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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Closing 2016…

The year that ends in 24 hours has wounded us all in various ways. To put it mildly, it has raised many questions that we will need to find answers to. I am not referring particularly to things related with this blog, the Sai project, Nubia and Sudan Studies, although as some of you know there has been a lot that has happened. And I am surely not the one who will mourn for those stars and emblems of our youth that grew with us through their excesses and addictions and out of our world. Perhaps I could pay respect to some who guided our paths in art indeed, or politics, or thinking, but again, I’d rather take their lives’ and works’ message to the next steps in our own lives continuing here and now. Surely, everyone should stop and think of what is happening in the Middle East; of how our climate suffers; of the reasons behind; of the persons playing these reasons in terms of financial interests against our children’s lives; perhaps even of the fear of this new type of persons in power. But that’s precisely the point: the call to stop and think. To approach calmly but critically, with scepticism but determination the questions that 2016 opened for all of us so acutely and even cruelly. Perhaps these open questions cause stress. But in the academic world it is these open questions that feed our time and our strategies for the near or the far away future. And we must learn to cope with these open questions with the enthusiasm of the child and the wisdom of an old (wo)man. Can we do it?

In anticipation of making this wish real, I close this year in this blog – without any knowledge of when (and if) I will return to it – with a question that I challenged myself to find an answer to during these holidays, and which still eludes me, but in such a fascinating manner!

I shared in a Facebook group called “The Ottoman Monuments of Greece” a photo I found in another group called the “Ottoman Imperial Archives“.


This is a calendar produced by the Zellich printers in Constantinople for the year 1905. In a manner not unknown for Ottoman calendars there is a very eloquent for the conditions of the times combination of systems: beginning with up right, we see the Islamic calendar, moving anti-clockwise, we find the Rumi calendar, then the Julian calendar in Greek, and then the Gregorian calendar in French. Between the two pairs, there is a line of Bulgarian mentioning the eve of the day at hand, which seems to take as its base the Gregorian calendar. Right below there is a space with the date in Armenian, and right above the signature of the printers, there is also a Hebrew date, which is, however, wrong (it should have been 5665).

Checking the parallel given in wikipedia, I realized that the entry in Bulgarian cannot be explained as the mention of the day before the date given in either the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, since the rule does not apply in the example from 1911 made by the same printers.


Here, we see them printing the Bulgarian line with mention of the 30th of April, which is the last day of the month that both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars give. So, a plausible explanation would thus be that it was necessary to indicate how many days each month had, and thus the calendar page of the photo I first shared would not give any priority to the Julian calendar. I am not sure that the explanation is correct and this is surely due to my ignorance on the topic, but I am always willing to learn more, so I am happy to … leave the question open!

Perhaps I could conclude here, but then there would be no real relation with this blog, apart from the implicit interest of multilingualism, the apparent Ottoman liaison, and so on. While I was trying to find an answer to the question though, I turned to google and asked it: “Old Bulgarian calendar“. The “reply” surprised me, not so much for the ingenuity of the system the ancient Bulgarians seem to have devised, but because of the sign that appears as pivotal in the visual reconstruction that I embed right below, and which is a well-known topic appearing times and again in this blog.

Then, my wish for 2017 would be to enjoy such open questions that do not beg for immediate reactions because our future is at stake. And in such conditions of luxury, Henriette and myself might even find the time to write the work that explains how we understand this symbol. Happy New Year everybody!

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Nubia and Palmyra

The title of the present post will surely strike some as at least strange. What can possibly be the links between these two peripheries of the Roman Empire? However, a book that I just read offered me some very interesting insights.


