Some Nubiological pointers from a trip to the USA

Last week a very interesting academic meeting on Christian Africa took place at Harvard University, co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Committee on Medieval Studies, the Center for African Studies, the Department of African and African American Studies, the Center for the Study of World Religions, and the Harvard University Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities.

The conference aimed to continue the study of the medieval era in Africa, after a first venue two years ago on The Trans-Saharan World, 500-1700. There was a lot of enthusiasm by the organizers for what seemed to be for them a momentum to bring together all forces interested in promoting medieval African studies at Harvard. The conference focused on four countries, namely Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, representing four different case studies of Christianity in Africa during the Middle Ages.

Coptic Egypt is undoubtedly one of the cradles of Christianity, and it was Stephen Davis, professor at Yale, who works on Coptic monasteries in the Natrun, that was given the honorable duty to open the two-days conference with a talk that would attempt to contextualize what is meant by the terms “Christian Africa” and “Medieval Africa”.

He used as pivotal points for his presentation the figure of Moses the Black and the monastic presence of “Ethiopians” in Egypt. Leaving open the questions of the identification of African-ness among Christians of Egypt, or of the self-identity of African Christians more generally, the keynote speaker opened the appetite of those present, who all seemed very keen on profiting from the research results of those invited at Harvard to discuss their views upon Christian Africa during the medieval era.

Indeed, the talks during the next day satisfied both participants and the conference’s audience. The program was divided in four panels, the first discussing Ethiopia, the second Egypt and Nubia, the third Congo, and the fourth consisting of some reflections by Christopher Ehret and Helen Evans, followed by a long and fruitful open discussion.

The entire conference was video-recorded and soon the material will be available through some new platform that the organizers have begun discussing of how it should be set up. Stay tuned for the links!

In the meantime, the readers of this blog might be interested in knowing that Nubian studies were represented by Giovanni Ruffini and Alexandros Tsakos (and I cannot thank enough the organizers, and primarily Sean Gilsdorf for the invitation). Our talks took two opposing standpoints: Giovanni argued that Nubia was a Christianity without Church or Theology, based on a careful selection of written sources that offer insights into the magico-protective character of Christian Nubian faith and cult; as for myself, I chose to support on the basis of the study of the Creeds found in Nubia and the Christianization of the Nubian kingdoms, the idea that Christian Nubia can be seen as an Afro-Byzantine theocracy. Despite the seemingly contradictory positioning of these two talks, our approaches are in fact rather complementary, since they describe Christianity on both the personal and the official level of life in medieval Nubia.


Having crossed the Atlantic, I did not want to loose the opportunity to visit some more places on the East Coast, and so I decided to drive with Giovanni from Harvard to New York where he lives. The first part of this road journey was rather short, since we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We were joined by Marie-Laure Dérat who had also been invited to Harvard and she gave a very informative talk about the relations of the Zagwe Dynasty in Christian Ethiopia with the Coptic Patriarchate and monastic world in Egypt.

However, at the MFA there was nothing to see from either Christian Nubia or Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the magnificent finds of Reisner’s excavations are no longer exhibited, apart from half a dozen objects, dispersed for the most among New Kingdom exhibits, despite the fact that the galleries are still marked as Nubian, while, although two reliefs from Meroitic pyramid chapels are exhibited, there is nothing that explains what is the difference between Meroë and Napata or New Kingdom Egypt… At least we got to know from a short meeting the day before at the conference with Rita Freed – the curator of the department of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at MFA – that there are plans to re-exhibit properly some of the Nubian antiquities; while in the meantime one can check out most of the related finds at the MFA’s database.

Moreover, we were stricken both positively and negatively by two terracotta figurines of the Cyclopes in a gallery exhibiting Homeric and dionysiac iconography from the Greco-Roman world.

The positive reaction concerned the figure on the right-hand side, which is the first time I saw a Cyclope represented in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian God Bes! And the negative reaction concerns the way the African-like face of the Cyclope on the left is described in the museum’s legend: “Polyphemus has all the physical traits of a grotesque monster – a bold head, gigantic ocular eye, bulbous nose, puffed-up lips, protruding ears, pot belly, and flaccid penis…” Coming from a conference where African-ness has been the most heated topic – but in such a positive manner – it was hard to grasp the intention of this unlucky description.

Unfortunately, things did not look that much better for ancient and medieval Africa (outside Egypt) at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. There was again nothing from Ethiopia, while we only encountered one exhibit from Nubia: this was, however, the entire temple of Hathor from Dendur, built by Augustus and moved in the frame of the Aswan High Dam Campaigns, as several other monuments of Lower Nubia, doomed to remain under the waters of Lakes Nasser (Egyptian part) and Nubia (Sudanese part).

The gallery is of course very impressive, full of light and rightfully attracts the attention of many visitors. My attention though focused on two details:

– First, on the walls of the anti-chamber of the temple, two epigraphic events executed with (mainly) Greek letters.

The upper one in the photo is a Late Antique or medieval graffito, executed by a Christian visitor, perhaps by a Nubian; and the two a bit lower are from 19th century visitors with Greek family names – note that the delta of the name of the one on the right is written as a Latin di!

– Second, beside the temple a column capital from the Isis temple at Philae has found its way to New York.

As can be seen on the photo, a cross has been carved on one of its sides, bearing witness of the much discussed history of the transformation of the temple into a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary – a change of dedication that was of course discussed during the Harvard conference too.

Such small details speak more often than not “loud and clear” to those with special interests in the past of humanity. We search for these details, because they tell us stories we like hearing; and because they may elucidate case studies that occupy our minds.

Closing this entry about my trip to the USA, I’d like to share three more such details:

– The first comes again from the MET. It is the torso of a Venus cut in black stone.

