Calamos Supports Greece
GreekReporter.comGreek NewsArt"From Nubia to Sudan" With the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission

"From Nubia to Sudan" With the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission

by Zdravka Mihaylova

Interview with Alexandros Tsakos and Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos

Last October the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art inaugurated the photo exhibition ‘From Nubia to Sudan through the Eyes of the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission’ (6 October 2011-19 February 2012). The photographs have been taken by Alexandros Tsakos and Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos during the periods they were working as an archaeological team, traveling and living in Sudan. Their subjects concern the history of Sudan and its people, their religious cults, from the ancient and medieval civilizations of Nubia to modern Islamic Sudan.
Between 2003 and 2008, Alexandros has worked for the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project, at Jebel Barkal, and at Akad. He has organized the Greek Community of Khartoum Cultural Center “Ergamenis”. He has led the renovation of the Museum at Jebel Barkal, and was the contractor of UNESCO for the rehabilitation of the Permanent Exhibition of Medieval Antiquities in the Sudan National Museum. During 2007-2008 he worked extensively on the Medieval collection stored in the Sudan National Museum. He has published several articles on Medieval inscriptions from Nubia, the latest of which concerns the Christian inscriptions from the island of Sai.
His partner in life and scientific research, Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos, studied archaeology and social anthropology at the University of Bergen, Norway. Upon completing her Masters thesis about Bronze Age cattle herders in Lower Nubia (2003), in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, she participated in the rescue excavations in the Fourth Cataract, Sudan. Henriette has published a monograph and several articles on topics from Sudanese, Norwegian, and Palestinian archaeology. Both are currently Ph.D. researchers, Alexandros at Humboldt University, Berlin and Henriette at the University of Bergen. Their little son, Ilias, has high chances of becoming a seasoned traveler as he always follows his parents, moving between Bergen and Athens.
The photos in your exhibition feature religious beliefs and practices of modern Islam, the fundamental importance of water and of the Nile for the culture and religion of the region, and are bracketed by revealing texts of yours about local customs, traditions and beliefs. The exhibition wraps up with a series of people’s portraits and images from everyday life in modern Sudan. What initially stimulated your interest to do archaeological research in this area?
TSAKOS & HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: There were different starting points for each of us. Henriette comes from a university with very strong links with Sudan (cfr. Hafsaas-Tsakos & Tsakos (eds.), Connecting South and North, Sudan Studies from Bergen in honour of Mahmoud Salih, Bergen 2009) and she started, from her Masters thesis, studying the Prehistory of the Middle Nile Valley. Alexandros had links with a Greek family of the Diaspora in modern Sudan and after visits in the country found a way to combine his amazement at the beauty of the place with his academic interests as an archaeologist and a historian of religions.
Under the aegis of the exhibition you recently delivered at the Benaki Museum a talk on ‘Greek Texts From Medieval Nubia’ and one on ‘Dams of the Nile and the Ethical Dilemmas of Archaeologists’. At the seminar Timothy Insoll, professor of archaeology at the University of Manchester, participated with a talk on ‘Thinking about the Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa’. How are the topics of your lectures linked with your dig and research?
TSAKOS & HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: Well, Alexandros is studying the largest collection of Greek manuscripts found in a single site in Sudanese Nubia, that is in a Medieval church on the northern tip of the island of Sur, where his university, Humboldt (Berlin) was digging. And both of us have worked in the frame of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project between 2005 and 2007, while we now run a project on the island of Sai that is threatened by plans for the building of one of the new dams that the Sudanese government wishes to see implemented along the Middle Nile Valley, namely a dam on the so-called Dal Cataract. Finally, our project on Sai Island also involves the archaeological record of Islamization in northern Sudan.
What were the most important findings from your work on Sai Island until now?
TSAKOS & HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: First and foremost, the results from a survey of the entire island with a focus on sites of medieval and post-medieval interest. A map like the one produced by this survey is always a very useful tool for the archaeologist working in a given area.
Then, the cataloguing of all the medieval objects already collected by the French archaeologists who have been working on Sai, since 1969. Many discoveries were made in the process and some are already discussed in a related publication by Alexandros.
And last but not least, the beginning of fieldwork at the so-called Cathedral site of Sai where we are unveiling past human activities at a locality where four standing granite columns indicate the place of the previous existence of an important Christian church. Closer examination of the archaeological record, though, questions both the identification of the site with the medieval Bishopric of Sai and opens new horizons for the understanding of continuities and changes between a Christian medieval era and Islamic post-medieval centuries.
You mentioned that Alexandros has been working on a Ph.D. thesis studying manuscripts from the one of the medieval Christian kingdoms of Nubia. From your talks both at Benaki in December and at the Norwegian Institute in October, I learnt that this kingdom was called Makuria and that around 500 AD it replaced the ancient Meroitic empire (ca. 500 BC – 350 AD) and then continued ruling the Middle Nile Valley for almost 1000 years. Was Sai a part of Makuria? And what were the main characteristics of that kingdom?
