A Newly “discovered” Funerary Stela from Sai Island!

It is the first time that I haven’t written in the blog for so long, but this return does not imply that I will resume frequent blogging. However, it is a statement that medievalsaiproject.wordpress.com is alive and that if an opportunity appears, I will be here to record it.

There could be no better opportunity than a new discovery throwing light on the medieval and post-medieval past of the island of Sai. And the present discovery concerns specifically the identification of a new Arabic stela from Sai…

Palm Sunday & Donkey Day

A funerary stela from a cemetery on Sai Island, first presented in: https://medievalsaiproject.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/palm-sunday-donkey-day/

The new stela was identified among the unpublished Arabic inscriptions in the Sudan National Museum by the leading figure of studies in Arabic sources about medieval Sudan, Robin Seignobos, post-doctoral fellow at the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO). Robin has appeared many times in this blog, but perhaps it is worthwhile mentioning the first one, when he gave an interesting report from his first trip to Sudan (and Ethiopia).

Robin during his first trip to Sudan. Photo first presented in: https://medievalsaiproject.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/contemplating-nubia-from-ethiopia/

This new visit was Robin’s third time in Sudan, and this time his field trip was aiming at the recording of the Arabic inscriptions at the Sudan National Museum. Apart from the inherent interest of the material for Robin’s research, the specific activity was taking place in the framework of a new ERC-project, namely COG HornEast directed by Julien Loiseau of the University of Aix-Marseille University.

The project has the objective of recording the relations between the Christian societies of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Nubia) and their Islamic environment, through studies on both the local and the regional level, so as to better understand the processes of Islamization of the region that spanned the entire medieval millennium (ca. 5thto 15thcenturies).

The project’s web-site announces that evidence in Old Nubian will also be taken in consideration and this is only natural, but I am wondering why are the other two languages used in Christian Nubian excluded?

Coptic texts from Nubia are in Sahidic and almost disappear after the 11thcentury, but Bohairic makes a slight re-appearance two centuries later underlining contacts with Egypt, and perhaps there is more to be found in the near future.

Moreover Greek, although especially a vehicle for religious texts, interacts so closely with Old Nubian in the last phases of the Christian kingdoms of the Middle Nile region that the combined Greek/Old Nubian character of sources, like the graffiti from Banganarti, are insightful witnesses to the conditions of continuity and change from a Christian medieval to an Islamic post-medieval period.

Interestingly, another ERC-project, UMMA: Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African city, with Artur Obluski as Principal Investigator, is researching these transformations from a Dongolese perspective and very fruitful exchanges should be expected through eventual collaboration between the two projects.

Similarly, a CNRS project titled EthioChrisProcess run by Marie Laure-Derat, also scientific member of HornEast, is investigating the earlier exchanges, similarities and differences between Christianities in Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia and important contributions can be gained from exchanges at both ends of these projects.

Robin is a member of all these projects and as expected since already his Key Note speech at the Neuchâtel Nubiological Conference he will have a pivotal role to play in the future of our field of studies.

Robin Seignobos inspecting Arabic stelae at the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum during his visit in February 2019

So, returning to his discovery at the Sudan National Museum related to Sai island: Robin saw a marble stela found in 1971 and dating from the end of the 12thcentury. The importance of the find is that it illustrates that there were most probably settled Muslim populations upstream from the Second Cataract, which was the limit of their expansion into Nubia as understood until today. Sai’s importance as a site in that connection can be appreciated through the material of the stela itself, namely marble which must have been especially appreciated also in medieval Nubia (for some comments on the use of this material in medieval Nubia, see HERE).

The limits of Egyptian intrusion into and influence upon Nubia changed in the Mamluk period, but the date of the stela places the activity that it records earlier, namely in that most interesting crossroads for Nubia during the Ayyubid occupation of Egypt that disturbed the balance achieved during the Fatimid period, and whose influence upon the rest of the medieval centuries in the Middle Nile is not yet fully apprehended. Definitely, Robin’s discoveries will assist research in this direction too.

[His blog post can be read HERE]


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1 Response to A Newly “discovered” Funerary Stela from Sai Island!

  1. Pingback: Mission épigraphique au Soudan : inscriptions arabes du musée national de Khartoum | Projet ERC COG HornEast

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