Saturday, March 23, 2013


Sudan has always exercised an enormous fascination for me, ever since I found out that my grandfather’s brother died there of illness in the flower of his youth. I tried to imagine my fez-sporting uncle standing Gordon-like upon the ruins of Khartoum, valorously defying the hordes of the Mahdi while nonchalantly sipping a martini, though the truth is much more prosaic, he perishing from malaria. A little later, I learned a tantalising snippet of information about the British incursion into Sudan as a result of one of the first Islamic fundamentalist movements of modern times. The ill-fated 1883 Hicks expedition to reclaim the Sudan against the forces of Muhammad Ahmad, who called himself the Mahdi or messianic redeemer, was guided by a Greek trader. This unnamed Greek trader, like the other Greek traders who were trapped in Khartoum during the siege of that city appears as a mere footnote on the pages of history. We know nothing about him, yet some historians speculate that it was he who purposely led the British into the ambush that annihilated the British army. Without the intervention of this anonymous Hellene, General Gordon’s heroic Khartoum stand never would have happened, Lord Kitchener would not have been sent by an indignant British public and a reluctant Gladstone down the Nile to machine gun spear wielding Sudanese tribesmen, thus establishing his military credentials, a young Winston Churchill, who accompanied him, would never have achieved popularity and fame on the back of his riveting account of the ‘River War,’ Britain arguably would not have achieved the colonial dominance in Africa it subsequently came to acquire and the whole history of the world would have been markedly different. All that, by means of the perfidy of an unknown Greek.

The Mahdists and the modern Islamic fundamentalists were not the only Sudanese to feel strongly about their religion. I was amazed to learn that for a thousand years, between 340 to 1312AD, the three Nubian kingdoms of Sudan, those of Nobatia, Makouria and Alodia adopted the Greek language as their official language and, adopting the orthodox Christian faith, enjoyed close ties with the Greek Chrstian world. Christian Nubian political terminology is almost entirely borrowed from the late Roman Empire. Terms such as basileus, eparchos, domestikos, meizoteris, and even Hellenized Latin terms such as rix=rex, primikerios, not to mention, Augustus and Caesar, abound. One king of Makuria was even called the "New Constantine". Further, Nubian Christian art, as uncovered in the remains of the cathedral at Faras has clear connections to Byzantine art but with its own distinctive characteristics such as the inclusion of elements of portraiture in its depiction of contemporary figures.

Even more remarkable is the survival of the Greek language after the Arab conquest of Egypt. Arab geographers claimed that the Nubians possessed books in Greek and prayed in Greek, and their claims have been fully confirmed by a UNESCO archaeological salvage campaign. We now have hundreds of Greek inscriptions and graffiti as well as the tattered remains of the cathedral library at Qasr Ibrim, which was destroyed in an Egyptian raid in 1173 led by Shams ed-Dawla Turanshah, the brother of the famous Saladin. The most spectacular and revealing find, however, is the 12th century tomb of Archbishop Georgios from Old Dongola, the capital of Makuria. The texts on the tomb's walls include religious formulae, magical signs, the beginnings and ends of all four gospels, the Greek text of an extra-biblical text known as the "Speech of Mary to Bartos," and Coptic homilies. Taken together with the manuscript remains and inscriptions, Archbishop Giorgios' tomb leaves no doubt that at major centers such as Faras, Qasr Ibrim, and Old Dongola, Greek was the primary language of learning.

Greek was not confined to books, however, but was a living language, at least as far as the clergy and governing class was concerned. So, numerous graffiti painted or scratched on the walls of pilgrimage churches (over 650 such graffiti, many written in the first person, have been counted on the walls of one such church) point to widespread functional Greek literacy in these two groups. For evidence of more than this minimal literacy, however, we have to turn to funerary stelae, the most common form of Greek inscription found in Nubia. Hundreds of these stelae have been discovered from all over Nubia. They contain versions of a Byzantine prayer for the dead that was probably introduced into Nubia then or a century earlier and were made for all members of society, from kings to commoners. That the Nubians were not simply mechanically copying empty formulae but understood these texts and their theology is clear from the freedom with which they modified the basic prayer to suit the individual being commemorated.

Some of these inscriptions take liberties with the Greek language, creating calques and neologisms that did not exist before. On one particular stele, the usual description of God as "the omnipotent One", pantokrator, has been replaced by pantotektor, "the all builder," a unique word that is virtually unattested in either classical or medieval Greek but is, however, a perfect translation of the standard description of God in Coptic grave stelae, “damiourgos m pterif, "creator of everything". Fascinatingly, the provincial priest who wrote the text was probably trilingual, understanding Greek, Coptic, and Nubian.

