The Word and the Flesh

The last couple of weeks I have been reading one of the most fascinating books that the treasury called the library of humanities of the University of Bergen has offered me: “Animal Skins and the Reading Self in medieval Latin and French Bestiaries” by Sarah Kay (2017).

This is a study “undertaken”, according to the author, “in order to explore how a widely read and influential genre may have shaped readers’ sense of the relationship between themselves and other animals” (p. 149). Kay proposes that “the bestiaries’ impact will have been twofold, operating both through the content of the texts themselves and through their transmission as parchment books”, and she further argues that “these two factors are consistently sutured one to the other via textual references to skin and because of the fact that the pages themselves are instances of skin” (idem.). Thus, sutured may also be humans and animals, through the surface of the parchment pages, which mirror both the exterior feeling of the skin, shared both by humans and animals, and what is hidden below the skin, to the depths of the soul. The last dimension is reached through metaphors, similitudes and the theologization of the otherwise natural-sciences specific descriptions of the beasts populating the contents of these medieval books.

A superb example of the suture of the categories of content and surface of page can be found in the chapter on the Hydrus and the Crocodile. The Hydrus is a serpent-like beast that “smears itself with mud”, from the Nile where it lived, “then creeps into a sleeping Crocodile and devours it from the inside by chomping through its entrails; allegorically this refers to the incarnation of Christ and the harrowing of Hell” (p. 52). In relation to a depiction of this violent symbolic penetration from Philippe de Thaon’s bestiary preserved in the Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen, Kay explains:

“The artist has threaded the Hydrus through the Crocodile with care and deliberation. Although the streams of blood from its exit and entry points indicate the lethal effects on Crocodile of the Hydrus’s progress, the overall impression remains – or it seems to me – more decorative than traumatic. What makes the “hide of the flesh” appear as such on this page is not its representation in the image but the margins of the page itself, the long sewn up tear in the top right hand margin of fo. 21r producing an emphatic parallel to the holes bored by the Hydrus in the Crocodile … The teaching that impresses itself on the reader’s mind is borne in this manuscript by a skin that can be identified with the “hide of the flesh” of the Hydrus and the harsh hide of the Crocodile. And because it expresses her own human “hide of the flesh”, filling it with thoughts that are assumed as hers, the hide of the page appears in some sense as the reader’s own skin. She herself and not the Crocodile are to be pierced and internally consumed by the incarnate Christ.” (p. 59)

It is this focus on the skin made parchment and its participation in the violence, the fragility, the mortality shared by the animals depicted and the human reader, that primarily attracted my attention on the work of Kay. I was subsequently intrigued by the distinction she makes between what Martha Rust in her work Imaginary Worlds in Medieval Books (2007) has called “codicological consciousness”, namely the “awareness on the reader’s part of such aspects of book production as ordinatio (expl.: the structural arrangement of a book’s parts) and the quality of illustration” (p. 142), and Kay’s own advocacy for “a codicological unconscious in which reading can be subject to contingent interference from the look and feel of the page itself” (idem.)

Consequently, all through her work, Kay proposes that the cuts, holes and mendings on the parchment pages are used and/or made consciously by the scribes in order to awake in the unconscious of the reader, feelings and sensations related to the nature of the “beasts” described and depicted in each chapter. And this is where my interest became a fascination to discern a conscious effort of the scribes, whose works from Nubia I study, to awake codicologically an unconscious relation between their readers and the page as surface and content.

These days I am trying to finish up a new edition of the British Library Sahidic manuscript Or. 6804 (no. 80 in Layton’s catalogue), together with my dear colleagues Christian Bull from the University of Oslo and Nikolaos Kouremenos from the University of Athens. The manuscript contains the Book of the Resurrection of Christ by the Apostle Bartholomew. This manuscript was destined for an unidentified Nubian site and is thus very interesting for my post-doctoral research on Religious Literature from Christian Nubia; and it is interesting for this blog post, since it presents tears and mendings on two folia, nos 8 and 10, which were made before the scribe copied the text, since the letters move around these page-scars. Now, in the colophon of this manuscript the scribe proudly states that it is himself who prepared the parchments, and I had always considered this statement at best as a paradox given such poor result on a couple of pages, at worst as an indication that the scribe, either a Nubian or working for a Nubian client, was not that professional with the art of making parchment, binding sheets into quires, creating precious codices. But how could that be if the skins needed to make a codex meant that many animals had to be slaughtered and time and effort invested, making the whole venture a very costly one? Reading Kay’s book, I realized that the scribe of the BL manuscript made this statement fully aware of its significance: that just like the content of the work was carefully copied and nicely decorated (aspects that will be discussed by our publication with Christian and Nikos), equally carefully were the pages selected, equally nicely were they made part of a well-calculated codicological product. If this was the case, then the use of the sheets with the tears on folia nos 8 and 10 might also have been calculated. Could it possibly be the case that the scribe of the Bartholomew manuscript was operating based on similar codicological consciousness, and was awakening a similar codicological unconscious in his readers, as Kay discerned in the relation between scribe and readers of the medieval Latin and French Bestiaries she studied? I had to turn to the text itself.

