Fairfield University shines light on little-known ancient civilization of Nubia

Fairfield University shines light on little-known ancient civilization of Nubia

Image: G Ruffini Many Americans have never heard of the ancient civilization of Nubia, and Giovanni Ruffini, Ph.D., associate professor of Classical Studies at Fairfield University, wants to change that. To that end, Fairfield University is helping Dr. Ruffini complete an upcoming book that will double the number of documents translated from Old Nubian into English. The university is also helping Dr. Ruffini and the international scholars who study this fascinating region connect and collaborate through a new, first-ever online journal of Nubian studies.

"A lot of us got an education in which Africa was a blank page," Dr. Ruffini said. "We were told African history was unknowable because they didn't write it down. But Nubia is one of the places where we can say that isn't true. My hope is that, through this work, there won't be an excuse for a big blank space on the map anymore."

What is Nubia? Also known in the medieval period by the indigenous name Dotawo, the title of the new journal, Nubia was a kingdom controlling the central Nile Valley, a region encompassing what is now southern Egypt and much of northern Sudan. Nubia's history as an independent civilization can be traced from the first millennium B.C. to about 1500 A.D. The region has a number of languages and about 600,000-700,000 people each still speak the two largest modern Nubian languages.

Nubia evolved over time and went through many changes, including the conversion of much of the population from Christianity to Islam, and the transition of much of the population from speakers of Nubian to speakers of Arabic. In the 1960s-70s, many Egyptian Nubians migrated north when Egypt constructed dams at Aswan to create Lake Nasser, leaving much of what was Nubia under water. Some structures deemed important were moved - one of the most famous being the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the time, international archeologists and anthropologists flocked to Nubia, gathering up whatever they could find. Many artifacts and texts were simply crated up and preserved and Dr. Ruffini said it has been up to the current generation of Nubian scholars to study them and shine a light on this complex civilization. "Think about the end of 'The Raiders of the Lost Ark.' They put these priceless archaeological finds into boxes and then just lose them in storage. It's our job to bring those finds back to light, and to find out what they tell us about the past."

Dr. Ruffini, who teaches classes for the History Department, Classical studies, Black studies and Italian studies at Fairfield, is now the co-editor-in-chief of "Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies," the first such journal to publish current research on the culture and history of Nubia. It serves as a vital cross-disciplinary platform for historians, linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists and others.

"It's a super-specialized field and people studying it don't necessarily talk to each other about what they're doing because we're all over the world," said Dr. Ruffini. "This will provide a space for people to come together."

"The History Department has been especially happy to support Dr. Ruffini's ground-breaking research," said Yohuru Williams, Ph.D., associate vice president for academic affairs, former chair of the department. "He is not only providing an intellectual space for academics to advance our knowledge of the ancient world, but also providing Fairfield University students with the opportunity to contribute to this most important and exciting work.

Published in June, the first volume contains 11 articles focused on ancient and modern Nubian languages as chosen by a tri-continental editorial board from Europe, the U.S. and Egypt with two Nubian contributors featured. A call for papers for future editions has already yielded an intriguing submission: An author in the Sudan has translated Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" into Nubian.

"Dotawo" is available for free online through the Fairfield University DiMenna-Nyselius Library's DigitalCommons@Fairfield or for print on demand through punctum books of Brooklyn, N.Y. A second volume will be published in 2015.

In addition to the journal, this fall Dr. Ruffini will celebrate the publication of his book, "Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim IV," in which he painstakingly translated 62 Old Nubian texts. Inside, readers will find texts written by Nubians, for Nubians - from letters to land sales to financial accounts - providing an interesting glimpse inside Nubian life.

Dr. Ruffini received the University's 2013 Robert E. Wall Faculty Research Award, allowing him to take a leave during the 2013 fall semester to complete the book. He worked from a tentative dictionary and a grammar book written by a late pioneer in Old Nubian language. "It's very slow work," he said, with a laugh.

The University has also funded a wiki-style collaborative website for Nubian scholars, medievalnubia.info, to which Dr. Ruffini adds information frequently. It contains articles and links to new publications, again with an aim to help researchers collaborate and enhance their work. The site also hosts a free collection, "Medieval Nubia: A Source Book," which aims to combine in one location all previously published translations of sources for medieval Nubian history.

Dr. Ruffini said the topic fascinates him, in part, because researchers can look at both an ancient civilization and its traces in the modern world.

"It's a dialogue across time periods and cultures," he said.

"Dotawo" is available online at http://digitalcommons.fairfield.edu/djns/ . To print a copy on demand, visit www.punctumbooks.com .

Posted On: 08-14-2014 03:08 PM

Volume: 47 Number: 3