Wanderings about Nubian Frontiers in Warsaw

On the 18th of December I returned to Warsaw.

Such a return concerns normally a Nubiological event, but it’s of course always a pleasure to see my friends there and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the town, highlighted specially the days before Christmas.

(photo by Bruce Williams)

The academic venue this year was the workshop “Frontier Wanderings. Relations across the First Cataract: movement of people, ideas, goods, skills and craftsmanship (6th-15th century)”, organised by Gertrud van Loon, Dobrochna Zielińska and Adam Łajtar, as a combined effort between their NCN Polonez & Marie Skłodowska-Curie projects under the title “Frontier Wanderings. Church Decoration in the Aswan Region and in Lower Nubia (6th-15th century)”.

The organisers assembled experts of both medieval Egypt and Nubia, and invited us with a focus on the border zone at the Aswan region to “look at this region from two angles, from both traditions, for a balanced view on relations in e.g. history, trade, art, architecture, archaeology, literature, liturgy”.

The logo of the workshop was an excellent representation of this relation and dialogue between the two traditions: the figures of two birds carrying branches in their beaks, both from decorations on ceramics, one from Upper Egypt and the other from Lower Nubia.

The idea belonged to Katarzyna Danys, who concluded the conference with an excellent overview of how ceramics bespeak the communication between the two worlds under scrutiny during the workshop.

Unfortunately, she was the only ceramologist present at the workshop (but see the presentation by Steffanie Schmidt below). This is surely the result of a, relatively speaking, decreasing number of ceramic specialists working on medieval Nubia, Coptic and Islamic Egypt. The need for more ceramologists will appear acutely in the coming years, with increasing archaeological work in the Middle Nile region, unpublished material from earlier campaigns still waiting study, and the absence of relevant specialisation in the few universities that include Nubiology in their curricula. Sometimes, the value of an academic venue can also be measured by the way it underlines what is lacking in the state of the research and what can be done in the future…

Such a task is achieved primarily by discussions that a workshop-format serves undoubtedly best, and this was clearly the aim of the organisers of “Frontier wanderings” with the way the programme was set up, as well as by the time allocated for questions and comments, both after each talk and in a specially designed last session.

Moreover, there was a most welcome gender-balance in the composition of the workshop’s list of participants, although it was unfortunately not a surprise that “local”/”indigenous” scholarship was absent. Perhaps representatives from Egyptian and Sudanese museums or experts on anthropology, social history and ethnoarchaeology from these countries could have offered useful insights into aspects not covered by our meeting, but which can be included in the program of future venues – which, all participants agreed, would be more than welcome.

Another discipline not present as much as one would expect was architecture, but then again, it is not possible to cover everything in two days, while the heavy schedule of specialists like Artur Obłuski, who sadly could not be present, made the inclusion of a panel on the topic rather difficult. As remarked in the opening talk by Gertrud, the Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia had partly inspired the “Frontier Wanderings” project. Since for the Corpus project the triptych image-text-space has been essential, in future “Frontier Wanderings” space must occupy as much as possible of our time.

But let us now see what was offered by the workshop in positive terms, and with a Nubiological focus:

The venue opened with a visit to the Faras Gallery of the Warsaw National Museum, where we had the chance to be guided by Dobrochna and Adam.

Even if one thinks that one knows the exhibition, both the encounter with the objects themselves and the insights offered by discussions between such knowledgeable guides and a savant audience offer always extremely rich experience. Several times for example, the leading specialist on the study of medieval Nubian textiles and dress, Magdalena Wozniak, was called upon to discuss details of the way especially local personae were represented on the magnificent Faras murals.

One such figure is Marianos, bishop of Faras in the 11th century. Not only is his mural representation an excellent example of the way local figures are depicted with anthropological characteristics that bespeak their origins, but he became later on the focus of one of the most interesting discussions in our workshop.

First of all, it must be reminded that Marianos (†1036) is the only bishop who is not named in the famous list of Bishops from the Faras Cathedral, which begins with Aetios in the 630s and ends with Iesu II in 1169. The reason is probably that he was never buried at Faras, but in Qasr Ibrim. Nevertheless, he seems to have wished that this had been the case, since he had ordered his mural to be painted in the southern vestibule of the Faras Cathedral, where perhaps a tomb would have been opened for him. Then, Marianos also ordered that along with his painted representation several others were executed, especially of monks who martyred for their faith, like Psate, Kaau and Melas (e.g. Godlewski W., Pachoras. The Cathedrals, Warsaw 2006: 112).

