Monday, February 14, 2011


Adam Lajtar, Jacques van der Vliet, Qasr Ibrim: The Greek and Coptic Inscriptions (Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplement XIII). Warsaw: University of Warsaw Press, 2010. Pp. x, 336. ISBN 9788392591924. $115.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, formerly Utrecht University (

Version at BMCR home site

Qasr Ibrim is an archaeological site in the southern area of Egypt (between Aswan and Abu Simbel) that in antiquity and the Middle Ages was part of Nubia. In the sixth century CE, Nubia converted to Christianity and remained a country with a rich Christian culture till the fourteenth century when it was forced to accept Islam. The town of Qasr Ibrim had a cathedral, several churches, monasteries, and other buildings. Excavations have been going on there since the beginning of the previous century and these have yielded, inter alia, quite a number of inscriptions, both in Greek and in Coptic, not all of which have been published so far. The Polish epigraphist Lajtar and the Dutch Egyptologist Van der Vliet now present in this volume almost one hundred Christian inscriptions discovered during archaeological field work of the Egypt Exploration Society at Qasr Ibrim since 1963. All inscriptions are described in detail (in most cases with photos added), transcribed, translated, and commented upon. Since both editors have much experience in this field, they do an excellent job.

Most of the inscriptions are epitaphs, and the reader will find much of interest: stereotyped formulae typical of Greek (and Coptic) speaking Christian Nubia, including many liturgical elements; curious cases of Nubian-Coptic interference with Greek morphology and syntax (e.g., Greek personal names ending in ou in the nominative; prepositions followed by the nominative); frequent use of zôn for zêsas; the use of the 'incipit' of the Gospels for protection of the grave; the names of apostles inscribed on bricks used as foundation deposits; and much more. Although medieval Christian Nubia is not a field to which classicists pay much attention, for the classical philologist the often quite curious Greek morphology and syntax yield interesting insights into the use of Greek in a Semito-Hamitic context. For the historian of ancient (and medieval) religions, the seemingly unproblematic use of 'magical' procedures and formulae in a Christian context is worthy of attention. The extensive and very detailed indexes of the book will help the reader to easily find what he/she is interested in.

There are some aspects of the book, however, where one would have liked the editors to be more helpful to the reader. To begin with, in the introduction, we are informed about previous work on Qasr Ibrim, but not at all about the history and significance of the place in Christian Nubia. Further, there is the curious habit of the editors to use a Coptic font where a Greek font would be more in order, e.g. in no. 4, where in the phrase Petrou architektôn the first word is rendered in Coptic characters and the second in Greek, although the stonemason clearly used only one alphabet. Also in the apparatus criticus one often finds transcriptions in Coptic of words or phrases that are demonstrably Greek. When in the commentary on no. 57 the Greek word zônta is discussed, it is rendered with Coptic characters. This habit is nowhere explained by the editors. In some cases, one doubts whether the transcription is correct, e.g. in no. 2, where egennêto not egenneto should be read (in the grammatical index at p. 320 it is wrongly listed as an instance of êta for epsilon); or in no. 11, line 5, where I see no reason to read proephora instead of prosphora. In no. 18, line 14, not a[n]apauson but a[na]pauso[n] should be read (the editors state that there is a second alpha written below the line but that is invisible to me; moreover, they do not translate the word). In their comment on no. 20, lines 3-4 tou despozontous theou, the editors take the ou in the participle to be a case of 'interchange of o and ou' (72) but it could equally well be a phonetic assimilation to the endings of the surrounding words (see for instance no. 21, 3 tou despozontou theou) while the final sigma of the genitive of the participle is retained. In no. 41, where we find the phrase tou despizontos theou, one may surmise phonetical influence of the verb thespizô. For the role and function of the invocation of 'the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' in no. 37, the editors refer to an old study by M. Rist of 1938; they could not yet know my recent study of that (magical) formula.1 The authors also could have profited from Richmond Lattimore's Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (1942), which, although almost 70 years old, is still indispensable. But these critical remarks are minor and do not at all detract from the value of this book. It presents fascinating new material that for more than one reason deserves our attention. The book has been beautifully produced and is a real asset.


1.   Pieter W. van der Horst, 'Did the Gentiles Know Who Abraham Was?,' in M. Goodman, G. van Kooten, and J. van Ruiten (eds.), Abraham, the Nations, and the Hagarites: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Perspectives on Kinship with Abraham. Themes in Biblical Narrative 13. Leiden: Brill, 2010, 61-75.

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