It is the latest product of the pen of Eivind Heldaas Seland, newly appointed Associate Professor of World History at the University of Bergen. His book is titled: “Ships of the Desert and Ships of the Sea. Palmyra in the World Trade of the First Three Centuries CE” (Harrassowitz Verlag 2016) and although it is just over 100 pages it is a most praiseworthy historical treatise. Eivind attempts to reply to two questions: “Why did Palmyra become important in the long-distance trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean? And how did the Palmyrenes go about establishing, operating and expanding their business?” (p. 89). By using his own experience of the landscape around Palmyra and of the site itself (Eivind has been member of the Norwegian-Syrian mission to Palmyra); his mastering of both ancient sources and contemporary research (an eloquent example of his erudition is the discussion in p. 54 relating to the Muziris papyrus); the traditions of the social anthropological school of Bergen in matters of borders, ethnicity and identity; as well as network theory; Seland offers satisfying answers to these two questions. His book is richly illustrated, although sometimes one could wish for larger format for some of the maps, but this was surely a choice dictated by the publishers. They must also be held responsible for a series of typos that do not harm the overall quality of the final product though. The book by Seland will make, in my opinion, an essential point of reference for researchers of the ancient world, as well as an excellent part of a students’ compendium at the University of Bergen – and elsewhere – for years to come. The author has contributed in the most positive way in our understanding of the position in world history of a site that had unfortunately come into the news lately in very negative terms due to the attacks and destructions by Daesh. The reader of “Ships of the Desert and Ships of the Sea” feels definitely wiser on the nature of the society, trade and world place of Palmyra in Late Antiquity, either this reader is a specialist in the field or an amateur; like the present reader specializing in Nubian Studies!

So, closing this post, let me summarize the three points of Nubiological interest that I gleaned from reading Eivind’s latest book:

1. In p. 13, we learn that Palmyrene military forces were used by the Romans in strategically important frontiers, among which Nubia!

2. This information gains in importance if combined with the itinerary followed by Palmyrene caravans bringing products from India to the Mediterranean using the Red Sea and the Nile Valley. The African people most involved in this trade were definitely the Blemmyes, but the way that these contacts also affected the Nubians is worth further analysis, especially in relation with the spreading of new ideas, like Christianity.

3. And most important, exercising comparativism with the prudence of a world-historian: how comparable is the case of the nomadic populations of the Syrian Desert, with whom the Romans seem to have engaged through a combination of alliances, deterrence and subsidies (p. 20), with that of both nomadic and sedentary populations to the south of Egypt in the same period of Imperial Rome? Are these “phylarchs” and “ethnarchs” of the Syrian Desert analogous to the “phylarchs” of the Blemmyes and the “basiliskos” of Nobades, as known from Nubian sources? If the granting of such titles was not only linked with a policy of pacification and control, could they also be seen as tokens of recognition of a special role of these “foederati” in the world trade interests of the Roman Empire? It is interesting perhaps to underline that both Palmyra and Meroë seem to lose their international role at the same time, and in concordance with the disintegration of the ancient Roman Empire. The medieval era will bring new balances that set Palmyra and Nubia in different peripheries – albeit parallel again – defined this time by the Islamic Caliphate.

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I felt I had to return once more to the blog before 2016 is out. The reason lies with two publications that I recently found out about and which are worth a special mention:

The first is the latest issue of the online journal Afriques: http://afriques.revues.org. It is devoted to various aspects of pragmatic literacy in Africa and contains among other interesting contributions, one by G. Ruffini on Nubian documents (http://afriques.revues.org/1871) and another by G. Michael La Rue on land charters from Darfur (http://afriques.revues.org/1896).

It is the latter that links nicely with the second publication that I heard about, namely Sean O’Fahey’s latest book on Darfur, which has been announced by Hurst Publishers: http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/darfur-and-the-british/


These two publications give me the opportunity to remember a very nice event organized by Henriette and Moneim (from Darfur) at the Library of the University College of Volda to commemorate 100 years since Darfur lost its independence.

And thus, as a very bloody and unjust year is coming to an end, I get the opportunity to wish for peace and prosperity to our world, with special thoughts for the tormented regions of Sudan, north, west, east, south or central…

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From the story of a manuscript to the manuscript of a historian

I am now sitting at the Charles de Gaulle airport of Paris, returning finally home after the visit to Johannesburg, the Coptic seminar in Athens, and the defense of the PhD thesis of Robin Seignobos in the French capital.

It is difficult to pick out favorites from such a fantastic time of traveling, and there will be several opportunities to discuss both the study of manuscript BL 80 in Athens and the manuscript of the thesis of Robin (check here for the abstract in both French and English).

But I am lucky enough to be able to share three videos, which resume some quite central points of what happened during these three trips:

  1. The medley by Artur Molepo at the theater festival in memory of the great South African actor Ramolao Makhene:

2. My own talk uploaded on the YouTube channel of the Norwegian Institute of Athens:

3. And the peak moment of Robin’s thesis:

I think that these conclude nicely 2016. See you next year!