The 10th century AD Arab geographer al-Aswani observed that the Nubians possessed Greek books, which they translate into their own language. In the eigth century the Greek alphabet, supplemented by signs borrowed from the Coptic alphabet and even one from the old Meroitic script, was adapted to write Old Nubian. A religious literature composed primarily of translated patristic texts gradually developed. Less than a hundred pages from Old Nubian books survive, but they confirm al-Aswani's claim that the Nubians translated Greek religious texts directly into Old Nubian. Slowly, old Nubian began to replace the Greek language in the region but that process had not yet been completed, however, when Nubian Christian civilization came to an end in the late fourteenth century,.

The end of the Greco-Nubians was gradual and complex. The replacement of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt with the more aggressive Ayyubids and Mamlukes, increasing Muslim settlement in Nubia and intermarriage with the local population, and endemic dynastic strife in Makuria all played a part. In any event, by the early fourteenth century the kings of Makuria had converted to Islam, and the kingdom itself disappeared soon afterwards. Alodia in the south and a fragment of Makuria called the kingdom of Dottawo with its capital at Qasr Ibrim, however, survived probably for another century. Even more remarkably, so did Nubian Greek.

Fast-forward some seven centuries, and Sudan is now comprised of two separate nations : Arabic-speaking Sudan and Christian South Sudan, where Nubian languages predominate. One of our newer nations, having achieved independence only in 2011, it still houses a small but significant Greek community.

"The Greeks of south Sudan are a tribe. We are not Dinka, we are not Acholi, but we are south Sudanese," George Ghines says proudly as he recalls that it was traders like his family who first founded the regional capital Juba.

"I am the last of the Mohicans," he adds sadly, acknowledging that after the ravages of 50 years of conflict between north and south, he is the only pure-blooded Juba-born descendant of the original Greek settlers who still lives permanently in the city.

Born in Juba, the scion of the family that first settled in south Sudan in 1905 and whose own father settled in the town nearly two decades before the end of British colonial rule, Ghines attempted to exercise his right to register in the landmark referendum on independence for the region.

"It was difficult to register because they have never before seen a white south Sudanese," Ghines said."They didn't believe that a white Sudanese exists and fulfils the criteria."

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in numbers. The territory's then British colonial rulers encouraged them to settle for their commercial skills and they founded Juba as a commercial entrepot across the White Nile from the then British military headquarters. "They brought people here who were very entrepreneurial. They didn't want them to be French or Italian or any other colonial power," said Ghines, who himself runs a Juba-based restaurant, aptly named “Notos” and business consultancy.

The traders built their homes in a neighbourhood the British called the Greek Quarters, now known as Hay Jellaba. At its height the community numbered a little under 10,000 out of a total of 22,000 across the Sudan.The Juba Greeks boasted the whole raft of institutions built by Greek diaspora communities around the world , an Orthodox church, a library, two social clubs.

"You have all the buildings with the Greek columns. Of course it is now in a very bad state because of 50 years of neglect," Ghines said, in a prescient comment on the future of Greek communities throughout the world. In the case of Sudan, the terminal decline was caused by the civil war that blighted the region for five decades, causing devastation and forcing the local Greeks to flee. Ghines himself fled to Athens in 1983, for as a white, he was not considered a refugee, even though he had been born and bred in Sudan. The community thus withered. One Greek club retained its name until just two years ago, although by then nearly all of its clients were south Sudanese without any Hellenic ancestry.

But it is the community's cemetery that offers a telling commentary as to the transient fate of all human endeavours. Litter is strewn across the overgrown grass and creepers that conceal the graves, and the cemetery has clearly been used as an impromptu lavatory by the junior officers who sleep out under canvas behind the adjacent police station. It is Ghines’ hope that one day, the graves of the pioneers who founded his community will be tended and given the respect they deserve. He levels criticism at a Greek government who has completely disregarded the fate and historical memory of the ancient Greek community of Sudan and has given it scant assistance. Further, as he sees it, in renascent South Sudan, there has not been awarded a place to white-skinned ‘natives’ in the national narrative.

This is despite the fact that Ghines’ commitment to his country is undoubted. After a decade and a half wandering around the Middle East and North Africa, the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war finally gave him the opportunity to return to his native town. He arrived just six days after its signing. In fact, he is the only pure-blooded Juba Greek to have returned. "People my age, my classmates, all of them have rebuilt their lives outside south Sudan which makes it difficult for them to come back."

Tantalisingly, there are still offspring of mixed marriages in the town. He says the wife of southern regional president Salva Kiir, Yalouri, is herself the daughter of a Greek father and a Dinka mother."We have 25 to 30 children of mixed marriages, we meet quite often. We are trying to revive the Greek community in Juba."

From Ptolemaic Egypt, to Byzantium and beyond, the still surviving but immensely fragile Greek link with Sudan is both a source of pride and also, a cautionary tale of the inevitability of all things.

  First published in NKEE on Saturday 16th and 23rd March 2013