BL 80 fol 8r

The recto of folio 8 contains a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; a blessing that her son addresses right before ascending to the heavens. As the text runs towards the end of the page, we read the promise given by Jesus to his mother that she will be with God after she’s left her body: “And your body, I will make the Cherubim with the sword of fire keep watch over it, and twelve hundred angels will also keep watch over it, until the day of my appearance and my kingdom”. So, at the place where a cut in the parchment is mended, a promise is given that Mary’s body will be guarded, preserved, venerated. Here, according to Kay’s analysis, the reader’s mind should recognize the corporality of the page. Then, if the scribe, who also made the codex, was indeed aware of where he was placing each parchment sheets, in the case of the mended folio 8, he made an excellent choice: the reparation of the cut in the lower-right corner reminds the vulnerability of the human nature and the need for protection by superhuman agents. Moving from the suture of human and animal in the bestiaries, in the Book of Bartholomew we see the hide of the flesh suturing the human and the divine; an act appropriate for the person who united the divine and human natures through the miracles of her Immaculate conception and the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, according to the theology our scribe.

Turning to the verso of folio 8, we follow Mary bringing the good news of the Resurrection to the Apostles, who praised her. Then, we return to the image of the ascending Christ. The folio contains the end of the scene with Mary, and the focal point is her holy body, her blessed womb, and the praising she receives as the last act of Jesus before leaving his earthly state. The focus on the body and womb that brought Christ among the humans is accentuated by the skin surface marked as a carrier and marker of humanity. Kay’s paradigm seems to work perfectly here.

BL 80 fol 10v

Folio 10 contains the first hymn of the angels in honor of Jesus who forgave Adam through his crucifixion and thus saved him and “all his sons”. Interestingly, the framed explicit of the hymn characterizes the son of God as “our perfection”. The text in the rest of the verso exhibits rich red-color decoration of all the letters pi for the definite article in the expression p-eoou (the glory), the element which opens each phrase (verse?) in the hymn to Jesus (“glory to you the good shepherd, Amen; Glory to you, the …”). In this manner, the contents of the page are invested with sacrality, as has been observed in several occasions for the use of red ink in Nubian manuscripts. At the same time, the folio is marked by a mended cut, shorter than the one of folio 8, but clearly visible and again present before the scribe copied the work. Does this cut remind the readers of the imperfection of their own nature? And does the scribe underline his humbleness in front of the glorious miracles he describes in his manuscript? Can it thus be that the scribe consciously placed this scarred page here in order to awaken in the unconscious of his readers the distance between the earthly world of the skins and the world of the heavens where everything finds its perfection?

These ideas are nascent and perhaps speculative, but they are rendered probable through comparison with the ways Kay understood the content and form of the Latin and French bestiaries she studied. Kay’s work offers us one more plausible insight into the world of codicological consciousness and unconscious, an insight related with the topic of the work itself, which was proudly presented by our scribe to his Nubian clients, namely the Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle; a saint that martyred during his apostolic work in Armenia by being flayed and then crucified head downwards.

Byzantine mosaic from the Basilica of Saint Marc in Venice depicting the flaying of Saint Bartholomew

The flaying of Bartholomew inspired one of the first attempts by Sarah Kay to investigate the possibility that “the wounds in the parchment may have been seen as a graphic realization of the text’s content, an uncanny precipitate of its ideas in concrete form” (Sarah Kay, “Original Skin: Flaying, Reading, and Thinking in the Legend of Saint Bartholomew and Other Works“, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.1 (2006), pp.  35-73; the citation from p. 36). Is it just a coincidence that we have discerned similar ideas in the Copto-Nubian literacy in precisely the manuscript that preserved the longest version of one of the works attributed to this specific Apostle?

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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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Two comments on two wall inscriptions from the Faras Cathedral

I guess there is hardly any reader of this blog that is not acquainted with The Ancient World Online (AWOL) blog. If not, check out HERE. AWOL has an alphabetic list of Open Access Journals in Ancient Studies, which counted 1644 titles on the 1st of January 2018. Among those, we find the Polish periodical Études et Travaux, which was recently mentioned in AWOL thanks to having given open access to its current issue (volume XXX). The journal has hosted many times contribution of Nubiological interest, and in the 2017 issue, there is one of especial interest for texts and languages in Medieval Nubia: Adam Łajtar and Grzegorz Ochała published “Two Private Prayers in Wall Inscriptions in the Faras Cathedral“.