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Telling stories

There have appeared many reasons in the past weeks to return to blogging.

I could have announced new publications, like the latest paper that Henriette and myself published on the medieval Sai cathedral in the Festschrift for professor Godlewski, or the first Dotawo monograph on “The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri“. By now, those that would read this blog could as well find links to the available files through academia.edu, or my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Or useful older publications that SFDAS have put online, like the 15 volumes of the Dal Survey by Vila, but this was announced just today in the social media, so I am not that late ;-)

I could also have invited to interesting academic events that I did not have the chance to attend, but would have loved to be there, like the workshop organized on November 18, in Cambridge, MA, by Giovanni Ruffini titled “Which Nubia and Which Byzantium?” in the framework of “East of Byzantium”,  a partnership between the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Chair of Armenian Art at Tufts University and the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA.

Or the conference in Warsaw last week by Magda Laptas on “Nubian Art in a Byzantine, Ethiopian and Coptic Context”.

uksw_nubian-art_3-1 uksw_nubian-art_4-1

But the semester has been very demanding and the blog had to be left aside.

Nevertheless, as the year is coming to a close, I wanted to write about the three trips that will conclude my academic activities in 2016.

So, the present post is inspired by my trip to Johannesburg last week and will invite to an event tomorrow in Athens from where I publish this. The next post will report from the venue in Athens and for a very special visit to Paris.

But let’s start from South Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg

I was invited by professor Benjamin Hendrickx and his wife Thekla Sansaridou-Hendrickx (professors emeriti of the University of Johannesburg)  to assist in a publication project on the Res Gestae of the Nubian kings and to discuss about the possibilities to build up a project on the Greek language in Nubia. Positive results came out from discussions concerning both projects, so stay tuned for further news!

But the trip also gave me the possibility to see a couple of very interesting things of a slightly different order.

The first was the launching of a theater festival in memory of the great South African actor Ramolao Makhene. A festival that wanted at the same time to honor the great figure of South African theater and cinema, but also the long-standing tradition of story telling that Makhene brought forward as key to the development of both the individual actor and the group performing on stage. For him, and his students and colleagues, telling stories was an exemplary form of social cohesion, one of the main goals of theater in general.

Artur Molepo sang in memory of Ramolao Makhene a medley of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” and a quotation of Kalil Gibran’s text on children (a big thanks for the photos from the festival to Raita Steyn)

The potential of story telling for playing theater and creating social cohesion needs not to be stressed. But what about the particular function of story telling and orality in African culture and tradition more generally?

Isn’t it noteworthy that traditional history in Africa is rather oral than written? And that this has lead to the erroneous (and often biased) opinion that Africans had no history before the “discovery” of their continent by Europeans and Arabs?

I wonder moreover if the innovations brought by these new-comers were the writing of chronicles and the drawing of accurate maps.

Despite the obvious oversimplification, I think there is something to this idea worth exploring further. At least to the degree that colonization means the formation of a legitimacy in space – through maps, i.e. territory delineation – and in time – through written chronicles, i.e. genealogical structuring of the past.

Of course much has happened since then and these tools are fully taken up by Africans today in their quest for knowledge of the past to guarantee a better future.

Interestingly, this approach to life shows that the humanities might have a lot to offer and gain from being more present in the African continent.

Thinking along these lines, I admired the collection of maps in the office of my hosts and got permission to share the images hereby.

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My hosts are historians and these maps complement their effort to map a shared past between indigenous and foreign.

There is a dynamic relationship between these two in almost all aspects of life.

I will be investigating  such a dynamic relationship in detail during my talk tomorrow at the Norwegian Institute, titled “The Coptic Manuscript BL80 in the frame of medieval Nubian literacy”. But not so theoretically.  I’ll rather base my presentation on the hard evidence that codicology, palaeography and hermeneutics can offer to the study of a manuscript in Sahidic Coptic created just before the end of the first millennium CE in this zone of mutual interaction between Upper Egypt and (at least Lower) Nubia. More details HERE:


The presentation will take place in the frame of a Coptic Studies Seminar that I am organizing at the Norwegian Institute of Athens and which initiates a Greek-Norwegian collaboration in the field of Coptic Studies. Focus of the seminar will be the manuscript BL 80 preserving the best witness of the work titled Book of Bartholomew. More of the outcome of all that in a week from now!

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