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When Greek Was An African Language


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When does the history of Greek and Greek culture in Nubia begin? At first glance we seem to have a firm
date. According to the second century BC historian Agatharchides of Cnidus, the author of the standard
classical account of the region, Greeks first entered Nubia, when Ptolemy II campaigned there in the 270s BC.
Precise dates for the beginnings of complex historical processes are rarely what they seem, and, unfortunately,
that is true in the case.
While people from ancient Nubia are attested in the Aegean as early as the second millennium BC, [9] direct
Greek contact with the region began in 593 BC, when the army of the 26 &supth; th dynasty Egyptian king
Psamtek II campaigned in Nubia. Greek mercenaries were part of Ptamtek's army, and they commemorated
their role in his expedition in graffiti scratched on the colossi of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. [10] Four
centuries later Greeks again entered Nubia. In the late 330s BC Alexander dispatched a small reconnaissance
expedition into the region, allegedly to find the sources of the Nile, and a decade or two later Ptolemy I raided
northern Nubia. [11] Greek objects also occasionally reached Nubia before the 270s like a spectacular vase
by the 5 &supth; th century BC Athenian potter Sotades, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that was
the prized possession of a Nubian aristocrat buried in the west cemetery at Meroe.
Ptolemy II's campaign, therefore, was not the first but at least the fourth time Greek soldiers operated in
Nubia. Why Ptolemy II invaded Nubia is not clear, but Agatharchides suggests that he hoped to put an end to
attempts by the kingdom of Kush in the central Sudan to expand its influence north toward the Egyptian
border. The details of the campaign are lost, but the poet Theocritus (Idyll 16, lines 86-87) claimed that he
"cut off a part of Black Aithiopia." presumably the so-called Dodecaschoenus--the roughly seventy-five mile
stretch of the Nile immediately south of the first cataract--together with the important gold mining region east
of the Nile in the Wadi Allaqi. Inscriptions and coins fill out the picture, indicating that Ptolemy II also
garrisoned some of the old Middle Kingdom forts in the second cataract area, and suggesting that his authority
temporarily, at least, reached the modern border between Egypt and the Sudan at Wadi Halfa. What set
Ptolemy II's Nubian campaign apart from previous Greek incursions south of Egypt, however, was that it
opened a period of sustained contact between Kush and Ptolemaic Egypt, and the reason for that was
something new: Ptolemy's need to find a secure source of war elephants.
The military use of elephants was millennia old in Asia. The Greeks and Macedonians first encountered them
in battle, however, during Alexander's campaigns. Although the Ptolemies like other Hellenistic kings
considered these living "tanks" an essential component of their armies, acquiring them was a problem because
of their Seleucid rivals' monopoly of Indian elephants and mahouts. They had no choice except to find an
African source for elephants and that led to the establishment of close relations between Ptolemaic Egypt and
Kush that lasted for the remainder of the third century BC. Armed elephant hunting expeditions, sometimes
numbering hundreds of men as well as explorers and diplomats—one named Simonides the Younger even
lived at Meroe for seven years and wrote an unfortunately now lost book about his experiences-- freely
circulated throughout Kushite territory.
On the Greek side the results of Ptolemy II and his successors' initiative are clear and uncontroversial. Besides
gaining access to a ready supply of African products including hardwoods, incense, gold, slaves, ivory, and
even animals for Egyptian temples and Ptolemy's zoo including a rhinoceros, the reports Ptolemaic explorers
and hunters prepared revolutionized Greek knowledge of the African interior. [12] They recorded the Nile
valley between the Egyptian border and Meroe in detail. They correctly identified the Nile's three principal
tributaries—the Atbara, Blue and White Niles— together with their native names and meanings. Rumors may
even have reached them of the Nile's ultimate source in Lake Victoria in modern Uganda. [13]
The ethnographic map of Nubia also snapped into clear focus. As might be expected, the bulk of the
information concerned the kingdom of Kush and its capital, Meroe, the Ptolemies chief rival for influence in
Nubia. The reports detailed its relations with other ethnic groups in the region and described the principal
features of Kushite culture, especially the public aspects of Kushite kingship including details of the
coronation ritual and the succession rules of the Kushite kings, descriptions of Kushite royal regalia and the
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