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Articles: Special Issue
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Fig. 1. A parchment manuscript from the church on the Island of Sur, in the now flooded from the Merowe Dam, Fourth Cataract region. The text has been identified as the Second Homily of John Chrysostom on Penitience (PG 49.279).
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by Alexandros Tsakos

Sudan Archaeology from a Greco-Roman Perspective (Part 5)

The use and role of the Greek language in Christian Nubia

Examining the relations between a civilization that flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean and another that developed in Northeastern Africa, one should not be surprised by discovering common traits. The reason is that on the one hand the former has been the unified territory of several empires, like the Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic, whose influence naturally covered even wider horizons than their political boundaries; and on the other hand the latter is united with the former by means of the longest river in the world, the Nile, that like a corridor links the heartlands of the African continent with its Mediterranean coastline. A similar function may be claimed for the Red Sea, but in the present study the focus will be on the relations between the Greco-Roman world’s natural habitat in the Mediterranean and the Nubian cultures of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages whose homestead is the Middle Nile region.

The focus of this paper is the use of the Greek language by the Nubians in the period between the 5th and the 15th centuries CE. How can the appearance of this language in this periphery of the Greco-Roman world be explained? Which sectors of social life did it serve? How did it affect practices and mentalities among the Nubians?

The earliest evidence

The role of Egypt in developments taking place in Kush, the ancient state formation south of the First Cataract where the Egyptian territory traditionally ended, has been discussed from the earliest stages in related research. The view generally accepted is one of dynamic adoption by the Kushites of cultural influences coming from the north. The agency of the ancient Sudanese can be traced both in the continuous use of autochthonous cultural patterns (in burial customs, architecture, ceramic industries, religious beliefs, language etc.) and in the selective appropriation of elements of the Egyptian civilization or of those flourishing in the Mediterranean basin.

A characteristic example is the choice of languages and/or scriptural systems for the recording of historical events, for the commemoration of religious practices etc. So, the hieroglyphs were adopted to serve such needs of the early Kushites, called Napatans in the literature from the name of the group of sites at Gebel Barkal, Kurru, Nuri, and Sanam near the fourth cataract of the Nile. A more interesting development took place with the later Kushites, called the Meroites from the capital city of Meroë near the sixth cataract of the Nile. The Meroitic language was written in an alphabetic script that seems to have been inspired by the Greek alphabetic script in use in Egypt during the Meroitic period, which coincides with the Hellenistic era as well as with the Roman Imperial era. By the end of the Greco-Roman period, the Meroitic state had disintegrated for reasons that go far beyond the scope of this paper. The communication between the chiefdoms that took over the control of the segmented Meroitic territory in Lower Nubia, the northernmost periphery of the Kushite world, has left traces in the archaeological record. Graffiti on the walls of temples and letters exchanged between the local rulers were in Greek. It was perhaps a sort of pidgin Greek, local attempts to remain attached to the world where Greek was the lingua franca, but nonetheless these texts are eloquent testimonies of the appurtenance in a tradition that unified linguistically, cognitively, and spiritually the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, by Late Antiquity there should be no doubt that at least Lower Nubia was also part of this world system.

The major transformation that took place in this world during the move from the ancient to the medieval eras is the shift of religious pattern from polytheism to monotheism. Just as customs of the ancient religion(s) were masked and incorporated in the new religion(s), so it also happened with language: the language of Homer and Plutarch became the linguistic vehicle for the dispersion of the belief in the Trinitary God that incarnated its second hypostasis so as to salvage humanity from the original sin – interestingly, the story of this sin was also dispersed in the Greco-Roman oecumene in Greek, since the translation of the Septuagint, but that’s perhaps another story.