These saints were among those discussed in the paper by Gertrud and Dobrcohna, because they occupy important space in the Christian spirituality between Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia, where they are depicted and venerated. They were shown together with images of anchorites represented in the Faras iconographic program, who were also active in both regions. Interestingly the murals depicting Aaron and Onophrios date from the same period – although Ammonius is from much earlier.

In the discussion, I suggested that these saintly figures could be identified with the monks that fled from Upper Egypt to the south so as to find themselves in harsher contexts to exercise their ascetic practices, and even spread Christianity through their martyrdom, as recorded in Paphnutius’ Lives of the Monks of Upper Egypt; these murals can thus be seen as a sort of memory-archive for Nubian Christianity. The presence of Stefan Jakobielski in the room reminded us of the role of Marianos in creating this space-repository for this type of collective-Christian-memory.

It has often been remarked in Nubian Studies how the 11th century marks a focus of Christian Nubian culture to the local element, be that the Old Nubian language or the veneration of local saints, among which sanctified bishops seem to occupy a prominent place. Marianos may have been one of the first representative of this “movement”; Archbishop Georgios of Dongola, with the famous crypt at the monastery there dated from the end of the 12th century, can be considered as the culminating point of such developments.

Anyway, Marianos and the decoration of the southern vestibule was not the only time that the 11th century and the cult of the saints was brought into our discussions.

Mural of anchorite Aaron from Faras, now at the Sudan National Museum

The 11th century occupied in fact the larger part of the panel on “textual evidence: religious literature”. For both myself and – especially – Lloyd Abercrombie built our case studies on manuscripts originating from the so-called Esna/Edfu lot. The name for this collection of 22 manuscripts in Sahidic Coptic, one in Greek and one in Old Nubian, is based on the reference to Esna as the place of production of 12 of those and Edfu as the place of deposition of 9 or 10; on similarities in content, palaeography and codicology of most of them; and on the testimony of the first buyer from locals, Robert Rustafjaell. Lloyd meticulously presented the three alternative scenaria available, namely:

  • The one supported by Rustafjaell, Budge and Van der Vliet that there is indeed a single collection produced at Esna and deposited at Edfu.
  • The one supported by Crum, Layton and myself that the provenance is uncertain.
  • The one supported by Bruce Williams that the last in date manuscript, i.e. BL Or. 6799 dated in 1053 and 1056 and stating Serra as its place of deposition, should be considered on the ground of archaeological argumentation, as the place of deposition of the entire lot.

Bruce correctly, in my opinion, identifies a “Nubian cluster” in the so-called Esna/Edfu lot, since the manuscripts destined for Nubia, mention neither Esna nor Edfu. However, whether the entire collection was destined for Serra it is impossible to prove – there I’d agree with Lloyd. Moreover, it is not necessary to consider Edfu as a station for manuscripts destined for Nubia, unless we’ll give Edfu such an important role for the Nubian world. Granted, Edfu was important, Nubians were present, and the papers by Andreas Effland and Elisabeth O’Connell earlier that day had underlined this. But it seems to me uneconomical to suggest that on their way to Serra or Nubia, these manuscripts were deposited at Edfu and that this fact was also marked in the colophon without any reference to their Nubian destination, as it was the case for BL Or. 6799 and 6804! It should also be noted that a breach in the codicological unity of the “Esna/Edfu lot” has been caused by the inclusion therein of the Old Nubian manuscript containing the Miracle of Saint Mina and the so-called Nicene Canons. Interestingly, the small codex had been suggested by Griffith as destined for Serra, but no hard evidence for this exists, apart from the fact that Serra was the source of most of the earliest known manuscripts in Old Nubian – and still the site from where comes the longest known text in the language. These impressions must have affected the way Bruce interpreted the manuscript collection, pushing to the extreme something that is rather obvious to my mind: the manuscripts destined for Nubia were not destined to be deposited in Edfu, unless they would pass from there on their way to Nubia. In that latter scenario, we must picture a lot produced at Esna, including manuscripts both for Edfu and for Nubia. The lot arrives at Edfu, but for some reason or another never leaves the place; the Nubians must have never received them. There again, I could agree with the unity of the lot, but would suggest to rename it “the Esna lot destined for Edfu and Nubia”. And in fact, there is nothing against Esna being the locus of the scriptorium creating this collection, which I think is anyway the case with the Nubian cluster, i.e. the manuscripts destined for Nubia were produced in Egypt, perhaps even by Nubians working there, as I believe that I have managed to show in the work with my friend Christian Bull on BL Or. 6804 containing the Book of Bartholomew.

