Monasticism in the Nile Valley

This is not the first time that this blog hosts a post about monasticism, either in Egypt or in Nubia. But this is the first time that the post concerns an academic venue especially dedicated to the study of the monastic phenomenon in both Egypt and Nubia. Actually, the venue organized at the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, and which was announced in a previous post, is the first that brings together the experience of working from both sides of the Aswan border. As Jacques van der Vliet noted in his closing address to the conference, this was a historical moment, since for the first time the Nubian and Coptic monastic phenomena were juxtaposed, compared and apprehended as mutually complementary.

For Van der Vliet, this was one of the two salient features of the workshop on Monasticism in the Nile Valley. The other one was the influence of the bottom-up approach in the study of the monastic phenomena introduced at the Department of Papyrology, Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw by one of the leading figures in world papyrology, Ewa Wipszycka.

Wipszycka has lead a group of scholars in building the history of the monastic communities in Egypt based on the archaeological finds produced by careful archaeological work and analysis of the material remains of this special type of life style in Early Christianity. A good sample of such important academic output opened the workshop on Monday morning with the talks of Tomasz Derda, Joanna Wegner, Aleksandra Pawlikowska, and Marzena Wojtczak.

Professor Derda is head of the Department of Papyrology and editor in chief of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology (JJP). He dedicated his talk to the very recently and too early departed Tomasz Górecki.

Derda  has also been working a lot at Deir al Naqlun, and has published the Greek papyri from the site. In his talk, he offered a new view on the way the spaces for hermitages were chosen, shaped and inhabited, removing the stress on ascetism and deprivation of the material, and inviting us to see the anchorites as rich individuals who’d have the hermitages built in the best technical means possible – given the circumstances – in order to accommodate themselves and their wish to be away from the society, but not fully detached from it, since Naqlun is close to villages.

This tension between the retreat from the secular world and the continuation of being part of it, as is very eloquently exemplified by the thousands of documentary papyri and ostraka found in the Egyptian monasteries, was the focus of the presentation by Wegner.

She is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Warsaw, who studied for her thesis the papyrological dossiers of Deir el-Naqlun, Bawit, Wadi Sarga and Deir el-Bala’izah. Her work offers an inside, “monastic” perspective on the monks’ relations with the world, but does not prove a significant influence by the former upon the latter, at least for the topics covered by the papyri.

This impression seems to be confirmed by the legal analysis offered by Wojtczak on the term δίκαιον and its use in the papyrological record relating to Egyptian monasteries.

We should keep in mind that the school of papyrology in Warsaw has a very strong juridical character, as is exemplified by the title of both JJP and the historical development of their milieu tracing its history back to Rafal Taubenschlag who gave his name to the publishing house where JJP is hosted.

More insights into the way monks may have radically affected the world around them will be provided by the progress of Pawlikowska in her PhD, which will deal with the identification of the degree that monks took up temples and other holy places of the pagan past to create their physical abodes.

The transformation of sacred spaces to serve the purposes of a new religion is a well-studied phenomenon, but quite often the definition of the “sacred” character is not easy to grasp.

The opposite approach is taken by another PhD student of Warsaw, almost in the end of his doctoral career soon insha Allah, Szymon Maslak.

Szymon, who opened the second day of the conference, is studying secular architecture, and the “non-sacral” buildings. The similarities of such buildings across the monastic sites bespeak their relations with the secular world. But also some original structures in a monastery are of particular interest, since they illuminate the everyday life of the monks. Szymon took as a case study Naqlun and I was particularly attracted by his identification of a basin-like installation as possibly a bath. No other such structures have been unearthed in Egyptian monasteries, but it is important to remember the great number of Shenoutian rules that refer to the dangers of monks and nuns washing each other, something that should be avoided unless ordered to do so. But doesn’t the presence of such rules suggest the existence of a communal space for bathing?

Similar moralization of the corporal needs was shown by Artur Obluski, in his open lecture on “Nubian monasticism. An open issue”.

Among the great discoveries his team is making at the Ghazali monastery, the largest known complex of latrines from a single site in Christian Nubia has been unearthed. Artur underlined one difference between the Ghazali-latrines and the Greco-Roman “prototypes”: the latter did not have separated latrines, but separation-walls were introduced at Ghazali. Was that a matter of privacy or of prudence?

The issue of the spiritual concerns of the monks were mainly touched by my talk, based on what we can understand by a thorough analysis of the texts found at Qasr el Wizz.