These two prayers are written in Greek and Old Nubian, the two languages mostly used in wall inscriptions from Christian Nubia. Coptic is much rarer, which is a phenomenon noticed by many scholars, but not yet thoroughly discussed. I hope that the collaboration in view of the publication of the wall inscriptions from Sonqi Tino will find space for the beginning of such discussions, since there at least two very interesting Coptic graffiti from that church.

Back to the two texts from the Faras Cathedral, perhaps the readers of this blog will remember that Adam and Grzegorz had already published two more of these textual treasures from that church in the second volume of Nubian Voices. These were two lists of people and goods in Old Nubian. In the new publication, they present two personal prayers. All this material are appetizers for a grand catalogue that the two Polish scholars are preparing.

The first of these prayers is a dipinto written in Greek and is modeled on the text of Psalm 85. The name of the scribe or the person who commissioned the text is an Old Nubian name and I believe that I have found another element that betrays that the scribe was a Nubian with a very interesting sense of how his language functions in a common universe with the Greek language; a universe orchestrated by sacred texts composed originally in Greek and then translated into Old Nubian, often altering syntactical and grammatical frameworks of the local language. This element is the dropping of the final N in the imperatives of second person singular aorist, which although is nicely explained by the two editors as a phenomenon frequently occurring in post-classical Greek, it also creates a very intriguing visual result: the ending -ⲥⲟⲛ becomes -ⲥⲟ and therefore reminds the imperative in Old Nubian itself! About the visual significance of writing for the Nubians, I have written elsewhere, and will write more in the near future both here and in other academic venues.

The second text is a graffito with a prayer in Old Nubian. It has a rather standard form, which is also reminiscent of the way in some Psalms (e.g. 36 or 109) God is asked to allow good things to happen to the one addressing the prayer and prevent evil and envy to harm him (or her). Here, it is the opening and the closing of the text that are in Greek, as quite often it happened with incipits and explicits also in Coptic Egypt. The text is very interesting from many points of view, perhaps mostly for some orthographic variants that it presents. But there is a variant that the editors explain as a haplography and I think that this is not right. The lexical form is attested as ⲕϣ̄ⲕϣ̄ⲕⲁⲧⲧ- and means “envious, jealous”. Obviously, this is one of the cases that the meaning of a word is strengthened by the duplication of the root-syllable, like Adam and Grzegorz correctly point out in a note in their article. In fact, the etymology for this word proposed by Browne is based on an Arabic loan-word kashara, is attested in Kenuzi as kešire, admitting that the lemma should rather have been ⲕϣ̄-. According to Vincent van Gerven Oei (whom I thank for discussing with me the comments published here), a more plausible etymology would be a pre-Nubian loan into Old Nubian, the proto-Nubian cognate of which is *kuus “bad,” Old Nubian ⲕⲟⲥ “evil,” cf. Nara koško and Tama kaši “bad,” which both preserve palatal sibilant present in kiš(kiš) (cf. Claude Rilly, Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique, Leuven: Peeters, 2010, p. 479, no. 112). These observations are not only of lexicographical significance, but may also allow for understanding the way such a prayer was composed: in my opinion the choice of words was very careful, and it might be of no surprise for those who have been discussing Old Nubian literary texts with me lately, if I’d say from here again that such a choice might be explained by reasons of rhythm. More on this topic soon, but for those who want to get a first taste of what is meant, they can see the analysis of a hymn to Michael from the publication “The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri” (pp. 19-20)

My comments are minor but they add to the picture of the linguistic situation in Christian Nubia. I hope to be able to continue providing such comments in the blog with a good rhythm, and of course I welcome similar contributions that can be hosted here after reviewing.

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Saint John’s Day

Today the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Saint John the Baptist. It is quite fitting for the liturgical calendar, since yesterday the Orthodox Greeks were celebrating the Epiphany during the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by Saint John.

It is not easy to define the moment in the calendar that Christians in medieval  Nubia would be celebrating the Baptism of Jesus, but we know that they did, since there has been found one mural with this iconographic theme on the east wall of Room 41 of the Northwest Annex to the monastery on Kom H in Old Dongola (see Martens-Czarnecka, The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola, Warsaw 2011, pp. 147-150).

