Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.28

Giovanni R. Ruffini, The Bishop, the Eparch, and the King: Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim (P. QI 4). Journal of Juristic Papyrology supplements, 22.   Warsaw:  Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 367.  ISBN 9788393842513.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Centre for Modern Thought, University of Aberdeen (

Giovanni Ruffini here brings us the fourth volume of Old Nubian material from the excavations at Qasr Ibrim, more than twenty years after the first three publications by Plumley and Browne.1 This large volume of previously unpublished material, which also forms the documentary backbone to Ruffini's study Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History,2 gathers in it a wide selection of documentary materials including land-sales, letters, a royal decree, and accounts, dating mainly from the twelfth century and providing many new insights into the historical, social, and economical context of the multilingual community of Qasr Ibrim, one of the important centers of medieval Nubian culture.

In his introduction, Ruffini first offers a short background of the Old Nubian Qasr Ibrim material and its publication history. The section “Historical Commentary” builds on the preliminary analyses of the material in Medieval Nubia, pointing out several interesting new insights into the political structure of medieval Nubia and details about its economical and fiscal system such as the first attestation of the gold dinar in Old Nubian (108.113). The organization of the documentary material is made according to genre and origin: texts from Qasr Ibrim Archive 1, mainly containing land-sales written on scrolls found in a jar; texts from Archive 4, which are all letters; and finally—save for a royal decree by King Siti, a bilingual Greek-Old Nubian literary document, presumably by a certain bishop Iōannēs, and two miscellaneous texts—a large remainder of letters and accounts.

In contrast to the Old Nubian literary material, most of which has been published by Gerald M. Browne, the documentary material presented by Ruffini rarely allows for parallels with other languages or well-known Christian texts, apart from the occasional bilingual manuscript. Moreover, the material often seems riddled with abbreviations and oblique references typical of private communication in which the pragmatic context is clear to sender and receiver but irrevocably lost to any third party — especially a third party centuries later — wishing to understand its full meaning. As Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst has already indicated, the documentary material from Qasr Ibrim are the “most difficult to understand and interpret,”4 and although Ruffini contends that “Old Nubian is the best vehicle for understanding the social and economic history of medieval Nubia,”5 one of the main impediments to actually accessing this information through Old Nubian is our still rather poor understanding of the language. These problems are compounded by the fact that in most cases, Ruffini has had to rely on photographs or transcriptions produced by people untrained in the particularities of the Old Nubian language. The original documents seem to have disappeared, and therefore the possibility of autoptic examination of this material, which might solve numerous conundrums that Ruffini found himself facing, remains a rather uncertain hope.

Although Ruffini's translations generally manage to convey a plausible meaning of the texts, it is much more his apparatus that proves extraordinarily helpful in illuminating the uncertainties that must have haunted him during the translation process, and where his readings could be improved in the future.6 As regards the typical language of Old Nubian documentary material, the documents presented by Ruffini only compound the set of questions that any attempt to grammatically describe the Old Nubian language needs to take into consideration. Literally every page of Ruffini's annotations, some of which improve on previous editions (i.e. 64, 77–79), shows us in excruciating detail that our current knowledge of Old Nubian, as well as the grammatical terminology traditionally used to describe it, is insufficient to yield a full understanding of the meaning of these texts. Not giving himself the luxury of glossing over problematic orthography, morphology, and syntax, Ruffini has done us a great favor by indicating every difficult point in his annotations with an openness and straightforwardness that should be the scholarly norm. In this sense, I am tempted to read the apparatus as an impassioned plea to improve our detailed understanding of the Old Nubian language, lest the precise contents of these documents elude us forever.7

Profiting from the space that a review of this publication allows, I hope to be excused for making a few general observations on the apparatus that could perhaps serve as some prolegomena to such work of alleviation. As in P. QI 1–3, documentary texts show a much broader range of phonological variation than literary texts, which may be a reflection of synchronic dialectal variation or perhaps diachronic variation, the phonological mechanisms and details of which remain to be explained satisfactorily; in all these cases mere “variation” seems the explanatorily weakest description. Take phonological alternations such as -nē (e.g. 69.7)8 and -ni (e.g. 65.1, 71.1) for regular genitive -na, and -kē (e.g. 69.10) and -ki (e.g. 88.9) for regular accusative -ka. This type of alternation has been attested elsewhere and is possibly the result of a vowel reduction process9 or maybe an indication of dialectal variety: Nobiin, a contemporary Nile Nubian language has, -ka, whereas Dongolawi–Andaandi has -ki. Another type of phonological variation that seems to appear often is between voiced and voiceless consonants, for example -k(a)r for causative -g(a)r in 98.5 gajikra and 101.3 marikrouan. In both cases Ruffini suggests an analysis based on the verb kir-/kar-/kour-/ker- “to come,” whereas it seems more likely that we are dealing with a grammaticalization process in which this verb has already semantically weakened and become the causative. The opposite tendency may be observed in, for example, 64.6 with -gon for -kon. In general, the material presented by Ruffini seems to provide plenty of additional evidence for other grammaticalization processes such as suggested by Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst. For the “innovative future,” based on a serial construction with the Old Nubian verb pal-/pel-/pil-,10 we find, for example, 91.2 pala tasse, 89.2 pelin pisseso, 110.5–6 paaldimeeionnō, and perhaps 90.6 pelajja wawa. And in 116.3 we encounter the double-marked future tense construction pale akarre.