Its posture and color made me think of the famous Venuses of Meroë…

…and to wonder whether such a statue would have inspired the artists responsible for some  of these most hellenistic creations among Meroitic art.

– I encountered the second one at the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Elephtherios at Manhattan that I visited with my cousin, Achilleas, who lives there. On the wall over the entrance to the church, the names of the members of the Greek community who held an office are listed.

Please note on the right side of the exit sign, the family names of the ladies that were running the council for the support of the poor. Although in “standard” Greek these names would have been in genitive, nine out of the fourteen ladies keep their name in nominative, as they would have most probably been indeed doing, if they wrote their name in English. To what degree are we able to discern such variants in the use of Greek in the multilingual environments of places like the Greek diaspora today or the medieval Nubian society where Greek – along with Coptic and Old Nubian – were used?

– The final picture comes from a short visit to Princeton University, where I accompanied my friend and colleague Christian Bull, who is there in the frame of his post-doctoral scholarship. Waiting for a reading seminar to begin, I had time to visit the famous Firestone library, where I saw this beautiful globe.

Naturally, I focused on Africa and the Nile Valley, and spotted the name covering the region:

“Dangali” was the name for “Nubia”, deriving from the name of the Makuritan Capital: Old Dongola.

I knew I had the end photo from my trip to the US, not only because the day after I’d be flying back home, but also because the next time I’ll write here will be after a trip to Warsaw to attend “Makuria day” and hear about the new book that Adam Lajtar and Jacques van der Vliet just published on the renowned inscriptions from the funerary crypt of Archbishop Georgios from Dongola…

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A week in Cairo between two foreign institutes

Cairo is a city of almost 20 million inhabitants, the largest city in Africa. The size of the population creates a bursting with life urban environment, full of sounds (i.e. noise), smells, distractions and attractions. Among the latter, the monuments of the city can satisfy all tastes: from the world-renown Pharaonic antiquities to Islamic Cairo, passing from Old Cairo with its Greek and Coptic churches and mystical narrow streets. The treasures of the past are so numerous that despite almost three hundred years of archaeological investigations, antiquities’ trades and studies of all sorts, there still remain an endless number of topics to do research, objects to study, sites to dig. To a large degree, these tasks are achieved by foreign missions, like in many other Middle Eastern, African and Mediterranean countries.

My days in Cairo were spent mainly between the two buildings run by the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA) and the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO). Both Poles and French are among the most active archaeologically in Egypt. Interestingly, the first Polish archaeological work in Egypt was conducted before the Second World War by the late professor Kazimierz Michalowski in collaboration with the French at Edfu. 80 years have passed since that time, and to celebrate this jubilee PCMA and IFAO co-funded a 15-months Postdoctoral fellowship. May this wonderful joint venture found continuation!

Now, ten years ago, PCMA celebrated 70 years of Polish activity in Egypt in honor of its founder, the late professor Michalowski, who was also president for life until his death in 1981 (for those of us interested in numerology, please note that he was born on 11-11-01 and he died on 1-1-81!), by publishing “70 years of Polish archaeology and restoration in Egypt“.

The first exclusively Polish archaeological work though was in 1957, again by Michalowski at Tell Atrib. Two years later, the Poles began renting their first base at Cairo, at “Baron”, the beautiful residence at 11, Al-Mahalla street in Heliopolis.

It is an honor staying this week at one of its “weranda” rooms and seeing on the walls the memories from nearly a century of activities, and thinking of the thousands of persons who have passed the doors of this house.

Since 1992, however, Poland has wisely invested more in its Center for Mediterranean Archaeology and bought another building, very close to “Baron”, down the Khalifa street, where now a good library and excellent facilities for work and stay are provided to students, professors, visitors, and the permanent stuff.

It was there that the conference on “Monasticism in the Nile Valley” was organized, about which I published a report HERE. I was invited to this conference by my friend Artur Obluski, Director of the Research Center in Cairo.

Artur Obluski director, of PCMA-Cairo with Tomasz Waliszewski, director of PCMA in Warsaw

Another friend of mine is also living in Cairo these days: Robin Seignobos has received a scholarship from the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale to work on the knowledge about the Nile in Mamluk historiography with a focus on the work entitled “Fayḍ al-madīd fī aḫbār al-Nīl al-saʿ’īd” by Ibn ‘Abd al-Salām al-Manūfī.

Robin welcomed me one of these mornings in the Mounira Palace in the center of Cairo, built in what was part of the gardens of Prince Ibrahim Helmi, the brother of Khedive Twefick, and bought in 1907 by the French state when Émile Chassinat was director of IFAO. The old palace houses today a palace of knowledge. The labyrinth of corridors, staircases, rooms, gardens and annexes is impossible to describe. But the library is definitely the heart of this historical institution.

The main hall of the IFAO library and a focus on the collection of books on Nubia

However, what attracted my attention most was the printing house of IFAO, and the excellent guiding Robin and myself received by Liliane Amin, assistant of the printing department. We saw the first monotype-printers that produced the collectible early IFAO publications, heard about the efforts of Chassinat to create a complete lead font for printing hieroglyphs, saw the collection of cases with Latin, Arabic, hieroglyphic and other fonts that IFAO used for almost 100 years until its replacement by digital fonts in the early 2000s.

Views of the museum of the printing house of IFAO

But we also admired how the development of the Offset technology, digital printing etc. has not yet invaded all aspects of book making at IFAO. Still, leather book binding and gold lettering of the books’ spines are the result of manual work.

And this is something that is worth preserving and supporting in a world that is more and more turning away from traditional crafts.

Returning to Heliopolis, I could not resist making a couple more photos of other crafts one sees in the streets of Cairo, each to be treated differently of course by a state and a society that cares…

Merci Robin! Dziękuję Artur!

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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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