Otherwise, there are three representations of the Baptist in Nubia that attracted the attention of my dear friend Dobrochna Zielińska: one from the Petros Cathedral at Faras, one from Sonqi Tino, and one from the Church of Angels at Tamit. The reason that these murals can be studied together is that in all these cases Saint John is represented beside Saint Stephen in the diakonikon (southern pastophorion), each saint occupying a corner of a wall, the western and southern in Faras, and the eastern and southern in the other two instances.

Saint John and Saint Stephen from the Church of Angels at Tamit. Photograph reproduced from Ugo Monneret de Villard, La Nubia Medioevale, Cairo 1957, vol. IV, tav. CLXI.

Axonometrical view of the Church of Angels at Tamit, produced by Dobrochna Zielińska in the frame of the project Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia (see: The representations of Saint John and Stephen are in positions 31 and 32 respectively

This positioning of the two saints cannot be coincidental. A search in the textual tradition in Greek, as can be found in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, provides meaningful insights: John and Stephen appear next to each other in several works, but they are mainly named one after the other as martyrs of Christ, in fact the two first ones who martyred for the new faith. We can see this in the homilies by John Chrysostom (4th-5th century) Ad populum Antiochenum and Sermo cum iret in exsilium, as well as the Chrysostomian Letter 125 to the exiled Bishop Kyriakos. The same sequence can be found in the sermons of other preachers too, like in the Homilia in sanctum Longinum centurionem by Hesychius (5th-6th century), but for Nubia Chrysostom’s works must be considered as more plausible sources of inspiration.

However, there is another set of instances where these two saints are named next to each, namely in the Liturgy of saint Gregory:

– The first is in the end of the Anaphora, where they are named right after Mary and right before Mark and Gregory.

– And the second in the end of the entire Liturgy, where they are named right after the angelic powers and before Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs, and finally Saint Mark.

In both cases they are called: “Του αγίου ενδόξου, προφήτου, προδρόμου, βαπτιστού και μάρτυρος Ιωάννου” and “Του αγίου Στεφάνου, του πρωτοδιακόνου και πρωτομάρτυρος”, underlining thus their importance as those who come first in a group of very significant holy figures for the Christian faith.

So, is it not legitimate to suggest that John the Baptist and Saint Stephen are depicted together at that specific corner of some churches in Nubia, both because of their identities as protomartyrs and because of some liturgical function?

In other words, given the idea that the Mass was performed (also) as a procession inside the Nubian churches and in front of the venerated images in each text that would be read in a given day, we could make the educated guess that these images were painted there because two very important moments during the Mass, the conclusion of the Eucharist and the end of the entire Liturgy, were performed in front of their figures.

In fact, these are figures of a type of Christian cult, that of the martyrs, which is definitely worth more research.

It should be noted that a similar structure can be found in St. Basil’s Liturgy, but not in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom, where Stephen is not mentioned. But the variety of liturgical patterns in the Nubian Church has been recognized many times, and we will return to this topic in the future again, in an article to be co-authored with Dobrochna Zielińska .

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God in Old Nubian

For a long time, I have been wondering what is the origin of the term for “God”, “till(i)” used in Old Nubian. Interestingly, it is one of these cases that G.M. Browne did not propose an etymology in his Old Nubian Dictionary.

About a year ago, I was chatting with Sudanese refugees in Volda originating from Darfur, and one of them told me that he knew of a term “telli” meaning precisely “God” in one of the languages of his region; later on, I found out that this was Meidob, a language of North Darfur, thanks to Vincent van Gerven Oei who informed me that Roland Werner had already made this observation in his work Tidn-Áal: A Study of Midob (Berlin 1993, p. 129: téllí = God). According to Claude Rilly, Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique (Leuven: Peeters, 2010, pp. 440–41), this M(e)idob term should be seen as a loan-word from Old Nubian, and this would fit nicely with ideas about Nubians moving to West Sudan (Kordofan and Darfur) in the end of the medieval era. On the other hand, the root till/tell has no cognates in any of the contemporary Nubian languages, suggesting it is not Proto-Nubian either. Therefore, it must have a non-Nubian origin. So, the question would be when was it introduced into Old Nubian?

It has been my opinion for long that there should be some Meroitic theonym that could fill this gap (interestingly, Rilly has characterized Nubians and Meroites as “cousins”). And then, just yesterday, Michael Zach shared on his page his latest publication: “Thoughts on the Goddess Tley” from the proceedings of the Fifth Day for Nubian Studies, about which we wrote HERE. There is indeed every reason to believe that the phonology of the term Tley and Tilli are almost identical.