Other hitherto unsatisfactorily treated curiosities are the different types of negation, for example the distribution of the negative suffix -ta, which seems to pop up in unexpected morphological environments, such as 93.2 agitanēō, 104.7 dieiŋatasin, and 106.4 einkannotal, and the affirmative -ma, which appears unexpectedly in 91.3 tirmendrema and 91.7 ounnirama. Furthermore there remain unexplained particles such as ta in 73.5 and 108.8, which may indeed be, as Browne suggests, a sort of “intensifying prefix” (ONG 3.9.2). The problem with this term, however, is that this terminology tells us nothing about semantics or pragmatics. Furthermore we find ti in 118.3, which is also encountered in an unpublished letter from the Qasr Ibrim archive.11 Finally it seems that a separate investigation needs to address some curious instances of reduplication, such as in 95.7–8 ŋipijjigro{no}na, reminiscent of the reduplication in WN 5 moudoutakkenna{na}. Although these separate instances are usually glossed as scribal errors, their repeated appearance suggests that something else might be going on.

Sometimes Ruffini's analysis of the morphology clearly suffers from the still omnipresent but rather insufficient Brownian terminology such as “indicative,” “subjective,” “verbid,” and “balancing particle,” which continue to promulgate descriptive imprecision and unclarity, sometimes leading to morphological chimeras such as “genitive form of the 3rd person singular pronoun with the subjective ending” and “1st person singular preterite 1 subjunctive,”12 and grammatical impossibilities such as ourou in 95.6 being both subject and object. Ruffini also seems to confuse the transitive suffix -ar with the causative -gar in his analysis of 92.5 kapiri{n}ka and possibly 93.6 eiriagil.

These are, however, only a few of the linguistic issues raised by this fourth volume of Qasr Ibrim material, it being noted that for many of the often desperate question marks and flags raised by Ruffini we still do not know even where to start; that is, we often simply lack the knowledge to judge whether we are dealing with a scribal error, editorial misreading, or grammatical novelty. The only way forward seems to be exactly as he suggests: publication of all remaining Old Nubian material up to the last snippet, and intensified efforts in the comparative direction, both with documents from the same period and region in Coptic, Arabic, and Greek, and a sustained confrontation with living Nubian languages to solve the many remaining mysteries of the Old Nubian tongue.


1.   J.M. Plumley and G.M. Browne, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim I [= Egypt Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations 9], London 1988; G.M. Browne, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim II [= Egypt Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations 10], London 1989; G.M. Browne, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim III [= Egypt Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations 12], London 1991.
2.   Giovanni Ruffini, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
3.   Numbers between brackets refer to the P. QI numbering of documents. For the sake of brevity, sublinear dots indicating uncertain readings have not been included in the Old Nubian transcriptions.
4.   Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst, The (Hi)story of Nobiin: 1000 Years of Language Change (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 243.
5.   Giovanni Ruffini, The Bishop, the Eparch, and the King: Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim (P. QI 4). (Warsaw: Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 2014), 3.
6.   He himself speaks not of “translations” but of “proposed guides,” ibid. 49.
7.   Ruffini is also explicit here: “While Gerald Browne's dictionary and grammar feel definitive, this is an illusion. Our improved understanding of Old Nubian will rely on excavating and interpreting more new material” (ibid., 51).
8.   /a/–/i/ alternation possibly also in 67.16 seinnanēlo and 18 aswaranēlo.
9.   See Gerald M. Browne, Old Nubian Grammar (Munich: Lincom Europa, 2002), §; Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, “Remarks toward a Revised Grammar of Old Nubian,” Dotawo 1 (2014): 165–84, at 178–9.
10.   Bechhaus-Gerst, op.cit., 157–8.
11.   Van Gerven Oei, op.cit., 181.
12.   Ruffini, op.cit., 192–3 and 221, respectively. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010