Greek Language In Christian Nubia


Of the territory in which the three Christian Nubian kingdoms emerged in the sixth century, only the Dodekaschoenus had a tradition of the use of the Greek language, the most eloquent remains being the proskynemata left by soldiers of the Roman imperial army garrisoned in this frontier zone (e.g., Preisigke, 1915, 8462-8509, 8514-8533; Bernand, 1983, nos. 1330-73). The Meroitic Kingdom, in spite of its Hellenization (Desanges, 1983), used its own language and developed its own writing system. There is no evidence even for a parallel use of Greek alongside the native language for monumental inscriptions, as was the practice in Axum (e.g., Preisigke, 6947-6949, 8546; Bernard, 1982, pp. 105-114). Accordingly, the two fragmentary fourth-century Greek inscriptions discovered at Meroë (Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum 24, 1246; Hägg, 1984a) are remnants of victory monuments set up by Axumite kings.

Proto-Christian Period

In this so-called X-Group or Ballana period (c. 300-550), evidence for the use of Greek is still confined to the Dodekaschoenus. Lacking written languages of their own, the Blemmyes and Nobadae used Greek for monumental inscriptions as well as for communication both between themselves and, no doubt, with their neighbors of Byzantine Egypt. In the former category, the most important item historically is the fifth-century Silko inscription in the Mandulis temple at Kalabsha, proclaiming in bombastic language the victories of the Nobatian king Silko over the Blemmyes. Silko’s Greek (or, rather, that of his scribe) has been very differently judged: according to Lepsius (1876) and his followers, it is Copticizing all through. According to others (most radically Kapsomenos, 1953, pp. 251ff.) it is pure Greek vernacular. Two further inscriptions, in rather ungrammatical Greek, concern cult associations in Tafa and Kalabsha, and four others at Kalabsha seem to record some royal dispositions. Among the adoration inscriptions from Philae, there are several carved by, or for, Nubians.

The use of Greek as a lingua franca is exemplified by the fifth- century letter from the Blemmyan king Phonen to his Nobatian colleague Aburni (best edition by Rea, 1979), remarkable both for its linguistic form (a kind of “Pidgin Greek”; cf. Hägg, 1981, 1986) and for the insights granted into the relations between the two peoples. Thirteen leather documents were found at Gebelen in Upper Egypt (Satzinger, 1968).

Some documents were written in Greek and some in Coptic and Greek, and they show that Greek was used in the sixth century by a Blemmyan tribe apparently living within Egypt. They recorded both internal economic transactions and royal dispositions.

Finally, mention should be made of the Greek titles and honorific epithets consistently applied to Nobatian and Blemmyan officials in both documentary and literary sources, for instance, basileus or basiliskos for “king,” phylarchos for “tribal chief,” hypotyrannos for “subdespot,” prophetes for “priest,” klinarchos for “head of cult association,” and epiphanestatos for “most noble” (see Hägg, 1990).

Christian Period

The most important category of texts is the inscriptions, now amounting to approximately 300 published items, dating from the sixth through the twelfth century. In the absence of a comprehensive corpus, these are the principal collections: Lefebvre, Recueil (1978, comprising only one-fifth of the inscriptions now known); Firth, Survey (1912, pp. 45-50, inscriptions from Ginari); Mina, Inscriptions (1942, inscriptions from Sakinya); Shinnie and Chittick, Ghazali (1961); Tibiletti Bruno, Iscrizioni (1964, selection of inscriptions); Kubinska, Faras IV (1974). See further the topographically arranged bibliographical list in Zabkar, “Grave Stelas” (1967, pp. 16ff.). More than 200 of the inscriptions derive from Nobatia (approximately 20 different places), fully 60 from Makouria (a dozen places), and about 25 are of unknown or disputed provenance.

The soil of ‘Alwa is only beginning to yield Greek texts. Few of the Nubian Greek inscriptions bear dates. Most of the dated ones belong to the eleventh or twelfth century. Besides a few foundations or building inscriptions (e.g., Preisigke, 10074, from Ikhmindi, sixth century), the majority are epitaphs (for the formulas, see Junker, Grabsteine, which is fundamental but in need of updating; cf. Krause, 1975; see also Tibiletti Bruno, 1963, pp. 492-517).

The most conspicuous type, at present represented by nearly forty specimens (list of eighteen in Oates, 1963, supplemented by Hagg, 1981) distributed all over Nobatia and Makouria, and even Alwa, displays a long text based on the Byzantine prayer for the dead of the Euchologion Mega, beginning “God of spirits and of all flesh” (Bruni, 1972, pp. 146-58). The use of this prayer on tombstones seems to be specific to Nubia. The oldest dated instances are late eighth-century (Jakobielski and Ostrasz, 1967-1968, p. 133), the latest ones twelfth-century. The persons honored with this elaborate formula are mostly bishops or high officials.