The goddess Tley: Image taken by Michael Zach in 1998

What is even more intriguing in terms of the religious beliefs and their survival across the fictitious border between paganism and Christianity is that the Goddess Tley was iconographically inspired by winged goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon, be they genii, Victoriae, Fortunae, Æternitates and so on, as Zach very nicely showed in his article.

So, can it be that apart for a possible Meroitic antecedent to the word God in Old Nubian, we also find in the goddess Tley another marker for the importance of the angels and Archangels in medieval Nubia? And finally, not to live the particular gender-aspect uncommented, can it be that the un-gendered understanding of angels in Mediterranean Christianity has influenced the way the name of a goddess could be used to describe a God whose nature traditionally is masculine? Or is rather this admixture of genders between Tley and Tilli a result of the un-gendered nature of the Old Nubian language more generally?

Perhaps some discussion following this posting will throw more light on the issue.

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Sudan & Nubia 21

After a year of absence, it is time to return to the presentation of one of the most awaited venues for Sudan archaeology and Nubian studies: the annual volume of Sudan & Nubia.

This year’s cover photo shows the fort and town of el-Khandaq and comes from a very informative contribution by Isabella Welsby-Sjöström on the town in the light of some Western pre-modern scholars (pp. 198-203). This is one of the two contributions about post-medieval Sudan, the other being the paper by Valentina Perna on the scarcely known until recently Gergaf culture of Eastern Sudan, dating to the 16th-18th centuries, and examined through its pottery production (pp. 186-197).

These are only two of 28 papers presented in the 21st volume of Sudan & Nubia, i.e. the journal has entered its third decade of existence, and the maturity gained is obvious in various levels: For example, the 228 pages of this year’s issue is a record for Sudan & Nubia. Among this rich material, there was space for a very important school of Sudan studies to be finally (re)presented.

The reference is to “our” school of Bergen, primarily represented by anthropologists, but also by professor emerita of Middle Eastern and African archaeology at the University of Bergen, Randi Haaland, the former supervisor of Henriette. Randi began her studies in anthropology and continued with sociology before finding her call in the field of archaeology. There, she first worked with lithics collected by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition participating in the Aswan High Dam campaign, to start teaching as a lecturer in Khartoum, under the direction of Peter Shinnie. Her role in the formation of the department of archaeology at Khartoum University cannot be overestimated. Both in fieldwork (near Khartoum, on the junction of the Nile with the river Atbara, in Darfur and South Sudan, mainly at sites with interest for prehistory) and in theoretical analysis (especially inside a comparativist model and with focus on ethno-archaeology), Randi’s contributions are priceless and have earned her many important distinctions (we glean her presidency for the Society for Africanist Archaeologists between 2000 and 2002). It was time to be invited to deliver the Kirwan Memorial Lecture, one of the most prestigious academic venues in Sudan archaeology. She traveled to London for that instance last year, and as it has become customary, her talk was published in the Sudan & Nubia issue of the following year.

Professor Haaland’s paper is titled “Nile Valley archaeology and Darfur ethnography: the impact of women on cultural evolution. A personal reflection” (pp. 3-15) In it, she sets to “explore how female identity is manifested in symbolism and activities related to the archaeological remains” (p. 3). Her “clues” (as she calls her empirical data) were pottery from the archaeological inventory and food production and nurturing from Darfur’s ethnography. Randi’s pen creates a very fine collection of academic reflexions that are definitely worth the reader’s time and attention. Here, we will only comment upon two points:

– First, that Randi has indeed dedicated a big part of her career on promoting gender studies (especially by examining the role of women in the societies she was studying), and that she must be happy that she is already the third woman becoming a “Kirwan-lecturer” in the 2010s, after Pamela Rose in 2010 (“Qasr Ibrim: The last 3000 years”, appearing in Sudan & Nubia 15) and Janice Yellin in 2014 (“Meroitic Royal Chronology: the conflict with Rome and its aftermath”, appearing Sudan & Nubia 19), a fact that shows the increasing importance of women in our discipline (three out of eight Kirwan lectures in the 2010s is almost 40%, while this year’s Kirwan lecture was delivered by Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, Pawel Wolf and Alexandra Riedel, keeping up the statistical “balance”). It should also be noted that among the 42 contributors of this year’s Sudan & Nubia, there are as many men as women!

