Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.02
J. van der Vliet, J. L. Hagen (ed.), Qasr Ibrim, Between Egypt and Africa: Studies in Cultural Exchange. (NINO symposium, Leiden, 11-12 December 2009). Egyptologische uitgaven, 26. Leiden; Leuven: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten; Peeters, 2013. Pp. vi, 191. ISBN 9789062582266. €42.40 (pb).
Reviewed by Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
Well-preserved settlement sites are often called another “Pompeii.” Though most don’t live up to the billing, Qasr Ibrim is one of the exceptions. Located roughly half way between the first and second cataracts of the Nile in the frontier zone between Egypt and Nubia, Qasr Ibrim was, during its long history from the early first millennium BCE to the nineteenth century CE, one of the principal urban and military centers of Lower Nubia. Moreover, not only did it survive the flooding of Lower Nubia by the Aswan High Dam, but the anaerobic conditions created by the hot and dry climate of the region have resulted in the exceptional preservation of organic materials of all kinds, from garbage to luxury textiles, leather goods, and papyrus and parchment documents. With publication of the extraordinarily rich finds from the Egyptian Exploration Society excavations at Qasr Ibrim still far from complete, books dealing with the site are of necessity essentially progress reports. That is certainly true of this excellent volume, which contains thirteen papers delivered at a conference held at Leiden in December, 2009 on the theme of cultural interaction between Egypt and the Mediterranean basin and the interior of Africa.
The first three papers set the theme for the volume. In “Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia” Jacques van der Vliet traces cultural interaction between Egypt and Nubia between 30 BCE and 652 CE, highlighting the role of religion as the catalyst for cultural change in Nubia. The next two papers are by William Y. Adams, the doyen of Sudanese archaeology. In “Nubian History in Global Perspective” he briefly restates the thesis of his classic anthropological history of the Sudan, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton 1977), where he argued that the distinguishing characteristic of the cultural history of the region from prehistory to the present is continuity and adaptation by a largely unitary population instead of discontinuity caused by repeated foreign invasions, as had been maintained by early Egyptologists. “Qasr Ibrim: Connecting the Dots” is a methodological supplement to the previous paper, lucidly explaining the uniquely complex archaeology of Qasr Ibrim, in which the same floor levels in separate rooms of the same building may be centuries apart in date, and showing how pottery analysis has permitted the establishment of a reliable archaeological chronology for the site.
The remaining ten papers are a miscellany loosely connected to the stated theme of the volume. Six deal with finds—both organic and inorganic—and four with topics in the political and religious history of ancient and medieval Nubia.
Most closely related to the theme of the volume is Nettie K. Adams’ illuminating “Influences from Abroad: The Evidence from the Textiles.” By identifying the materials and weaving techniques represented in the extensive corpus of textiles found at Qasr Ibrim, she is able to outline the trade connections between Lower Nubia and the rest of Afro-Eurasia from the late first century BCE to the early nineteenth century CE: wool from the Roman Mediterranean; cotton from the central Sudan; silk, which, depending on the weaving techniques, might come from anywhere from Syria to Central Asia; and goat hair from the local Bedouin. The other five papers in this group are progress reports on various projects to publish the extensive textual material from Qasr Ibrim.
Six of the nine languages attested at Qasr Ibrim are represented in the texts discussed in these papers: Demotic, Greek, Coptic, Meroitic, Old Nubian, and Arabic. Tomasz Derda and Adam Łajtar report on a project to publish a group of Greek private letters and documents, discovered between 1976 and 1980, that belonged to the Roman garrison at Qasr Ibrim. As a sample they edit a letter dated to April, 21 BCE which is one of a group of four from the ninth year of Augustus’ reign. The most tantalizing textual finds from Qasr Ibrim, however, are those in Meroitic, which will increase the number of known Meroitic texts by 40% when they are finally published. Jochen Hallof publishes a remarkable ostracon that makes possible the reconstruction of the entire Meroitic numerical system, and based on it he proposes corrections to several texts in the so-called Meroitic Chamber at Philae. Brian Muhs analyzes the small corpus of Demotic papyri and ostraca discovered at Qasr Ibrim, arguing that their content suggests their original context was religious, most likely a late Ptolemaic temple of Amun. The final two papers deal with medieval texts. Geoffrey Khan surveys the Arabic legal texts from Qasr Ibrim. He publishes and analyzes a land lease of 1124 CE, arguing that its terminology confirms the hypothesis that legal forms which had disappeared in Egypt continued in use in peripheral areas like Qasr Ibrim. Finally, Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet describe the 156 tenth and eleventh century CE Greek and Coptic graffiti found on the desert hill of Gebel Maktub, arguing convincingly that these graffiti commemorated pilgrimages to the hill by clergy and lay persons from Qasr Ibrim during that period.