This manuscript constituted the case study I examined in the second half of my talk on the 19th of December and I think that it fitted nicely with the announcement by Jacques van der Vliet of the publication in collaboration with Jitse Dijkstra of “The Life of Aaron” from manuscript BL Or. 7029 from the same lot. But I promise to return to this book in 2020, when I’ve read it and analysed its conclusions. For the time being, I have to insist that it is safer to keep the provenance of these manuscripts as uncertain and side with Layton’s way of treating the collection in the British Library Catalogue of Coptic Manuscripts he published in 1987: “The Tenth and Eleventh-Century AD Parchment and Paper Codices and Papyrus Fragments”.

What I also tried to show in my presentation regarding the manuscript production in that period, and based on my analysis of the textual record from the Qasr el Wizz monastery, was that it was then that arrived in Nubia hagiographical works to create a literary corpus for synaxaristic use in the Liturgy, as was happening “everywhere else” in Eastern Christianity since the 9th/10th century. The central role I gave to the liturgy in my talk was not followed up in the presentation by Joost Hagen, although there were great hopes that he would present some contextualisation of the magnificent material he is working on from Qasr Ibrim, the largest library of medieval Nubia known to date.

Nevertheless, the insights Joost offered to the Qasr Ibrim collection were very interesting: For the first time we saw previously unknown identifications that he has achieved, like passages from the Proverbs in Sahidic from a papyrus fragment written in very cursive script, or the homily of Cyril of Jerusalem On the Virgin Mary, giving further evidence on the cult of Mary in Nubia, or a couple of new martyrdoms surely used in the Liturgy in the Nubian Church. He also showed us impressive illuminations and unidentified apocryphal works. His work has advanced after a last visit to Cairo, where he began a collaboration with a local curator on the material condition of the manuscripts from Qasr Ibrim. Together they will present in the 12th International Congress of Coptic Studies in Brussels in July the results of their work, and there Joost has promised to announce the final publication of his thesis!!

News from Qasr Ibrim came also from the presentation by Geoffrey Khan on Medieval Arabic documents from Qasr Ibrim. Khan has also returned to the study of this material and a close-up presentation of especially letters and legal texts of the Mameluke period offered very interesting insights into the contacts between Islamic Egypt and Christian Nubia, and opened important discussions about our understanding of the rhetorics and terminology used in these documents; for example the office of “ikshil”, identified as a honorific title for both secular and religious holders of office in Christian Nubia, but here used as the way of addressing “the governor of the land of Maris”, obviously the Eparch of Nobadia. Khan hopes to have finished his work by next year, for the historical contextualisation of which Robin Seignobos will play an important role.

Robin was dearly missed during the workshop, since he has contributed greatly to our understanding of contacts across the Aswan frontier. However, he was present through the assistance he has provided both to Geoffrey Khan and to the work by Grzegorz Ochała and Naïm Vanthieghem on Arabic Names in Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim. In fact, Grzegorz is preparing another gorgeous database for all of us working on medieval Nubian texts, this time on the names used by the Nubians. In this database, the Arabic names have a most insightful role to play since they are such eloquent witnesses of identity markers for the population of the Middle Nile region during the Christian millennium. According to Grzegorz – who made the presentation without Naïm, since the latter was prevented from traveling to Poland by the strikes in France – there are three possibilities that can explain the attestation of an Arabic name in the textual record from medieval Nubia: either they witness the presence of Arabic speaking foreigners settled there; or they are evidence for the Arabization/Islamization of Nubians; or they bespeak the fashion of using Arabic names, even among non-arabised Nubians. In any case, the analysis of this phenomenon was deemed by some of us as the highlight of the workshop and we are really looking forward to exploring the potential of the new database for our studies of medieval Nubian societies.

A different path for accessing the realities on the ground of these societies and their neighbours in Egypt is offered by the study of the textiles preserved in the archaeological record, as well as in the iconography and the texts that refer to the clothes used by Egyptians and Nubians across the frontier of the First Cataract during the medieval era. For the study of the latter, presented by Magdalena Wozniak, again the contribution by Robin Seignobos was of primal importance, since the Arabic texts preserve information about types of clothes, quality of textiles or centers of production exchanged in the frame of the baqt “treaty” that defined large parts of the official contacts between Islamic Egypt and Christian Nubia. Excellent comparanda were given by Amandine Merat who spoke about Textiles from Hisn al-Bab, probably the place where the baqt was exchanged, underlining the potential of this type of research for understanding the dynamics of cultural markers and identity among the human objects of our research.

The fortified places marking the safeguarding of both independence and communication between the two worlds were the object of the presentations by Andreas Effland and Elisabeth O’Connell, while Jennifer Cromwell zoomed in in the life of the fortified Nubian settlement of Ikhmindi, from where comes a leather manuscript in Coptic preserving a deed of sale.

