Unique medieval Christian art in Sudan

The site of Old Dongola in modern-day Sudan was once a thriving Nubian city, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria and an important centre of Christianity from the 5th to the 14th century. A team from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, have been excavating at the ancient city since 1964, with recent work funded by the European Research Council. The site is vast, covering c.200ha, and deeply stratified in some places thanks to centuries of occupation. As a result of its size and complexity, only a fraction of Old Dongola has been excavated so far, but archaeologists continue to uncover remarkable evidence of life in the ancient city with each new research season – and this year was no exception.

Excavations at Old Dongola in Sudan have been ongoing for decades but continue to shed new light on the ancient Nubian city. Image: Adrian Chlebowski 

A surprising discovery

Old Dongola is home to the largest assemblage of wall paintings preserved in situ in Sudan, with c.150 scenes identified so far, but the latest discovery was unexpected, containing images that are currently unique in Nubian Christian iconography.

This dynamic scene, depicting Christ, a ruler thought to be King David, and the Archangel Michael, is unusual in Nubian art, and may have been created at a critical time in Old Dongola’s history. Image: Adrian Chlebowski  

The paintings were found by chance during investigations of some houses dating to a later phase of occupation, in the heart of the citadel. Through an opening in the floor of one of these houses, archaeologists spotted a small chamber below, with walls covered in painted scenes and figures. Further exploration revealed several other rooms that appear to be part of the same complex, some of which look like they may feature traces of wall paintings too, although excavations have not yet been carried out. These rooms are located just outside the northern corner of the Great Church of Jesus, a structure discovered several years ago and still undergoing excavation. It is thought to have been the most important church in the kingdom of Makuria, and is the largest Nubian Christian church currently known. The location of the newly discovered painted chambers leads Artur Obłuski, the project director, to belive that they may have been connected to the church in some way. However, he stresses that more investigation is needed.

Another wall in the same chamber bears a fragmentary image of Christ in a pose more traditional in Nubian art, making a gesture of blessing. Image: Adrian Chlebowski

The painting of most interest to archaeologists shows Christ sitting on a cloud, with a Nubian ruler bowing to him and kissing his hand, while the Archangel Michael spreads his wings to shield both the king and Christ. On the north wall of the same chamber is a depiction of the Virgin Mary, wearing dark robes and holding a cross and a book, while the opposite wall bears another partially preserved image of Christ with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing and a book held in his left hand.

These paintings are accompanied by inscriptions in both Greek and Old Nubian, which researchers are still working on deciphering. Preliminary study of the Greek inscriptions identifies them as texts of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a Byzantine liturgical service performed during Great Lent. Inscriptions like this are usually found in the northern pastophoria of Nubian churches, associated with the rites sometimes performed there; further research is needed, but it is possible that this could offer another clue to the function of this space. The Greek inscriptions also identify the figures of Mary and the Archangel Michael. The inscription in Old Nubian that accompanies the main scene is more difficult to translate, but the researchers have determined that it contains several mentions of a king named David, as well as a plea to God to ‘protect the city’.

This depiction of the Virgin Mary – identifiable by the inscription above her head – differs from conventional Nubian representations of the mother of Christ in several ways. Image: Adrian Chlebowski

The wall paintings are therefore believed to have been created in the 13th century, at a key moment in Old Dongola’s history. King David (r. 1268-1276) was one of the last rulers of Christian Makuria, and his reign marked the beginning of the kingdom’s downfall. In 1276, the Mamluk Sultanate – a powerful state that ruled over Egypt, the Levant, and parts of Arabia – launched an invasion of Nubia in retaliation for a series of earlier attacks by King David. The Mamluk army sacked the city of Old Dongola, deposed King David, and pulled down the Great Church of Jesus: an event regarded as the start of the decline of Christianity in the region. The researchers suggest that the recently discovered painting may have been created as the Mamluk army was approaching or laying siege to the city, as a last-ditch effort to call on God for support. The 13th-century date is further supported by the painting’s iconography, but plaster samples have also been collected for radiocarbon dating, and future work in the painted chambers will help confirm the chronology of the complex too.

Investigation and conservation

From first glance, experts were struck by the dynamism and intimacy of the scene showing the king bowing to Christ and kissing his hand. This is highly unusual, with no parallels known in Nubian paintings: the king is usually represented frontally, in a more hieratic pose, and is very rarely touching, or even directly interacting, with Christ. The figures on the other walls of the chamber are more traditional in style, but the depiction of Mary also differs from standard images in Nubian art. Here she is shown in greyish robes instead of the red robes in which she is conventionally depicted, and holding a book and a cross, rather than the baby Jesus. These unique paintings offer further proof that medieval Nubian art had its own distinct styles, and was not merely emulating images from other regions, as was once suggested.

The team immediately began work to protect and conserve the paintings on the walls of the small room. Image: D Szymański

On their discovery, the conservation of the paintings immediately became the main focus of the spring season at Old Dongola. Working in tight spaces and high temperatures, under intense time-pressure, the conservators secured the wall paintings using protective bands and putties, and filled the spaces where the plaster had come away from the wall with injection fluid to stabilise them. The archaeologists plan to return to the site for further excavation in the autumn, and hope to find out more about the complex of painted chambers, as well as exploring other parts of site, including the Great Church of Jesus next door.

This remarkable discovery could change our understanding of the Byzantine period and Christian faith at this important Nubian site, as well as offering important insight into the beginning of the transformation of Old Dongola from a Christian centre of power to the Islamic heart of Sudan.