TSAKOS: Well, Sai belongs geographically to what was until the 7th century the kingdom of Nobadia, which was the Christian state controlling the stretch of the Middle Nile from the First to the Third Cataracts. By the time of the Persian and Arabic conquests of Egypt, Nobadia appears in the sources as incorporated in a United Nubian Kingdom with its capital at Old Dongola, the center of the Makuritan royal court. The bulk of the epigraphic material from Sai dates from the Makuritan period, and it is Makuria that controlled the region of Sai until the arrival of the Ottomans and the establishment of the earliest Islamic state formation in Sudan (in the same period, namely the 16th century, there also formed the Fur sultanate of Darfur and the Funj sultanate based at Sennar south of Khartoum).
Although the Nubians were known to the outside world and we have written records from the Makuritan realm, neither provide sufficient historical evidence to reconstruct a complete sequence of events or royal and ecclesiastical genealogies in that kingdom. We know, however, the names of many towns, kings, dignitaries, bishops, priests and simple people, and with the help of archaeology we try to reconstruct as many details as possible from a past that is still alive in many small traditional communities in Nubia.
In the larger picture, we also understand that the Christianity practised by the Makuritans was a combination of Byzantine traditions inherited from the Evangelisation period when emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora sent missions to Nobadia and Makuria (missions that throw light to the third kingdom of Medieval Nubia too, namely Alwa), and of appurtenance to the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria. This combination can be seen very well in the use of both the Coptic and the Greek language in both the state and the church of Makuria.
Scholarly research and excavations formed part of the colonial project of European great powers and empires as they were looking for external influences in the Third World eventually justifying their continuation. Could there be any ‘rightful claim to legacy’ by Greece over Nubia considering that the medieval Christian kingdoms of the Middle Nile Valley were evangelized by the Byzantine Empire and were using the Greek language for both religious and secular purposes?
TSAKOS: There is nothing that can justify colonial acts. The Greeks are highly respected by the Sudanese, precisely because they were never seen as colonial rulers.
Therefore, we believe that the period after the independence of Sudan, namely from 1956 until 1969 when Nimeiri took power (who followed a political agenda that started with nationalisation, continues with socialism, and ends in an Islamic state), should be named ‘the Greek period’ because Greeks were so influential in the running of both Northern and Southern Sudan. But that is a research to be undertaken in the future.
As for the Nubians, it is they who say that they are brothers of the Greeks, but this they suggest on the basis of an ethnic myth based on the use of the Greek script and the Greek Christian scriptures. The idea of brotherhood, though, yes, we do like 🙂
In Henriette’s talk at the Benaki Museum a question of crucial importance was raised, namely about the ownership of the cultural heritage excavated. Do the excavated artefacts belong to local authorities or to the state? What are the provisions of international organisations like the American Committee for Nubian Heritage and the European Committee for Preserving the Middle Nile. What does UNESCO provide in such cases?
HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: My discussion of this issue was to raise the awareness that it may not only be the state that have the ownership of excavated artefacts, as the case is presently in Sudan. This is of course also relevant for other states. The American and European committees do not take a standpoint in this matter, as their mandate is to prevent further dam constructions and flooding of the Middle Nile Valley. In the case of the Manasir tribe of the Fourth Cataract that were politicizing the ownership of the cultural heritage in the region, the UNESCO Nubia expert Constanza de Simone has written that the ownership of the excavated artefacts should be the property of the local people. I do not know if this is her personal opinion or the official UNESCO standpoint.
 In your work there is also a deep concern about ethical dilemmas that archaeologists face. Should they give priority to the salvage of cultural heritage or to the preservation of the cultural landscape? Which choice would you favour? Should an archaeologist keep a neutral distance or be actively involved?
HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: Again, these dilemmas need to be confronted by archaeologists working for salvage projects of controversial development schemes, and they should have a general code of ethics to guide their decisions. In my opinion, if the cultural landscape is preserved then a salvage of the cultural heritage is not such an urgent matter. I also believe that archaeologists need to be actively involved in the social conditions of local people where they work – especially when they work in less developed countries.
Respect of social, environmental and human-rights standards is an indelible part of an archaeologist’s mission. The photo exhibition not only gives a glimpse of your African experience but also aspires to create an awareness of the life along the Nile critically threatened by the construction of planned dams. Forced resettlement and loss of identity threaten the population, as in the case of the Aswan High Dam on the First Cataract (1960s) and the Merowe Dam on the Forth Cataract (2000s). In what other ways are you involved in creating awareness in a multi-ethnic and multicultural country like Sudan?
HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: My main concern now due to its urgency is to create awareness outside Sudan about what is happening with these proposed dam-buildings. We risk losing large stretches of the Middle Nile Valley without people even knowing it. However, it is also important to make local people aware of the rich cultural heritage of their country.
In the post-colonial era, building dams on the Nile has been a matter of prestige for presidents of certain African countries. Along with some benefits, they result in irreversible social, ecological and cultural consequences: the flooding of lowlands leads to the forcible removal of local people and the disruption of traditional ways of life, for example shepherds are forced to become fishermen. You and Henriette are activists in the movement against building new dams in Sudan, supporting the Archaeologists’ Petitions ‘Stop the Dams in Sudan’. Is this the most ethically grounded stance an archaeologist can take in such cases?
HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: It is a beginning. We have also contributed to the establishment of the two aforementioned committees for preserving the Middle Nile and the cultural heritage of the people living there, and I have written an article about the ethical dilemmas of participating in the salvage project of the controversial Merowe Dam.
With immense population growth in Africa one could argue that governments are right to neglect archaeology and cultural heritage when they have to feed millions of people. What funds support the excavations of the sites you were digging on?
TSAKOS & HAFSAAS-TSAKOS: There is hardly any foreign archaeological mission working in Sudan that is supported financially by the Sudanese state. On the contrary, the missions pay concession fees for the site at which they wish to undertake an archaeological investigation, they hire an antiquities inspector from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) to oversee their work, they see to it that these inspectors, as well as the curators and conservators of the Sudan National Museum, get opportunities to travel abroad and study, practice, advance in their respective fields of interest and so on. In exchange, the missions do their work and expect some guarantee that things will go smoothly when it comes to their arrival in, stay at, and departure from Sudan – unfortunately, this is not always achieved. For example, this year NCAM did not manage to provide the missions with all the necessary documents to procure visas and various solutions had to be devised by each scholar individually…. We ourselves have our own contacts both in Sudan and abroad which provide both administrative and financial support to our Greek-Norwegian mission: businessmen in Sudan, the Greek community in Khartoum, institutions and universities in Norway. With the financial crisis in full development, Greece has not contributed to our projects until now, except for the private bodies who supported parts of our needs for the exhibition at the Benaki Museum. In order to facilitate the incoming funds to our archaeological expedition as well as to support the rest of our research and cultural activities (like the exhibition and the conference) we founded the Organization for Greek-Norwegian Cooperation in the fields of culture and humanistic studies and we welcome all interested members and supporters (for more infos see
Alexandros, would you agree that your professional involvement with Nubian studies is a kind of homage to a country, Egypt (bordering Sudan with a common historic and cultural background), where you have family roots? Your mother is a Greek from the Greek community in Ismailia, Egypt. Diaspora Greeks (your father is a Greek from Çanakkale, nowadays in Turkey) have always been known for their open-mindedness, mobility and broad cultural horizons. It seems you are a fair example of this ‘genetic material’: born in Greece, after completing your studies in history and archeology at Ioannina University you submitted a master’s thesis on ancient polytheisms (1998) at the Université Libre, Belgium, you were a member of an archeological expedition of Humboldt University in Germany, and are currently living in Bergen in Norway acting as part of the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission to Sudan.
TSAKOS: I surely agree with the latter part of the question: that’s what makes Greece and Greeks so particular and strong. The ability to adapt and excel everywhere having as a base the entire Eastern Mediterranean, feeling at home both in the Balkans and in the Near East, as well as along the entire Nile Valley of course. But that is where I diverge from the opinion of the first part of your question: Nubia is at the same time both Egypt and Sudan, neither Egypt nor Sudan. Both Henriette and myself study mostly Sudanese Nubia, but the focus is on the cultural landscape of the Middle Nile Valley and not in an archaeological research defined by modern national borders.
 In August 2011 you participated with a student grant in the 22nd International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Sofia, delivering a paper on ‘A Contribution to Patristic Studies From the Backstage of the Medieval Nubian World’. Was new light shed on Nubian studies at this congress by you and other Nubian scholars? Though its motto was ‘Byzantium Without Borders’ in principle the congress was more focused on the relations between Byzantium and Bulgaria, between ‘The Thousand Year Empire’ and its Slav neighbours.
TSAKOS: Well, again, it was somehow disappointing to see this Slavic-orientated focus in a conference with an international character both by definition and in title. However, it is at the same time somehow logical it happened like that, since the Bulgarian political and academic elites obviously needed this opportunity to strengthen particular attitudes and beliefs in the country. I believe that it will be the same in Serbia in five years where the next international congress of Byzantine studies is scheduled to take place. But I also hope that Nubian studies will be present there too with even more presentations than the record-high five that were communicated in Sofia. Of course in such academic venues one hardly expects any advancements in knowledge to be achieved; rather they are more a kind of opportunity for meeting scholars of related disciplines, exchanging views and getting to know each other, as well as the field of studies of each one.
 In what way did things differ during your participations in the Nubian Studies Conference held in Warsaw in 2006 or in London in 2010?
TSAKOS: Everybody present there was interested in the same academic topic more or less. There again, though, one missed on the one hand the wider horizons of a larger academic venue and had to tackle, on the other hand, internal problems of the International Society for Nubian Studies. But that’s a vast new topic that could become boring for our readers. Let us conclude by saying that to point out the problems in the functioning of such collegial bodies in any field is not a complaining stance but an attempt to improve our disciplines and our principles.


See all the latest news from Greece and the world at Contact our newsroom to report an update or send your story, photos and videos. Follow GR on Google News and subscribe here to our daily email!

Related Posts