A pivotal point of my analysis was that the discovery of a fragment of the Sermo Asceticus by Stephen of Thebes, if properly contextualized in Wizz can show us that the spiritual ascesis practiced by the monks there had the characteristics of not only the practices described in the fragment preserved, but of the entire work as we know it from manuscript witnesses in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Georgian. So, eventually there is much to say for their efforts to achieve ascetic perfection, be that in the silence of the cell, in common prayer, or in avoidance of sins, like jealousy and drunkenness.

The image of drinking monks is far from surprising for either popular views on monasticism or the scholarly world. And therefore wine is a crucial element in both the religious practices and the exchanges with the outside world, be those agricultural or economic. Dorota Dzierzbicka is always offering insightful descriptions of “the social and economic role of wine in monasteries of the Nile Valley”.

This time again she managed both to keep her audience focused and to give good comparisons between the two worlds we were examining, Egypt and Nubia. Working between ceramic studies and papyrology, Dorota is thus also part of the school of ceramologists that have come out of all these years of work of the Polish archaeologists in Egypt and Sudan.

Two representatives of that school contributed to the conference during the second day, which was dedicated to the material culture of mainly Nubian monasticism. Katarzyna Danys presented her work on the pottery finds from the monastery at Old Dongola and from Qasr el Wizz.

And Malgorzata Korzeniowska talked about the pottery finds from Ghazali.

Especially with the first talk we could see the monks at table or at work, we heard about the re-uses of pottery, we understood the restrictions of studying collections of only so-called diagnostic sherds made during the Wizz excavations in the frame of the Aswan High Dam campaigns. But both showed us how our monks had not denied the luxury of fine decorated wares of ceramic vessels despite having retreated to their monastic communities. The content of these pots can be analyzed with various methods offering insights into, among other things, the diet of our monks.

Robert Stark and Joanna Ciesielska had found other material from Ghazali and other scientific means to speak about such topics.

Their bioarchaeological analyses of the skeletons buried in the cemeteries around Ghazali were, in my opinion, the cherry on top of the cake in the very successful workshop. Ciesielska’s study of the skeletons could tell us about the diseases that troubled the monks’ lives, but also the types of tensions that their bones were receiving during their life time. It seems that the monks were often pressing their bodies in specific positions, like lifting weights or kneeling, and perhaps this is an indication that they were kneeling when praying, the commonest activity in a monastery. Stark’s analyses of the isotopes from the collagen from the bones confirmed the impression that the monks were mainly eating grains and plants, although it seems that the vast majority was also consuming proteins (e.g, milk, egg, meat). Investing more on the research of isotopic analyses could perhaps provide even more concrete information, like the length of abstinence from proteins (could that then mean prolonged fasts?), the years that each monk managed to keep up the hardships of a monastic life style etc. Ciesielska is preparing her PhD on the burial customs in medieval Nubia with a focus on the social status of Nubian monks combining anthropological, archaeological and epigraphic data. The integration of hers and Stark’s work in future Polish projects should receive further support.

Such research was achieved thanks to Obluski and his wide-perspective on how to treat the monastic phenomenon in Nubia. His presentation attracted more people than the lecture hall at the Polish center could accommodate, but they all stayed until the end, listening to a rich in information lecture that traveled us from Egypt and Wizz to Sudan and Dongola and Ghazali, across architectural traditions and particularities, textual corpora, and comparanda from all over Early Christianity. A map showing the distribution of all the possible monastic sites, combined with the ability of Artur to receive funds for his projects, as well as honorable invitations to open up new trenches in world-renown sites left all in expectation for further digs, research and presentation of results. At least for the latter, our host, to whom gratitude is due, promised to invite us back next year already for the second workshop on #Monasticism in the Nile Valley that he expressed the hope to become a reference point for related studies in many years to come. It is everybody’s hope that the director of the PCMA, Tomasz Waliszewski, came also pleased out of our meeting and feels that this is an academic venture worth supporting more.

Closing this report from #Monasticism in the Nile Valley, I should not fail to mention the special thanks due to the staff of the Polish Center in Cairo, especially Elzbieta Smolinska and Marianna Chlebowska. As well as to Tomasz Kania for sharing these photos with me and the readers of this blog.



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Nubian monasticism and not only

I am traveling south to warmer climates for a week. The goal is to participate in a unique event in Cairo organized by the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology and the Department of Papyrology of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw on “Monasticism in the Nile Valley”.

The program guarantees two very exiting days and I hope I will have much to report right after.

