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When Greek Was An African Language

It is a huge story, literally. Spatially it covers southern Egypt and the northern and central Sudan from the first
cataract at modern Aswan to south of Khartoum. Chronologically it spans almost a millennium and a half
from the Hellenistic period to the end of the middle ages. It is also a story that could not even begin to be told
until recently. In part, this was because of the lack of sources that is the bane of all ancient historians. Until
recently, native Nubian sources were almost entirely lacking, and only fragments remain of the once extensive
Classical and Arabic accounts of the region and its peoples. Lack of sources was not, however, the only
problem. The historiography of Nubia is the oldest body of western historical scholarship dealing with the
African interior. [2] Like any historiography, however, it reflects the biases of the various periods in which
historians of Nubia wrote.
Put simply, the surviving ancient and medieval accounts of Nubia are profoundly Egyptocentric. [3] Nubia
and its peoples and cultures were mentioned only when they were relevant to Egypt; and when they were
mentioned, they were discussed from the perspective of Egypt. Not surprisingly, when modern histories of
Nubia first began to be written in the 19 &supth; th century, they were largely based on the classical and
Arabic sources, supplemented by Egyptian texts; and they, therefore, reflected the biases of their sources. [4]
The problem was compounded, moreover, by the fact that their authors wrote during the heyday of European
imperialism in Africa and, not surprisingly, they shared the then current popular view of Africans as inferior
peoples, capable, at best, only of receiving and imitating influences from superior foreign cultures.
As a result of these factors, when the presence of the Greek language and Greek influence in Nubia was
recognized, no effort was made to understand how they functioned within ancient and medieval Nubian
culture. Greek objects found in Nubia were treated instead as indices of Hellenization, which was conceived
as a one-sided process of acculturation involving the deliberate decision by non-Greek individuals—usually
elites—to transform themselves and their society by abandoning their own culture in favor of Greek culture.
[5] The equation was simple. The greater the number of Greek objects and other examples of Greek
influence, the greater the degree of Hellenization. One example will have to stand for many. After reviewing
the evidence for Greek imports into Nubia, the great Hellenistic and Roman historian M. I. Rostovtzeff
concluded that Hellenistic Meroe "with its Hellenistic palaces, its Hellenistic bath, its Ethiopian-Hellenistic
statues and decorative frescoes, became a little Nubian Alexandria." [6]
This situation has changed dramatically during the last half century. A new historiography of Nubia has
emerged that treats Nubian culture as a distinct entity created by the inhabitants of the upper Nile valley and
not as a remote outpost of Egyptian civilization doomed to ultimate decline and extinction because of its
location in the interior of Africa. The catalysts for this change were two of the major developments of the
Cold War period: the construction of the huge Aswan High Dam and the end of Europe's African empires.
This is not the place to tell either the story of how the Soviet Union came to construct the Aswan High Dam
or the end of Europe's imperial dreams in Africa. What does concern us, however, is the fact that construction
of the dam was preceded by the largest and most complex archaeological salvage campaign in world
history—the UNESCO sponsored international effort to excavate and record every significant archaeological
site in the 200 mile stretch of the Upper Nile valley that would be flood by Lake Nasser, the lake created by
the dam. [7] The result was the discovery and ongoing publication of a mass of new native Nubian
sources--both textual and material--for the history of just about every aspect of ancient and medieval Nubian
Decolonization, on the other hand, transformed the writing of African history, encouraging the emergence of a
new historiography of Africa that placed Africans at the center of their history. The Sudan was no exception.
As a result, it is possible for the first time to discuss the place of Greek and Greek culture in Nubia in a new
way, one that focuses on its function as one element in the long history of a culture that was created by
Nubians. In the rest of this paper I will try to give you a progress report on the current state of that story.