Always some Old Nubian related-discovery expecting us in Berlin…

The last days of June found me in Germany.

First, at Bad Homburg (next to Frankfurt am Main). Normally, people travel there for spa-treatments, but my visit aimed at adding my Nubia-focused contribution to the treatment of a very interesting academic topic, namely “The Transmission of Early Christian Homilies“. The conference was organized by Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin and Dr. Philip Forness at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften.

It was great to speak about Chrysostomus Nubianus – or rather the Corpus Chrysostomicum Nubianum – among the most important scholars of Chrysostomian studies, prominent researchers of homiletic works, leading figures of Coptology, good colleagues specializing on John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Shenoute of Attripe, Jacob of Serug. For the whole program see HERE.

At the end of this conference, I moved to Berlin. I was invited by the Corpus Coranicum Project to make a presentation about Christian Nubia and its religious literacy in general, and discuss a find that I made working with texts from Nubia and which relates to the project more particularly.

My hosts, Michael Marx, leader of the project, and Adrian Pirtea, research fellow, offered me the opportunity to address a knowledgeable and engaged audience at The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and I feel that this was a most honoring concluding academic activity for this semester.

The visit to Berlin though had other interesting aspects too. Michael, Adrian and myself visited the Papyrussammlung of the Egyptian Museum and had a very interesting exchange of views on some material from Nubia that the curators of the collection had the kindness to provide us with. It was this visit that has inspired me to write the present blog-entry, which concerns the Nubian manuscripts housed in Berlin. As always, our research begins by checking the Database of Medieval Nubian Texts prepared and made available by Dr. Grzegorz Ochała from Warsaw.

So, in the DBMNT, five manuscripts are registered as having “present location: Berlin”:

  1. First and foremost, the Stauros-text (#1391) housed at the Staatsbibliotek (MS. Or. Quart. 1020) and available online HERE.
  2. Also at the Staatsbibliotek (MS Or. Quart. 1019), the so-called Griffith’s lectionary, available online HERE.
  3. Griffith published also the first land sale in Old Nubian, purchased by Borchardt in 1908 (#596). The object is in the Papyrussammlung of the Egyptian Museum. (P. 11277)
  4. In the same collection one can find another leather manuscript, this time in Arabic (#494) also purchased by Borchardt in the same lot (P. 13002). The identification of leather manuscripts as coming from the Nubian region or related to Nubia is a topic worth further study, which I am planning to undertake in collaboration with Jenny Cromwell (by the way, have you seen her great blog?). For some of the leather objects in the Berlin Papyrussammlung, see HERE.
  5. Finally, in the Papyrussammlung, there is registered #1386 as P. 13998, a leaf with two passages from the Revelation, acquired in Aswan by Schäfer in 1908 and now lost.

The last manuscript has a threefold interest:

1. Because of the history of its loss.

According to the curator of the collection of Greek manuscripts at the museum, Marius Gerhardt, parts of the collection were lost during the Second World War. Moreover, right after the war, the collection was moved to former Soviet Union and returned to Berlin in 1958. Finally, some pieces ended up in Torun and Warsaw in Poland, but the Old Nubian fragment in question seems not to be there, according to published reports (W. Appel, Drei Berliner Papyri in Toruń, APF 47, 2001, 101) and catalogues. Perhaps one day the lost fragment with the passage from the Apocalypse will resurface in one of these places or somewhere else, since one cannot even exclude the possibility that this fragment was lost before the Second World War already…

2. Because of its content.

The content of this manuscript raises questions as to its purpose. If it was used in the liturgy, it is important to underline that this is one of the very rare cases in East and Oriental Christian traditions that the Apocalypse would be read during the Mass. In fact, the only other tradition was in Coptic Egypt, something that would make perfect sense based on what we know of the liturgy in the Nubian Church. However, it should be noted that the two other manuscripts which contain the Apocalypse (IN 8 & 9) also do not come from Lectionaries, and then it becomes perhaps more plausible that these manuscripts were used for different purposes.

3. Because of some re-editions of its text by Browne.

Browne has been working in the different Old Nubian manuscripts he edited on different occasions. This particular fragment, first published by Griffith in 1913 (The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period, Berlin: 55) as fragment 1, the name by which this manuscript was later referred to in the literature, was first re-edited by Browne in 1981. There, Browne improved Griffith’s readings on the basis of the idea that the text contained passages Rev 6:8–9 and 6:15–7:1. Here is the transcription provided in that publication (“Old Nubian Fragment of Revelation,” Studia Papyrologica 20 (1981): 73–82):

Since the piece was very fragmentary, in subsequent reworkings Browne altered some points. So, in 1994 in his Bibliorum Sacrorum Versio Palaeonubiana, pp. 52-4, he changed his reconstruction creating a more complete Old Nubian version of the related passages, as well as a more plausible reconstruction of the original folio, in terms of distribution of letters per line and consequently of original breadth of folio. The points of improvement are marked in red in the following:

Finally, in his notebook retrieved in 2004 from his office at Urbana, Illinois (to be found HERE), he improved (?) his reading in the following manner:

On the basis of the textus receptus, the two changes in the recto seem indeed as improvements from the 1994 publication – especially the form ⲡⲁⲣⲧⲁⲕⲟⲗⲅⲟⲩⲛⲁ made little sense. However, the same does not apply for the changes in the verso, which are grammatical mistakes that Browne improved in the 1994 opus.

So, it appears that the 2004 notebook may either have preserved reworkings that were corrected as early as prior to 1994 or copying mistakes by G.M. Browne pulling together a “final” version of the texts that he had worked during the course of his career. It is important to keep these things in mind when examining the record of the other transcriptions in the 2004 notebook.

These observations are also important for the history of studies of Old Nubian. Recently, Vincent van Gerven Oei made a very interesting presentation during the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in the frame of a Round Table titled: “Creating the Medieval Studies We Want to Remember” with the eloquent title: “A Memorial of Michael” alluding to both the second name of G(erald) M(ichael) Browne and to the Archangel Michael, probably the most venerated figure of the Christian Nubian pantheon. Further work on the persona of G.M. Browne and his role in the development of studies of Old Nubian will follow suit and will be commented upon from here too.

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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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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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