Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

This time it was through facebook that news came to us…

It was through this medium that we heard from our friends in Khartoum that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Sudan has quitted from his post…

The way things are presented in the description at the portal of church news, amen.gr, a report written by Elisabeth Gabrielides, which includes the speeches of the presidents of both the Greek community and the Hellenic Athletic Club, allows some room for speculation about the conflicts that have been taking place the last years there. Irrespectively of these conflicts, though, it remains a fact, as can be seen from the photos posted in the same page, that at least for an evening the withdrawal of Emmanuel brought together quite a lot of the members of the Greek community that is becoming smaller and smaller as years go by…

But what will the future bring?

From the Patriarchate, the decision has already been made. In fact, voted. The new Archbishop will be Narkissos, born in Amman of Jordan under the name of Samer Gammoh. More on him will surely appear soon in the webpages of the Patriarchate in Alexandria, but it can already be noted that he is the first not-Greek archbishop of Khartoum and Sudan. Perhaps this can help in the new circumstances for the Greek Community there?

In any case, the most crucial dimension of the change caused by Emmanuel’s withdrawal is that it is a sign of times of disintegration.

Lakin Allah fi…

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This is the third entry that is inspired from things relating to the 27th Congress of papyrology held at the University of Warsaw between the 29th of July and the 2nd of August. As the title says, today I will complete what I would like to share from those days and will gradually move to more familiar grounds for our blog.

the participants

The participants of the conference had the chance to visit two very interesting exhibitions taking place on the premises of the university.

The first one was about Polish Archaeology in the Nile Valley and we would like to thank Dobrochna that shared with us this picture from the opening ceremony:

opening of exhibition

The second one was set at the entrance to the venue (the Old Library of the University of Warsaw) and it presented the history of the previous Congresses of Papyrology, from Brussels in 1930 to Warsaw in 2013.

from brussels to warsaw

A useful parcours of the history of a discipline with such wide and variable interests overheard so many of the private contacts between the participants, quite often the most interesting part of academic venues!

On the second floor of the Old Library, two rooms were given to publishers who wanted to exhibit their product relating to the conference.

book sellers

In that room, a special detail attracted our attention.

the cross from sai in warsaw

This was the only occasion that we came across the “cross from Sai” during our visit to Warsaw. It made us wonder about the reasons for the propagation or not of this pattern in the various regions of the world that we are visiting. Surely, there will be ample time to discuss this further and in future entries.

But now that the memories from Warsaw have brought us back to Christianity along the Nile, let us focus our attention on something that is happening in specifically this region and affects also the fate of the monuments from the Christian cultures of the Nile during the medieval era, while at the same time is linked with work conducted by a friend we spent quite some time together with in Warsaw.

at the royal castle with karel and dobrochna

During the last days in Egypt, Coptic churches have been the object of the attacks by revengeful Muslims, who are outraged by the way the legally elected government of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by the military. Not all the attacks to the heritage of Egypt are against Coptic monuments and not all Muslims are supportive of such acts of course. Just like not all Muslims are supportive of Islamist oppressive regimes (whether Saudi- or Brotherhood-inspired), and not only Coptic churches are worth attention when they are attacked. But the combination, seen under the more general problematic relationship of Christians and Muslims in the wider Middle-East region, is a killer…

The reason why I wrote this paragraph is mainly as a contrast to other sorts of acts that are taking place at the same time by people who are concerned deeply about this heritage and they are dedicating personal time and effort for its safeguarding, understanding and promotion. That is for example the case of Karel Innemée and his colleagues at Deir al-Surian where conservation works are urgently needed. The financial situation in Egypt, Europe, and the academic world has not allowed for a project to be supported by a rich funding source. But Karel did not give up! He started a fund-raising project at kickstarter and there are still five days that we can all help them reach their goal! So, spread the words and donate your share – small or large!

deir al-surian


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Since the early 1800s, Sai Island and its antiquities have been attractive to European explorers. The first to successfully cross over to Sai and to describe the antiquities there was Frédéric Cailliaud, as we wrote in the newly published report from the second fieldseason on Sai. Cailliaud later published his journeys in four volumes:

His impressions from visiting the so-called Cathedral of Sai on the 2nd of January 1821 were expressed in the following paragraph:

When I arrived on land, I mounted a donkey; after riding for a league and a half in the north east of this island, I saw four small columns in grey granite, arranged in a square; one can think that this is a work by the Copts; its style is very bad and with no proportions. The capitals, of a baroque taste, are surmounted by the Greek cross; some rubble of earth that neighbour these columns, indicate that these belonged to a small Christian church (Cailliaud 1826, vol. I, 366; translated from French by A. Tsakos).