Christianizing the Nile Valley

The Christianization of the Nile Valley was not a homogenous event. It was a completely different experience for the urban populations of the Delta and of Alexandria; for the rural Egyptian of Upper Egypt; for the traders of Lower Nubia; for the Nubians of the Dongola reach; for the post-pyramidal Meroites; for the Ethiopians of the highlands; or of the peoples inhabiting the Red Sea littoral. Christianization is by itself a long process that involves various dynamics, both international and local. The international influence should be termed Evangelization because it consisted in the spread of the ‘good news’ (=‘evangile’ – and subsequently ‘gospel’) from the heartland of the Christian oecumene to its peripheries. In the Eastern Mediterranean the initiators of the evangelizing missions were the Byzantines and the main vehicle to spread ‘the word’ was Greek. As soon as the first foothold was achieved, the political administration used the religious agenda, and the local language adopted the Greek script to compose local versions of the main texts, namely the Evangiles. In some cases, the process started even before the Christian message became prevalent in the Empire around the 4th-6th centuries CE and thus the first examples of local languages written with Greek letters concern pagan and not Christian literature. The best example is Coptic.

Coptic is the latest stage of the Egyptian language, known to most people through its hieroglyphic form. One of the later developments of the scripts that expressed in written form the ancient Egyptian language was the so-called “demotic” that functioned in parallel with the use of Greek after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander’s army and the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdom of the Ptolemies. The amalgamation of the two created the Coptic script, which combines the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet with 6 characters inherited from the demotic script so as to express sounds not existing in the Greek language.

When Coptic first appeared in the textual record of Roman Egypt, in the form known today as “Old Coptic”, it is used for texts servicing the needs of the old religion, quite often in texts of magical character. Gradually, the script becomes the vehicle for the propagation of the Christian faith too and it becomes standardized through the immense literary output of one of the holiest figures of Egyptian Christianity, the Abbot of the White Monastery, Shenoute. He is considered as the founder of the Sahidic dialect in its literary form, if not as the founder of the entire Coptic literature.

In the tumultuous period between the oecumenical councils of Ephesus and Chalcedone, that saw the formation of the Monophysite church of Egypt, a contra-Chalcedonian see claiming of course orthodoxy in its title (“The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria” in Coptic, as opposed to “The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria” in Greek, which is the title of the pro-Chalcedonian or “melkite” patriarchate supporting the Byzantine cause), Shenoute was a stronger supporter of the Egyptian cause. His correspondence with Pope Dioskorus is partly preserved and in it we can see the Coptic Patriarch demanding from Shenoute firm control over the heretical tendencies of the ecclesiastics in the regions under his spiritual guidance.

In the Christian world of Late Antiquity, Upper Egypt was administered primarily by holy men and their followers living quite often in coenobitic contexts (the two most famous being the Pachomian and the Shenoutian). The situation must be reminiscent of the state of affairs in Upper Egypt in other periods of the ancient era, when the territory was kept united and under the control of the state based in Lower Egypt and the Delta through the institutions of the temples of the old religion. Without doubt Shenoute was playing a very vital role, which – as can be seen from Dioskorus letter – it extended in the region of Maris, traditionally identified with Lower Nubia.

Now, in this region there is at least one site, the monastery of Qasr el Wizz, right beside Faras, the capital of the northernmost Nubian kingdom of Nobadia, where manuscripts that prove this role of the Shenoutian center in Lower Nubia have been discovered. Among the tens of different works identified among the more than 200 fragments of manuscripts unearthed at that site, there are pages from a codex that can be dated on quite secure paleographic grounds in the late 6th or early 7th century. The contents of this codex have been identified as exhortations to ascetic praxis. Besides this codex, there is at least one more that preserves the Sahidic version of the Acts of the Apostles and an unidentified work from the vast corpus of Shenoutian literature. These works show that Qasr el Wizz was a monastic center where liturgy took place in Coptic, that ascetic rules were learnt from works originating from the Egyptian monastic milieus, and that these milieus can be identified with those under the spiritual influence/guidance of Shenoute.

This influence was expressed not only through literacy, but also in architecture and the arts. However, it is in the texts that we get the best glimpse of this relationship between Coptic and Nubian Christianity and it is characteristic that when Sahidic literacy disintegrates by the 11th century, Nobadian literacy does not disappear but is replaced by literary production in two other languages: Greek and Old Nubian.

