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The Ancient Greek Culture and Language in Africa

Exhibit of Ptolemy II octodrachm in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. United States Public Domain
Exhibit of Ptolemy II octodrachm in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. This is evidence of the presence of the ancient Greek language and culture in Africa. Credit: United States Public Domain

Ancient Greek language and culture spread in Africa and throughout the territories of the former Persian Empire following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Τhe King of Macedon’s generals followed the expansive strategy of Alexander he Great after his death, building an empire spanning from Asia to Africa. Greek language and culture hence became an important influence on the African continent.

In Egypt in particular, Greek language and education were quite significant in the realm of government, diplomacy, and commerce. This was even apparent in Northern and Central Sudan as well as south of Khartoum.

According to second century BC historian Agatharchides of Cnidus, the kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia were the ones most influenced when Ptolemy II reached Nubia in 270 BC after establishing his place in Egypt.

This influence lasted for almost a millennium, from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman periods. It ended with the Arab conquests of the seventh century BC, even though there is a large community of Greeks in Egypt today.

Ancient Greeks and the Greek Language Arrive in Egypt

Before Alexander the Great, the first Greeks arrived to settle in Egypt in the reign of Psammetichus I (664–610 BC), according to Herodotus. Greek settlers mingled with the Egyptians, but there is no record of their influence on the natives.

People from Ancient Nubia are attested in the Aegean as early as the second millennium BC. However, there is no evidence of Greeks in the Nubian region prior to 593 BC, when the army of King Psamtik II, an Egyptian, campaigned in Nubia.

There is evidence of Greek mercenaries within Psamtik’s army in graffiti on the colossi of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. These were the first signs of Greek language in Africa.

Yet, the Greek influence in Egypt began with Ptolemy I Soter (Savior), successor of Alexander and founder the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, which lasted from 323 BC until 30 BC when it succumbed to the Romans.

Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter depicted in the Hellenistic style (left) and Egyptian style (right). Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons (left) Stella / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 (right)

Ptolemy I Soter was one of Alexander’s most trusted generals. After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, he retrieved his body as it was on the way to be buried in Macedon and placed it in Memphis first, a place where his king was worshipped as a god.

Ptolemy I later transported the body to Alexandria, where he placed it in a new tomb. He then proceeded to make Egypt a place where Hellenistic civilization thrived, and Alexandria became a beacon of Greek culture.

During his reign, he established Greek as the official language of Egypt. He oversaw the completion of the Library of Alexandria and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After his death, some Egyptians worshipped him as a god.

The Ptolemies in Ancient Nubia of Africa

During his reign, Ptolemy I had raided the Kingdom of Kush in Northern Nubia. It was a powerful kingdom that had shared periods of peace and war with Egypt for centuries. Nubia consisted of two major regions along the Nile River, from Aswan to Khartoum.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of Ptolemy I, invaded the African country in 275 BC and annexed the northern twelve miles of this territory.

According to Agatharchides, Ptolemy II wanted to put an end to attempts by the Kingdom of Kush in Central Sudan to expand its influence north toward the Egyptian border.

However, it was more important for Ptolemy II to find a secure source of war elephants. After experiencing the use of those living “tanks” in Asia during Alexander’s wars, Ptolemy II considered them an essential component for his army.

Furthermore, the Greek King wanted access to a ready supply of African products, including gold, ivory, hardwoods, incense, slaves, and even animals, such as a rhinoceros, for Ptolemy’s zoo.

On the other side, contact with Ptolemaic Egypt inspired the kings of Kush to pursue a policy of Hellenization that ultimately transformed their capital of Meroe into a “little Nubian Alexandria,” thus bringing the Greek language to another region of Africa.

According to first century BC historian Diodorus, Nubian King Arkamani I had studied  Greek philosophy and assumed the name Ergamenes. His rule had a far-reaching impact on Nubian life.

The Nubian King Ergamenes

King Ergamenes was the greatest king of the city of Meroe, Kingdom of Kush. He broke free from Egyptian dominance and directed his kingdom to a wholly distinct culture.

Herodotus and other ancient writers cited the city of Meroe as an almost fabled place of wealth and mystery, and scholars credit Ergamenes for establishing the culture which laid the groundwork for later Meroitic kings and queens to build upon.

His relationship with the Pharaoh Ptolemy II is the earliest documented case of political cooperation between Meroe and the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt.

Greek graffiti on statue of Rameses II at the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Greek graffiti on statue of Rameses II at the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The reforms by Ergamenes and his successors of the Kushite monarchy derived from Egypt. The royal titularies of the third century Kushite kings and their regalia were similar to those of the contemporary Ptolemies.

In the royal palace at Meroe, there was a small statuary decorated with statues modeled on Greek originals. Furthermore, a set of Greek flutes indicates that Greek musicians may have performed there.

There is also evidence that the Kushite aristocracy had developed a taste for Greek wine as well as scant evidence that the Greek language was used in the African monarchy.

Diodorus claims that knowledge of Greek was limited and that its primary use was communication with Ptolemaic diplomats and officials.

However, during the Roman period, the scope of Greek influence and use of Greek language both increased and affected Kushite culture, particularly religion.

The African Encounter With Greek Language in Africa

The Nubian encounter with Greek language on the African continent lasted for centuries. It began in the third century BC and lasted until the fifteenth century AD.

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Nubian interest in Greek was pragmatic, since the Greek language was used primarily as a diplomatic tool in dealing with Greco-Roman Egypt.

Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, the rise of the Coptic language brought cultural, religious, and political changes. In the beginning, it was limited to biblical translation and private and monastic correspondence.

However, Greek retained its monopoly on administrative, legal, and literary writing. This changed when Coptic began to appear in domains such as literature, liturgy, regulated transactions between individuals, and communications between the state and its subjects.

Nevertheless, during the Middle Ages, Greek became integral to the African Nubian culture. It was the language of government and Nubian Christianity.


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