For those who cannot be in Cairo, but are perhaps in Rome, there is another Nubiological venue taking place there on the 19th of October, the Fifth Day of Nubian Studies, organized by the International Association of Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO). Here is the program translated from ISMEO’s webpage:

11.00: H.E. Amira Daoud Hassan Gornass, Ambassador of the Republic of Sudan in Italy
Salutations and introduction

11.15: Eugenio Fantusati
The base of the solar bark of Abu Erteila

11.45: Fawzi Hassan Bakhiet
Burial Customs in the Blue Nile region

12.15: Light Break

12.45: Marco Baldi
Material and techniques of construction in the heart of the Meroitic kingdom

13.15: Andrea Manzo
Between the Nile and the Red Sea. Eastern Sudan and the Nubian Desert in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE

13.45: Adriano V. Rossi, President of ISMEO
Conclusions and presentation of the volume of the proceedings

A nice video-report from the Quarta Giornata di Studi Nubiani can be seen here:


Last but not least, on the 21st of October, there will take place in London, in the Royal Geographic Society, a Memorial Day for Abdel Halim Sabbar, who had devoted much of his life to teaching the Nubian language and restoring it to its full potential (see the whole tribute by professor Herman Bell HERE).

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Old Nubian in Bergen – part V (2017 sequel)

Three awesome weeks of work on Old Nubian have come to an end. The final activity was the presentation of the results of our work on the Serra-East codex, containing the pseudo-Chrysostomian homily In verabilem crucem sermo, in the frame of the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions and in a panel titled “Caught in Translation: Versions of Late Antique Christian Literature” organized by Dan Batovici and Madalina Toca.

slide leuven

The pseudo-Chrysostomian homily is the longest text in Old Nubian known to date. The codex was found in a small pit in sand between the foundations of a house right outside the Middle-Kingdom enclosure wall within which the town of Serra East was built. Its secure archaeological contextualization and the preservation of a colophon stating that it was produced to be “deposited on the cross in the church of Jesus at Serra” has made the find an important element in the discussion of the production centers for manuscripts used in Christian Nubia, and of the role of the town of Serra in these literary exchanges. Gerald Browne, the first editor of this important text, has moreover dated the manuscript in the 11th-12th centuries, based on paleographic similarities with dated Nubian documents, as well as through comparison of its system of supralineation with the system used in Coptic manuscripts of this period. This made the find a fitting token of literacy for the town of Serra, the activity at which also seems to have taken place mainly in the Late Christian period of medieval Nubia, i.e. after the 10th-11th centuries. These observations were of course highly relevant when we began studying the text. Granted, the manuscript can be dated to these centuries. But what about the text itself? Is the Serra codex the autograph of the translation from Greek – the Vorlage assumed by Browne for the text preserved in our manuscript? A very thorough reading of the Old Nubian text revealed to us that this was not the case. We identified copying mistakes that show misunderstandings of a scribe who was copying a text he had in front of his eyes already written in Old Nubian. But then, a more crucial question appeared: irrespectively of how many times the original Old Nubian translation was copied, could we identify in the text elements that would point to a specific moment in time when that translation was produced? Undoubtedly, this question is impossible to ascertain; not yet, I would add. But, after having checked a dozen of manuscript witnesses in Greek, as well as the collations presented by Browne, based on a dozen more Greek, one Latin, and two Syriac manuscripts, we believe that we can point to a very early date for the working out of the translation. So early, that the Chrysostomian work was not only an important homiletical work for pastoral, spiritual, and perhaps also dogmatic purposes during the first phases of Christianity in Nubia, but also that the language of this work – often sinuous and “archaic” – may have preserved for us, the earliest attempts to create religious literacy in Nubian!

push back date

Our ideas were well received in the conference and we must now prepare our paper for the proceedings to be published hopefully very soon. Until then, allow us to refrain from disclosing further details, although so much has already been revealed in the tweets of @ontrakagoueke, which still aims at attracting attention to the exciting topics arising from studying Old Nubian based on the new understanding of the language that the grammar of Vincent van Gerven Oei offers to our community – both of scholars and students, as well as locals with pride for the linguistic and cultural past of Nubia.


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Old Nubian in Bergen – part IV (2017 sequel)

The second week of the Bergen workshop on Old Nubian is now completed. We read through one third of the pseudo-Chrysostomian sermon In venerabilem crucem (CPG 4525; Aldama 494) and obtained fascinating insights into the history of the manuscript and of the homily’s Old Nubian version, as well as of the Old Nubian language more generally. But allow me not to share these results from here. On Wednesday, Vincent and myself will be presenting our work so far on this text in the frame of the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions and in a panel titled “Caught in Translation: Versions of Late Antique Christian Literature” organized by Dan Batovici and Madalina Toca. Until then, those who are impatient can always see the Old Nubian tweets of #ontrakagoueke!