Other textual categories include legends for wall paintings, notably from the cathedral at Faras (eighth to thirteenth century; Jakobielski, 1972); numerous, mostly unpublished, graffiti on church, monastery, and house walls (see, e.g., Jakobielski, 1972; Bernand, 1969, Vol. 2, nos. 205ff.); and some texts on papyrus, parchment, or paper of a liturgical, administrative, commercial, or private character. This last category, though still rather modest in size, has been substantially increased through the excavations at Qasr Ibrim. The “barbaric” character of Nubian Greek has often been exaggerated.

Much of this impression is due to phonetic- orthographic phenomena well documented in contemporary texts of the same categories from the Byzantine world. Certain peculiarities remain, however, on both the phonetic and the syntactic level (e.g., nominative or accusative for genitive in certain positions; for a preliminary analysis, see Tibiletti Bruno, 1963, pp. 517-29). It remains to be shown to what extent any of these peculiarities, some of which occur in the proto-Christian texts, may be due to bilingual interference from Coptic or Old Nubian and whether the language is merely “conserved” in the Christian Nubian kingdoms, in comparative isolation after the Islamization and gradual arabization of their northern neighbors, or whether there are vestiges of later direct contacts with Byzantium (or with Jerusalem or Sinai; cf. Donadoni, 1986, p. 228).

The series of Euchologion Mega epitaphs is instructive, in that late specimens (e.g., stela of Martyrophoros, A.D. 1159) are not necessarily more erratic than earlier ones (e.g., the stela of Marieo, 1032). Rather than witnessing a gradual “debasement” of Nubian Greek through the centuries, we probably have to reckon, on the one hand, with a rather conservative written tradition of this prayer formula and, on the other, with isolated instances in which the text carved on the stone was based on the recitation of the prayer for the dead, with ensuing phonetic spellings and misunderstandings (cf. the discussion in Oates, 1963).

Medieval Nubia was a multilingual society. As a written language, Greek competed first with Coptic, then with Old Nubian, and later with Arabic. The competition with Coptic is witnessed, for instance, by the find of double foundation stones for the cathedral at Faras (707) and the subsequent alternative use of the two languages for bishops’ tombstones, by the intermingling of Greek and Coptic epitaphs in the cemeteries of Sakinya and Ghazal, and by Coptic liturgic formulas in other Greek inscriptions. Clearly, Coptic had its strongholds in the monasteries, some of whose inhabitants no doubt were refugees from Egypt.

Old Nubian, written with the Greek- Coptic alphabet (extended by three extra letters), is inserted in Greek inscriptions from the eighth century on (e.g., stela of Stephanos, 797), juxtaposed with Greek in the memorial “tray” of King Georgios from Wadi al-Natrun (1158) and mixed with Greek in the legends to the Faras wall paintings in the last phase of decoration. All three languages, written with the same palaeography, meet in the graffiti. Out of 250 registered graffiti from the cathedral at Faras, 23 are apparently Greek, 26 Coptic, and 62 Old Nubian; many, often consisting just of a name and perhaps a title, defy such classification. On the walls of the tenth-century church at Tino, Greek and Old Nubian dominate.

For administrative, legal, and commercial purposes, Greek seems to have yielded to Coptic, Old Nubian, and Arabic, at least to judge from earlier published documents (see Griffith, 1928) and from what is known at this point about the rich textual finds from Qasr Ibrim. However, it is worth noting that Greek was sometimes used for the outside address of dispatches that were themselves written in Coptic or Old Nubian, an indication that Greek may still have been in some use as a lingua franca in the Valley, as it was in the proto-Christian period. The continued use of Greek titles for higher officials, such as eparchos, exarchos, nauarchos, meizon, (proto)meizoteros and (proto)domestikos certainly shows a Byzantine influence, but we are hardly entitled to conclude from that evidence alone that the Greek language actually remained in other than ceremonial use at the courts of the Christian Nubian kingdoms.

What is clearly evident, on the other hand, is the continued use of Greek for ecclesiastical purposes throughout the Middle Ages, at least as far as the United Northern Kingdom (Nobatia/Makouria) is concerned. The application of the whole set of ecclesiastical titles is a matter of course, but more important, the Greek epitaphs, supplemented by the legends and graffiti, cover the whole time span from the sixth through the twelfth century. Greek manuscripts (biblical, patristic, and liturgical texts) found in Nubia confirm what we already knew from Oriental literary sources about the use of Greek in the Nubian church.

Compare the information about ‘Alwa deriving from Selim al-Aswani (tenth century) that “their books are in Greek and they translate these into their own language” with the reported discovery of bilingual Greek-Nubian liturgical texts at Qasr Ibrim (cf. also the tenth-century bilingual graffito from Qasr el- Wizz). There also survive, in fragmentary form, translations from Greek into Old Nubian of biblical books, homilies, and other whole works (see Browne, 1987). The last indication that Greek was, in a sense, a “living” language in the Nubian church dates as late as 1372. The letter testimonial sent by the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria in connection with the consecration of a Nubian, Timotheos, as of Faras, although written in Coptic and Arabic, begins with an address in Greek directed to the Nubian congregation (Plumley, 1975b); apparently, Greek was then still regarded as Nubia’s ecclesiastical language of choice.


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