forehead with charcoal. A youth, if he becomes breathless when
      playing, will mark his chest with a cross. A sick person will wear a coin
      which has a head and a cross on it. These and similar customs are not
      confined to the Roseires district but are known throughout the Gezira
      region and in the northern and western Sudan as well.”
      -p. 99

      Spaulding, while relying on oral traditions, has even suggested in his “Fate of Alodia” that Fazughli housed an Alodian successor kingdom, which lasted from the rise of the Abdallab / Funj until 1615 / 1685. Even if these local traditions are fabricated they confirm a strong Alodian / Nubian presence during former times.

  4. ustadhbob says:

    And looking forward to hear more about this inscription in Paris !

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