Lepsius visited Sai on the 13th of July in 1844. He described the “Coptic church” there in the following terms:

Drei Säulen stehen noch mit ihren Kapitälen, eine vierte ist schief; andere Kapitäle liegen umher (Lepsius, Denkmäler, volume V, p. 226).

His description thus informs us that the fourth column at Sai was tilted already in the mid-19th century with the fourth capital nearby.

Lepsius also noted the old town and fortress on the Nile, but he focused on the pharaonic inscriptions there and added no information on the medieval remains.

The oldest photograph of the so-called Cathedral of Sai was taken in 1859-1860 by Francis Frith and published in a volume by Joseph Bonomi and Samuel Sharpe in 1862. We are grateful to Michael Zach (see interview no. 14 HERE) for this reference.

Another interesting reference to the so-called Cathedral of Sai is by Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, who described the cathedral in the following words:

[T]owards the middle of the island are four gray granite pillars, which mark the site of a Coptic church. Each pillar is a monolith, and has the Coptic cross cut on its capital. A few heaps of rubbish indicate where stood other portions of the church to which these pillars belonged, but every stone of any value for building purposes has been removed (Budge, 1907, The Egyptian Sudan, volume I, p. 463).

Both the photograph and the description of Budge inform us that all other architectural spolia had been removed. We have observed that a nearby saqia-well is lined with sandstone blocks – some of them with engravings of Christian symbols.

These stone blocks must have come from the church. But our search through the old descriptions of the site has not yet revealed any information on when the stone was taken – so it probably happened before the mid-19th century. This is  interesting, because there is a ruined house and an abandoned saqia-well next to the columns. Obviously, the house and the saqia-well were used contemporaneously and in the period after the church was abandoned and before the visits by modern travelers.

We have also not yet found any information about the column bases that are situated at some distance from the columns.

Our excavations at the site started around these bases, and they have never been part of a building at their current position.

Can we conclude that the bases have been in the present location since the columns (and the church) was erected at this spot – probably after being moved from their original location at the fortress of Sai, as we suggest in the second report? We have no evidence yet for when the church was moved, but a good guess would be when Muslim rule was established on the island. Written sources inform that the Ottomans captured Sai in 1584, but the kingdom of Makuria was overthrown by muslims much earlier, when a muslim prince accended the throne of Makuria in 1323. The finding of a muslim grave next to the column bases (see photo above) suggest that Sai may add information on the two centuries between these two events. We hope to return to Sai in order to find answers to these questions and many others.

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The 7th of January is Christmas day according to the Julian calendar (for a short explanation and a comment we made two years ago, see HERE). The countries that follow this religious calendar are Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Ethiopia. The 7th of January date for Christmas is also respected by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, while the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria celebrates Christmas either on the 7th or on the 8th of January, depending on the concordance of the days between the lunar and the solar calendar. The appropriate date for Coptic Christmas is Khoiak 29th. In 2013, Christmas falls again on the 7th of January and it is taking place in a new state of affairs for the Coptic community in Egypt given the political developments of the last two years.

These can be seen in the wider context of coexistence and dialogue between differing religious views supported by citizens and authorities in the same country. Although examples of problematic relationships inside a single state can be found globally – like the renown case between Theravada Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka – the Western world is mostly occupied with the difficulties in establishing harmony between Christians and Muslims. In this scope, Coptic Christmas is of special importance and it made us think of the way understanding has been attempted or can be achieved between different religious communities living next to each other.

The coexistence or neighborhood of Christianity and Islam are documented – among other means – by the medieval and modern literary production that is relating the views of Christians about Mohammed and of the Muslims about Jesus. In various instance the last year, we have come across references to two major manuscript traditions concerning this topic, namely the Legend of Sergius Bahira and the Gospel of Barnabas.

The Legend bears testimony to the tradition according to which a Syrian monk foretold that the adolescent Mohammed would become the Prophet of God. The Christians explained away this tradition by blaming the monk Sergius Bahira as the heretic who inspired the Quran. In both cases, the Legend functions as counterhistory (term introduced by Amos Funkenstein) in the sense that it achieves “the distortion of the adversary’s self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory” (quoted from the latest study of the Legend by Barbara Roggema, The Legend of Sergius Baīrā, Eastern Christian Apologetics and Apocalyptic in Response to Islam, Leiden 2009, p. 31).