The first of the four historical articles—“The Desert Hinterland of Qasr Ibrim” by Hans Barnard—is a valuable survey of the archaeology of the Eastern Desert from the Nile to the Red Sea from prehistory to late antiquity, with emphasis on the problematic character of proposed identifications of ancient populations with modern Beja tribes. Specifically, the author convincingly maintains that the identifications of the Medjay with the Pan-Grave culture, and the Blemmyes with the creators of Eastern Desert Ware, and all these ancient groups with the Beja, are unsound.
The Christianization of Nubia marked a decisive break with the region’s ancient culture. Recent scholarship has demonstrated, however, that the process of Christianization was gradual, beginning as early as the fourth century CE, and not the result of a single period of intensive missionary activity in the sixth century CE as literary sources suggest. Jitse H.F. Dijkstra argues that the co-existence of pagan and Christian graves and the continued functioning of at least one pagan temple until the early sixth century CE confirms that Qasr Ibrim was an important center for the gradual Christianization of Lower Nubia. Włodzimierz Godlewski provides a well-documented overview of the medieval history of Lower Nubia based on the results of the Polish excavations of the Makurian centers of Faras and Dongola. The volume appropriately concludes with an article that will require a fundamental reinterpretation of the end of Christian Nubia. Through a careful analysis of dating formulas in an archive of Old Nubian land sale documents from Qasr Ibrim in the light of Arabic historical accounts, Giovanni R. Ruffini shows that Dotawo was the Nubian name for the kingdom of Makuria and not that of a late medieval splinter kingdom as previous scholars have believed, and that the thirteenth and fourteenth century CE kings of Dotawo must, therefore, be incorporated into the list of the kings of Makuria instead of being treated as rulers of a separate kingdom.
Qasr Ibrim is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the world. Full publication of the finds from the excavations, however, is decades in the future. Still, as the fine papers in Qasr Ibrim, Between Egypt and Africa make clear, the material already published or in the process of being published leaves no doubt that ancient and medieval Nubia was not an isolated peripheral region but part of the mainstream of world history. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the editors’ decision to organize the papers alphabetically by their authors’ last names obscures the thematic coherence of the volume.
Table of Contents
Jacques van der Vliet, “Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia: Cultural Interaction at the Southernmost Roman Limes”, 1-23
William Y. Adams, “Nubian History in Global Perspective: An Anthropological View”, 23-44
William Y. Adams, “Qasr Ibrim: Connecting the Dots”, 45-63
Nettie K. Adams, “Influences from Abroad: The Evidence from the Textiles”, 65-81
Hans Barnard, “The Desert Hinterland of Qasr Ibrim”, 83-103
Tomasz Derda and Adam Łajtar, “The Roman Occupation of Qasr Ibrim as Reflected in the Greek Papyri from the Site”, 105-110
Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, “Qasr Ibrim and the Religious Transformation of Lower Nubia in Late Antiquity”, 111-122
Włodzimierz Godlewski, “A Short Essay on the History of Nobadia from Roman to Mamluk Times”, 123-133
Jochen Hallof, “From One to One Million: The Meroitic Numbers on an Ostracon from Qasr Ibrim (REM 2112)”, 135-143
Geoffrey Khan, “The Medieval Arabic Documents from Qasr Ibrim”, 145-156
Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet, “A View from a Hill: A First Presentation of the Rock Graffiti of ‘Gebel Maktub’”, 157-166
Brian Muhs, “Demotic Texts from Qasr Ibrim”, 167-178
Giovanni R. Ruffini, “Newer Light on the Kingdom of Dotawo”, 179-191