That the locals developed their own script, based on the Greco-Coptic alphabet to which they added four characters inherited from the Meroitic tradition to express sounds not existing in either Coptic or Greek, should be of no surprise. It is the result of the development of local centers of literacy that had the urge to translate the Holy Scriptures, as well as the knowledge to practice the scribal art.

Among the manuscripts discovered at Qasr el Wizz, there are Coptic texts written in the diagnostic Nubian majuscules’ script that show that the monastery there was probably one of these centers of Nubian scriptural innovation, a scriptorium where the Old Nubian scribal practices were developed, already before the disappearance of Sahidic.

But it is also at Qasr el Wizz that one of the most eloquent testimonies of the use of Greek for the composition of liturgical texts and works of religious literature created by the Nubians themselves.

The Liber Institutionis Michaelis

The Liber Institutionis Michælis is an apocryphal work relating the institution of Michael as the leader of the angelic beings after the casting to hell of the unruly angel who later became in Christian literature the personification of devil. Leaving aside the doctrinal implications of the existence of such works that may show that Shenoute did not manage to fulfill the wishes of Dioskorus to cleanse Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia from heretical texts and those who believed in them, let us focus on the written attestations of this work. It is preserved:

-in two Coptic manuscripts from Hamouli in Egypt (one complete in Sahidic and one incomplete in Fayumic)

-in two bifolia from the IFAO-Cairo collection of 53 Coptic manuscripts written in Sahidic and probably coming from the White Monastery

-in a single parchment fragment with a text 
in Old Nubian discovered at Qasr Ibrim

-in another parchment 
fragment from Lower Nubia, namely from Serra East preserving a Greek text, which
 matches, almost word for word, the text of the Old Nubian Qasr 
Ibrim version. The Greek manuscript from Serra East has therefore
 been considered as the Vorlage of the Old Nubian Qasr Ibrim text.

At Qasr el Wizz, the present author has identified two more parchment fragments that preserve variants of the story narrated in this apocryphal work. Paleography places these manuscripts in the period between the 10th and the 11th centuries CE and firmly on Nubian soil. Furthermore, variants in content and language illustrate that this was not only a scribal creation of a Nubian scriptorium, but a literary composition in Greek conceived and executed by a Nubian.

The first suggestion is that the immense popularity of the cult of the Archangel Michael in Christian Nubia made the Liber a very popular work for Nubian literacy, as shown by the several attestations recorded in two different languages.

Although this is the only such work known from Qasr el Wizz, there are several other examples of religious texts in “Nubian Greek” both from the most important centers of Lower Nubia, namely Faras, Qasr Ibrim, and Jebel Adda, and from the heartlands of the strongest Christian Nubian kingdom, Makuria, namely from its capital Old Dongola, and from Banganarti, an important cult center of the later centuries of Nubian Christianity, 12 kilometers upstream from Old Dongola.

So, the second suggestion is that the “Nubian Greek” Liber Institutionis Michaelis discovered at Qasr el Wizz was used at the monastery after the region turned away from influences coming from the Upper Egyptian/Sahidic world and received political, cultural, religious and literary influences from a more local source, the Makuritan kingdom.

Greek in Makuria

Recently, there appeared a very important work concerning the phenomenon of multilingualism in Christian Nubia. Its author, Grzegorz Ochala, has produced the most complete database of medieval Nubian texts and parts of it are already online with free access. Working with the material at hand he has quantified the evidence from all along the Middle Nile, producing excellent insights into the distribution of the use of each language in time, in space and in genres.

Concerning time, the periodization of literary traditions in Qasr el Wizz finds fitting parallels to Ochala’s suggestions based on the political history:

-The first period is between the beginnings of the Christian era and until the 8th century. During this period, the textual record consists of texts coming from abroad, either as tokens of the Evangelization from Byzantium, like the famous 5th century Gospel of Mark from Qasr Ibrim or as a result of the appurtenance of the same spiritual traditions, as the 6th-7th century Coptic ascetic “book” from Qasr el Wizz.

-In the second period, the first Nubian productions can be identified and this is when the Coptic texts written in early forms of Nubian majuscules as identified at Qasr el Wizz should be dated.

