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Sudanese sanctuary

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Archaeologists digging in Sudan have uncovered a large church, which may have been a medieval cathedral.

No fewer than three Christian kingdoms flourished in the Sudan’s medieval Nubia. One of them had a capital named Makuria, now Dongola. This was an important commercial centre, founded as a fortress during the fifth century AD. Makuria was the departure point for important camel caravan routes, which lay at the terminus of lucrative camel caravan routes to Darfur and Kordofan in the southern Sahara Desert. A century later, Christianity arrived, and the capital became a major urban complex, which reached its apogee during the ninth and eleventh centuries.

Polish archaeologists and Sudanese colleagues have been excavating at Dongola since 2018, but in 2021 they uncovered a large church, which may have been a medieval cathedral. They uncovered the church’s apse, decorated with paintings of two rows of what their report calls “monumental figures”. It lies close to the dome of a large tomb, perhaps the archbishop’s sepulchre. Clearly this was an important building, for the apse lay in the middle of the citadel, the heart of the Makurian kingdom. The church buildings are the largest such structures yet found in Nubia, with many architectural similarities to a well-documented cathedral in the city centre of Faras in Lower Nubia.

The cathedral excavations have hardly begun, for much of the apse still lies under 9m of sand. The eastern part of the structure is buried to the depth of a three-story apartment block, which means that more paintings and inscriptions may await discovery.

Image: PCMA UW/Adrian Chlebowski

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