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.
Yet Greeks have been in the Nubian regions of Sudan much longer than one would think. While people from ancient Nubia are attested in the Aegean as early as the second millennium BC, direct Greek contact with the region began in 593 BC, when the army of Egyptian king Psamtek II campaigned in Nubia, using Greek mercenaries.
Four centuries later, Alexander the Great dispatched a small reconnaissance expedition into the region, allegedly to find the sources of the Nile, and a decade or two later Ptolemy I raided northern Nubia, encountering the forces of the Kandake, or queen, from which the modern name Candace derives. According to the poet Theocritus, Ptolemy II secured the Dodecaschoenus, a roughly seventy-five mile stretch of the Nile immediately south of the first cataract, together with the important gold mining region east of the Nile. What set Ptolemy II’s Nubian campaign apart from previous Greek incursions south of Egypt, however, was that it opened a period of sustained contact between the native kingdom of Kush and Ptolemaic Egypt, and the reason for that was something new: Ptolemy’s need to find a secure source of war elephants. A Greek elephant hunter named Simonides the Younger even lived at Meroe, the capital of Kush for seven years and wrote an unfortunately now lost book about his experiences, freely circulated throughout Kushite territory.
The encounter with Greek civilization changed Kushite society in strange ways. According to the historian Diodorus, the Greek educated native king, Ergamenes, was able to defeat the local priesthood’s insistence upon ritual suicide, employing Greek philosophical arguments.
During this time, Kushite kings began to use Greek architects and masons to build temples, such as those at the pilgrimage centre of Musawwarrat es-Sufra, south of Meroe, where the Kushite king Arnekhamani is depicted wearing a Ptolemaic style crown .The discovery of a set of Greek flutes, one of the few ever discovered in a tomb, attests to further ties between the two peoples.
The conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt saw Romans established along the Nubian frontier. In the area of modern day Sudan that they ruled, the Romans replaced Egyptian with Greek as the language of administration and law and the natives gradually became Hellenized.
Evidence survives of a Nubian named Paccius Maximus who received a Greek education, became an auxiliary cavalry officer, composed complex avant-garde Greek poetry – examples of which he had inscribed on the walls of local temples at Kalabsha and Hiera Sycaminos – and even referred to his own native Nubian language as a “barbarian” language.
As a result of the contact between the two cultures, an eclectic art developed that combined Greek and Kushite elements to express Kushite concerns. Examples are the victory stele of Prince Sherkarer at Jebil Qeili, with its Greek style solar deity, the fresco of Herakles as master of animals from the royal enclosure at Meroe, the use of Greek architectural orders – specifically Corinthian – on Meroitic temples, and the adaptation of the iconography of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis to portray the Kushite royal god Apedemak.
One piece of evidence suggests that the Greek language became fairly widely known at Meroe. Fragments exist of two victory thrones set up at Meroe by kings of Axum in modern day Ethiopia, bearing Greek inscriptions celebrating the establishment of Axumite authority over Kush in the early 300s. The fact, therefore, that Axumite kings chose Greek and not one of their other official languages for their monuments at Meroe suggests they believed that it was the language most likely to be understood there.
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 and 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 Christian 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.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist. For more information visit