-And the third period, from around the 11th century, is the phase which starts with the creation of ‘Nubian Greek’ texts and culminates with the enthronement of Old Nubian as the linguistic vehicle for both secular and religious purposes in the kingdom of Makuria.

Concerning the distribution of languages in space, although the situation in Nobadia is much more confuse, in Makuria mainly sites suggested as monastic have yielded texts in Coptic. For the rest, the textual evidence from that kingdom bespeaks the preponderance of the Greek language.

This can be explained as a phenomenon linked with the generally accepted use of Greek in the liturgy or as a cultural trend in the frame of which Greek is the preferred language because it is perceived as a sacral language. It should be noted that in Nobadia, Coptic was used in the liturgy, as the finds from Qasr el Wizz show. While upstream from Old Dongola, a lectionary found in the church of the island of Sur indicates that in Makuria the liturgy remained in Greek even if the synaxarion, calendar and patterns of reading selections for each day was following the Coptic paradigm, as it is the case with that lectionary. Moreover, there is not even one single document in Greek coming from Makuria, while from Nobadia there are a few documents in Greek (all related to trade with Egypt), as well as in Coptic, in Old Nubian, and in Arabic (the two last are also attested for Makuria).

Given on the other hand the use of Greek not only in liturgical and literary works, but also in magical texts, on epitaphs, legends accompanying murals, visitors’ graffiti, prayers, invocations, and commemorative inscriptions, it is not difficult to be convinced about the religious significance of this language for Nubians.

Greek beyond religion

The question that remains is whether Greek was only important for the religious sector of life in the Makuritan society. It is the present author’s conviction that this is a false question. The sacral aura with which the Nubians imbued Greek made it the preferred linguistic and scriptural vehicle for the practice of their Christian faith and cult. But this statement goes beyond religion and is very much linked with the political agendas of the Makuritan kings. To understand this, we need to return to the period of the Christianization of the Middle Nile region.

The independent Nobadian kingdom was the first state of the Middle Nile Valley that received Christian missions working for the Evangelization of the region. The details and significance of these missionary activities have been discussed on the basis both of the written sources – mainly the Church History composed in Syriac by John of Ephesus, a contemporary of the events – as well as of the archaeological record.

According to the written sources, there were two missions sent from the Christian world of the Eastern Mediterranean with the purpose of converting the Nubians. Both took place between 538 and 575 CE. These two missions should be seen in the religious framework of the reign of Justinian and Theodora, a period characterized by the turbulence following the Synod of Chalcedon (451 CE).
After that Synod, the Christian world of the Eastern Roman Empire was split between those
supporting the Chalcedonian doctrine of the double nature of Jesus (both God and human), and the anti-Chalcedonians who were supporting the doctrine of the unique nature of Jesus (only divine).

In any case, from John’s work, one can discern three main stages in the Evangelization of Nobadia and these are represented by the activities of three central figures:

  1. The first missionary named Julianus who visited Nobadia sometime between 538 and 548 CE and whose activity was highly impregnated by the doctrinal controversies between Melkites and Monophysites.
  2. The second figure is Theodore, bishop of Philae, who accompanied Julianus and kept visiting Nobadia and servicing the religious needs of the local population for a disputed period of time.
  3. The third figure is the second missionary: His name was Longinus and he was actually the main figure of the Evangelization of Nubia, as presented by the written sources: He is credited with having established the Nobadian Church and of becoming its first bishop in the years between 569 and 575 CE.

On the other end of the Middle Nile Valley, the kingdom of Alwa was also evangelized in the frame of the missionary activities linked with Nobadia. For reasons of political interest, it was most probably the Alwan king himself who invited Longinus to come to his kingdom and convert the population to the Christian faith.

As for the local population of the Early Makuritan state, the narration of John of Ephesus provides interesting insights: The journey of Longinus from Nobadia to Alwa was not without obstacles due to the ‘satanic envy’ of the Makuritans who dwelt in between.

Given the monophysite beliefs of both John the historian and Julianus the missionary, this “satanic envy” of the Makuritans meant that at some point they had been converted to the Chalcedonian dogma.

