Texts in Old Nubian

The interest in ethnic studies in our days is not without advantages for those interested in retrieving material extant in minor languages. It’s possible to get funding from politically correct officials for things that in a saner world would be difficult to access. At one point I was attempting to obtain some money to get some translations made, and I had it in mind to use some African literature such as Old Nubian as a stalking horse for this purpose, and asked a question in LT-ANTIQ. The fund-raising went nowhere, unfortunately, but I have now had a couple of emails from Kerstin Weber, who knows about Old Nubian!

Not everyone will know who or what Old Nubian is. The Nubian kingdom occupied the northern end of what is today the Sudan, and the blacks living there were a constant feature in the history of Ancient Egypt, even leading to two dynasties of black pharaohs, and a civilisation based at Meroe, complete with imitation pyramids. They were converted to Christianity at the end of Antiquity, and continued to be so down to the Middle Ages, and material in Old Nubian is the literature of that kingdom. The Nubian kingdom eventually broke up under incessant Moslem attacks, and had ceased to exist by the time the first European travellers reached the area. Today Christianity is only a memory in that unhappy land. Excavations at the ancient Egyptian fortress at Qasr Ibrim (now mainly submerged by the Aswan High Dam) revealed quantities of Old Nubian texts. Like most people I know little about them.

Kersten very kindly gave me the following information, which I pass on as it may be useful:

‘The texts are all from the medieval-christian period (mostly 9th to 12th century). We have the “big” texts like “The Matyrdom of St. Menas” (without direct parallels in Coptic or Greek), “Griffith’s Old Nubian Lectionary” (Parts of New Testament Gospels and Letters), “The Stauros Text” (parts of it have parallels in Ancient Greek), some works by John Chrysostom or a pseudepigraph, several parts of Gospels and books of the Old Testament and the revelation of John. Original literature is very rare. There are some letters from Qasr Ibrim which are very hard to translate for we know one side of the correspondence only. Of course you find hundreds of graffito, dedications and things like this in the bigger ancient cities like Qasr Ibrim, Faras and Old Dongola. A lot of the manuscript fragments are as yet unpublished or even yet to be assigned to a particular genre. So there is a lot of work to do.

‘Frank Kammerzell from Humboldt-University in Berlin is working in this area, together with a group of students and graduates here who are continously working on the texts. There is still a large number of texts and fragments of manuscripts as yet unpublished. The longer texts have all been published by the late Gerald Browne (e.g. Literary texts in Old Nubian, in: Beiträge zur Sudanforschung, Beiheft 5, 1989). Unfortunately the smaller texts are only published within the field reports and often not sufficiently edited. There is a bibliography of the Nubian Language (Angelika Jakobi & Tanja Kümmerle, The Nubian Languages. An annoted bibliography, In: African Linguistic Bibliographies, Vol.5, 1993) which might be helpful.’

There was also interest in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Sudan was under British rule. F. L. Griffith published all the Old Nubian texts known at the time. There is a journal devoted to Nubiology, Meroitica, (Berlin, Humboldt). Apparently there is also information on the internet, with some very good (and pretty recent) bibliographies — however, this is usually in (German-language) Egyptological contexts.

2 Responses to “Texts in Old Nubian”


  1. Angelika Jakobi

    Dear Roger,

    There is a typo in the “Texts in Old Nubian”. Please correct it. My last name is spelt with k not c, so Jacobi should be Jakobi.
    Thanks

  2. Roger Pearse

    Oops! Fixed!