It is just the second time that I write something about a fiction book in this blog.

There are, however, a couple of excuses for returning after four years to such an activity – if there is indeed need of any – namely that a topic related to this blog’s interests is rarely treated in fiction; and that the treatment of such a topic rarely becomes such an exquisite literary product.

I am referring to “Azazeel” by professor Youssef Ziedan.

The story is set in the early 5th century CE, and narrates the life of a man born at Aswan, who becomes a monk at Panopolis and moves to Alexandria to accomplish his dream of excelling in medicine. He finds himself there in the days right before the assassination of Hypatia, an event that marks his life and identity, and casts him to even further wanderings in the geography of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity, namely towards Jerusalem and Antioch, meeting figures like Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, condemned and excommunicated by the Council of Ephesus, because of his idea that Mary was a Christotokos rather than a Theotokos…

This monk’s story absorbed my interest every time I had the chance to return to the pleasure of reading this literary jewel. It was not only his Nubian origin that attracted me, although initially that was what caught my attention. It was the qualities of the writing: the sharpness of Ziedan’s pen combined with the smoothness of his narrative paint the image of a literary figure exhibiting sensitivities that non-fictional written sources and studies thereof do not easily let us imagine about the Christians of Late Antiquity; although as the author of “Azazeel” shows so eloquently they can be found if someone knows how to read between the lines and manages to contemplate the entire forest not getting lost in the beauties and details of each individual tree… but I guess this concerns all academic endeavours, so let’s leave this to that…

…however, the open access publication of the long-awaited book by Artur Obłuski, president of the International Society for Nubian Studies, on “The Monasteries and Monks of Nubia“, means that both specialised readers and the general public are in possession of all the background information necessary to create more narratives about Nubian monks, be they “real”, plausible or simply fictional.

But let us return to “Azazeel”. There are two points in the book that are worthwhile to write about in a bit more length and which relate to two works of mine, the first in fact linked with Artur and his research interest on monasticism.

This is the publication of the textual record from the Lower Nubian monastery at Qasr el Wizz (in collaboration with Katarzyna Danys and Dobrochna Zielinska who write about pottery and mural paintings respectively) and in the frame of a monograph edited by Obłuski in the series of the Oriental Institute of Chicago Nubian Expedition:

In page 49 of  the English edition of Azazeel, our Nubian monk has arrived in Alexandria. He meets a man who comes from the south too and tells him an interesting story from his hometown Ansina/Samalout. Let me quote:

“He said he grew up in a village near a mountain called Bird Mountain, because birds come and land there every year and fill the air around. Then they suddenly leave after one of the birds sacrifices itself by putting its head in a hole at the foot of the mountain, and something unknown inside the hole wraps itself around the bird’s head and does not let go until the bird’s body has dried up and its feathers have fallen out. That is a sign for the rest of the birds to dive into the Nile and fly away at night, only to come back next year at the same time and repeat the cycle”.

Can it be that the toponym “Qasr el Wizz”, which translates “the castle of the geese” hides a similar story? The locals who would remember it have long gone from the area; the area itself has long ago disappeared under the waters of the Aswan Lake…

Another artificial lake, created by the Merowe Dam, has made disappear another stretch of the Middle Nile, where the medieval Nubian kingdoms were thriving: in the Fourth Cataract region, archaeologists preserved for “eternity” what would have been lost by the absurd decision to produce electricity in the most ineffective means for that landscape. Among the most surprising finds was the cachet of manuscripts behind the apse of the church on the Island of Sur. They were all in fragmentary form and this was the result of their use over a very long period extending beyond the disintegration of Makuria in the 14th century, as I have discussed in my thesis, where this find was published (the thesis can be found at the university library in Berlin in microfilm format and a printed version including the book binding material is under preparation). During this long period of use, the way the texts in these manuscripts were understood and the goals with which they were functioning inside the local community must have varied quite widely from the ways we may picture “ecclesiastical” uses. They were, in my opinion, tokens of authority for those functioning in quasi-priestly roles after the disintegration of the church hierarchy guaranteed by the Makuritan state. They must, however, also have appealed to the local community, even as symbols of this authority, where what was said in these texts would function as moral guide or even threat of punishment in case of inappropriate behaviours in the frame of this community.

It was along these lines of thinking that in 2006, I first read the following passage from the dialogue between David and Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-6) preserved on the largest manuscript from the Sur collection, containing parts of the second section of the second homily by John Chrysostom on Penitence (CPG 4333.2; PG 49.279):

“There was a rich man and there was a poor man. And the rich man possessed many herds and heads of cattle, while the poor man had a single goat. From his glass she was drinking. And from his table she was eating. And in his bosom she was sleeping.” Here the genuine relation between a man and a woman is shown.”

The last phrase is an explanation that the scribe of the manuscript himself gives to his readers about the meaning of the phrase of Nathan “And in his bosom she was sleeping”. I was deeply surprised by what was meant… Did the poor man of Nathan’s parable entertain relations of affection with his goat? Was there an allusion on bestiality in the witness of the Chrysostomian homily preserved in the church on Sur Island?

Bestiality was not unknown in Biblical literature, see Exodus 22:19; Deuteronomy 27:21; and Leviticus 18:23 & 20:15-16.

And bestiality is not unknown in Sudan either. In the same year that the manuscripts from Sur were found (2006), one of the most read news-story in the entire world wide web was about a man from Juba in South Sudan who was forced to marry a goat with which he was caught having sexual intercourse.

Nothing surprising with all this in pastoral contexts for those who do not hide behind their finger. Ziedan also had a peek in the matter, when he makes our Nubian monk listen to the sins committed by a man whom he met near the town of Sarmada in Syria (and I quote from p. 214 in the English edition of “Azazeel”):

“Among the abominations which he confessed was that since the age of puberty he was in the habit of copulating with goats. He would wait until he was alone with a nanny goat that wanted a male, then in the depths of night he would hold her between his thighs and have his way with her.”

Can it be that those priestly figures on Sur, in the early post-medieval and pre-Islamic times in Sudan, kept this page from the good old Chrysostomian morals and used it to admonish tendencies of the local community towards zoophilia??

But perhaps with such thoughts, I am just being carried away by Azazeel…

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