In his narrative, John bears testimony that at the same time that the monophysite mission was sent by the supporter of that dogma in the Constantinopolitan court, namely the empress Theodora, another mission, a melkite one was sent by her husband, the pro-Chalcedonian emperor Justinian.

John described vividly the enthusiastic welcome of Julianus by the Nobadians and the equally determined rejection of Justinian’s missionaries. However, he remained silent as to whether the Melkite mission continued upstream beyond Nobadia and evangelized Makuria instead. If one accepts that such a Melkite mission was indeed sent to Nobadia, it is difficult to believe that their mandate was exhausted after the failure to convert the Nobadians to the Chalcedonian faith. On the contrary, John had every reason to hide the pursuit by the Melkite mission of the conversion of the royal court at Dongola. As Procopius explained in his Secret History (10:15), Justinian and Theodora planned all moves together and in secret. Therefore, it is easy to imagine a complot by the imperial couple to satisfy the expectations of the local population and serve the purposes of the Empire. On the one hand, the Nobadians must be seen as inclined to identify dogmatically with the prevalent in Egypt anti-Chalcedonian spirit; on the other hand, the kings of Dongola could be seen as a necessary ally to counter-balance apostasies that could be expected in the precious Nile Valley, after the Chalcedonian schism.

Subsequently, the Makuritan kings will exploit their links with the imperial court. The best proof is found in the brilliant analysis by Robin Seignobos of some details with which culminates a very intriguing narration from the Annals of the Coptic Patriarchs. The passage from the Annals narrates the attack of a large Nubian army lead by the king of Nubia, Kyriakos, against the emir of Egypt, Abd El Malik Ibn Musa (unseated by the Abbasids in 749 CE), as retaliation for imprisoning the Coptic Patriarch Michael I (743-767 CE). The analysis by Seignobos concerns the titles used to praise the Nubian king. First, in the 8th century version of the Annals, he is raised to an apocalyptic royal figure, the Ethiopian king, and fourth ruler of the world, who had authority over the southern confines of the world at the end of time. Then, in the 13th century version, the figure of king Kyriakos unites the roles of both the Ethiopian and the Byzantine kings, who are to liberate the Eastern Christian world from the yoke of Islam. It is upon him that the crown from the Heavens has descended.

The narrative of Kyriakos’ campaign against Egypt provides a sufficient explanation for a metaphysical perception of the Christian royal figure in Nubia and linked with the Byzantine realm: the Nubian king is an image of alterity in comparison to the Coptic identity. It is from him that the Copts can expect that liberation and salvation will come. This alterity is on the one hand set geographically to the south of Egypt, and is on the other hand understood as an image of Orthodoxy linked historically with the ecclesiastical one in the Byzantine version of the Roman Empire in the north.

The Nubians must have been eager to exploit the apocalyptical character of the Greek language as an advantage linking them to Eastern Christianity and as the rulers that could at some stage liberate the Christian communities of the entire Nile Valley from the Muslims. The Greek language was playing a pivotal role in this agenda of internal and international policies.

Conclusions (or: Greek and Old Nubian)

From the 11th century and until at least the end of the 15th, the Old Nubian language became the preferred means for written expression in both secular and religious matters. The late Christian inscriptions from Makuria (the old kingdom of Nobadia included) show a very interesting characteristic, appearing already in texts like the ‘Nubian Greek’ Liber Institutionis Michaelis: Old Nubian is not only adopting Greek words to express religious notions, like it was the case with Coptic where almost 25% of the vocabulary is Greek, but it even incorporated morphological characteristics of the Greek language that were against the standards of Nubian as a Nilo-Saharan language. For example, the shift of the position of a genitive or an adjective in a sentence: the modifiers in Old Nubian follow the object of modification, contrary to Greek. In many Old Nubian inscriptions, however, the Greek paradigm has been preferred, either due to the training of the scribes in Greek or thanks to the custom of writing religious texts in Greek. In any case, after so many centuries of practice of Greek in Nubia, we are justified to call the texts in Greek found in Late Christian sites of the Middle Nile region as ‘Nubian Greek’.


Alexandros Tsakos

Post Doctor, Study of Religion

Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen

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