On the other hand, the Gospel of Barnabas consists of 222 chapters of Gospel-like literature that seem to have been compiled – to a certain extent – on the basis of more ancient material, but by Muslim circles that were attempting to present Jesus as the precursor of Mohammed in a manner reminiscent of the way John the Baptist was the precursor of Jesus himself. Leaving aside the originality of the manuscripts upon which the Gospel has come to us (for the latest discussion, see Oddbjørn Leirivk, Images of Jesus Christ in Islam, London – New York 2010, pp. 132-144), the work is surely a very interesting reading (see HERE and HERE), and it has caused many debates, analyses and propaganda, among which we’d like to mention the book by Ahmed Hamoud Al-Maamiry “Jesus Christ as Known by Muslims” (1989) for two reasons: because it is not usually mentioned in the related reference lists, and because it attempts to re-evaluate the polemics in which the Gospel of Barnabas has been used as the most effective weapon with an attitude of kind appropriation of the figure of Jesus, obviously a proselytization dressed with the costume of an attempt to bridge the gap between the two religions.

From our own perspective, knowledge of the other’s belief system is an important factor in the success of any such effort. Therefore, the analysis of works like those mentioned here should be made with an honesty that leaves no space to doubt and suspicion as to the motivations for undertaking such an exploit, and with the sharpness of a critical reading that does not allow itself any bias from a personal, social or ethnic background of a particular religious faith. If such exercises are too demanding, a starting point for everyone might be to participate with positive spirit and wholeheartedly to the ceremonies of the various religious communities of our neighborhood. This can prove a most useful lesson for the citizens of either Norway or Greece, or our beloved countries along the Nile. So, we hope that it is in such an atmosphere that the Coptic community celebrated Christmas today in the Arab Republic of Egypt…

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Friday was a blessed day indeed: on the one hand the “opening” of the holy month of Ramadan and on the other the day that the Greek Orthodox Christianity venerates Prophet Elijah. The cult places of prophitis Ilias in Greece are situated on the top of the mountains and it seems that this tradition is linked with the solar origins of the cult that the Christian prophet came to substitute. The past finds ways to exist in the present and the monuments of the past are the most eloquent testimonies of these.

The way the ideas of this introduction developed into today’s entry was inspired by the announcement on the web that “University of Cincinnati Research reveals largest ancient dam built by Maya in Central America“.

The Maya dams were constructed in order to create water reservoirs that could sustain the population of the kingdom even in periods of drought.

Ancient and medieval dams can also be found along the Middle Nile in Sudan, where the narrow passing of the river between the rock outcrops facilitates the creation of such reservoirs, as it can be seen in this photo from the Fourth Cataract region, now lying under the waters of the reservoir behind the gigantic Merowe Dam…

…or they were built against the sandy river banks to stop erosion from the annual floods and preserve the fertile ground for the agricultural activities of the local population, as can be seen in this photo from the southern tip of Sai Island, threatened to disappear below the artificial lake that would be created if a dam is constructed on the Dal Cataract…

In all cases of dam buildings, it is the top of the mountains of the flooded areas that remain to remind of the old landscape, and among those there are surely many tops that have (had) cultic significance, perhaps even to a local form of the Sun God, a Nubian Prophet Elijah…

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The title of the present entry has a heroic aura, for quite often the ancestral past is crowned in the consciousness of the future generations with the glory of a sacrifice offered in order that the land or the nation (or something of that sort) retains its traditional character, its independence, its autonomy.

The only manner in which such a sense of today’s title is meaningful for the Medieval Sai Project relates to the way the Nubians of the 21st century understand the resettlement of their ancestors due to the construction of the Aswan dams, especially the great Exodus of the 1960s in the frame of the building of the Aswan High Dam. But was this sacrifice done voluntarily or was it forced upon the ‘victims’? Although this is a rhetorical question, it is still worth exploring, like it seems to have happened in the case of a recent venue in Egypt that was advertised as a “Nubian culture exhibition bringing ancient heritage to life“.

And the reason is none other than the fact that the Nubians are asked to sacrifice again their lands, homesteads, traditions, history, memory, mentality, psychology, and physical health, for the sake of an authority for which we doubt that they would ever choose themselves freely to sacrifice anything for…

The point here is that the meaning of the sacrifice has to do more with the agent rather than with the recipient. If the agent is not venerating the recipient, if the act is not performed wholeheartedly, if this act is not ritualistically significant for the performer, then it cannot be called a sacrifice. What is a sacrifice, on the contrary, is the dedication of the Nubians to the cause of the protection of Nubia against the eminent threat of new dam buildings.

A logical sacrifice, both because it makes full sense and because it is first expressed with words of resistance.

Later on, even such a sacrifice may assume the form of action. And then, it will become greater and it can function as a paradigm for the future generations. In this scope, the ancestors who sacrifice their life in such a manner are either winners or losers. The difference is manifest in the locality where they are venerated. The winners are honored with a sanctuary in the ancestral territory; the losers at the locality where the diaspora found refuge.

