Archaeologists investigating the site of Old Dongola in present-day Sudan have unearthed the remains of a large church in the citadel, which they suggest could be the biggest of medieval Nubia, potentially having served as the seat of an archbishop.
Dongola flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, covering 200 heactares. It was once the capital of Makuria, one of the three Christian kingdoms of Nubia, so it is fitting that it should have a prominent cathedral right in its centre. The site has been investigated by archaeologists from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw since 1964. In the latest season of fieldwork this year, a team led by Artur Obłuski, director of the PCMA UW, cleaned the dome of a large tomb and the wall of the church’s apse, revealing paintings with two rows of monumental figures, possibly apostles. Obłuski suggests there may be yet more paintings and inscriptions waiting to be brought to light.
Measuring 6m in diameter, the apse is the largest known in Nubia. The church it would have been part of had a width of about 26m. Obłuski said, ‘If our estimates based on the known dimensions are confirmed, it is the largest church discovered so far in Nubia.’
The domed structure next to the church was also surprisingly large, with a diameter of 7.5m. Another Nubian city, that of Faras, has a similar set-up, with a cathedral next to a tomb, but it was smaller. The tomb in Faras belonged to Bishop Joannes, and it is thought that Dongola’s domed tomb may have housed the remains of bishops, too.
From records, it is known that Faras’ bishop was overseen by the archbishop of Dongola, who presided over the church along a 1,000km stretch of the Nile. Dongola’s cathedral is believed to have influenced ecclesiastical architecture across Nubia, so identifying the cathedral (previously thought to be another church that lies outside the citadel) provides an opportunity for researchers to understand the roots of the architectural trends in the region.