One of the most important elements with Jenny’s contribution was showing that the tradition of food-sharing at the end of such acts of sale was not only recorded in Old Nubian texts, but also in the rare cases where such legal acts were sealed by a document in Coptic. A marvelous proof of the plasticity of the frontiers that sometimes should be seen as rather the creation of our own research than the lived experience by those directly involved with the era and area that we are studying.

This lived experience was definitely the question looming as the background of Bruce Williams’ presentation on Transport and Pilgrimage on the Middle Nile in Medieval Times from Representations of Boats at el-Kurru, Sahaba, Sabu, Qasr el-Wizz, and Aswan. His parcours of the graffiti on rocks and stone monuments underlined the common experience of traveling by Nile-boats across the frontiers and the centuries.

A graffiti of a boat on a densely inscribed wall at the monastery of Qasr el Wizz

These were the boats that were carrying products, pilgrims and ideas. But were they records of real boats, real journeys, and real adventures on the waters of the Nile or symbols of other realms, of superhuman agency and of human belief? The study by Bruce showed how important it is to assemble the data and scrutinise the evidence they carry. Irrespective of the raison d’être of these graffiti, they are definitely markers of the movement inside the networks that existed in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages along the Middle Nile Valley.

In the presentation by Steffanie Schmidt the question was focused on How Aswan terracotta lamps can throw some light on cross-border networks. What do the finds of such lamps tell us that other ceramics do not? Especially when they are inscribed with the names of local saints? Why did people as far south as Dongola and as far away from the Nile as Adoulis would wish to possess a lamp with the name of a sanctified Bishop from Aswan?

Fragment of an Aswan lamp from Qasr el Wizz inscribed with the name of Bishop Joseph, central figure in Steffanie Schmidt’s presentation.

Is it only the quality of the clays? The fashion to obtain specific products? The role of pilgrimage, as has been the explanation for the Saint-Mina-flasks for example? The questions are hard to answer, if possible at all. But Steffanie’s talk opened the geography of the exchanges between the Egyptian north and the Nubian south to areas beyond the Nile, especially the desert roads that link Aswan with the Red Sea ports and thence to the world of the Indian Ocean.

The presentations by Lena Krastel and Adam Łajtar focused on this special role of Aswan for our “Frontier Wanderings”, and particularly the textual record from the site of Deir Anba Hadra, one of the focal points for the entire project of Gertrud, Dobrochna and Adam. The site has indeed offered magnificent evidence for the contacts between Egypt and Nubia, as well as the role of the Nubians in the region, which at times became impressive. Best testimonies thereof come from the textual record, and Lena presented a very interesting analysis of the Coptic inscriptions.

As for Adam, he gave another exquisite analysis of a Nubian text that has eluded interpretation for a century now, the so-called Kudanbes inscription dated 7 April 1322. Gradually this enigmatic text is being deciphered, thanks to the experience accumulated through working with these very special texts that are the wall inscriptions made by Nubians of the Late Christian period. Adam is the foremost expert on this, both thanks to his brains, but also thanks to his work with the corpus of such texts from Banganarti. And I wish to believe from collaborative work too, like the one on the textual record from the church at Sonqi Tino, a project which will inshallah bring me again to Warsaw in June for its second and conclusive part before publication.

But before then, a last but not least word on our workshop, which brings me back to the first evening and the public lecture by Jacques van der Vliet, titled “Nubia in Christian Africa”. Jacques delivered a paper that was an exemplary illustration of the innovative approaches to a discipline that can be achieved by the leading figures of a school of studies when the given school has accumulated experience, has the brains and works together. So, Jacques, having worked extensively with both Egyptian and Nubian material, took a leap and saw our frontier world from on high, enlarging the scope so to say, and saw that the unities and similarities that we are trying to picture perhaps are of a larger character; they surely encompass Christian Ethiopia too, and create a regional identity that he proposed to call “Monophysite North-East Africa”. This idea will surely be discussed a lot in the future, both in Nubiological, Coptological and other academic venues.

One of the characteristics of Nubia, as core area of this Monophysite North-East Africa, was, in Jacques’ opinion, that script had a primordial role in the literary culture in the region, sometimes even before language and orality! He was kind enough to thank me for inspiring him some years ago towards this line of thinking, and having already some publications on the topic out, I promise to keep up this discussion from here too, with the opportunity of a relevant series of papers and presentations in 2020.

In the meantime, I close this blog post with an image over the closing slide from Jacques’ talk, so as to apologise too for the images “stolen” from my friends’ and colleagues’ presentations in Warsaw, and for any misunderstandings in the way their ideas are represented here. But mainly to thank them all for the great time last week in the capital of medieval Nubian studies, and especially Gertrud, Dobrochna and Adam for the amazing hospitality!

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