But for the readers of this blog, and as a gift in celebration of these two fantastic weeks, I offer HERE a pdf copy of a sort of Nobiin alphabetarion compiled by the Nubian Club of Khartoum some ten to fifteen years ago (I obtained it during the last years of the period I was living in Khartoum, i.e. between 2003 and 2008). Hope it keeps you busy until the end of next week!

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Old Nubian in Bergen – part III (2017 sequel)

The first week of the Bergen Workshop on Old Nubian has been completed. Our goal was to go through the new grammar of Old Nubian that is under preparation by Vincent van Gerven Oei.

“A Possible Grammar of Old Nubian” is the title that Vincent has chosen for his work and this shows his attitude towards his object of research. Vincent is a linguist and therefore his approach to Old Nubian as a grammarian is radically different than that of Gerald Michael Browne, the author of the most recent grammar of Old Nubian (previous grammars were written by Ernst Zyhlarz in German and Eugenia Smagina in Russian, whose English translation is expected to be published soon). It is not only the terminology that is changed (exit verbids and indicative copulatives for example; enter determiners and intentional aspect), but also the way the language is being taught.

Vincent follows the structure of the language itself, which is a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language, and thus markers of grammatical phenomena tend to cluster towards the end of a clause, where the verb is to be expected, i.e. suffixes to the verb that tell us things like tense and aspect, person and number etc. So, in “A Possible Grammar of Old Nubian”, the student is initiated to the way the language works “from right to left”, beginning with discourse markers and ending with lexical roots of verbs and names.

Those present at the Bergen workshop were lucky to follow Vincent still working his mind through the fine tuning of this innovative approach, and at times we could even take pride of contributing to improvements of details in content and structure.

Vincent makes a photograph of a new way to organize in his grammar the presentation of a group of Old Nubian morphemes

How profitable this crash-course was for the participants can only be measured when one sees closer into the insightful analyses that are already appearing after only one day of work with the Serra-East codex, the longest text in Old Nubian known, that is the target of the second week of our workshop.

If you did not manage to be in Bergen, you can follow our work through a new Twitter account called “ontrakagoueke“. Stay tuned!

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Old Nubian in Bergen – part II (2017 sequel)

When we were preparing for the Attiri Collaborative two years ago, I had the chance to present some discoveries related to things from Old Nubia in Bergen (see HERE and HERE). It would have been a pity not to have things to present this year too, while preparing for the workshop with Vincent van Gerven Oei (see HERE)

Especially, since the last year I have been working for the moving of the archive on the Norwegian language from Oslo to Bergen and I came across some interesting Discoveries about Old Nubian in the collection. So, the present discovery comes also from the treasures from this archive, namely from one offprint found among the material of the late professor Oddvar Nes: an article on the Nubian language by Karl Lang published in April 1926 in the second issue of the journal Folia Ethno-Glossica.

folia first page

You can download a pdf of the entire issue HERE. The copy was given to me by Henriette, who received the collection of offprints belonging to Oddvar Nes as part of the collaboration between the University Library in Bergen and the Library of the University College of Volda, which she directs.

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Old Nubian in Bergen – part I (2017 sequel)

It’s been two years since the previous sequel of posts on Old Nubian in advance of a seminar in Bergen, which back in June 2015 brought together the Attiri Collaborative.

Since then, the publication of The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri has appeared at punctum books.

Now the collaborative is ready for its next activity: we are meeting in Rome next year to study the rich collection of graffiti from the church at Sonqi Tino.

Western Chapel of Sonqi Tino Church exhibited at the Sudan National Museum

Already this year though, another major event for studies of Old Nubian is taking place in Norway: Vincent van Gerven Oei is coming to Bergen for a crash-course in Old Nubian between the 5th and the 8th and the 13th to 15th of September!

The purpose of the workshop is manifold:

  1. It will expand the circle of those interested in the language, and already three persons from Bergen and two from European institutions have confirmed their participation.
  2. It will allow Vincent to test the teaching effectiveness of his proposal for a new grammar of Old Nubian, a year and a half after A seminar on Literary Old Nubian in Khartoum, and again in front of Nubians, since three scholars and one student from both Sudan and Egypt have expressed their interest in participating in the Bergen workshop.
  3. It will be for both Vincent and Alexandros a good final rehearsal before the presentation titled “Translating Greek to Old Nubian” in the frame of the panel “Caught in Translation – Versions of Late-Antique Christian Literature” organized by Dan Batovici and Madalina Toca during the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Annual Conference in Leuven between 18 and 21 September.

There is still time to send in your application! More details HERE!

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