– And second, that she gives a very interesting insight into the Darfur communities she studied that again offers a useful parallel for explaining characteristics that seem particular to medieval Nubia, the focus of this blog. We are referring to her remark in page 3 about the economic independence of Fur women, about which she first learnt from the works of Fredrik Barth (“Economic Spheres in Darfur”, in: R. Firth (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology, London 1967, pp. 149-174) and her husband Gunner Haaland (“Beer, Blood and Mother’s Milk: The Symbolic Context of Economic Behavior in Fur Society”, Sudan Notes and Records (New series 2) 1998, pp. 53-76). Often in studies of medieval Nubia, the economic independence of women has been stressed, whether it concerns the ownership of land and churches or the patronage of art and professional specialization. A good overview can be found in Giovanni Ruffini’s book, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History (London 2012, pp. 235-244). Ruffini has also written about another tradition that finds in Darfur important ethnographic parallels, namely the “payment” of scribes and the “rewarding” of witnesses in legal transactions with food and drink, as I also learned from Gunnar Haaland, while typing the meta-data for the photos of both Gunnar and Randi from Darfur that I was digitalizing back in 2010. Glad to see so many of these images nicely presented in Sudan & Nubia. You can see more HERE.

The 21st volume of Sudan & Nubia has more interesting things for the readers of this blog though. We will not refer unfortunately to the bulk of the material, which deals with pre-medieval past from Prehistory and through the Kushite periods until the post-Meroitic. From the reports concerning these periods we will only glean the contribution by Julia Budka on “The 18th Dynasty on Sai Island – new data from excavations in the town area and cemetery SAC5” (pp. 71-81), because of the focus on the deeply missed world of Sai island; and we will comment upon the interesting fact the Mahmoud Suliman Bashir has contributed in no less than three papers, two as co-author and one solo. Randi Haaland was the supervisor of Mahmoud’s thesis and she must be proud of how her Sudanese student is thriving.

Different feelings are certainly aroused by the third “Bergen-liaison” in Bulletin No. 21: As usually, after the “Reports” section, “Obituaries” are added, and this year there are three dear colleagues that the Nubiological world is mourning: Inge Hofmann from Vienna, Karl-Heiz Priese from Berlin, and El-Sayed El-Anwar Abdel-Magid, who enriched like few others the archaeology of Sudan by Sudanese. Anwar was another PhD student from Randi that left us prematurely due to health problems and decided to be buried in Bergen.

The grave of Anwar Abdel Magid at the cemetery of Loddefjord (photo by Dr. Howaida Faisal)

Let us return to the reports though and focus on some remarkable points on the archaeology of Christian Nubia that we gleaned from three of those:

1. Brenda Baker and Sarah Schellinger are among our colleagues who have returned to the Fourth Cataract region and have resumed work in their concession areas, as those had been decided in the frame of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project (M.D.A.S.P.), but under a new name, in this instance the “Arizona State University (ASU) Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition (BONE)”. So, Brenda came back to el-Qinifab and in 2015 discovered a fort site (ASU 15-13). Further fieldwork in 2016 seems to corroborate the idea that this structure does not belong to the chain of the Early Christian fortifications – which were obviously the result of the effort of the Makuritan state to integrate this territory to its realm under a Christian flag – but was rather the expression of the authority of a local ruler who took advantage of the disintegration of ancient state formations during the post-Meroitic period and might even have resisted the Makuritan annexation. As the authors conclude their contribution (p. 176): “Continuing work on this newly recorded site will contribute to a better understanding of the social and political dynamics in the Fourth Cataract region during the late Meroitic and Post-Meroitic periods.” Periods that have been both formative and informative for the beginning of the Christian Middle Ages in Sudan, we would add.

2. Another group that returned to the Fourth Cataract was lead by Claudia Näser, the supervisor of Alexandros’ doctoral thesis at Humboldt. She has recently founded the Archaeological Mission to the Fourth Nile Cataract and has returned to the area of the island-concession of the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition in the frame of the M.D.A.S.P., where among other sites the churches of the islands of Us and Sur were excavated, the latter producing the second-largest cachet of manuscripts discovered at a single site in Nubia (which then became the topic of my PhD). This time fieldwork was conducted on the island of Sherari with the aims (p. 211):

  • to initiate salvage excavations at two highly endangered Kerma burial sites (the danger comes from the presence of the Manasir in the area with inevitable deteriorating effects on the archaeological landscape, which before the flooding of the lower grounds was less accessible).
  • to rebuild the communication with the local residents and start a community project (as is obvious from the above, this is a sine qua non for the protection of the tangible heritage).
  • to launch a study which investigates the impact which the shifting activity zones at the banks of the reservoir have on the surviving archaeological sites and to monitor their condition based on data collected during the MDASP surveys in the years 2004 to 2007.

Unfortunately, visits to the island of Us showed that both mud-brick and red-brick structures associated with the church at site US022 have completely disappeared, and only some stone settings were still at place. Even if this proved to be the condition at the more upstream island of Sur, where the church was located at the most upstream end of the island, there may still remain hope for further discoveries if proper excavation is conducted in the stone structures of the immediate vicinity – a contextualization that in fact we lack for both church sites.

