Medieval Sai at the Sonqi Tino Collaborative

The reason for returning to blogging is the organization of a workshop at the Pontificio Istituto Biblico in Rome. The workshop aimed at the study of the wall inscriptions found in the church of Sonqi Tino.

Our host, Fr. Vincent Laisney, was invited to work on this epigraphic corpus in 2012 as part of an effort by the Sapienza University to produce an overview publication of the results of the excavations that Sapienza had conducted in the 1960s, in the frame of the Aswan High Dam campaign. Fr. Laisney has been ever since active in the circle of students of the Old Nubian language and medieval Nubia. He was one of those who came to Bergen in 2015 and contributed in the first collaborative effort to publish the textual material from medieval Nubia that remain unpublished, namely the manuscripts found at the site of Attiri. He was impressed by the effectiveness of this collaborative and suggested to invite the group to Rome in order to study the collection of wall inscriptions from the church at Sonqi Tino.

Our collegium met for four days at a seminar room of the Pontificio Istituto Biblico. Vincent van Gerven Oei and myself were the only members of the Attiri collaborative that came to Rome; Giovanni Ruffini, Kerstin Weber-Thum and Petra Weschenfelder could not attend because of different professional obligations. The Sonqi Tino collaborative comprised furthermore four dear colleagues from Warsaw: Agata Deptuła, Adam Łajtar, Grzegorz Ochała and Dobrochna Zielinska. There is no way one can overestimate the importance of the school of Warsaw in the study of medieval Nubia.

Special mention should be made to the presence at the workshop of my dear friend Dobrochna, even though she is not a textual specialist, but rather a specialist of iconography. The inscriptions from Sonqi Tino are wall inscriptions, more often than not related to the murals decorating the interior of the church with representations of holy figures, religious feasts, but also secular authorities. Therefore, her contribution was major, in the sense that the texts we were studying were set in their archaeological context, thus fulfilling the wish that text, image and space are taken as a whole and not torn apart during their scientific examination.

A good example is a graffito from a wall next to the mural depicting the archangel Michael saving Ananias, Azarias and Misael from the fiery furnace according to the narrative from the third chapter of the book of Daniel. It was found in a bad state of preservation, no photograph was made by the excavators, but Sergio Donadoni made a copy of what remained without identifying its content though.

We took ANANI- as a Nubianized form of the name for Ananias, and -ΔΕ as a conjunction that should be completed in Old Nubian by one more -ΔΕ and in the end of the conjunction a -ΔΕΚΕΛ. Thus, on the basis of the location of this otherwise unintelligible graffito next to the mural with Michael saving the Three Hebrews from the Fiery Furnace, we reconstructed a very interesting Old Nubian text.

Such moments of “revelation” and decipherment were many during the meeting in Rome, but these results come only after hard team work, which takes a lot of time, energy and patience to implement and bear fruits. Therefore, despite four days of collaboration, we were not able to complete the more than 200 inscriptions registered on the walls of the church at Sonqi Tino, and soon we will need to plan another meeting for the completion of a project that seems very promising for literacy and religiosity, but also politics in Makuria and the Nobadian Eparchy.

Two inscriptions that bear testimony of this latter aspect persuaded me to write up this blog, because they mention the name of the island of Sai:

  • The first one is found in the titulature of a person dedicating a dipinto next to a mural of the Maiestas Crucis from the central space in the church. The inscription bears testimony of a king too, and shows the importance of both Sai (as the place of origin or activity of an officer of the Makuritan state named next to a king), but also of the site at Sonqi Tino itself (several instances of a king mentioned in the inscriptional material have been registered).
  • The second one troubled us quite some time before actually we deciphered it, because of the bundled way the letters are painted on the wall.

ⲍⲁⲓ̈ⲗⲟ ⲉⲛ̄ⲛⲉ ⳟⲁⲡⲓⲅⲉⲗⲏ

I am from Sai, Ngapigeli.

Ngapigeli consists of the word Ngap for “gold” and the well-attested name-ending -geli. However, “gel” means red, and it is perhaps intriguing to see the execution of this graffito above the painting of the Holy Trinity, where red and gold are the dominant colors, as a very fitting choice indeed. Or could this golden-red man from Sai be the painter himself known in the Nubian world from his love for these specific colors in executing his works of art?

Many such speculations and hypotheses were heard during our meeting in Rome. Most will be kept out from the publication, because they cannot be proven. But they have given us moments of fun, as well as of insights observations, both elements for a successful collaboration, of the type that not that often we see in humanities.

I bet we are all looking already forward to the next meeting of the Sonqi Tino collaborative!

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