In the ancient city of Old Dongola (Tungul in Old Nubian), archaeologists have uncovered an enigmatic complex of rooms decorated with ancient Christian iconography.
Located on the banks of the Nile, Old Dongola flourished for centuries as the capital of Makuria, one of the most important medieval African states.
The Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw (PCMA UW), have been investigating the ancient city as part of their project, UMMA – Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African capital city, led by Dr Artur Obłuski and funded by the European Research Council (ERC).
The discovery was made during the last season of excavation work, when archaeologists exploring houses dating from the later Funj period (16th-19th century AD) stumbled upon an opening to a small chamber beneath the floors, which led to a complex of rooms constructed with sun-dried brick and covered with ancient Christian artwork.
A painting of the Virgin Mary, dressed in dark robes and holding a cross and a book, is depicted on the north wall.
Opposite, there is a painting showing Christ seated in the clouds, with his right hand extended in a gesture of blessing and his left holding a book. A royal figure is shown bowing and kissing the hand of Christ, while the Archangel Michael shields both the ruler and Christ with spread wings.
According to the researchers, there are no other such parallels in Nubian art.
Inscriptions alongside the paintings mention a city – likely Old Dongola – and King David, who is probably the royal figure depicted.
King David was one of the last rulers of Christian Makuria. He launched an attack on Egypt in 1275, but the Egyptian Mamluk army retaliated and Old Dongola was sacked for the first time in its history, spelling the end for the kingdom.
The homes are adjacent to the site of the Great Church of Jesus which, according to written sources, was the largest and most important church in Nubia, and instigated King David’s attack.
Its remains were identified just three years ago through remote sensing.
The team suggest that the paintings were perhaps made as the Mamluk army began its siege of Old Dongola, and point to other inscriptions accompanying the paintings that make pleas to God for protection of the city.
The discoveries could, therefore, shed new light on our understanding of how Makuria, and Christian faith overall, fell in what is now modern Sudan.
Conservators managed to secure the wall paintings before the fighting erupted in Khartoum earlier this month, and there are plans for further excavation of the complex once the team are able to resume their work safely.
Find out more about the PCMA UW’s other projects exploring the rich history of Sudan at their website.