That’s how we believe that the Nubians have always been winners. Because the ancestors venerated in huge prehistoric funerary monuments, the ones whose names were carved upon the rocks of important localities or on stelae made of stone of venerable purpose like the journey to the life after death, and those lying under the qubbas that flower at all spots in the Nubian Valley, they are all part of the same continuum in history and culture.

These thoughts were inspired on the one hand from the burning topics concerning Nubia and the dams that so much have preoccupied us in the last months, and on the other hand from further reading in the precious Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion edited by Timothy Insoll.

A very interesting section of that Handbook is the paragraph relating the process of Islamization in West Africa with the gradual loosening of ancestral ties (Insoll: “West African Islam and the Ancestors” in “Ancestor Cults”, pp. 1052-1053). There, it is reported that in the Gao region of eastern Mali, the urban populations and the pastoralists were those who were Islamized, while the sedentary agriculturists resisted longer since the nature of their life was more tightly knitted with indigenous traditional religion linked with ancestral cults too. Archaeology records this picture of religious traditionalism and although Insoll advices in his Conclusions (p. 1055) to avoid investing “singular ancestral interpretations” with a “universal applicability”, we believe that archaeological research in the Middle Nile Valley would produce a similar picture like that in the Gao region of Mali.

Here suffice it to say that the traces of the ancestors of the Nubians on Sai Island, sedentary agriculturalists in their vast majority, can be recognized today on the landscape mainly through the qubbas of the sheikhs still venerated in the region. Among those a primal position is held by Idriss Mahjoub at Kweka, whose qubba dates from 1252 AH (1836 CE).

In fact, none of the qubbas inspected on Sai Island during the 2009 GNM field season were reported to be older than the 18th-19th centuries. However, it is certain that at the main “urban” settlement of the island, that is around the fortress, Islamic influence was exercised since at least the Ottoman conquest of the 16th century; and that on the mainland, the main agents of Islamization were the Arabic pastoralists moving into the territories of the collapsing Makuritan kingdom, especially from the 14th century onwards.

Would that mean that the “real” ancestors of the Nubians were the “heroes” of the Christian era? It must have been the case in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 CE), but, more generally, we would rather suggest that in Nubia (like elsewhere) the ancestors are really the important figures of the region’s past assuming in the consciousness of the local community at any given time a higher status and gradually being privileged with the shifting of the character of their places of commemoration to localities of religious veneration. It should be evident that in order that this “normal” sequence continues, the relation of the communities with their natural environment should remain uninterrupted.

No doubt, if this is the case, the ancestors of the Nubians would not need to ask for more sacrifices… Just the daily one, the toil on the soil: for the Nubians maintain a cultural landscape of neat fields of beans, wheat, clover, vegetables, and, in the summer, sorghum, as well as groves of date palms. This landscape of green next to the river would disappear if the Nubians were to disappear – the green being reclaimed by the desert sand…and Nubia itself by the reservoir of more dams…

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From a Conference taking place these days, we pass to some comments about an all-day Symposium held at the Royal Ontario Museum on September 25. The opportunity was given by a post from yesterday at LiveScience. But let’s take things with the right order.

During our trips along the Middle Nile Valley, we have often visited our Polish colleagues working at the various sites of medieval interest in Nubia. A special place among them is held by Dr. Bogdan Zurawski of the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences who has worked in some of the most important sites of the Makuritan world and contributed to the Fourth Cataract Archaeological Salvage Project before returning to his own fieldwork at Selib and Banganarti. The latter site has appeared in our Medieval Sai Project blog in the context of a survey of Athanassian testimonies from Nubia (https://medievalsaiproject.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/athanassius-nubianus/),

while references to Bogdan’s researches have been made in two occasions, thanks to his interesting work on the links between Nubia and Ethiopia:



Yesterday, the interest for the Medieval cultures of the West in the discoveries from his excavation at both Selib and Banganarti (mainly the latter where a graffito of a Catalan man named Benesec has been identified by Tomek Plociennik) have offered Bogdan an appearance in Live Science under the attractive title “Long Pilgrimages Revealed in Ancient Sudanese Art”.

Of course this art is of the Medieval centuries, but this is not what is of importance here. The importance concerns the groundbreaking discoveries in both the epigraphic and iconographic record made by Bogdan and his colleagues working at this important site of the Christian Nubian past: the inscriptions read by Łajtar and Plociennik, the murals studied by Łaptas, and so on… We are looking forward to both further updates, and especially to the publication of the excavations’ final report – that we heard is under preparation.

Special mention should be made here to Bogdan’s great efforts to create at Banganarti a site of significance for the local population, at the same time a museum and an archaeological monument, a center of culture and history. Mashallah!

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