3. Last but not least, special mention should be made to the contribution by Katarzyna Danys and Dobrochna Zielinska titled: “Alwan art. Towards an insight into the aesthetics of the Kingdom of Alwa through the painted pottery decoration” (pp. 177-185); not only because of the long-standing collaboration of Alexandros with these two scholars, but also because of the very high quality of their study of Alwan pottery and its painted decoration. Their contribution in Sudan & Nubia, after invitation by Derek Welsby, constitutes a long-awaited revisiting of the evidence for the culture and society in this least-known of the medieval Nubian kingdoms, on the basis of a systematic effort to contextualize the evidence procured from mainly the excavations at its capital, Soba by Shinnie in the 1950s and Welsby in the 1990s. What Katarzyna and Dobrochna have achieved by a rigorous analysis of ceramological and iconographic data from Soba (the fields of specialty of each respectively) is to show clearly the links of Alwa with the outside world, be that Axum or Makuria, but also a reappraisal of the nature of the art in this kingdom for its own sake. The only negative point in their paper is that the richness of the illustrations provided are of so small size that is more often than not difficult for the reader to appreciate the strength of Danys’ and Zielinska’s arguments and insights. Let’s hope that this was just the beginning of a much deeper study that will open paths of understanding as critical issues as the phenomena of Christianization and Makuritization of the Middle Nile region.

Just as we hope that Sudan & Nubia will continue offering reports from fieldwork in such a short time after they actual realization on the ground; along with studies of the sort that Danys and Zielinska or Welsby-Sjöström offer to the readers of this journal (and thus that a section of “studies” will be re-opened in the structure of the contents).

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The Third Makuria Day

On Friday the 15th of December 2017 there took place at the University of Warsaw, the “Third Makuria Day” organized by professor Włodzimierz Godlewski and the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology. The previous events took place in the frame of the annual meeting “Poles on the Nile” organized by the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw and resuming latest activities and studies on the past of the Nile Valley by Polish scholars. These events were conducted until now almost exclusively in Polish.

This was the first time that a Makuria Day would take place independently of its standard framework and that also the English language would be used. The obvious reason was that professor Adam Łajtar from Warsaw and professor Jacques van der Vliet from Leiden and Radboud universities would be presenting their latest book, the long awaited 32nd supplement of The Journal of Juristic Papyrology, titled: “Empowering the Dead in Christian Nubia. The Texts from a Medieval Funerary Complex in Dongola”.

The organizers invited also professor Giovanni Ruffini from Fairfield University for a guest lecture on “Nubia’s Shield, religion and protection from Antiquity to Modernity”. The title of Ruffini’s lecture (which was delivered in a most eloquent and captivating manner covering all issues that it promised) goes in pair with the title of the book, since they both reveal a focus on aspects of religious practice discerned in Christian Nubia that some would characterize as “magical” or “apocryphal”, others as “ritually powerful” or “mystical”, some more as “prophylactic”, “apotropaic” and so on. It is not the first time that such dimensions of Late Antique and medieval Christianity along the Nile (both in Egypt and in Nubia) are being discussed in an academic venue. It is, however, rather seldom that the space, where such cultic practices are identified, is so close to both the secular and the religious authorities of an entire state: For the texts written on the plastered walls of the funerary crypt that Lajtar and Van der Vliet studied were placed there to create a phylactery for the afterlife of Georgios, the Archbishop of the royal city of the kingdom of Makuria. How can this combination of the ecclesiastic authority of a Bishop with the ritual power of texts be understood in the frame of Christian Nubian monarchy? Throwing light upon this tension was somehow the goal of the Third Makuria Day.

The host of the venue, professor Godlewski, opened the proceedings with a “Short History of the Makurian Church (6th-12th centuries)”. He must be one of the very few scholars that can provide a plausible scenario for the history of Christian Nubia, and as Ruffini said, who was chairing this first session: “The history of medieval Nubia written by Godlewski is the one that historians respond to when they try to build their own picture of that history”.

Behind good parts of the historical narrative that Godlewski has built up through 50 years of fieldwork and study, there lies an immense output of work by the archaeologists from Warsaw (from the University, from the National Museum and from the Polish Academy), as well as by the textual specialists gathered in the Department of Papyrology of the University of Warsaw. Two have already stood out as the leading Polish epigraphists dealing primarily with Nubia: Adam Łajtar and Grzegorz Ochała.

Grzegorz is definitely the most successful student of my generation at the Department of Papyrology in Warsaw – and not only. His major contribution is the most wonderful gift ever prepared by a papyrologist for his peers, namely the online and open access Database for Medieval Nubian Texts (DBMNT). On the basis of DBMNT, Ochała has produced some very insightful studies and is always finding new ways to combine the evidence and show the structures that unify the Nubian texts, despite the restrictions that defy generalizations. This time, Grzegorz attempted to discern the structure, hierarchy and functions of the lower clergy of the Makurian Church. The degree of his success will not be challenged by inaccuracies in his observations, but by uncertainties as to whether such an ecclesiastic structure permeates all titles in all the texts that these are attested.

As for Adam: his erudition cannot be showcased in any blog post. During the Third Makuria Day, he offered the audience two presentations; the first on one of the most interesting textual finds from Old Dongola commemorating a synod of Nubian prelates in a church of the royal capital most probably at some point in the early 9th century CE; and the second was a most insightful prosopographical study from everything that we know about Bishops in Nubia. Professor Łajtar had prepared a handout consisting of nine pages of a list of bishops with references and main infos, and of six pages of a comparative chart arranging the data in columns giving the name; the milieu and family connections; the main titles and elements of the career; and the age at appointment, length of episcopacy and age of death of all bishops for whom at least one such information has been preserved to us. The analysis behind this impressive list was more than 50 pages long and therefore those with special interest in texts from Christian Nubia met the next day in a most friendly spontaneous workshop that everybody present simply adored. More on that “overtime” of studies of Christian Nubia in the end of the post.

So, the concept and the contents of the Third Makuria Day were formed by the two main focal points of the publication by Łajtar and Van der Vliet: on the one hand, the prophylactic character of Nubian Christianity, exemplified in the texts covering the walls of the burial crypt of Archbishop of Dongola Georgios; and on the other hand, the role of the ecclesiastic hierarchy, primarily of Bishops, in (also) less spectacular aspects of Nubian church life, Christian belief and cult. In between these two ends of the Third Makuria Day stood the presentation by Jacques van der Vliet: “Magic and the Bishop”. The audience was reminded of the accusations of using magic against bishops in Late Antiquity, often in concoction with accusations of heresy. Had Georgios and the Nubians fallen prey to practices that the rest of Christianity would be condemning? The answer given by Van der Vliet’s presentation was negative: what can be observed in both Makuria and the rest of Christianity are changes in, among other things, the funerary customs that betray a shift towards what can be called a “somatomorphic perception of the soul”. The subtle nuances of that sort in Van der Vliet’ talk were the most promising introduction to the richness of the analyses that he and Łajtar have composed in JJP supplement XXXII. A review of this book will be one of the goals for this blog in 2018.

Another goal could perhaps be to be present at Makuria Day next year too! Which also implies that the international profile of the Third Makuria Day will be pursued in the future. May our hosts keep up the good work, share it with colleagues abroad and widen the scope of all “Makuria Days” making them the much-wanted point of reference for studies about medieval Nubia more generally. In any case, this venue needs not to continue in Polish for the sake of giving the opportunity to the local researchers and students to meet and exchange views and news from the progress of their work in their own language, for, as I have heard, some circles of specialists, like the Polish ceramologists of Warsaw, meet quite often with very satisfactory results for the participants. Poles also have meetings across the various disciplines, and beyond the “Poles on the Nile” events, gaining from the multi-disciplinary approaches of such venues.

This was also the case for those who stayed an extra day at the University of Warsaw to attend the unofficial workshop organized in the same premises as the Third Makuria Day.

So, Adam, Giovanni, Vincent van Gerven Oei and myself happily spent part of our Saturday, discussing with Adam his paper, listening to a short briefing from the most interesting PhD thesis of Agata Deptuła (another student of Warsaw and Adam) on the wall inscriptions from the Lower Church of Banganarti, and attempting a combination of studies of text and image, in view of a collaboration for the publication of the wall inscriptions from the church of Sonqi Tino. The key person here was Dobrochna Zielińska (my very good friend, kind host, and the person behind the images used in this post) whose studies on Nubian iconography, and our own collaboration in the frame of the project “Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia”, painted the contours for what we think can be the most productive way of preparing and publishing the wall inscriptions registered on the walls of the mostly flooded today Nubian churches. So, here is a third goal for 2018: update the blog after the meeting in Rome that will be the most decisive step towards the publication of the wall inscriptions from the church of Sonqi Tino.

With these things in mind, let me close with gratitude for the academic leader of this venture, professor Godlewski, who must be feeling safe for the future after his retirement since his efforts have found so good continuators, whom I thank for an excellent weekend in the capital of studies about Makuria.

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